The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.



JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. This is Part 2 of a two-part series on "The Meaning of Addiction." With me is Professor Francis Seeburger, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Denver. Dr. Seeburger is the author of The Stream of Thought and also Addiction and Responsibility. In this program we're going to look at "The Response to Addiction." Welcome again, Frank.

FRANCIS SEEBURGER, Ph.D.: Thank you. Good to be back.

MISHLOVE: You know, when we think about addiction and the response to addiction, I know that there are many people who are concerned about the way the term is being used so much now, and they think that we are as a culture addicted to labeling various things as addictions and treating them that way. I suspect, though, that there's something to be gained from it.

SEEBURGER: I think there is something to be gained. I think there's a danger that we need to avoid of extending the term so broadly that it loses meaning, and what we need is to keep the cutting edge of the notion of addiction. I think that it's a good critical concept, that we can use it to look at various behaviors in ourselves and in our society in a critical way, but to do so we need to retain the basic meaning or sense of the term. So we shouldn't apply it to just anything, or we shouldn't apply it in a way to void it of its underlying significance. But on the other hand I don't think it's accidental that society today is so smitten, if you will, with the notion of addiction, and the twelve-step programs multiply, that books about addiction multiply, for that matter. I don't think that's at all accidental. I think it's because the concept of addiction is proving to be something that captures a lot of what's at issue in modern life. We wouldn't have the addiction to the labeling of things as addictions unless there was something about our life today that was addressed or captured in that concept. And so I personally am not that concerned about overextending the term addiction to other practices, as long as we retain the intention of the term, as long as the underlying sense of it is kept in mind. Then I don't think there's any objection. I think we can look at ourselves in our everyday lives, and although we might not feel comfortable or see any reason, for that matter, to label ourselves as addicts per se, nevertheless we can see addictive tendencies within ourselves. Even the least addicted of us, I think, have elements of addiction present.

MISHLOVE: When one thinks of the response to addictions today, immediately one thinks of twelve-step programs. They're the ones that are proliferating, and they are the ones that seem to be applying the concept of addiction to more and more forms of both substance addiction and process addiction. And at the heart of twelve-step programs is the idea of surrender to a higher power. In a way it's ironic that, as our society has become more and more secular, we seem to be developing more and more addictions, and the response is some kind of a new spiritual program.

SEEBURGER: I think that is ironic. I think in a wonderful way it's ironic, and I think it points to the nature of addiction, and why perhaps it is such an epidemic in our society today. It's a society devoted to the material, and materialistic in extent. What it doesn't satisfy is that underlying desire for meaning, what Camus called the wild longing in the human heart, which is essentially a longing for things to somehow matter, for them to make sense in that fundamental way. And in a society that is dedicated to planned obsolescence, to continually replacing whatever we have with something new, which doesn't value tradition, which doesn't value roots of a personal or of a social sort, and instead focuses on the pursuit of material goods, in such a society I don't think it's accidental that we have rampant addiction, and it may be that the addicts among us are those who are most in rebellion against the underlying materialism of the culture.

MISHLOVE: What you seem to be suggesting is that anybody who participates as a normal member of our society is involved in all sorts of addictions that are so pervasive we don't even notice them.

SEEBURGER: Yes, and if you don't notice them, then we can't do anything about them, which brings one to not only the first step in responding to addiction, but the basic first step of all twelve-step programs, which essentially are predicated on the notion that only through the acknowledging, through becoming aware at a very deep sense of awareness, of the reality of addiction in one's life, can one ever recover from it. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, or all of the twelve-steps groups patterned upon it, is the admission of powerlessness over the object of one's addiction.

MISHLOVE: I suppose I should step back for a moment and ask what seems to be the case -- that you as a critical philosopher, as an astute academic, are looking at this sort of mass public movement, this popular movement, the twelve-step program, and you're saying, "I see a lot in here of merit. They seem to have a handle on the problem."

SEEBURGER: I see a tremendous amount of merit, and I do think, of everything that I'm aware of, twelve-step programs provide the nearest thing for a model for how we should respond to addiction. I think it's very easy to attack aspects of twelve-step programs. The stereotype of twelve-step programs that we see in the media very often can be, if we take them as the reality for what's going on -- I think it's very easy to attack the twelve-step movement, as it's sometimes called. But for all of the possible excesses that can be attacked in that way, I think the underlying reality of the twelve-step movement is something of incredible power and strength, and one of the positive phenomena in our contemporary life.

