For me it is impossible to talk about healing and recovery without reference to the very real crises that threaten human life and our planet at this moment. I believe it is deeply unethical as well, for wherever I look, I see clear signs of the imminent end of our way of life.
Earlier this year I took a small group of people to visit the last rain-forest Indians in North America, the Lacandons, who live in Chiapas, Mexico, along the border with Guatemala. Their way of life is rapidly disappearing, and there are very few Lacandons who maintain any of the traditional customs.
One group of Lacandons put on one of their traditional ceremonies for us with a psychoactive drug called balche, a tree bark. The other sacred plant of this tribe — as of most Indians in the Americas — is tobacco. I have been with Indian tribes who will tell you at great length about their psychedelic plants and magical plants, but will not take you to see their tobacco plants; they are the big magic. You could write volumes about how our civilization has gone wrong in its relationship with that most addictive of all psychoactive plants.
In the midst of this balche ceremony, the chief of the group turned to me and said, “You know, this is the end of the world.” I asked him what he meant and he told me that, according to their beliefs, there had been many signs that this was the end time. One of the most powerful signs was that they couldn’t grow tobacco anymore; their tobacco plants would get about six inches high and die. The reason was that acid rain was coming over from petroleum refineries on the Vera Cruz coast, hundreds of miles from this rain forest. That, to them, was a sign of doom, a sign of the end of their civilization. I think they’re quite right.
Not long ago a friend sent me an article that had appeared in Science magazine in 1961. The senior author was Heinz von Forster, an electrical engineer at MIT; the title of the article was “Doomsday, Friday the 13th, 2026.” Von Forster (who was not a population biologist) analyzed the increase in world population and developed a new mathematical model to account for and predict that increase. He concluded that the population curve was following a pattern of “super-exponential growth.” In other words, it took the human population a very, very long time to go from small numbers to one billion. From one billion to two billion was a tiny fraction of that time, but still long. The increase from two billion to four billion has occurred within my lifetime; it took about thirty years. Von Forster’s prediction is that from four billion to eight billion will take about fifteen years, from eight billion to sixteen billion around seven and a half years, and so forth. On the basis of this pattern of expansion, he concluded that sometime around the year 2026, give or take five years, people will cover every available inch of space, and we’ll all squeeze to death. Of course, long before the population of the world could get near that point, there would be disasters of one sort or another — epidemics, wars, famines, or whatever. Very few scientists believe that the earth can support much more than twenty billion people.
When von Forster’s article appeared in 1961, it was roundly denounced. The view of population biologists at the time was that the rate of increase of population was slowing — an optimistic message. Von Forster’s conclusions countered that message, so he was denounced, not least because he was not a population biologist.
Recently, however, a long letter by a population biologist appeared in Science, urging readers to remember von Forster and his “doomsday curve.” The letter pointed out that the actual increase in world population since 1961 has not only conformed to von Forster’s prediction but, in fact, slightly exceeded it. This means that the end of the world — or at least the end of civilization as we know it — is really not far off. We can assume that the disasters that will accompany this population increase will occur well within our lifetimes.
The reasons for our impending global catastrophes have a lot to do with addictive behavior. The world population increase, for example, has a lot to do with addiction to sex. The destruction of the rain forests and the pollution of the oceans and the atmosphere have a lot to do with addiction to power and money. I believe that addiction is a fundamental problem at the core of being human, as well as at the core of all of the specific problems we have in the world today.
I also feel very strongly that addiction is a universal problem. Although we are beginning to acknowledge this, there is still a tendency to focus on some kinds of addictions as serious while ignoring others — either because they are socially acceptable or because they don’t fit our conceptual model of addiction.
Recently I watched a movie made in 1934. All of the characters in it smoked all of the time. That was the thing to do. Now we’re living at a time when that social consensus is changing; smoking is becoming unfashionable. But the legacy of the 1930s and the years before has conditioned our thinking about tobacco addiction.
There was a belief in the 1920s and 1930s that smoking facilitated concentration. In World War II, soldiers were issued cigarettes in their rations. And you need only look back to the 1950s to find doctors selling cigarettes in Life magazine. There, in full-page ads, white-coated doctors hold out packages of Old Golds, saying, “I recommend these to all my patients because they’re soothing to the throat.” That was forty years ago. Only within the past ten years was the American Medical Association forced by its own constituents to divest itself of tobacco stock.
As a student at Harvard Medical School between 1964 and 1968, I was taught that tobacco was not addictive — a health problem, yes, in that it led to emphysema and lung cancer, but not a word about its being addictive. It was considered a psychological habit and therefore unimportant. Not that we heard much about other addictions either, except for a little bit about heroin, which was presented as the model or prototype of addiction. Since tobacco didn’t fit that model, nobody paid it any attention. Consensus about tobacco was so strong in American science that no one even did research to find out why it exerted such powerful control over people’s behavior.
