The Outer-Focused Life
When we look at addiction, we might automatically think of dependence on drugs or alcohol. We might imagine a person who is utterly down and out, someone who has lost their job and their relationships and is destitute and homeless. While that is indeed one face of addiction, the definition I’d like to work with is much broader.
Many of us live with a sense of emptiness or disconnection. We feel broken and empty inside, and we look outside ourselves for a solution. Or we’re uncomfortable with what we see when we look within. If we cannot bear to be with our self, to look at that inner “edge” where our darkest feelings and memories reside, then we may turn outward for something that will seem to pull us back to safety. In any case, the pain of what’s inside causes us to look outside for relief. Now, that outward-seeking might not in itself be an addiction. But as we look elsewhere to fix what feels broken, empty or uncomfortable inside, we can begin to depend on those outside sources to feel safe or whole. When we use an external solution repetitively so that it becomes a habit for us, a need, then we’re developing an addiction. From this perspective, addiction fits the Buddhist concept of aversion (to pain) and clinging (to relief).
So, addiction can be viewed simply as the outer-focused life. Rather than doing the inner work of healing that which feels broken or meaningless, we focus on something outside of ourselves to resolve, numb, or avoid a sense of psychic pain. And it’s a solution that can work for a long time. Our solution can be drugs and alcohol, but it can also be other things. We can be dependent on our own thoughts, using them as a strategy for resolving or alleviating our inner conflict. We can be addicted to ideas, to other people, even to our recovery program. We can use religion, focusing on the idea that there’s a God up there, or a set of laws, and if we can just surrender ourselves to these, then everything will be OK. For example, one phrase that is commonly heard in recovery circles is: “We have a God-shaped hole inside of us.” The meaning of this is that we are walking around with a sense of inner emptiness that only God can fill. I want to offer a different perspective here. Saying that God needs to “fill” this hole is still an addictive thought. What if, rather than imagining that it needs to be filled, we can learn to walk with it, and “be” with it in the world? This is how we can shift from looking for something or someone else to ease the pain, and begin to integrate and accept our felt sense of inner emptiness. This is how we can learn to be with ourselves in a new and more accepting way.