MISHLOVE: I think it's important at this point to review one of the main points that we covered in Part 1 of this two-part series, which is the underlying root -- I hesitate to say root cause, but the root dilemma out of which addictions emerge. Maybe you would go over that a bit.

SEEBURGER: Yes. The -- you hesitated to say root cause, because I draw a distinction between what I call roots and what I call causes. The causes of something would be external factors that bring it about as an effect, whereas the roots of a phenomenon, in this case addiction, roots would be things of the same type which are present throughout the development of the phenomenon. A carpenter causes the house in a fairly obvious sense by building it; but the carpenter may die and the house remains. But the root of a plant, if the root dies, the plant dies; it's the same in kind. I think that at the root of addiction is a fundamental human need to feel in control, and one way in which we all practice such a need fulfilled by addiction is in what's sometimes called attributions. An attribution, to put it very simply, is taking one event or one phenomenon and interpreting it as owing to, as resulting from, as being caused by or necessitated by some other thing, other event that's occurred. And we do it addictively.

MISHLOVE: We do it so much that I think you're the first person I've ever heard of that would ever call that an addiction. It's so pervasive.

SEEBURGER: Last time another thing that we talked about is the analogy that I see, the closeness I see, between addicts and saints. And the saints within the tradition of Christian mysticism and monasticism, within monastic Buddhism, the practice of meditative Buddhism, and within other religious traditions for that matter -- those saints are like addicts in seeing the addictive potential of what we call today attributions, that movement of interpretation or attribution.

MISHLOVE: In fact, as I understand it, the teachings of the Buddha are very explicit on this point, that modern -- not even modern, normal life, secular life -- is imbued with all sorts of insanities.

SEEBURGER: Right. And essentially is addictive in its root, although that's not a term that Buddhism itself uses in its scriptural bases. But for Buddha the source of death and suffering and misery is at least one of its crucial steps, is a matter of craving, a matter of reaching out and clinging. As far as we have a feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral -- those are the three feelings within basic Buddhism -- but anything that occurs to us, well, right away it's processed in terms of it's pleasant, it's unpleasant, or it's neutral. And the pleasant, by Buddha's insight, if we experience something as pleasant, then our natural response is to try and perpetuate it, to seek it again, to try and hold onto it. If we experience it as unpleasant, our response is to try to push it away; it's an aversion towards it. So desire on the one hand and aversion on the other, or love and hate, a possible translation as well, become the mechanism that starts driving human existence as unsatisfactory, as somehow painful, as characterized by suffering. And the solution, the way out, the liberation, comes by learning how to neither grab for the pleasure nor push away from the pain. To my mind a good illustration of that simply is at the very everyday level of response to physical pain -- is that if one's knee, for instance, is bothering one, then the tendency, wherever you're having pain in the body, is to stiffen up and try to pull away physically from it. And very often, as those who are unfortunate enough to have to suffer from chronic pain and need to learn techniques of chronic pain management realize, that's the very last thing you should do -- that stiffening or tightening in the face of pain is guaranteed to make the pain worse. And one can learn; there are techniques for pain management in which one learns not to physically withdraw from that sensation of pain, but to relax into it.

MISHLOVE: To embrace the pain.

SEEBURGER: To embrace the pain. And in Buddhism that insight is taken simply and globalized; it's universalized or totalized, no longer applied merely to the physical level, but also to emotional pain, mental pain, to everything that builds into the underlying dissatisfaction which in Buddha's vision is characteristic of human life as a whole.

MISHLOVE: And this is an approach or response to addiction that deals with the root of the problem, rather than -- a response that deals with the cause, the so-called cause of the problem, might be: "Well, let's just get any addictive substances out of the environment."

