This is the second article of a three-part feature on wisdom recovery prepared by a newly created group of individuals with decades of experience in the world of healing and recovery. The focus of The Wisdom Recovery Group is “to bring true balance back into the center of recovery and healing work,” according to Lee McCormick, founder of the Ranch in Tennessee and director of the Integrative Life Center, an outpatient program in Nashville. He is joined by Will Taegel, PhD, dean of the Wisdom School of Graduate Studies; Mary Faulkner, MA, coauthor of The Spirit Recovery Medicine Bag; Holly Cook, LPC, executive director of the Integrative Life Center; Gordon Dveirin, EdD, a consultant in organization and human development; and Joan Borysenko, PhD, one of the founders of the field of mind-body medicine, a noted researcher and author of sixteen books in the field of health and healing.
When Lee brought us all together, he cited the sobering fact that the field of recovery is stagnant, and that recovery rates across the country are shockingly low. Why is this, we wondered, and what can we learn by sitting together with the questions that the suffering of addiction poses?
Becoming a Community of Question Carriers
One of our colleagues in The Wisdom Recovery Group, Mary Faulkner, related an experience she had with an indigenous teacher in the midst of a learning circle. She interrupted him with a question, to which he listened carefully and with great attention. Then he asked the circle of people, “Does everyone hear what Mary is asking?” Nods indicated that, yes, they had heard. Mary anticipated his response, but no answer was forthcoming. He simply acknowledged her and then returned to his previous theme. Mary pondered this event and concluded that by implication the shaman was teaching her to become a “question carrier” in domains where answers often block insight rather than opening the door to wisdom.
One earth-based tribe aspiring to ongoing recovery holds an annual ceremony where the tribe’s deepest beliefs are fair game to be questioned without the judgment of the circle. Discernment? Yes. Judgment? No. As a Muscogee/Creek wise person puts it, “To be a pipe carrier is to be a question carrier. Only questions allow us to take off our shoes within the sacred mystery.”
For our Wisdom Recovery Group, recovery means learning to carry our most provocative questions and following their lead until they take us to a deeper wisdom. At the heart of the wisdom community is mindful, nonjudgmental respect for the uniqueness of each person’s wisdom. If it’s okay that you’re broken down, confused, sad or mad, you can reconnect with your true heart by inquiring deeply into your own lived experience, while being witnessed by others who are willing to ask questions that let you go deeper and touch the nobility of your true nature. In contrast, there is no way to build a true identity based on the fiction that you are inherently broken.
Our Wisdom Recovery Group acknowledges the helpful alphabet therapies like CBT, DBT, ACT, and the like. We suggest a new approach to treatment that we call Heart Reconnection Therapy (HRT) as a way to recover the lost self that every addict is searching for. In this article we’ll consider some elemental questions that underlie the need for a new alphabet of recovery; the language of the heart, which is a language spoken by nature herself.
Since we (Will and Joan) didn’t know each other previously, asking questions about recovery brought us together. We found that we had remarkable synergy. We were both scientists with deep roots in ancient wisdom and with some, but not exhaustive, clinical experience in the domain of addictive urges. Throughout her career, Joan, a Harvard-educated cell biologist and health psychologist, drilled deeply into the mind-body connection, stress, and spirituality. During the first months of our nascent collaboration, Joan was researching a new book on nutrition, including disordered food cravings (Borysenko, 2014). Will, after decades as a practicing psychotherapist, headed a research team in an alternative graduate school with a focus on the overlapping boundaries of ancient wisdom and quantum fields (Taegel, 2012). Thus, our current interests and research shaped our response to the questions put before us.
What follows are field notes of our dialogues, which potentially offer a quantum leap outside the current recovery paradigm. We invite you into a conversation to tend the seeds, knowing that the garden will require the prodigious and mysterious powers of nature to sprout new wisdom suited to the hypercomplexity and change of our modern and fast-changing era.
Cultural Drivers of Addiction
As our dialogue unfolded, we became aware of discomforting truths lying unseen beneath our collective umbrella of denial. Through our questioning, we began to gain insight into a disheartening level of chaos and disorder in our culture in general, and our health care system in particular.
