During the 1920s Carl Jung treated a man called Roland Hazard III for alcoholism. To summarize for the modern reader, I’m going to distill their therapeutic conversations down into the following essential components:
ROLAND: I’m desperate doctor, I’m at rock bottom. I fear I am a hopeless case.
ROLAND: Surely there must be something you can do doctor?
JUNG: Well, not really no…
ROLAND: Please doctor…there must be something?
JUNG: Well…you’re pretty much a hopeless case and I have rarely seen a chronic alcoholic like you get sober…but throughout history there have been a few isolated cases of miraculous recoveries.
ROLAND: Tell me how it is done, doctor.
JUNG: You need to find a spiritual life, a meaningful life.
ROLAND: That’s cool doctor, I go to church regularly.
JUNG: Who said anything about going to church!
Of course, these are my words and it’s an irreverent synopsis of the situation, but Jung was making several points here.
Firstly, alcoholism (and any addiction) is a disorder of meaning and therefore one must find meaning in order to replace the need to drink. The same holds true for smoking crack, habitual visitations to sex workers, compulsively overeating highly palatable foodstuffs, and so on. The progressives would disagree with me on this point of course, asserting that there is nothing wrong with habitual visitations to sex workers — but I suspect the ivory tower brigade don’t have much experience of crack (or visitations) — and so we will leave them to their pontifications.
The fact is, whatever your poison, a potent sense of meaning is the antidote and the more profound that sense of meaning is, then the more powerful a medicine it will be. Therefore, when we hear recovering addicts or alcoholics refer to their addiction as a ‘spiritual disease’, we should understand exactly what they mean. In modern lexicon: addicted people are suffering from a disorder of meaning — or in neurochemical terms — a dopamine related disorder which destroys one’s sense of purpose.
Jung’s wider point was that religion does not necessarily equal spirituality. Religion may well contain the potential for connection, but that would depend upon the individual and their level of dedication to their practice. Consequently, when church attendance is on the level of a mere social convention (which certainly it is for many) then it lacks the power and meaning that Carl Jung was alluding to and will not suffice for the recovering addict who needs the potency of an all-out moral effort. This is not to diminish the cultural and social benefits of religious congregation and community, but for the addict it is an altogether more serious affair. He must engage in direct battle. He must see action.
Finally, Jung was alluding to another key factor in the treatment of addiction (and perhaps, all psycho-pathologies) which is that we cannot do it alone. We need others.
Roland took Jung’s advice and returned to America where he immersed himself in working with other alcoholics. His first port of call was a religious group known as The Oxford Group who were very prominent at the time. Founded by Frank Buchman, a charismatic Lutheran minister, The Oxford Group were well known for their work with alcoholics. One of Buchman’s famous one liners was, “interesting sinners make compelling saints”, and so it is easy to see how alcoholics like Roland found refuge within their ranks.
Roland’s family and friends had initially sent him to the Oxford Group in the hope that he might ‘get religion’, but it was in vain. Roland found that he had little in common with these wholesome evangelical types and try as he might he could not get sober using their methods. The reason for this, to cut a long and very boring story short, is that addicts and alcoholics run rings around do-gooders. Do-gooders are completely unable to conceive of either the depths to which we will sink, or the complete and utter absence of free will that we exhibit. They judge us by their own standards of common sense and therein lies the unbridgeable chasm of mutual misunderstanding. Ultimately this works out worst of all for us addicts, as we take advantage of non-addicts, develop undetectable ruses to evade intervention, and become utterly isolated in the process.
Armed with Jung’s advice however, Roland realized that he needed to be proactive. He needed to ‘become the change he wished to see’. Crucially, he realized that he could reach other alcoholics who were floundering in The Oxford Group and help them in a way that the wholesome ones never could. In this way Jung’s theory came alive and Roland began to live a spiritual life, which is nothing less than a life devoid of obsession with self — a life dedicated to others — a life which provides that much needed sense of purpose — a life which is without doubt a more stable and reliable source of salience (dopamine) than either empty religious belief on the one hand … or the imbibing of rewarding substances on the other.
Eventually, Roland carried his message of recovery to a man called Ebby Thatcher, who in turn passed it on to a man called Bill Wilson. Bill W, as he was later known, went on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous.
Years later, Bill W acknowledged this debt to Carl Jung in a now famous letter that describes how Roland’s experiences under Jung’s care ultimately proved to be the wellspring of the modern recovery movement which started with Alcoholics Anonymous.
Eventually, Jung replied, and his answer was a curious one.
For Jung, addiction was a spiritual malady. He saw all drugs (including alcohol) as entheogens: chemical transporters through which we might gain a brief glimpse of God. Regardless of what the drug was and no matter how prosaic or depraved its use may appear to others — that was its essential function.
Jung also framed addiction as a ‘wrong turn’ in the existential progress of the human being as he or she seeks to individuate (his word for enlightenment). In fact, not only is it a wrong turn, it is an inevitable wrong turn for anyone who leaves their spiritual inclinations untapped.
When Jung speaks of “the wall of human community” he is promoting the idea that most of us can’t negotiate life’s vicissitudes alone. We are highly social primates. We are each of us bricks in a ‘human wall’.
Finally, Jung lays out just what is at stake. If we do not engage some form of spiritual life, whatever that means for each of us, and if we cannot somehow cement ourselves into this ‘wall’ then we are easy meat for the evil principle that prevails. And that evil principle is inside us all!