Through 'substitutes for liberation,' the need for that which is other is concretized within the object of one’s addiction.
English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley was a witty, pessimistic, and widely revered humanist, satirist, and student of mysticism. In his collection of spiritual essays, The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment, he shared, among other things, his depthy, spiritual premise on the function of addiction.
Huxley claimed that in effort to “pass beyond the limits of that island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined,” nearly the whole of humanity is craving self-transcendence as a means to intensify consciousness of being “what they have come to regard as ‘themselves.’” Noting the utter desperation to transcend, Huxley added that individuals may just as well also crave “the consciousness of being someone else.”
Per Huxley, self-transcendence was not the same as escaping physical or emotional pain, for even those who have “made an excellent adjustment to life” have the “urge to go beyond themselves”. He claimed that one experiences a deep-rooted horror of one’s own selfhood, a passionate yearning to break free from the “repulsive little identity to which the very perfection of their ‘adjustment to life’ has condemned them,” as well as from the “damnation of their every day life.”
An upbeat theory, wouldn’t you say?
Huxley may be coming in hot with what some would consider to be a depressive outlook on existence, or at least it can be difficult to see otherwise when he implies these urges hit even the well adjusted, but then goes on to call our human identities repulsive damnations. Yet his frank engagement with the existential pain that rests beneath our busy, distracting human lives is one worth looking at, however uncomfortable. As he noted, this isn’t about overcoming an obstacle, per se, but rather a deeper mission of soul that we all share.
The liberation one seeks is from one’s own “imprisoning ego”. Crediting the hallucinogenic or stimulating effects of certain drugs, Huxley warned that these “toxic shortcuts to self-transcendence” could be used as “avenues of escape from the insulated self” and become their own worshipped gods.
God, death, sexuality, and metaphor
Although Huxley focused primarily on the godliness of drugs and sex, his observations relate to other compulsive behaviors and acts of overconsumption, as well, where the freedom-seeker attempts to create what mythopoetic author and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman called an “illusory totality.” In this attempt at imagined wholeness, one could seek to inhale the numinosity of food as though it, too, was its own worshipped god.
Woodman appeared to favor a universal definition of addiction as it pertained to our deepest shared fears. She argued that Western civilization essentially bastardized the concept of metaphor by being unwilling or unable to keep literalization at bay.
Therefore, in this context, it didn’t matter if one misused psychoactive substances or misused daily life, Woodman believed that all of these behaviors were all merely symptoms of a bigger dis-ease.
In her documentary Dancing in the Flames, she noted that compulsive consumption of external things may be a common defense against a fear of death, literal or metaphorical, keeping us inevitably split off from awareness:
I think we are acting like addicts. We have all this wonderful life but cannot believe we can lose it — that is too horrible a thought. So the fear is expressed in adding more and more stuff, stealing more and more from the earth, and acting more and more irresponsible. And even angry.
And since we in the West struggle to understand metaphor in its purest form (or lack thereof), death is simply death. The ego, frantic at the center of consciousness, needs a relationship with something greater so that it can transcend itself and quell its fear of death. This need for that which is other is concretized within the object of one’s addiction, leaving those unable to be free of literalization confused; there is a need for the transcendent,
except that God doesn’t matter anymore, ritual doesn’t matter. But the god they didn’t find in the church or in the woods or in wherever, they’re finding in the bottle. And the union that they don’t find in making love, they find through another kind of sexuality. But the union that they yearn for, that total coming together, they can’t find. Because they concretized the concept and it kills them.
Perhaps the theories shared between Huxley and Woodman echo a call to action for us to embrace metaphor; to cease finding literal foreign objects upon which to cast our numinous needs and instead learn to transcend from within. A task not for the faint of heart, of course, as external desires and external pressures abound.