The Problem of Addiction in Western Society

So, I haven’t been able to post here as much as I’d like (especially on the monster Ego thread I created–who knew the can of worms I was opening?). However, the topic of addiction has been on my mind lately, especially given I live in Chicago.

Anyone who takes the train / bus or just walks down a sidewalk downtown will notice that at least 50% of people are staring at their phones. In fact, it actually creates problems on the train when you’re getting off at busy stops because the phone-starers are “zombie walking” out the train and not really watching where they are going (I’ll own my massive frustration with that particular behavior!).

If this isn’t addictive behavior, I’m not really sure what is. Does Western society have an addiction problem? I think we do, and not just with our phones. I used to live in Wisconsin, and–sadly–alcoholism seems to be a badge of honor (I even had friends who would brag about how well they could drive under the influence, or about the strength of their hangover after a particularly boozy night). Everywhere I turn, it seems as though people are trying to disconnect from reality in some sort of unhealthy, addictive way. I even see this in the spiritual sense–check out some of the work by John Bradshaw and Robert Augustus, where they cover people who use religion to escape reality. I have met people who use their spirituality to escape reality, and it’s very sad to witness.

Now, escaping reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes we need to collect ourselves away from the general messiness of the world. But our current Western society seems to be designed to make us escape reality. In The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig talks about how corporations create “dopamine experiences” because they want us to be addicted to their product (he’s especially harsh on Facebook for this). The challenge is these addictions do not lead to happiness, and actually make it harder to experience happiness because excess dopamine shuts down our serotonin receptors, which are directly responsible for happiness.

I normally would ask at this point what we feel the Integral approach would be to the addiction situation, but part of the problem is that I think the addiction situation is blocking the further evolution of society toward Integral. How do we heal addictive tendencies occurring for such a large population of people? I see at least 50% or more folks zombie walking off the train with their heads buried in their phones; heck, I even see Chicago tourists on my walks downtown staring at their phones rather than the amazing parks and architecture. And I haven’t even started on the Netflix & binge phenomenon (of which I have also indulged, if I’m being transparent).

I have seen 12 step provide positive results in some cases, but in many instances it replaces one addiction for another (the latter being spiritual addiction). A lot of people get stuck in 12 step, and while it’s good that they’re not drinking any longer, I don’t see them progressing past the Blue/Amber level of their 12 step group. They become obsessed with the Big Book and their community.

Anyway, I certainly don’t see solutions at this time (even Integral ones), which is why I’m posting now. Thoughts?

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@russ.legear Hey Russ-always thoughtful stuff. I’ve done addiction counseling pretty much straight out of school (this is a whole conversation onto itself). In this role, I have to be very mindful of my own addictions. I love how Ken calls addictions “fixations” I have enough fixations to write a novel. I think the key with fixations is not to be fixated on them in an unhealthy way (lengths of time, family problems, work problems, law problems). It’s the yin-yang of things. Let’s take Netflix for example. I have it. I watch it. It’s a good balance for me. I play fantasy football, watch sports, look at it at work (almost religiously) to break up my day-some might say it is an addiction. I have to make sure I am “integrally transforming”,to keep my attention on my awareness and do regular developmental practices. Anything can be an addiction if you let it get out of control and truly get “fixated” on it. And I would argue what you are diverting your attention from in addiction are things like awareness and your shadow, amongst other things. But starting with those two will keep you busy for a very long time.
My point is to always start with ourselves. I have my own issues that I have to keep in balance.
To answer your question, I would agree we have an addiction problem! I would say Ken points to the problem of Western spirituality being stuck in the mythic realm. We are very close to forgetting the miracle. People are trying to control the narrative all the time. we are more socially isolated. The young are supposedly less empathetic.
I will write back after I finish my drink…

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Grace and peace! This is my first post, so I will keep it short. As someone who has been in recovery from addiction of several sorts for many years I have to watch what I say sometimes. I can get way too emotional about this topic. But, I will type from my Higher Self and try to stay on point.
I am currently involved in starting a new community “Friendship Room” in our small town in WV. Our community is just “ate up” with various addictions! We are literally at a tipping point. We do not attract the media attention that the larger locations do so we struggle for any help we can get. Small towns like ours tend to get forgotten when the funds to help get passed out from various government agencies. But that is a separate rant. Anyway…back to the point…
This new “Friendship Room” is a place ran entirely by peer recovery coaches with minimal training, but lots of experience. We offer an art room, a TV room, a kitchen, rooms for meetings, and someone always available to talk to. This model is the most effective means of helping with the addiction problem I have found in the last 3 decades. It offers the personal touch of close communication one on one, while also offering group settings and activities to help build community. It costs us practically nothing to run, and we always have plenty of eager volunteers available to help out. And this could easily be scaled up for larger locations.
Anyway…that is a solution I have found for the problem. I hope that helps. Pace E Bene.

Awesome post @breck101! Thank you for being a light for your community. Keep it up.

Connecting to another thread (ego and integralism) on here, a big thing in addiction treatment I focus on is altered states. It is interesting that Ken talks about the need for a soul culture and how the West’s center of gravity is still stuck at gross/egoic. I think this comes into play with addiction. Every mammal seeks altered states of consciousness. It should not come as a shock that the West has a problem with addiction when we think we can relieve whatever ails us by continuing to feed the wants of the ego.
I have youth score themselves on body, mind, spirit (amongst other things) but consistently the spirit domain is the lowest. And speaking of Integral Semiotics-there just isn’t a language for why there is a need for soul/spirit (or what this even means). It kind of reminds of a story in which someone tries to explain snow to someone who has never experienced it before. The problem I am faced with is how to translate spirit into the structure they are at. Usually I phrase it as “What do you value most?”. Even then the answer usually is something like money.
In the addiction literature, people talk about hitting bottom (feeding their addiction, experiencing suffering and doing it over and over again despite the consequences) and calling their addiction their greatest curse but also their greatest blessing because it’s how they realized there were higher states of transformation available that were not found in a pipe, needle, bottle, etc. Valiant also mentions that there is more spirituality in recovery groups then there is often in Sunday churches. I think there is some insight here.

