Saturday, October 31, 2009

Controlling Addictions to Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Money and Power - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.04

Meditation VIII.04 - Controlling Addiction to Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Money or Power - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Consider that men and women will do the same things nevertheless, even though you should burst.1


(1) This meditation reflects on a supremely frustrating aspect of human psychology - compulsive behavior. These behaviors often play out as addictions to sex, drugs, alcohol, money and power. But they also manifest in other ways as abusiveness, stinginess, and selfishness. The meditation is written from the perspective of those whose lives are affected by compulsive actions: the spouses of alcoholics, the parents of drug addicts, the victims of sexual abuse, the exploited workers of greedy corporations, or the victimized masses of political tyrants.

This meditation offers no formula for redress although other meditations do (see Meditation XI.11 in particular). The Stoic approach to compulsion is rather straightforward and has achieved significant success world-wide as the underlying modality in the various twelve-step addiction programs developed to treat alcohol, narcotic and sexual addictions.

The novel elements in those approaches are their reliance on and acceptance of the existence of a higher power (in Stoicism that is Logos) and a particular attitude that is not seen in alternative approaches to addiction. That attitude is captured in a strange Stoic prayer in which the addict is basically told to "accept" the addiction as part of his nature. The prayer is published in the book as Meditation IX.40. The Alcoholics Anonymous version of that prayer asks the addict "to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed." In other words the addict learns to accept the addiction as part of his nature but then turns control of his actions to the wisdom of a higher power and learns in this manner not to act on the addiction - and does so through a series of mental decisions - exercised continuously - one day at a time. As discussed elsewhere, in Stoicism that higher power is also in us at all times and is part of our basic humanity.

We can argue whether these approaches are really a cure. But that would require we define what a cure really is. The Stoic really says there is no cure as such. We are what we are. In a sense the Stoic recognizes that some behaviors may be "hard wired" and impossible to reprogram. We can however learn not to act on those behaviors that do harm to others. How? In Stoic terms Marcus asks us to simply set aside - if only for the moment that the compulsion occurs - the "opinion" that we really need the pleasure we pursue (be it sexual, alcohol, drugs, money or power). The objective in this approach is not to remove the compulsion - that will likely not happen. But, when we examine the opinion that we really need what we seek, there is a very good chance that we will intellectually recognize that the compulsion is indeed a "false opinion" - that is contrary to our best nature, and our best nature is the divine essence or higher power within us.

If we examine such situations from our real personal experiences, we too will probably realize that objectively we do not need those pleasures that appear compulsive to us. Such a shift in opinion is a shift toward reality. Addictions and compulsions are aberrations. We know that. Stoicism offers a mode of thinking that shows us the truth - that our addictions and compulsions really are false opinions. When we learn to take these mental holidays or "time outs" from addictive or compulsive attitudes, we can learn how to release ourselves from addictive or compulsive patterns. The compulsions will probably return and will do so repeatedly throughout our lives, but we will learn to harness them, control them, and to teach others how they too may do the same.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.


ciceronianus said...

It would seem more appropriate to construe the stoic recommendation we accept things we cannot change with serenity as addressing not the addiction itself, but what contributed to the addiction. Concern with (fear of, anxiety regarding) things which cannot be changed may create a need or desire for e.g., alcohol or drugs. Understanding we should not have that concern, fear and anxiety may reduce the need. Why would a stoic accept addiction serenely?

Russell said...

It is good to get at the root, as Buddha and Christ advised... but it's hard to start digging at that root if you're fighting any degree of denial about the addiction itself.

Moreover, fear isn't easily waved away - it's best to serenely accept both the reality and the irrationality of such fears at the same time; without forcing anything, awareness (and embarrassment - or humility) have their own power to eventually correct matters.

Russell McNeil said...

The Serenity prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr - a Stoic influenced Protestant theologian. It reads: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

In terms of addiction I interpret the acceptance element here as the addiction itself. Very few alcoholics recover from their addiction as addiction. Many do however recover from addictive patterns - they stop drinking and remain sober for the rest of their lives and lead exemplary lives. They know however that having learned to cease the addictive pattern has not removed the addiction. In most cases a single drink can trigger the old pattern, even after decades of sobriety. Addicts find this difficult to understand but learn to accept it with serenity, and why not if it cannot be changed? It is the way it is. Whether this will apply to addictions to power and money I do not know. i do know however that this seems to be nearly universal with alcohol addiction.