An Altered State of Consciousness Perspective of Addiction

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Understanding addiction and recovery from a state perspective may be one of the missing links in contemporary addiction treatment programmes’ attempts to create sustainable treatment protocols. Addicts are obviously experts on states. Using substances or engaging in any mind-altering behaviour is an attempt to create an altered state of consciousness (ASC), and the specific psychoactive effect of various drugs and mind-altering behaviour creates various types of ASCs (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 2010). It follows that viewing addiction in terms of an ASC perspective is crucial for a complete understanding of the nature of addiction (Winkelman, 2001).

Some researchers have argued that the majority of addiction treatment programs fail to integrate a huge body of literature that highlights the therapeutic benefits for addicts in experiencing ASCs. They propose that a principal reason for the high relapse rate in treatment programs is the failure of those programs to address the basic need to achieve ASCs (McPeake et al., 1991). Some scholars believe that humans have an innate drive to seek ASCs (e.g., McPeak et al. 1991; Weil, 1972; Winkelman, 2001; Ken Wilber, personal communication, January 13, 2011). They believe that addicts follow a normal human motive to achieve ASCs, but they use maladaptive methods because they are not provided with the opportunity to learn “constructive alternative methods for experiencing non-ordinary consciousness” (McPeak et al., 1991, as cited in Winkelman, 2001, p. 340). From this viewpoint, drug use and addiction are not understood as an intrinsic anomaly, but rather as a yearning for an inherent human need to be met.
In some instances the etiological roots for certain individuals’ addiction may be a dysfunctional attempt, borrowing terms from Robert Assagiloi (1975), at “self-realization”, and the consequent flawed channeling of “superconscious spiritual energies,” energies to which these individuals are often sensitive but which have not found suitable ways to be actualised. It is obvious that drug use and addiction are associated with an alteration of consciousness; however addiction has seldom been analysed from the perspective of consciousness theory or cross-cultural patterns of the use of ASC. Weil (1972) and Siegal (1984) propose that humans have an innate drive to seek ASC. From this perspective, drug use and addiction are not understood as an inherent abnormality but as a striving to meet an innate human need.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) acknowledges the importance of an alteration of consciousness for recovery to be effective: it calls for “a new state of consciousness and being” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1987, p. 106) designed to replace the self-destructive pursuit of alcohol-induced states with a more healthy life-enhancing approach. AA advocates meditation, a change in consciousness, and spiritual awakening as fundamental in achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Blum (1995) believes that addicts often have a neurologically based inability to experience pleasant feelings within simple life experiences and suggests that a neurological-normalising shift may happen as a result of neurotherapy which rectifies the endless quest for neurotransmitter balance, as explained by his Reward Deficiency Syndrome Model. In Integral Theory, states refer to the various states of consciousness available at any stage of development (Wilber, 2006).

Every human being engages in various activities to feel good. Feeling good and avoiding unnecessary pain are universal needs. To feel good, we seek out activities that alter our brain chemistry. Addiction can be understood as this normal need gone awry. Milkman and Sunderwirth (2010) state, “In light of the seemingly universal need to seek out altered states, it behooves researchers, educators, parents, politicians, public health administrators, and treatment practitioners to promote healthy means to alter brain chemistry” (p. 6). Addicts have found a dysfunctional way to meet this innate need through substances or certain behaviours to which they become addicted. Addicts normally have three dominant ways of seeking comfort and altering their consciousness: “We repeatedly pursue three avenues of experience as antidotes for psychic pain. These preferred styles of coping – satiation, arousal, and fantasy – may have their origins in the first years of life. Childhood experiences combined with genetic predisposition are the foundations of adult compulsion. The drug group of choice – depressants, stimulants, or hallucinogens – is the one that best fits the individual’s characteristic way of coping with stress or feelings of unworthiness. People do not become addicted to drugs or mood-altering activities as such, but rather to the satiation, arousal, or fantasy experiences that can be achieved through them” (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 2010, p. 19).

The quotation above clearly points to the need for addicts in recovery to find healthy behaviours and activities to manifest their preferred coping style, since this preferred coping style (satiation, arousal, or fantasy) correlates with their drug of choice (Du Plessis, 2012).

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website