Our civilization runs on the fuel of addictive urges. Indeed, current culture relies on a range of addictions to feed its economy. If addiction went away tomorrow, the economy would take a big hit, hence the cultural sabotage that underlies addiction.
We in the mainstream are out of control with drugs, food, and petroleum products, to name an unholy trinity. Let’s take a brief look at prescription drug use as an example of how potentially good things can go bad when big money and aggressive advertising drive an industry. While drugs can often save lives, they can also take lives or decimate the quality of life because of their side effects and addictive potential.
Investigative psychiatrist David Healy, MD, calls the alarming trend of death-by-prescription drugs, “Pharmageddon.” In an interview about his book of that title, Healy states, “At the moment, treatment-induced death is the fourth leading cause of death [overall], and within the mental health field, it’s probably the leading cause of death” (Szalavitz, 2012). Hit the pause button on that one and contemplate this essential question: Are we doing more harm with medication than good?
Medicating behavior to achieve a standard of cultural normalcy opens a Pandora’s box of promises and problems that are worthy of our inquiry as caring professionals who devote ourselves to helping people lead their best lives.
Our children, for example, are prime targets for potential harm when it comes to the treatment of ADHD. According to data compiled by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.4 million children ages four through seventeen—11 percent of that age group—were diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011, and the number is on the rise (CDC, 2014). Two thirds of kids diagnosed with ADHD are indeed put on drugs like Ritalin or Adderall, which cut like a double-edged sword. While the drugs can improve the lives of some children in remarkable ways by increasing focus and impulse control, they also have significant addictive potential. The drugs are commonly traded or sold to other kids who don’t need them, but use them instead as a kind of “mental steroid.”
This brief peek beneath denial poses yet another question, which we ask with great humility and even greater trepidation.
Does Our Civilization Itself Lead To Addiction?
Anxiety and sleeplessness are canaries in the mine of cultural malaise. Uncertainty about the future, the breakdown of community, violence against women, income inequality, industrialized “foods,” and rampant consumerism all erode peace of mind and wholeness of body. Could it be, we asked ourselves and each other, that the very foundations of western civilization lead inevitably to addictive urges to quell our collective unease? Must we confront the limits of our civilization if we are to attend to the roots of addiction and to substantial recovery? Is it not the role of therapists to question the very foundations of our civilization?
Anthropologists have observed that cultures that live in unity with one another and with nature have little addiction. But when they are removed from their deep connection with mother earth and forced to conform to “civilized” norms, addiction flowers within a single generation. This is as true for cultures like the !Kung bushmen in the Kalahari desert whose land was taken most recently, as it is for indigenous American Indians and Australian aboriginal groups whose land and way of life disappeared generations ago, leaving addiction as a common legacy.
If so, any recovery plan we engage will need to address what has gone so terribly wrong with how we live within the folds of our planet. Later in our inquiry we will return to this foundational dysfunction within our mainstream culture. But first we hope to bring you deeper into our ongoing conversations, and pique your own curiosity and inquiry, as we consider the effectiveness of current recovery modalities in attending to our massive addictive urges.
Reframing the Addictive Urge and its Origins
Probing the cultural roots of addiction leads us to raise socially impertinent questions that may help open new windows to recovery. Please entertain these questions with an open heart and an open mind, because it is only in living along into such penetrating questions that a new, more effective treatment paradigm may sprout from our current seeds of discontent. Here a few questions that we will address together—and hopefully with you—in this article:
- What if we let go, for a moment, of overpathologizing addictive urges?
- What if these urges aren’t character defects, but instead a deeply spiritual, if unconscious, impulse to move us toward a much needed altered state that reveals our own good heart and our place in the natural world?
- What if the time-honored ceremonial practices of indigenous cultures, which induce transformative states of consciousness, connect participants to something beyond their ordinary thought patterns, what Will calls a quantum “Wisdom Eco-field”?
- What if that Wisdom Eco-field helps maintain both individual and collective physical and behavioral health?
Gregory Bateson, one of our premier anthropologists, once remarked that addiction and even mental disorders can be seen as a halting step of civilization in healing itself (Bateson, 1979). We know, of course, that such dysfunctional strides often result in stepping on stones that turn our ankles and tumble us down the hill of our own oblivion. Still, this urge to alter our usual patterns of thinking is the very seed of emotional freedom and responsible action. Are we our perceived limitations or perhaps something much grander and nobler than we’ve come to believe?