SEEBURGER: Yes, we tend, I think, to be addicted to thinking causally, and to treating things in terms of causation. But the more that we focus on the specific causes of addiction -- and what we're really talking about when we speak of causes of addiction are risk factors, and plenty has been done, and there are any number of factors that do have a positive correlation with addiction, just as there are any number of risk factors that have positive correlation with heart attacks. But take that analogy. If we focused within the domain of heart attacks, if we focus on trying to control the causes of heart attacks by eliminating the risk factors, but do nothing in the way of an overarching or overall change in life style, then we're never going to exhaust the number of causes that have to be isolated. It becomes then a process without any end, the paradigm of an addictive process -- it's something the pursuit of which will not of itself ever yield satisfaction. I think that especially applies when we return to addiction itself. What's required in the way of a response is not the isolation and control or management of all of the causal factors that play a role in the formation of addiction. We'll never come to the end of that, and in fact we'll probably make addiction worse in our society rather than better. But instead, if we look at addiction for what it is, and accept it, so to speak, on its own terms -- I think that the tradition of Buddhism, with the regular disciplines of Buddhist meditation, exemplify such an approach. I think that the last time we also talked about Saint Anthony and the desert fathers. I think the literature of the desert fathers of Christian mysticism is full of the same kind of wisdom.

MISHLOVE: We began by defining addiction in some way as an existential condition, and it seems as if what we're saying now is that it's a spiritual condition, and the response needs to be a spiritual response, whatever that may mean.

SEEBURGER: Right; it needs to be, in that fundamental sense, a spiritual response -- that addiction as such is a spiritual problem, and if so, then the underlying solution has to be at that spiritual level. The notion existential I think can perhaps be useful, or that term can be useful, for those who have an aversion to terms connected to spirituality. That brings me back to your earlier remarks about Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step movement. One thing that sometimes is critiqued, or a negative factor that is sometimes brought out against the twelve-step movement, is the insistence on basically a monotheistic interpretation of God.

MISHLOVE: Higher power.

SEEBURGER: Higher power, right.

MISHLOVE: It's especially troubling to atheists, I know.

SEEBURGER: Yes, although it seems to me that the key there is that the underlying point which lies behind the twelve steps and the language of God, the language indeed of spirituality, can be translated in ways that are not dependent on that tradition or that culture. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous itself, the remark is made that there's no reason that a good Buddhist could not practice the twelve steps. But clearly within Buddhism one would not practice them in the form of a worship of a higher power or God as we in the West conceive of. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion.

MISHLOVE: Most people don't know that. I mean, we think of so many deities associated with Buddhism that it's a point easily missed in the West.

SEEBURGER: And they are deities, but they're sort of at the level of for us what would count as angels or as lesser spiritual powers.

MISHLOVE: Or even thought forms.

SEEBURGER: Yes, and indeed in, for instance, Tibetan Buddhism especially, demons are concretized thought forms, and learning to deal with them is a matter of learning to deal with the reality of oneself and one's own thought. And I know, as a matter of fact, within twelve-step movements I know some people who think of themselves as atheists or as agnostics, and I find it remarkable that they don't seem to have any difficulty in abiding by a twelve-step program, which on its surface is certainly dependent upon the use of terms such as God.

MISHLOVE: Well, the interesting thing to me in all of this is that as I look at spiritual traditions I often hear people say that you've really got to be motivated if you're going to follow this path. I know there's the yogi story, where a yogi holds one of his disciples under the water and won't let him come up for air, and the disciple says, "Why did you do that?" And the yogi says, "Well, when you want God as much as you wanted to get out from under that water, then you will succeed in the spiritual path."


MISHLOVE: And it seems as if addicts who have hit bottom are at that point.

SEEBURGER: Exactly. The addiction is like the yogi holding one's head under water. It has exactly that effect, I think. Finally then if one can translate that craving for the substance of addiction, the object of one's addiction, into its true focus, into its true aim, then what one's aiming at is the God of Judaeo-Christian tradition, or of certain forms of Hinduism.

MISHLOVE: So fundamentally you're saying the response to addiction must inherently be a spiritual response, the development of a spiritual path.

SEEBURGER: Yes, the development of a -- and the offering of spiritual reality to -- it's almost a contradiction in terms, I suppose -- spiritual reality in one usage of the term reality. But it's the offering of genuine spiritual option to the modern individual.

MISHLOVE: And in one sense it seems absurd that we might be saying this in what is fundamentally a secular culture. I mean, here you are a college professor in philosophy, which is one discipline that in modern times has tended to gravitate mostly toward an agnosticism or an atheism. And yet on the other hand if we look at the burgeoning of the twelve-step movements, that is the response that we see in our society.

SEEBURGER: Yes, and it's sometimes struck me, too, that perhaps the history of modern philosophy in particular needs to be written as an addiction. It's the history of a bottoming-out process, and there's I think much in contemporary philosophy to suggest something along those lines, of a breakdown of the monolithic rationalism, we might call it, that characterized Cartesian philosophy, the Cartesian modern philosophical tradition, that came to fruition in the Enlightenment, and with the deification, for example, of reason in the French Revolution.

