When Culture Battles Spirit: An Archetypal and Depth Psychological Look at the Nature of Addiction

Addiction (of all kinds) has been described as everything from frustrating to “hell” to “possession,” and worse. The pattern of addiction is an archetype that has been around for millennia, but it certainly seems like our current culture is more and more conducive to the iron grip of addiction in a multitude of ways–including everything from the more traditional issues with alcohol, drugs, gambling, cigarettes, sex, food, or work, to new and emerging culturally supported issues like television, shopping, Internet, email, texting, social media, mobile gadgets, video gaming, and more. Often, particularly in the case of the latter group, we don’t even realize the extent of our addiction to these categories which might simply be labeled “entertainment.” Indeed there thousands of messages vying for our attention via media on any given day seducing us with their siren song of escape from our everyday lives.

Are our “everyday lives” so distressing that we must seek escape? It seems that things are moving faster than ever before and the container that used to exist for earth-based, indigenous cultures who had options to deal with their troubles (i.e. to go to the “earth,” the shaman, or the community) is no longer an obvious option to deal with our distress. More, as activist and Buddhist scholar   points out, we are collectively aware, perhaps for the first time in history, that humanity has the capacity to literally destroy ourselves. Add to that the many and varied challenges of childhood and early experiences that may have engendered disorientation, distress, or trauma–and the lack of initiation, an archetypal concept that provides a container for us (very human) individuals to move through life experiences in stages that offer learning and growth, we have fewer and fewer tools to deal with the challenging issues that bleed into our sometimes fragile egos.

Philip Cushman, in Constructing The Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History Of Psychotherapy insists we suffer from what he terms the calls the “empty self,” in which the individual in modern culture is driven by a felt sense of hollowness, a lack of meaning by which, yearning for something it can’t quite identity, desperately seeks to fill itself up through increasing compulsive consumption of goods, services, technology, peak experiences, entertainment, celebrity and even psychotherapy. To alleviate the anxiety, depression, isolation, and suffering, psychosomatic disorders, or addiction, we turn to consumerism, increasing the demand for more and new products that require increasing amounts of natural resources, fossil fuels, and rare metals and minerals and leading to ever greater deposits of refuse, non-recycled materials, and other consumer waste.

Contemporary Jungian Marion Woodman insists the root of addiction is unique to each individual but linked to our culture. In his online article “Depth Psychological Perspectives On Addiction And Treatment,” John E. Smethers, Ph.D. writes, “Woodman suggests that many of us, despite gender, are addicted because we have been driven to specialization and perfection by our patriarchal culture (p. 10). Obsession is at the root of perfection. An obsession is a persistent or recurrent idea, usually strongly tinged with emotion, and frequently involving an urge toward some kind of action, the whole mental situation being pathological. The roots of fear can also be pathological.”

When we are fearful, then–as most of us are in our fast-paced, uncertain world with so many demands to live up to– it is natural to lean on something for emotional support to shore us up. Ultimately, the literal desire for “spirits” such as alcohol may also be an unconscious longing for spirit, an unconscious longing to be connected to something bigger than our everyday egoic selves and to find ourselves located in a larger fabric of being. Smethers posits that addiction may be a “pedagogical tool” of the psyche, presumably capable of teaching us life lessons of a nature and scale we couldn’t possibly learn in any other way.

In his article “Addictive Disorders and Contemplative Practice,” Elliott Dacher M.D. echoes this theme, reminding us that Alcoholics Anonymous emphasizes the role of spirituality in recovery. Many who have studied the works of depth psychology pioneer Carl Gustav Jung are aware of his role in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in regards to his relationship with Bill Wilson, who believed he overcame his addiction through “spiritual efforts.”

Jungian Michael Conforti looks at addiction as a repetition of an archetypal pattern at play, a set of symptoms that have emerged into form due to the influence of a surrounding field. When an individual enters a particular manifest field, he or she becomes subject to the patterns at play. Engaging concepts from complexity theory and the new sciences, Conforti explains that the one way to shift the dominant pattern is a perturbation that causes a new course of action. Sometimes this occurs by “grace”–as when something “big” happens in the addicts life and he or she hits a turning point–and sometimes it occurs via the work of a good psychotherapist or “pattern analyst” (Conforti’s term) who can recognize the universal, historical, age-old patterns at work in one’s life and create a safe container in which change can occur.

In a similar vein, Jungian analyst David Schoen explores the archetypal aspects of addiction in “The War of the Gods in Addiction: C.G. Jung, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Archetypal Evil” emphasizing the crucial process of neutralizing the Archetypal Shadow (also called Archetypal Evil), an aspect of addiction. Schoen explores this concept extensively through a core Jungian approach including theoretical and clinical material, modern and ancient myths, and fairy tales. He also references the significance of using dreams for diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of addiction.

—By the way, David Schoen is offering a free 4-week teleseminar, “The War of the Gods in Addiction” starting January 9th, 2013 (you can join any week) as part of the free online depth psychology book club on Depth Psychology Alliance, and co-sponsored by Jung Platform and Shrink Rap Radio (who also offers an audio interview with David Schoen here). (Join any week or listen to the archived recordings later)

Few of us escape the grips of addictive patterns and their underlying fields and forces in some form or another. Even if we manage to repress the symptoms of addiction, or to sublimate them by turning the urge into some kind of positive action, or to somehow refrain from acting them out, there are often core issues in our lives–both individually and culturally–that compel us to turn to addiction to release other stress and deal with emotions that may otherwise overwhelm us. 

Taking a depth psychological look at addiction and engaging in reflective and/or proactive methods that help us develop a relationship with the unconscious aspects of our whole selves that are longing to be heard can liberate us on levels we can scarcely envision. If you long for relief, or simply wish to understand your own addictionsundefinedwhatever they may beundefinedbetter, try one of the depth practitioners on DepthPsychologyList.com and start the process to a new you.