The ancient mind training traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, teach ways to free oneself from conditioned mind habits and afflictive emotions. When the trance of these usual mind habits weakens, another aspect of self emerges like the sun from behind the clouds. Whether you call this core self “true nature,” “essence,” “soul” or “heart,” it is characterized by loving, responsible, creative action in the world.
Addictions can, for a moment or two, part the clouds of conditioned thinking and provide a glimpse into our best self and into a greater wisdom reality. The problem is that the glimpses don’t usually carry over into daily life, and the addiction becomes another layer of clouds obscuring the most basic human potential—our birthright of loving connection and wise action.
Joan and I agree, however, that addiction can be reframed and embraced as a first step toward healing ourselves and our cultural blind spots. Addiction, in our view, is a calamitous breakdown that opens the possibility of a healing breakthrough to our authentic self, our loving heart, and our place in what poet Mary Oliver calls “the family of things” (2004).
Enchantment is the Oldest Form of Medicine
Consider this obscure account of Carl Jung, a healing story tucked away in one of his speeches. A young schoolteacher was referred to him by her desperate physician who had all but given up on a patient who seemed addicted to anxiety. Jung saw her in the midst of a camping trip on an island in Lake Zurich. He had one chance to assist her since he would return soon to civilization.
He spoke to her about learning to relax and told of how he sailed on the lake. In that natural setting near his tent, he suddenly heard his mother’s voice as she sung a lullaby to his sister about a little girl on a boat on the Rhine. The wind rustled through the trees, and Jung—a long way from his stiff, Swiss colleagues and from the constraints of his own analytic model—began humming the lullaby. As he hummed, he noticed his patient relaxing and her features softening. The creases of her face ironed out. Then the moment passed. He didn’t know the outcome of his brief intervention and whether it impacted her addiction to anxiety or not. He even felt a bit guilty about his inspiration to connect her to nature.
What if his colleagues had seen him?
At a professional conference some years later, the referring physician came up to Jung after one of his formal presentations and asked what he had done to cure the patient everyone had given up on. How did he do it in one session? Jung paused with a far-off look, perhaps looking beyond civilization’s rational methods to something ancient, something so fundamental that it lay lost to the modern mind.
In a personal effort to wake himself up from being embedded in the dream (or perhaps nightmare) of his current civilization, Jung traveled to Taos, New Mexico, to visit with primal elders and then to Africa to alter his usual cultural perceptions with the great mother archetype, nature herself. These travels were implicit vision quests necessary to the sanity of one of the most esteemed psychologists of the twentieth century.
One of Jung’s diary entries, which was published just before he died, underlines the importance of nature in healing: “Thousands of miles lay between me and Europe, mother of all demons. The demons could not reach me here—there were no telegrams, no telephone calls, no letters, no visitors. My liberated psychic forces poured blissfully back into the primeval expanses” (Sabini, 2002).
Although Jung’s deep ecological experiences are evident, his creation of an ongoing, nature-enchanted community for his patients, colleagues, and friends remained an aspiration, not an actuality. Perhaps we can pick up his torch through the creation of such communities (Sabini, 2002, p. 4).
He knocked on the door. Perhaps we can open it.
Recovery as a Return to the Natural World
Upon reading a preliminary draft of this article, a recovering addict with eight years of sobriety commented,
This story of Jung reminds me how the crucial dimension of my own recovery process has been being part of an Earth-based community where I was initiated through our many ceremonies into the authority of my own experience. I am profoundly grateful for my continued support in various Twelve Step groups; however, the authority in those groups is the Big Book. In our community, the sensual ceremonies write onto my heart using the direct hand of Nature, and that sacred writ becomes my story, my authority. What is recorded through Bill and Bob in the Big Book that shaped their experience has to answer to what is written on my heart.
