Going at least as far back as Jung, we’ve seen psychologists promoting the view that psychopathology is not a disease but rather an attempt by the psyche to bring about greater wholeness. There are usually several common factors that go into this view of psychopathology:

  1. The reality of the psyche. In Jung’s view, the intra-psychic experience of an individual cannot be ignored. The psyche has its own life and cannot be reduced to biology or basic psychological drives. The psyche speaks to us through dreams, intuition, visions, synchronicity and more.
  2. The psyche as as self-regulating system. When there is imbalance in the psyche, the psyche itself will attempt to bring back balance and healing. This attempt to restore balance often occurs through the methods mentioned above (dreams, visions, etc.) but in some cases, when the imbalance is too powerful, may appear to be a form of psychopathology. The Jungian view invites to look at psychopathology in a new light.
  3. An archetypal and/or mythical view of psychopathology. By considering the two points above, many researchers recognize an archetypal or mythical element in psychopathology. A good example of this view is in (Lukoff 1985) where we see various symbols and archetypes coming up in the patient’s experience of psychosis. These symbols can be used to gain insight into the patient’s world during the episode and perhaps more importantly can be used later as a source of guidance and insight for the patient himself.
  4. A spiritual component of psychopathology. In exploring the similarities between manic psychosis and mystical states, Lukoff (1988) suggests that there may be unrecognized spiritual insight hidden in what we call psychopathology. This insight may be valuable to the patient personally and may even be significant for society as a whole. A theme that occurs often in this context is that of the Hero’s journey where the hero’s confrontation with monstrous perils (psychopathology in this case) ends up in victory and the hero returns to his people bearing gifts (of insight).

I would like to explore this view deeper, specifically as it relates to addiction. I begin this exploration with the following quote from a letter C.G. Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) regarding a shared acquaintance and former client of Jung’s named Rowland H.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung equates here the alcoholic’s thirst for alcohol with the power that motivates the spiritual search, the the need for wholeness or a union with the divine. Jung goes on to talk about the ways to satisfy this craving.

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

According to Jung the way to satisfy this thirst is through a spiritual experience which comes about through an act of grace, contact with friends or through spiritual practice. Jung sees the symbolic connection between alcohol and God in the shared latin root – spirit. Indeed the 12 steps of AA are designed to bring about a spiritual experience based on Jung’s formulation: spiritus contra spiritum.

Following in the footsteps of Jung, Stan Grof (1993) looks at addiction as a form of spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergency is an “evolutionary crisis” (Grof & Grof 1993), a difficult stage that is a natural part of the developmental process. Spiritual emergency can be easily misdiagnosed as a form of psychopathology since they share many common symptoms like changes in consciousness, perception, emotional or cognitive functioning and others. However, a person undergoing a spiritual emergency is usually able to form a healthy relationship with the process and see it as part of an internal psychological process.

Addiction as spiritual emergency is different, since the spiritual component is often masked by the addiction itself or by the addict’s destructive tendencies. However, once we take into account Jung’s thoughts expressed above, the spiritual connection becomes clearer. This is supported by the reports of some alcoholics who describe their first experience of alcohol as containing a numinous character.

Grof (1993) suggests that the addict’s journey through and recovery is similar to a process of ego-death and rebirth. We can see this process by looking at the 12 steps of AA.

To begin with, the addict must recognize that he has hit bottom and is powerless in the face of his addiction, he has lost control of his personal and interpersonal lives and is unable to repair this on his own. The addict is then invited to turn over control to something greater than the personal self. When the addict becomes willing to surrender his will to a Higher Power, he has set out out on the path of transformation.

Next, with the guidance of a sponsor, the addict makes a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” In this step, the addict looks at his old way of being and lists out all the way in which it does not serve him and others. This part of the work focuses on blocks: fears, selfishness, dishonesty, etc. By making this old way of being conscious through self-reflection and through sharing it with another, the addict becomes willing to let go of this old way of being and to create room for something new. It is worth noting the similarity between this part of the healing process and Ken Wilber’s description of self-growth as a process where “the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next.”

It is possible that through the moral inventory, confession and willingness to let go of the old way of being the addict is now discovering a new way of being. In order to integrate the personality and to bring it more fully into this new way, the addict now engages in shadow work through the practice of making amends. Through this practice, the addict brings the light of consciousness to places that before remained hidden. It is important to note that the process of making amends is not about making apologies or seeking forgiveness; it is a process of admitting wrongs and accepting the consequences. In this way the recovering addict integrates those acts into wholeness.

Once the process of integration comes to completion, the addict is ready to engage with the world from a place of freedom and security. He is now becoming established in a healthy way of being and is supported in it through community and by continuing the practices of moral inventory, making amends and meditation or prayer. And, like the mythical hero returning from his adventure, he now has something new to share with the world and is called to do so through a dedication to service.

Of course, this is not the path that every addict takes. Not even every addict that arrives at a 12 step program walks the entirety of this path. But for many, the spiritual component of 12 step work is crucial and for those, the work becomes more than recovery, it is a spiritual practice.

References
C. Grof & S. Grof (1993). Spiritual emergency: The understanding and treatment of transpersonal crises. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 137-44). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
C. Grof (1993). Addiction as spiritual emergency. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 144-6). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
Lukoff, D. (1985). The myths in mental illness. Journal os Transpersonal Psychology, 17 (2), 123-153.
Lukoff, D. (1988). Transpersonal perspectives on manic psychosis: Creative, visionary, and mystical states. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20 (2).

Advertisements