For years I have urged people to see smoking for what it is. If you pull up at a stoplight and notice a person in the next car lighting up a cigarette, look at that behavior: heroin addicts only have to do it once, twice, three times a day, but tobacco addicts have to get a fix every twenty minutes. Every twenty minutes the brain demands that hit of nicotine in that form — a discrete pulse of a high dose of nicotine coming through the arterial system. Why didn’t anyone do research on that? Why didn’t anyone examine how nicotine could cause such a profound influence on brain physiology? The answer is that it didn’t fit the conceptual model, and it was a socially acceptable addiction.
There are many other socially acceptable addictions today that we don’t take very seriously. For instance, it’s awfully difficult in mainstream America to talk about sexual addiction. Our culture tells us it’s desirable to have as many orgasms as possible all the time. When I ask people, in the course of taking their medical history, whether they have any sexual difficulties, the most common answer I get is that they’re not getting enough. Within our cultural context it’s difficult to imagine that there could exist such a thing as sexual addiction, so it remains invisible to us. Or take addiction to work, or addiction to making money. These are all things our culture tells us are good, so they’re not seen in the same light as addiction to an unpopular drug.
Our ways of looking at addiction are limited because they don’t take into account the full spectrum of addictive behavior. As an example, consider this definition from our conference brochure: “In the broadest sense, addiction can be defined as an attitude that sees various aspects of the material world as exclusive sources of satisfaction. Addiction, understood in this way, represents a prominent feature of the entire Western civilization, which has lost the connection with its inner resources.” To my mind, that is far from being a broad conception of addiction. Actually, it’s a very limited view.
First of all, if addiction is the attitude that various aspects of the material world make us feel all right, then what about sexual addiction? Is that a material addiction? It may involve physical organs and other people, but it is an addiction to an experience, an inner experience. And how about addiction to thought? That’s something hardly ever discussed in the Western world, but it is discussed in Buddhist psychology, which considers it a serious impediment to enlightenment. That’s one of the reasons to meditate — to try to get some freedom from thoughts. You could look at universities as monuments to thought addiction, places where you are rewarded for the beauty, complexity, or novelty of the thoughts you produce. Given this social context with its social rewards, why would you even entertain the notion that thought could be addictive? And if you’re committed to the idea that addiction involves something material and external, then thought addiction just doesn’t fit; you don’t see it.
I maintain that the essence of addiction is craving for an experience or object to make you feel all right. It’s the craving for something other than the self, even if that something is within the realm of the mind. Addiction is fundamentally human; it affects everybody.
It’s very easy to feel special about our addictions. This is a common attitude, one that puts me off about some twelve-step programs. It’s as if they consider certain addictions more important than others; as if alcohol addiction is fundamentally worse, more difficult than, say, coffee addiction. To me, coffee is not less important than alcohol. It is a hidden addiction that affects many people. On the level that I’m talking about — the level on which we have to look at addiction as a general human problem — it’s the same thing, the same process. It’s the same craving for something apart from yourself to make you feel OK.
That’s the essence of the addictive process, and it’s certainly not just a problem of Western civilization. Western civilization behaves in ways that harm the whole planet, but I don’t see Western civilization as any more or less addicted than Eastern civilization. The forms may be different, but the process is the same. That process itself is what I’m most interested in understanding. What is the origin of craving? And what is the solution to the craving?
About five years ago a patient came to me who was shooting five to six grams of cocaine a day intravenously. I had never before encountered cocaine use on that scale. She had gotten into her current pattern of usage after several years of snorting vast amounts of cocaine. Remarkably, given the nature of the drug and the nature of her usage, she was in good health and was holding down a job. A young single mother, she was doing a fantastic juggling act to keep her life together despite her drug usage.
Listening to her talk, I learned a number of things about addiction. She said that the first few minutes after the first injection of the day, she experienced an overwhelming rush. But that was it for pleasure. The rest of the time was sheer horror — paranoia, violent shaking, palpitations, and unmanageable insomnia. Many people think that we get involved with addictions because they’re sources of pleasure, but when you look at those caught up in extreme forms of addiction, the ratio of pleasure to distress is minimal. So pleasure is not what keeps the addiction going; there’s just not that much of it there.
My patient went on very articulately about how awful her life had become, how she was a slave to this compulsion. Then she looked off and said something that beautifully expresses the plight of the addict: “I want not to want it.” Now, if you want not to want things, how do you achieve that? What is this problem of craving, and where does it come from?
Eastern spiritual philosophies have the most to say on this subject. I find Buddhism particularly helpful, with its “first noble truth” that life is somehow incomplete and unfulfilled, so that in anything you do something is missing. This idea is often translated as “life is suffering” — and I suppose there is suffering that comes out of it — but that’s not quite the sense of it. Rather, the emphasis is on the incompleteness, the lack of fulfillment. The “second noble truth” is that the cause of this lack is attachment. But the Buddha has nothing to say about where craving comes from. And that’s the question that has always interested me: Why do we crave? If, as Buddhism suggests, the essence of our being is pure self, luminous consciousness, why aren’t we content to be just as we are? If you try to pursue that question, I don’t think there’s an end to it.
