Q: Scott, are you an addict?
Scott: I don’t identify with that label, just as I don’t identify as a musician, teacher, author, man, gay man or any other label. Those are things that I do or patterns I’ve experienced in life. They are not what or who I am inherently, just as a butterfly is not a butterfly until we name it that way. The patterns are my direct experience. The labels are a way of trying to make sense of patterns, after the fact. I don’t need that label in order to know that I presently don’t want to use drugs or alcohol. I’m not trying to evade the question. Some may call this denial, but only because (in my view) they confuse a pattern with identity and/or they are identified with thought and cannot imagine the experience of living life without that identification.
Q: So I assume you don’t call yourself a recovering addict?
Scott: Correct, for the same reasons. When I was a kid I learned to not touch a hot stove because it would burn my finger. But I don’t call myself a recovering-stove-toucher.
Q: Although I hear what you are saying, I feel like I need to challenge you on this point. Isn’t being addicted a habit that is different than touching a hot stove?
Scott: Yes, normally people don’t crave the experience of touching a hot stove like they crave an addictive substance or activity. Addiction is a learned habit. The deepest kind of recovery is about unlearning the habit of addiction. People who strongly identify with the label “recovering addict” are often “holding back the dam.” They haven’t truly unlearned the habit. They are only refraining from the use of the substance. The underlying issues that led to addiction have not been completely healed. Holding back the dam means that they are using the label to remind themselves of the consequences of the addiction, so that they don’t go back to it. They know if they go back to it, the dam will break and the addiction cycle will come crashing back into their lives, taking them into a downward spiral. So they fear the substance or activity. This fear creates an aversion to it. But once you have unlearned the addiction, you simply do not crave the substance or activity in the same way you once did. You also have no fear or aversion towards it. Once both the craving and the fear (i.e., the aversion) is gone, the label no longer serves its purpose. It’s like an old pair of shoes that no longer fits.
Q: But if the fear or aversion is gone, what stops people from going back to the addiction?
Scott: It’s not just that the fear or aversion is gone, the craving is also gone. The recovery I’m talking about in my book, “Natural Rest for Addiction” is different than the recovery that other programs talk about. When taken deeply, this kind of recovery results in your mind and body being fundamentally changed. It’s no longer about holding back the dam. You create the habit of feeling everything directly as it arises to present awareness. This new habit overrides the habit of wanting to avoid or escape painful thoughts, emotions and sensations through addictive substances and activities. So, even if you picked up the substance or activity again, you would likely feel the effect, but your system would not spiral downward into the full-blown addiction cycle again because of this fundamental change in the way you relate to thoughts, emotions and sensations.
Q: Are you saying that we should do away with these labels altogether?
Scott: I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak from my own experience. The labels may be useful for some when they are first beginning to live without drugs, alcohol or some other addiction. Whatever helps a person remain abstinent is good, in order to get some distance from the addictive behavior. Science tells us that addiction changes the brain. Abstinence allows the brain to normalize itself again over time. Holding back the dam was useful for a while for me. So I identified with “addict” and “recovering addict” in the beginning of my recovery. I didn’t realize then that there was another way. There is fear underlying these “addict” and “recovering addict” labels. The craving and the fear/aversion towards an addictive substance or activity work together to strengthen the desire to use. Science has now confirmed this with recent studies showing that craving and aversion arise as one movement from the same part of the brain. Just like a forbidden fruit, if you tell me that I cannot have that substance or activity or that I should be afraid of it, this will strengthen my desire for it. A deeper recovery shows up when there is no craving or aversion towards it. This deeper recovery also includes no longer identifying with thought. Once you identify with a label, you have to defend it because you think it is “you.” There will be some who read this dialogue and who feel threatened by what I’m saying here because they have identified with one of these labels. This sense of threat is revealing the fear underneath the label. Fear-based recovery is like a house of cards, waiting to fall at any time. The dam is being held back by fear. We don’t need to consciously “do away” with the labels. They fall away naturally when the fear is faced, felt and allowed to dissolve in witnessing awareness.
Q: But many people identify with these labels and it seems to keep them clean and sober.
Scott: Yes, like I said, it can help, especially in the beginning. But these labels are stories. Many people who identify with these labels also relapse. The success rate for recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is very low – between 10% to 30%. Telling yourself that you are an addict or a recovering addict is not enough. Not even close to enough. The part of the brain that creates and tells these stories is different than the part of the brain that produces craving and aversion. In the moment you want to relapse, the story of being a recovering addict and all the rational thoughts about why you shouldn’t relapse are shut down by the midbrain’s strong desire to use. This is one of the reasons, I think, the relapse rate it still so high. People are too focused on these stories and labels, rather than changing the way they relate to thoughts, emotions and sensations as they arise in present moment awareness.
Q: Your drug of choice was painkillers. What your saying sounds right theoretically. But how do you know this fundamental change has happened for you such that your system wouldn’t become addicted to painkillers if you tried them again?
Scott: I had major surgery as a result of a cancer diagnosis three years ago. I was prescribed very powerful painkillers. I felt the euphoric effect of those painkillers. But my brain did not process the drug in the same way. Even with the euphoric effect, I didn’t want to continue taking them. I stopped taking them before my doctor suggested that I stop. I desired the experience of having the drugs out of my system more than I longed for the effect of the drugs. Earlier in life when I was addicted to them, they helped me cope with feelings that I was not able to feel and allow. That coping mechanism was no longer in play at the time of my recovery from surgery. So my system didn’t attach to the desire to continue using them. My system had learned to feel everything, so it didn’t need the drug for the purpose of avoidance of feelings.
Q: This seems dangerous. What if a person falsely believes that they have experienced this fundamental change and so they start using again prematurely, only to find out that they are spiraling back into full-blown addiction.
Scott: One of the hallmarks of true recovery is self-honesty. If someone uses what I’m saying here as a way to talk themselves into using again before they have experienced this fundamental change, they are justifying or rationalizing. That is dangerous. Justification and rationalization are classic signs that the pattern of addiction is alive and kicking in the system and indicators that a person is still holding back the dam. The gauge in this kind of recovery is whether one is feeling every emotion and sensation directly as it arises in present awareness. If there is any degree of avoidance or wanting to escape feelings or sensations, the system has not been changed. This is why I promote abstinence. Abstinence allows you to keep your distance from these substances and activities so that you can deal with all the underlying issues.
Q: What are the underlying issues?
Scott: They are different for everyone. But essentially the habit of wanting to avoid or escape emotions and sensations is the main underlying issue for most people. Depression, anxiety and trauma are also common underlying issues. Many people relapse back into full-blown addiction because they start experimenting again with an addictive substance or activity before past trauma has been healed.
Q: Do you ever suggest that someone experiment again after a number of years of abstinence as a way to test “where they are” in their recovery?
Scott: I never suggest that. What we focus on at the Kiloby Center for Recovery is present moment awareness, inquiry and other methods that deal with these underlying issues. I know that some people will experiment after a number of years. All that I can say is “be careful.” It’s very easy to justify and rationalize in those instances. I do suggest abstinence so that the underlying issues can be addressed without inteference from the addictive substances and activities.
Q: Do you suggest that people stop using their addictive substance or activity before they begin your work?
Scott: Yes, and some people respond with, “Well, if I could do that, I wouldn’t need your work.” With regard to drugs and alcohol, there are detox facilities that are helping people get off drugs and alcohol every day. The harder part is staying clean and sober after you have stopped and dealing with the underlying issues. I even suggest stopping porn or sugar use when someone is starting to do our work on those addictions. Trying to stop using while you are still using can be incredibly difficult. It’s a catch 22. Even if you have a moment of feeling free of a craving, once you ingest the substance or engage in the activity again, you are resetting your brain back into the addiction and withdrawal cycle. It’s like playing tug of war. Our high success rate at the Center is partly a result of our requirement that one stop using right before they come to us. Then we can deal with the issues that led to addiction in the first place, without the substance or activity resetting the brain again and again. No one would assume that it’s a good idea for a person addicted to heroin to continue using heroin while in treatment or recovery. For the same reason, stopping the use of any other addictive substance or activity is important, before the real work begins.
Q: When you say “fundamental change,” it sounds like you are talking about a cure for addiction.
Scott: I don’t think of addiction merely as a brain disease. Certainly the brain is profoundly affected by addiction and plays a big role. But there are many other contributing factors to addiction including trauma, childhood development, social and relational dynamics, anxiety, depression, genetics, etc. When one thinks of addiction merely as a disease, one looks for a “cure.” Looking for a cure assumes that we are going to find a drug one day to eradicate addiction. But most medications don’t provide cures. They temporarily change the brain. When the medication is stopped, the addiction may still be present, especially if the underlying issues are still there. It would be wonderful if someone developed a drug that cured addiction. But I seriously doubt that will ever happen. How can you create a drug that allows you to feel everything rather than avoid it? If addiction is about avoiding or escaping thoughts, emotions and sensations, which I think it is at least in part, then recovery must be about learning to relate differently to those thoughts, emotions and sensations. Is this what we really want, a medication to cover up or medicate the pain that we are already covering up or medicating through our addictions? By searching for a cure in the form of a pill, we are looking to put a temporary band-aid on a deep, long-lasting emotional wound. It’s a costly and misguided mistake. I think we should put less money behind the search for a cure and instead bring mindfulness, meditation and other important methods into our schools and into our lives, so that we can begin to unlearn this habit of reaching outside ourselves to avoid dealing with our deep woundedness. We can still develop medications that help as a short-term fix when people are in the early stages of their recovery or when there is a mental illness involved. But medication as a long term fix does not make sense to me.
Q: If someone has experienced a fundamental change in the way they relate to thoughts, emotions and sensations, does this mean they are liberated from all addictions or just certain ones? For example, if I beat an addiction to heroin, am I also free of my addiction to tobacco?
Scott: Not necessarily. Gabor Mate, a leader in the scientific field of addiction, has said that addiction is a universal mechanism. In other words, it is the same mechanism at play in the brain (with some variation) regardless of whether it’s an addiction to porn, cocaine or coffee. I agree with his basic premise but it’s not that simple. At the Kiloby Center, we are finding that the body plays a big role. There are certain blockages of energy in the body that correlate to different addictions. For example, an addiction to opiates often arises from a blockage in the heart area, whereas an addiction to meth or sex arises from a blockage in the stomach area. As long as these blockages (or contractions) are present in particular areas, certain corresponding addictions are still present. One might experience a dissolving of the heart blockage (i.e., a heart opening) and then suddenly experience a corresponding eradication of his opiate addiction. But if his stomach is still contracted, he might still experience an addiction to meth or porn. So, although there is one universal mechanism in the brain, the body has the final say. This is why we focus on body work so much at the Center. We want to avoid the idea that dealing with one particular addiction automatically deals with them all. It doesn’t work that way.
Q: This sounds similar to substitution, where someone stops taking heroin, but substitutes it with tobacco. Is this what you mean?
Scott: Not exactly. If there is a blockage in the heart area, but the blockage has not been dissolved, one might move from heroin (which is related to that area) to tobacco (which is also related to that area). They are still medicating the same blockage but with a different substance. That’s classic substitution. What I’m saying here is that once the heart blockage has been fully dissolved, all addictions related to that area (tobacco, heroin, wine) are also gone. The addictions related to the stomach area may still be present if the stomach contains its own blocked energy. So moving to a stomach-related addiction is not substitution. You aren’t medicating the same area – the heart. You are medicating a different area. This may sound like semantics. But these are important distinctions to make in order to eliminate the false idea that overcoming one addiction means you have overcome them all.
Q: Journalist Johann Hari has suggested that the “cure” for addiction is unconditional love and support for the person who is addicted. Is this the answer?
Scott: It’s a partial answer. The fault does not lie in his basic premise that unconditional love and support are necessary. The problem lies with the idea that this alone will end addiction. Thousands of people who are addicted are actually triggered mostly in relationship. Many people relapse precisely because they find themselves in support groups but they lack the skill to “be with” all the emotions that arise in those group dynamics. It sounds strange, but it happens a lot. Someone who is not comfortable in a group can find the group dynamic to be highly triggering. And sometimes the most supportive groups carry their own assumptions, judgments and even dogma. I have worked with people who are triggered by those around them that are trying to love and support them. They don’t see it as unconditional love and support. They experience it as if people are still trying to fix them but in a softer, gentler way. They still sense an agenda. Or they experience it as too much intimacy, too soon in their recovery, before they have had a chance to resolve past relationship trauma that they have been carrying around for years. Families who try to love and support an addicted family member often end up re-igniting certain family dynamics that helped create the addiction in the first place. This can keep the addiction alive. Sometimes, love and support ends up enabling the addicted person in unconscious ways. So education is important, so that people understand the difference between love and enabling. Moreover, we spend a good deal of time alone. What happens when there is no one around? We still have to learn how to relate differently to our thoughts, emotions and sensations whether we are alone or in the company of others. No amount of love coming from the outside can truly heal the negative stories and inner wounds we are carrying around. It’s up to each of us to directly face the fear and pain that underlies addiction. Others can support that process but they cannot make it happen even if their love is unconditional.
Q: If Johann Hari’s approach is partial, isn’t your view partial also?
Scott: All approaches are partial, just like all views are partial. An approach is usually not “wrong” in and of itself. It is merely one-dimensional. What makes an approach or view partial has to do with what it ignores or fails to integrate. Our model at the Center is called RTS – Readiness, Transformation and Support. The transformation aspect of the model is open enough to include integration of several dimensions into one’s recovery. Although Natural Rest (including inquiry and mindfulness) is the main approach we use at the Kiloby Center, we integrate as much as possible. This helps avoid the “this” or “that” kind of thinking that you see in other approaches. If someone resonates with the 12 steps, we encourage them to use the steps but integrate it with mindfulness and other things that help. Instead of forcing one approach on someone, we meet the client where they are. We see what works for them and what doesn’t and we guide them into integrating various approaches. For example, in some cases we find that medication is needed at least in the beginning stages of recovery or when there is mental illness that cannot be reached completely through our approach. We also integrate our approach with TMS, which is a cutting edge non-medication brain technology that relieves underlying depression. In some cases, other forms of therapy such as EFT or EMDR are helpful. We also suggest and facilitate love and support in all relationships and other group and one-on-one dynamics as an important component, just as Hari suggests. Integrate, integrate, integrate!
