Spiritual Emergency: Addiction | Stanislav Grof MD. PhD.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction as Psychospiritual Crisis

It makes good sense to describe addiction as a form of
transpersonal crisis (“spiritual emergency”), in spite of the fact that it differs in its external manifestations from more obvious types of psychospiritual crises. In addiction, like in the possession states, the spiritual dimension is obscured by the destructive and self-destructive nature of the disorder. While in other forms of spiritual crises people encounter problems because of their difficulty to cope with mystical experiences, in addiction the source of the problem is strong spiritual longing and the fact that the contact with the mystical dimension has not been made.

There exists ample evidence that behind the craving for drugs or alcohol is unrecognized craving for transcendence or wholeness (Grof 1987). Many recovering people talk about their restless search for some unknown missing element or dimension in their lives and describe their unfulfilling and frustrating pursuit of substances, foods, relationships, possessions, or power that reflects an unrelenting but vain effort to satiate this craving (Grof 1993).

The key to the understanding of addiction seems to be the fact that there exists a certain superficial similarity between mystical states and intoxication by alcohol or hard drugs. Both of these conditions share the feeling of dissolution of individual boundaries, dissipation of disturbing emotions, and transcendence of mundane problems. Although the intoxication with alcohol or drugs lacks many important characteristics of the mystical state, such as serenity, numinosity, and richness of philosophical insights, the experiential overlap is sufficient to seduce alcoholics and addicts into abuse.

William James was aware of this connection and wrote about it in Varieties of Religious Experience: “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes” (James 1961). James also saw the implications of this fact for therapy, which he expressed very succinctly in his famous statement: “The best treatment for dipsomania (an archaic term for alcoholism) is religiomania.”

C. G. Jung’s independent insight in this regard was instrumental in the development of the worldwide network of Twelve Step Programs. It is not generally known that Jung played a very important role in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The information about this little-known aspect of Jung’s work can be found in a letter that Bill Wilson, the cofounder of AA, wrote to Jung in 1961 (Wilson and Jung 1963). Jung had a patient, Roland H., who came to him after having exhausted other means of recovery from alcoholism. Following a temporary improvement after a year’s treatment with Jung, he suffered a relapse. Jung told him that his case was hopeless and suggested that his only chance was to join a religious community and hope for a profound spiritual experience. Roland H. joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement emphasizing self-survey, confession, and service. There he experienced a religious conversion that freed him from alcoholism. He then returned to New York City and became very active in the Oxford Group there. He was able to help Bill Wilson’s friend, Edwin T., who in turn helped Bill Wilson in his personal crisis. In his powerful
spiritual experience, Bill Wilson had a vision of a worldwide chain-style fellowship of alcoholics helping each other.
Years later, Wilson wrote Jung a letter, in which he brought to his attention the important role that Jung played in the history of AA. In his answer, Jung wrote in reference to his patient: “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” Jung pointed out that in Latin, the term spiritus covers both meanings — alcohol and spirit. He then expressed very succinctly his belief that only a deep spiritual experience can save people from the ravages of alcohol. He suggested that the formula for treatment of alcoholism is “Spiritus contra spiritum,” James’s and Jung’s insights have since been confirmed by the experiences of the Twelve Step Program and by clinical research with psychedelics (Grof 1980).


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