In 1970, I spent a month on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. I had gone there to study with a medicine man named Leonard Crowdog and to learn about Lakota religion. He put me through a lot of trials. One of them I remember distinctly. It was a very bleak time of year. The sky was leaden. There was a cold wind, and it felt like it was going to snow. The ground was already frozen. We walked over the hills and came to a little bush that was about a foot high and barren of leaves. And he told me that I had to dig the root of this bush up intact. If I cut it or damaged it in any way it would be useless, and the root was necessary for the ceremonies we would be performing. So I dug down about three or four inches and found a slender, woody root; I was very careful not to damage it. I got down about six inches and was still going down when suddenly the root spread out: it was the top of an enormous taproot that weighed about 150 pounds and was the size of a sheep. It took me all day to extract it. I think of that when I consider trying to follow the root of craving to its origin.
Let me give you an idea of where I think it leads. I’ve always been interested in cosmology. For a modern cosmological myth, look at Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. One of the things that strikes me about it is the arrogance that comes through. Here is a man who says right out that everything is on the point of being known, that with a few experimental observations we will soon know everything. Everything! What arrogance! In the great spiritual traditions, arrogance is seen as one of the chief obstacles to enlightenment. I think this is a major distinction between knowledge and wisdom. However much you illuminate your world with the light of knowledge — the bigger that fire becomes and the brighter it burns — the more you are aware of the extent of darkness yet to be illuminated. Hawking takes you back to within a millionth of a second of the Big Bang and says that shortly we will go even further back than that. But what about before the Big Bang? Why was there a Big Bang? Hawking can’t tackle that question. That is a question that mystics look at.
In psychiatry and medical science today, the prevailing view is that consciousness is incidental rather than fundamental — an epiphenomenon that happens to arise out of matter arranged in certain ways. But an alternative view — one more characteristic of mystics than of cosmologists — holds that consciousness precedes matter. In other words, consciousness is what’s primary, and it is consciousness that initiated the evolution of energy and matter into ever more complex forms, seemingly with the purpose of knowing itself better. At the moment, human consciousness is the form in which this process has reached its highest expression thus far. But why must consciousness know itself in this roundabout way? Why can’t it just rest in its own blissful self-awareness? The whole paradox of existence is tied up in that question.
The essence of paradox — and its problem — is self-reference. Push knowledge far enough in any direction and you run into the limit of paradox. That’s because you’re trying somehow to refer to the thing that you’re part of. The old scientific view, in which we were passive observers of a mechanistic universe, doesn’t work anymore. We know ourselves to be connected, part of a universe trying to understand itself. And so we enter that endless loop of paradox like a dog chasing its tail. But all this was initiated by consciousness attempting to know itself and, in the process, initiating a cycle of manifested existence. The Big Bang was not the universe-initiating event. The Big Bang was itself an effect of what I’d call the Little Itch.
And what is that Little Itch? What is it that disturbed consciousness and led to all this? The primal craving. To me, if you try to trace the root of craving, you get to that point, for it is literally tied up with the origins of the universe and the evolution of human consciousness. It’s that fundamental, that much a part of our humanness. Not only, then, is addiction universal, it’s the essence of our being human. It’s not something to be disowned, because it’s part of our core being, part of who we are.
Given that, what can we do about addictive behavior? I can think of only two choices. The first is to try to shift it so that the forms it takes are less harmful: it is better to be addicted to a twelve-step program than to alcohol, better to be addicted to exercise than to smoking. We can make such value judgments about addictive behavior. And this approach to addiction should not be discounted because, finally, it may be all we can do.
The only other strategy is to try to get at the root of craving. The Eastern religions would have us believe that this is possible through intense introspection, meditation, and practice, but I’m not so sure of that. Maybe you can go a long way — you can get way down there — but if the origin of craving is indeed bound up with the origin of the universe, then I doubt it can be uprooted. I suspect all you can do is do the best you can — that is to say, go after it, try to contain it and understand it. The great mistake is trying to disown it.
Addiction is part of who we are. If we can accept that aspect of our humanness, we can work to make it less destructive to ourselves and to other people. Celebrating the craving for what it is, realizing that it connects us with all other people, we may find in it both a source of great compassion and a motivation to work with others to stop the kinds of destructive behavior that threaten our world. I can think of nothing more important to do.
Andrew Weil is a physician who has spent many years studying the use of mind-altering drugs in settings as diverse as Harvard University and the Amazon Basin.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he currently teaches at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He is the author of five books, including From Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind-Active Drugs and Natural Health, Natural Medicine.
This is an edited version of a talk given at the International Transpersonal Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Another excerpt recently appeared in Magical Blend.