Q: But you are a nondual teacher. Nonduality is all about recognizing present awareness as the basis of all experience so that all thoughts, emotions and sensations come and go but one no longer identifies with them. Isn’t the assumption in nonduality that awakening liberates one completely from things like addiction, depression and anxiety? Aren’t you abandoning that notion when you talk about integration?
Scott: It is an assumption and a false one in my view. Although some may experience the falling away of all addictions through nondual awakening, most do not. Nondual awakening can be a profoundly life-changing recognition. It can help tremendously with things like addiction, anxiety and depression. Nondual awareness is the basis of our work at the Center. It’s what we call Natural Rest. However, through the years, I received many, many emails from people who experienced such an awakening but who still found themselves dealing with unresolved depression, addiction, anxiety and trauma. I like to think of nondual awakening as merely an opening or a new context through which one can begin to truly examine one’s experience more directly. It’s a beginning, rather than an end point. The key, again, is self-honesty. If one is claiming to be enlightened but is still experiencing addiction, there is still identification with form. There is identification in that area of the body that contains blocked energy that seems to scream for relief. There is still a looking outside of one’s self for something to make him feel complete. To be enslaved to an addictive substance or activity is not freedom, regardless of whether one has had some sort of shift into present moment awareness. Conditioning within the body and mind has a powerful momentum to it that can continue even after such a shift. At that point, the key is to continue being open to rest with and inquire into this conditioning and to integrate other approaches, if they are helpful. Once that opening into nondual awareness has been realized, partial thinking can be seen through, opening the door to new possibilities to help deepen one’s experience, until addiction, depression, anxiety and trauma are nowhere on the radar.
Q: But this sounds like more seeking, as if one has to continue trying to reach some future point after awakening where everything will be healed.
Scott: To the untrained eye, it looks like seeking. But the recognition of nondual awareness puts an end to seeking the future. Instead, there is a natural deepening process that can begin to take place. In that process, one is no longer seeking a future state, but rather becoming more and more open to allow everything that was once unconscious come to the surface within present awareness and be healed and resolved naturally. The recognition that there is nowhere to go and no self to get anywhere is at the forefront at that point. For that reason, everything that made up that self comes into the light, even the deepest and darkest energies, contractions and trauma. This deepening allows the addiction, depression, anxiety and trauma to dissolve away. This is not a game of time or waiting. It is a natural unfolding within the present moment. Present awareness provides an infinate patience for this unfolding to occur. The best way to allow this unfolding to happen is to stop thinking in terms of “I am awakened” or “I am not awakened.” Those are identities that become irrelevant at some point, just as the “addict” and “recovering addict’ identities become irrelevant. What is relevant is direct, moment-by-moment perceiving of what is arising. And that’s exactly when the fundamental change I spoke of earlier starts to show up. That’s when craving and aversion begin to fall away. That’s when we are no longer holding back the dam.
Q: What’s the bottom line behind all this addiction we find on earth? There are many theories about its causes and you have mentioned that it is not only about the brain but also childhood development and other factors. But is there one thing that we can point to that seems to lie at the root of it all?
Scott: Yes, the core restlessness behind our survival mechanism. Our species needed to remember where the sweet berries were located in the forest and how sex feels good in order to survive and procreate. We learned to seek those things. But there seems to be no shut-off valve for this survival mechanism. We become addicted to other things like drugs, alcohol, shopping, thinking, judging, blaming, over-working, Facebook, etc, etc as if those things are needed for basic physical survival. But they aren’t. At the core of our experience is a deep restlessness that both propels us towards the future and makes the present moment feel threatening, as if we have to constantly escape it. Don’t believe me though. Check it out in your own experience. Sit for two hours alone in a room without any of your usual addictive indulgences. This will bring up that core restlessness. Things like trauma, anxiety, and depression compound that feeling of restlessness. But one can continue to experience that restlessness even after that trauma, anxiety and depression have vanished. This is why I consider the restlessness as lying at the deepest core of our addicted lives. Just sitting and being and doing nothing is one of the most threatening experiences for humans. It brings up the fear of death. Although this sounds like bad news, because everyone experiences it, it also provides the answer to addiction. Once we face, feel and dissolve away this core restlessness instead of running from it, we begin to experience a profound peace and well-being in the present moment.
For information about how to participate at the Kiloby Center, visit www.kilobycenter.com.