Does such a comment suggest a paradigm of recovery that turns current paradigms on their heads? Current paradigms are sometimes conducted in beautiful natural settings; sometimes offer sweat lodges; sometimes encourage meditation and mindfulness; sometimes offer vision quests; sometimes develop transitory community. Yet, most often these offerings are seen as footnotes to psychotherapy, the Twelve Steps and its Big Book, and medication. So let’s reiterate some key questions that continue to stir up our creative juices:
•What if the addictive urge is actually a yearning to create an altered state that will link us from our current estrangement to the vitality we experience when lying on our backs beneath a night sky? This is an example of what we’re calling HRT.
•What if our climate and addictive crisis is actually Nature calling us back to herself and, at some level, we know that we cannot rest until we make that return?
•What if a central task of wisdom recovery is to create ceremonies that support such a return to the heart in ourselves, our relationships, and in our relation to the natural world?
Returning Humans to the Natural Cycle Of Life
The central hypothesis that our questioning has led us to is this: community is the key to recovery, and not just any kind of community. We are advocating authentic, coherent, and ongoing communities rooted in a return to nature where we can speak, once again, the language of the heart (Taegel, 2012).
Earlier in this article we promised to return to the issue of a civilization that not only allows addiction, but actually requires it, albeit usually outside common sense awareness. Keep in mind the unpleasant truth that our addictive urges go well beyond drugs and alcohol. They include violence within our homes and communities, war, overreliance on fossil fuels, pornography, fast foods, consumerism, and mind-numbing entertainment.
What if climate change is actually civilization’s hangover from a two-hundred-year binge of self-indulgence? What we are experiencing in current, global chaos, according to Carl Jung, is “a rude awakening from the dream of civilization” (1989).
Given this possibility, how can we create ongoing communities of inquiry, practice, and reconnection with ourselves, each other, and nature that awaken us from the dream?
Most treatment programs, unfortunately, are limited in terms of establishing and nourishing an ongoing healthy community. People come and go in inpatient treatment programs, and the revolving door naturally affects the design and coherence of ongoing groups, experiences, and classes. Furthermore, many clients are heavily sedated and unable to participate fully in community. These realities lead to yet another set of questions to ponder:
- Even if a client is able to be present, what are they learning about their own deepest identity?
- Is a healthy identity based on defining oneself as an addict, bolstered by ongoing medications, most of which are themselves problematic?
- If not, then how can an addict experience their true self in a treatment program so that they have an actual experience as a point of reference for the future?
At the end of inpatient treatment, the transitory community of recovery is often abolished abruptly with discharge. The client then returns to the cultural field out of which addiction so commonly grows. What is the core agreement of this addict-producing culture? Build an identity predicated on appearing worthy of your own and other people’s love. Cover up your fear and insecurity in the process, and at the same time unknowingly cover your essence and lose touch with your own good heart.
We don’t see the addictive soil as being merely the family, the neighborhood or the gang. Rather, it is current civilization, in its rush and hurry, consumer-oriented sprint right past the natural world and our natural or essential self. Lee McCormick calls this condition the original sin of our culture: to go against yourself and distance yourself from your deepest heart.
Communities that Descend in Order to Transcend and Include
Does it seem heretical to question counseling, hospital stays, the Big Book, the Twelve Steps, and medication? That we question these practices does not mean that we think they ought to be left behind; they’re important to healing, but perhaps not always sufficient to bring us back to our own good hearts and true identities.
There is—witnessed by the very fact that so few people recover in recovery programs—a need to go deeper than hitting “the bottom” of our addictions. Perhaps we need to think about descending below the depths of our personality structure to what is sometimes called “the ground of our being.” In one of his letters, Carl Jung wrote to an inquirer, “Think again and if you feel enough solid ground under your feet, follow the call of the spirit” (Jung, 1976, p. 459).
Once we find the ground of our heart’s knowing, then we can transcend the old models while expanding our understanding and including the new (Wilber, 2000, p. 69). The time-honored practices found in therapy, the Big Book, and restrained medication can then serve the knowing of a heart immersed in the natural order and the centrality of community. The Big Book can support the scripture of nature, based in communities that write with an unseen hand on the heart of the seeker. The transcendence that includes all these wisdom approaches might lead to a quantum breakthrough into an entirely different dimension beyond space and time, where waves of possibility can collapse into ongoing recovery.
Let’s take this possibility a little bit farther.
A Quantum Leap in Recovery?
Larry Dossey, MD, has suggested three eras of medicine (DiCarlo, 1996). Era one is mechanical medicine and mirrors the medication model of the current addiction paradigm. Era two is the mind-body era that reflects Twelve Step approaches in altering belief systems. Era three speaks to a medicine based on the most current scientific research into quantum nonlocality. Era three suggests that there are forms of healing available through tapping into that which is beyond space and time.
The new role of addiction professionals may well be to facilitate altered states—entrance into a Wisdom Eco-Field—that lead to nonlocality, as discovered by both the newer sciences and ancient wisdom.
Here are a few headlines about nonlocality in quantum physics. Niels Bohr discovered that electron particles make quantum leaps from one orbit to another faster than the speed of light. Since Einstein gave us a speed limit for light, physicists hypothesize that the particles enter another domain altogether when they make the quantum leap, and they call this domain “nonlocal” in order not to violate Einstein’s local laws.
Another physicist, Amit Goswami, notices that there are nonlocal windows—environments where the veil is thin between realities, and there is easy access to larger perspectives. We have many questions about how nonlocality might relate to recovering communities and how we might gain access to those nonlocal windows.
- Can we transcend and include eras one and two into era three?
- Is addiction a frustrated and twisted attempt to link with the healing resources of nonlocality?
- Can we create ongoing communities wherein altered states of consciousness become the norm and avail resources for recovery outside time and space as suggested by quantum models?
- Do ancient ceremonies point us toward the close connection of humans with eco-fields symbiotic with a nonlocality that nurtures ongoing recovery?
- Is access to an eternal now (nonlocality) the crucial missing link in recovery?
Communities of Laughter, Relaxation, and Playful Love
We want to close by moving from a very complex set of questions to our own experience. In Will’s research with Walter O’Connell with twenty heroin addicts who were in a methadone maintenance program with the VA, Walter and Will engaged a variety of interventions, including meditation, ecodrama, psychotherapy, journeys into natural areas, and daily meetings at 6:00 am over a one-year period. To that point the VA had little success with getting vets off methadone. The so-called curative drug was worse than heroin in terms of addictive qualities. Both therapists and vets realized that the culture that produced the addiction was offering solutions that made the addiction worse; a condition we came to propose was true of the recovery movement in general.
Then Will and Walter made a startling discovery. The recovery process is, paradoxically, too important to be taken so seriously. We began laughing with each other, connecting with the outdoors, shifting our consciousness, and discovering that we cared for each other. As therapists, we dropped our layers of pretense in having the answers. We questioned every aspect of Veterans programs. We called on animal allies. We built not only human communities but leaned in the direction of becoming part of the natural terrain in an urban area. We laughed. We played. We relaxed in friendship and relationship. And, yes, we loved. Not everybody got better, but the therapists did, and for the first time in that program, some vets actually kicked methadone and didn’t return to heroin.
Here is another case in point.
In Joan’s decade of experience directing mind-body clinics at a Harvard teaching hospital, she experienced how laughter, bonding, play, and a single, hour-long, silent walk in nature could open a window to the Wisdom Eco-Field. Halfway through a ten-week program that taught meditation, mindfulness, forgiveness, emotional literacy, and yoga—creating a safe space for deep sharing and the emergence of authentic community—there was a full day Sunday session. Like a mother hen, Joan would lead twenty or so of her chicks across busy city streets to a greenbelt that ran for miles along Boston’s Muddy River. Traffic sounds receded as mother earth enfolded even the most reluctant participant in her web of enchantment.
The beauty and evanescence of a raindrop, the sparkling wake left by a cruising duck, the fat, smooth roots of giant beech trees . . . “How could it be that I’ve never actually seen these things before?” That was the almost universal refrain. Faces softened, hearts opened, and unexpected seeds of healing took root. The ragtag group that walked back to the hospital was palpably different than the one that had crossed the busy street just an hour before.
Nature—whether we’re alone on an extended vision quest or walking through an inner city green space—is one of many portals to the greater wisdom mind. Willing or unwilling, nature works her magic with and through us. As Jung carved above the door to his home in Zurich, “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.” These Latin words mean, “Called or not called, God is present.” And nowhere is that nonlocal, eternal presence (or whatever you choose to call it) more universally accessible than in nature and in play.
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