MISHLOVE: Well, one can certainly sense a great difference between the deep search for wisdom of the ancient philosophers and the kind of nitpicking that has characterized so much of modern philosophy.

SEEBURGER: Um hm, yes. Once a number of years ago I sent out an article, I believe it was, for review, and I remember one of the critical comments on the article -- I had addressed the notion of philosophy as being love of wisdom, which is etymologically, of course, the meaning of the term in Greek. And that was the primary thing for which I was faulted, is the confusion of the etymology of the term with what it means today. And I would hope -- I hoped then, and I continue to hope -- that we as philosophers haven't so entirely lost our own tradition and our own root that we have forgotten the connection between philosophy and the love or the pursuit of wisdom.

MISHLOVE: Coming back to our theme of response to addiction, I get stuck a little bit with the vagueness of just saying a spiritual path is needed. I know the twelve-step program is much more specific than that.

SEEBURGER: Yes, indeed. And I think that each of the steps can be translated into a variety of contexts where they continue to make sense. But the specifics involved in a response to addiction are a matter of turning the idea, the mere idea of a spiritual path into the reality of a spiritual path. There's a sense in which the twelve-step movement is making available to mass society, to the everyday individual, an access to spirituality which prior to this has been the property of an elite, not necessarily in an economic sense, but of a relative handful.

MISHLOVE: Cloistered monks.

SEEBURGER: Yes, cloistered monks, or within Buddhism, there too, the monks, whether cloistered or not. And with the twelve-step movement those possibilities of a concrete spiritual path are institutionalized in a way that's accessible to everyone.

MISHLOVE: In other words, it's a question of transferring the moment-by-moment hungering for and satisfaction of the addiction, and the little rituals and anticipations around the addiction, transferring all of that to something different -- a search for the inner self perhaps.

SEEBURGER: Which can fill that need for meaning that the addiction used to fill. And it fills it, though, not by being a quick fix, by being over and done with, but it fills it by the need for an ongoing moment-by-moment repetition of the new behavior patterns, of the new response to life itself.

MISHLOVE: So that the spiritual path in effect addresses the real need underlying the addiction, and hopefully it doesn't harm one. Although of course it was Marx who said religion is the opium of the people, so that there is a fine line, I think, in which a spiritual path can become perverted.

SEEBURGER: It can indeed, and I think that there is a danger in any spiritual movement, including the twelve-step movement, there is a danger that it can be perverted. Jung, whom we talked a little bit about last time --

MISHLOVE: Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist.

SEEBURGER: Carl Jung, in referring to alcoholism as being a search of a spiritual sort which was the equivalent at a lower level to the medieval search for union with Union, Jung also goes on to say that he feels -- in the letter to Bill W. that we spoke of --

MISHLOVE: The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

SEEBURGER: One of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, yes. Anyway, Carl Jung addresses this issue, and says that what he calls the demonic, the negative influence within the world -- the prince of this world, it might be called in the Christian tradition, Satanic influences, in effect -- are so ready to pervert spiritual longing that what's remarkable really is that anyone recovers, rather than that so few do. So I couldn't agree more that spiritual paths, they're not child's play, they're not something then to be taken lightly. And recovering addicts tend not to take them lightly. They tend to be very serious about their involvement. That leads to some criticisms of Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups, that one may be replacing an addiction to twelve steps for an addiction to some substance or drug.

MISHLOVE: When one looks carefully at each of the twelve steps, they're not so different from the deep spiritual principles of many traditions. You have to make a fearless inventory of one's qualities, good and bad. It's deep self-examination, and making amends, and trying to correct the wrong that one has done. It reminds me a great deal of Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga, or the noble eightfold path of Buddhism -- very similar really.

SEEBURGER: I agree, and Bill Wilson, the author of the twelve steps originally, coming out of the experience of --

MISHLOVE: I'm going to have to interrupt you soon, though. We're running out of time.

SEEBURGER: He's very self-consciously being formed by such texts as William James's Varieties of Religious Experience.

MISHLOVE: It's no accident then that the twelve-step program appear to be this way.


MISHLOVE: Well, Frank Seeburger, thank you once again so much for being with me.

SEEBURGER: Thank you for having me.

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