Thanks for the positive feedback! I also currently conduct a Saturday night Contemplative 12 Step Recovery meeting in the basement of our church, and your closing comment was right on…the spiritual growth and transcendence we experience on Saturday nights greatly exceeds what occurs there in the main church on Sunday mornings.

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Hi Russ. Very thoughtful and perceptive ideas on addiction. I wanted to help give some insight into the final couple lines about 12 step programs, and that you don’t feel that there is an integral solution to addiction.

I am a recovering alcoholic so I have first hand experience with addiction and the 12 step program. My experience with the program seems to fly in the face of what you say. My experience and many of my fellows who share similar experiences would negate the idea that we are just replacing one addiction with another.

AA is what lead me to Integral. I was spiritually bankrupt when I came to AA. The program is designed to be integral, inclusive, and yes highly spiritual, it is a spiritual program of action. AA has members in all stages of human development and in all states of consciousness just like all of society. AA is about breaking down the Ego, its about finding a larger purpose which is to help others, that is the main purpose in AA to help others.

AA was my tipping point into meditation and mindfulness and Integral. It opened my eyes and doors into a life of spiritual growth. I agree the Big Book is outdated in some aspects, but we talk about that, we share our insights and experiences today, how they relate, and how the program grows with each person in their states and stages. The program uses “God” loosely as the general word for each individual’s Higher Power. No person’s “God” is better or worse than another, one member may believe in a traditional Christian God and another member may believe in Gaia, another in Buddha. The point is that we all believe that there is a “higher power” and it is not us.

I’ve seen AA members translate AA literature within there own level of development and just stay there where they are at. But more often that not I see members adopt the initial “traditional program” and like I continue on a path of endless expansion of human development and spiritual growth. The tenants of AA are simple and universal and are not constricting or constraining in any way. No one has to subscribe to a single conception of what the higher power in the universe represents. AA employs many Judeo/Christian basic ideas as it’s precepts but the beauty of AA is it’s these are just precepts each individual then has endless possibilities to tap into a higher and higher level of consciousness.

There may be people as you say that are addicted to “12 step programs” I have not encountered any of those people. In my experience the program has simply opened doors to an endless stream of support, spiritual growth, human development, and inclusivity. AA is part of my Integral Life.

With all my Love,


Addiction is central to modern society in so many different ways. I’ve never written about addiction in terms of integral theory, but it’s not hard to think of it that way. Much of the understanding about addiction easily fits into an integral perspective or could be interpreted accordingly. The trick is to first understand what is addiction and what causes it, a more complex issue than it first seems.

Great posts here everyone, and sorry I hadn’t chimed in in a while as I was basically focused on completing my final tasks before finishing my Masters and minister school for the past few months!

I should have been more clear that I’m not trying to beat up 12 Step; as a New Thought minister I really do love it since it’s basically grounded in New Thought principles (which isn’t a surprise given the Big Book came about from the same NT movements of that era) and is hugely useful for those who are struggling with addiction. I have personally seen people who seem to be a little “obsessed” about 12 step, though, which led me to see how it might in some ways be a replacement for an addiction. As things go, 12 Step is a far better fixation than, say, alcoholism or substance abuse, there is no question in my mind there.

I think what has been said about balance is key. Spiritual bypass is a real thing; see some great work done by Robert Masters here:

Excerpt from the first chapter –

“Spiritual bypassing,” a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes. Part of the reason for this is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing “solutions,” regardless of how much suffering such “remedies” may catalyze. Because this preference has so deeply and thoroughly infiltrated our culture that it has become all but normalized, spiritual bypassing fits almost seamlessly into our collective habit of turning away from what is painful, as a kind of higher analgesic with seemingly minimal side effects. It is a spiritualized strategy not only for avoiding pain but also for legitimizing such avoidance, in ways ranging from the blatantly obvious to the extremely subtle. Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being."

So, I think in that context it’s perhaps whether or not we’re using a demonstrably useful process, like 12 Step, as a means of avoidance rather than healing. If there’s a common theme I’m seeing from my 12 Step friends and their experiences here, it’s the actual experience of recovery communities, and the accountability and deep diving such communities bring, that seems to be a key to actual healing being realized. This may fall into Ken’s “Show up” and “Clean up” phases, methinks.

If I put on my minister hat, the best thing that I take out of Green and postmodernism is that relativism doesn’t have to be a nihilistic, meaningless prospect, but rather an invitation that together we create deeper meaning through accountable communities such as these (and thus realize God–whatever that might mean to one personally–in new and evolutionary ways) through our relationships with one another. Perhaps this is why I get so jazzed about Buddhism, since one of its core teachings is that there aren’t really subjects and objects, but rather the endless interplay of relationships between the experiencer and the experienced (to be fair, this shows up in Hinduism, Kabbalah, and Sufi Islam as well, though in admittedly different ways). Buddhism, for me, is a deep invitation for us to relate to one another and to our shared experience of reality, because that relationship is the most “real” thing.


To add to what Russ has generously provided above about spiritual bypassing, here is a slightly different perspective on it from the Integral Christian Network, founded by Paul Smith and Luke Healy: