What's the opposite of addiction? How do we cultivate centers of life?
I've been reading 📙 The Biology of Desire, a fascinating book about Addiction by Marc Lewis, who became a professor of neuroscience as he himself was recovering from a decade of compulsive drug use. He, like many others, challenges the "brain disease model" of addiction, describing addiction instead as an especially potent and harmful instance of the same processes of desire-driven learning that is normally adaptive and integral to finding safety, happiness, and well-being.
The book describes, interestingly and understandably for a layperson like me, what neuroscience understands about the pathways and processes of learning and developing habits. Dopamine surges, synapses wiring together, little roads merging into big highways of anticipation and expected relief, neuroplastic associative memory blending places and people and smells—all of this more relevant to the addiction process than any simple model of biochemical dependence or "brain disease."
Then it gets into an area that makes it very relevant to the thing I've trying to approach in almost all my posts here, when he starts talking about symbols, rituals, liturgies, and centers.
It seems Natalie was immersing herself in a dark Liturgy. The skin and the steel, the bluish tint of the vein. The spoon and the flame, that moment of bubbling alchemy that marked the entrance into another dimension. And when the needle penetrated her own body, the feeling of the drug itself. The taste of it from inside. The click of shackles released all over her nervous system, reaching back to smooth every jagged memory, and forward, a guarantee of the hours to come, a guardian against harsh thoughts and images, the settling in of a consciousness infused with Peace. *
I remember zazen retreats with their strange liturgies, repeated day after day, with bells and drums and incense, and always the yearning for "a consciousness infused with peace." Crucially, however, in distinguishing Meditation from heroin, this peace never arrived.
In 📝 Cultivating the Breath as a Symbol, I tried to develop the idea that meditation involves developing a symbolic center in the brain in a way that has structural similarities with addiction. Tobacco smoking is a typical addictive habit that nevertheless is also a kind of symbolic meditation, a yearning for clarity and peace modulated by the rhythm of the breath, stoking a controlled fire that lights up an associative network of memories and intentions.
📙 The Biology of Desire is a perfect source for this line of thinking.
Symbols gather our cognition, our thoughts and associations, into coherent emblems, full of meaning yet consisting of very little in themselves. Symbols always represent something else. Symbols include beautiful women, flashy cars, fatherly love, financial security, even the idea of youth. Each of these is an arrow on a map, or an array of arrows aligned with each other, a direction to pursue. Each shrinks a cluster of related goals into a single goal we can chase after unambiguously. For Alice, that goal may have been attractiveness, leading to positive regard, at least in childhood and adolescence. By now it was simply self-mastery, that crystalline sense of control—a symbol far more refined, more idealized, than anything she had previously sought. Drugs are also symbolic, in a way that is rarely if ever discussed by the experts. But what they symbolize is likely to evolve and mutate. Symbols develop, and development takes time. *
The striatum is ignited by cues: stimuli (words and images) or events that foretell the addictive act. And symbols grow like glistening spiderwebs, each with a central hub connected to multiple anchor points. Rituals combine actions and goals into strings of events that are themselves symbols. And they are powerful. *
OCD is often considered a pure form of the compulsive drive that marks the final stage of addiction. And we know that people with OCD arrange their lives into repetitive rituals. So it shouldn’t be surprising that most addicts find comfort, but also excitement, in the rituals that lead up to the act itself. The fastidious preparation of the heroin injection; the arrangement of a glass surface and a blade to pulverize crystals of cocaine; the dressing up that precedes a night of gambling or sexual excess. The rituals become gratifying in themselves, part of the webbing of symbolic significance. *
It's striking and scary how powerful addiction can be. But this power is also a possible source of benevolent wholesome energy. Maybe this is one way to understand the Old Testament image of God as a terrifying violent energy that needs to be channeled with precision and care to do good in the world.
After reading this book, I can go back and read Sarah Perry's 📰 Deep Laziness with a new perspective that makes it even more fascinating. My mind filled with images from stories of addiction, this paragraph has a new meaning:
The behaviors actually performed by a particular individual, especially the ones that take up most time, are a small subset of possible behaviors. What do people do when they are bored? It seems like people typically have about three to five things they do. *
If addiction is a malignant type of deep laziness, we have to ask what makes it malignant and how we can cultivate behavioral centers that are the opposite of malignant.
In the context of behaviors, “centers” might be activities, Virtues, places, people, ambiances, longings, imaginings, memories, times of day, flavors. A well-developed center will be easy to see; it will produce positive emotion, a feeling of quiet ease, of non-separateness from the world. It will carry many layers of elaboration and generation. It may be completely worked into the fabric of life, touching and intertwining with other centers. *
If tobacco smoking were harmless to the body, it would be an exquisite example. Imagine going out to a bench under a tree in the garden, with companions, packing pouches of aromatic leaves in pipes of briar, talking convivially while streams of smoke intermingle in the air, like the Lakota ritual in 📙 The Spell of the Sensuous:
The pipe smoke makes the invisible breath visible, and as it rises from the pipe, it makes visible the flows and currents in the air itself, makes visible the unseen connections between those who smoke the pipe in offering and all other entities that dwell within the world: the winged peoples, the other walking and crawling peoples, and the multiple rooted beings—trees, grasses, shrubs, mosses. Further, the rising smoke carries the prayers of the Lakota people to the sky beings—to the sun and the moon, to the stars, to the thunder beings and the clouds, to all those powers embraced by woniya wakan, the holy air. *
A center of life, a nexus of activity, a jewel in the fabric of life, a whirlpool of beauty, an element in a whole field of connected little rituals, a particle of meaning. That kind of fabric is what I really yearn for.
Cultivating these centers also seems like a core part of Love.
In a couple, a polyamorous network, or just in everyday convivial life, these centers make life together something more than a nebulous flux of confusion and stress. Rather than a molten smooth interior as in 📝 Shelter from the Storm, relationships need pattern and liturgy, not mere structures and schedules but life-giving nexuses to orient around, cafés and campfires and birthdays.
In parenting, it's the insight that I don't need to be the center of my child's life, nor does the child need to be the center of mine, but we are both centers in fields of centers, so my task is to be one center among many, a center of safety and encouragement, but also to help cultivate beautiful centers for us all to enjoy together, to counteract the everpresent allure of those rectangular centers that draw us into compulsive trivial passivity.
There's one key word of this web site that hasn't showed up here so far, and which I also wasn't expecting to see in 📙 The Biology of Desire, but which turns out to play a crucial part towards the end. The word is Narrative. Lewis describes a study of Inuit tribes that tried to find out why some of these tribes have tragically high suicide rates while in some tribes, the rate is zero.
They asked teens to talk about their lives, about their goals, and about their futures. What they found was that young people from the high-suicide communities didn’t have stories to tell. They were incapable of talking about their lives in any coherent, organized way. They had no clear sense of their past, their childhood, and the generations preceding them. And their attempts to outline possible futures were empty of form and meaning. Unlike the other children, they could not see their lives as narratives, as stories. Their attempts to answer questions about their life stories were punctuated by long pauses and unfinished sentences. They had nothing but the present, nothing to look forward to, so many of them took their own lives. *
Of course I can't read this without thinking immediately about 📙 After Virtue, and it gives richness and salience to Alasdair MacIntyre's critique of Modernity. Lewis goes on:
In contrast, the high-suicide communities had lost their traditions and rituals. The kids ate at McDonald’s and watched a lot of TV. Their lives were islands clustered in the middle of nowhere. Their lives just didn’t make sense. There was only the present, only the featureless terrain of today. *
This is also what Lewis has seen in stories of recovery from addiction.
Addicts experience something breathtaking when they can stretch their vision of themselves from the immediate present back to the past that shaped them and forward to a future that’s attainable and satisfying. It feels like shifting from momentary blobs of experience to the coherence of being a whole person. It feels like being the author and advocate of one’s own life. It feels like being real. *
I start to wonder if we can see MacIntyre's modernity as a form of addiction. What we need is not just some kind of athletic virtue ethics. Instead we need a process of understanding, recovery, and cultivation of centers. And for that, we need Desire.
To experience a sense of continuity between me now, me then, and me in the future is precious. But when it’s been missing for a while, perhaps for one’s whole life, it’s not easy to find. It requires a perspective that can only be obtained by addressing the future in the context of the past. And it requires one other thing, one fundamental resource: desire itself. *
This ties back to 📝 Deleuze, Guattari, and MacIntyre.
But I'm done for today!