By Greg Ascue. One thing I like to communicate to people about addictive and compulsive tendencies is how innocent, predictable, and natural some of this is. Humans are born with the biochemical capability to become addicted. We are born into existence with deep, built in impulses to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. At a certain level, it’s almost mechanical. At this level, what happens is simply the body’s attempt to protect, preserve, and enhance life. These impulses influence almost everything we do. Knowing this helps (I believe) with inquiry work. Understanding and accepting how this all works allows one to go further in working with addiction. Accepting the innocence I am speaking of, frees us to address what really needs to be addressed.
These impulses provide motivation that is integral to survival (they even provide the motivation to thrive). The flight, fight, freeze response is built into our reptilian brain. We don’t have to think about avoiding a truck barreling down upon us. We just jump, it just happens. This jumping from danger is initiated prior to our having to think about it. Without this inborn response, the human population would be dramatically reduced. Correspondingly, the impulse to seek pleasure is built into this deeper part of our existence. Examples of this impulse are hunger and sexual desire. Without eating an individual would die, without engaging in sex humankind would die out. Another function of this biochemistry is to keep everything in balance (neither too much or too little pleasure – stimulation or sedation). This balancing is protective in nature, it prevents extreme occurrences (internally and externally) from affecting us too much.
It is because we have these inborn impulses and biochemical systems that addiction can occur. The process of addiction (regardless whether it is an addiction to a substance or a behavior) hijacks these natural biochemical systems. In a peculiar way, almost all we do is addiction-like because addiction is based on this same natural motivational biochemistry that drives much of everything else. The underlying biochemistry of eating and sex is very similar to the biochemistry of hyper-stimulating addictive behaviors and substances (although less pronounced). The problem here is the hyper-stimulation.
This hyper-stimulation disrupts the natural pleasure systems of the brain (and central nervous system). In the presence of hyper-stimulation, the brain seeks to regulate, and normalize (balance) the amount of pleasure being experienced. This balancing is achieved via habituation and desensitization. In the presence of too much stimulation and sedation (pleasure) for a prolonged period the brain (via the processes of habituation and desensitization) reduces the pleasure centers in the brain, reducing some of some of the receptors necessary to experience pleasure. When the hyper-stimulation is removed, people are left with less capability to experience pleasure thus becoming less capable of dealing with the normal stresses of life. This leads to an increase in the craving for pleasure (and less capability to deal with the lack of it). It is all very natural.
Overlaying these underlying natural systems is the sense of self and all of the learning, memories, and conditioning associated with this sense of self. This self is unfindable (in the sense that we use the word unfindable in the Living Inquiries). People, at some (perhaps unconscious) level, seem to know this. They know that they have an unfindable, mistaken identity, that life is not what it seems to be (or “should” be). This mistaken identity tends to foster suffering (to some varying degree). Because of this mistaken identity people invariably feel a certain amount of insecurity, anxiety, and fear (a natural response to “danger”). Because of this insecurity, anxiety, and fear, people naturally seek pleasure to compensate. Unfortunately, this pleasure is often sought through hyper-stimulating ways – drugs, alcohol, food, sex, porn, shopping. But not knowing the source of the issue the pleasure, inevitably, does not bring about a permanent end to suffering. The pleasure fades. Then people tend to turn again to what gave temporary pleasure. Thus, the addiction cycle is born. The biochemistry is thrown off.
This cycle also leads to an increase of negative stories about the “mistaken” identity (I’m weak, I’m an addict, I’m a victim, I’m being threatened, the stress is too much to handle, etc.) adding impetus to the addiction cycle. It’s a vicious cycle.
In my experience, understanding and accepting the innocence of our bodies is a powerful step in working with addiction. My body did the best it could through (at times) almost overwhelming circumstances. When I consider, it I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the body’s efforts to perpetuate this life. The war with this physical existence can end. With this kind of gratitude, the inquiries can help provide freedom from addiction by working with the overlaid negative stories (and all the consequences of those stories). With this freedom one can allow what is natural to re-balance and re-generate. The pleasure centers can grow again and the receptors necessary to experience pleasure can re-generate. Via neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to heal and adapt) one can return to a more optimal place. The innocence can be re-born. Life can spring anew.