Can the 12-step programme liberate us from a cult of individualism and materialism? Enjoying a good feeling from simply being alive may be a natural thing, but it’s not the default these days; we need to actively work on it.
I’ve just finished (a while behind everyone else) Russell Brand’s Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). This is a take on the 12-step programme presented by a man whose rampant ego has been apparent to all, love it or loathe it, for years.
This very publicly unmanageable and unavoidable ego makes Brand the perfect person to explain the heart of addiction, and this he does strikingly well.
It is easy enough to depict addiction as a response to pain which can’t be dealt with in any other way, an escape route from feeling. Escaping from pain becomes a habit and there are no shortage of methods which are designed to be addictive, giving the whole phenomenon a great deal of momentum. From heroin, the archetypal example of an addictive painkiller, to food overly-stuffed with sugar, to social media with notifications explicitly designed to keep you ever-jumping towards the next dopamine hit, to all the manipulative tactics that prop up the capitalist imperative to keep spending, the addictive state (let’s call it compulsive, out of control, ignoring our own feelings and ignoring other people) is easy to access — in areas of life that should be straightforwardly nourishing and rewarding, like eating, sex or communicating with friends.
Reading Brand’s book, however, the truly moral dimension of the programme really sank in, as did the far reaching and deeply rooted nature of addiction, which goes as far and as deep as egotism or selfishness itself. Brand has no reticence whatsoever in describing his fundamental tendency towards an entirely self-centred view of the world, the behaviour that naturally flows from that, and the inability to escape it without serious effort and help.
While the main liberal or compassionate narrative of addiction is that you become an addict because of pain, then because of your addiction you become selfish as the habit takes over and you need to feed it, Brand goes deeper: he says that the very fact that he has a tendency to consider himself and his needs to be of ultimate importance and other people and things as secondary items to be fitted around this, is the addictive tendency which needs to be conquered, tenaciously, on an everyday, almost moment to moment basis. This frantic concern with his own needs is apt to happen to him even when absorbed in activities that seem to be motivated by concern for others. For example, a period of time in which he was extremely politically engaged, which began for the good of others, ended in him simply getting high on his own power. Back to step one.
The idea that we are separate individuals, essentially disconnected from others, from nature, whose fulfilment of that isolated self is the highest good, is not one which is contested very much, although contesting it has a long and illustrious history. According to Buddhism, it’s the ultimate illusion which causes suffering. These days, as Brand points out, this ‘me and my needs’ principle is more than taken for granted, it is actually enshrined:
In working a 12 step program I don’t feel like I’ve joined a cult but that I’ve been liberated from one. The cult that told me that I’m not enough, that I need to be famous to be of value. That I need to have money to live a worthwhile life, that I should affiliate, associate and identify on the basis of colour and class, that my role in life is to consume, that I was to live in a darkness only occasionally lit up by billboards and screens, always framing the smiling face of someone trying to sell me something. Sell me phones and food and prejudice, low cost and low values, low-frequency thinking. We are in a cult by default, we just can’t see it because its boundaries lie beyond our horizons. (p.67)
And it is easy for this bleak reality to take root due to a couple of basic mistakes. The first is that we are separate individuals with a duty first and foremost to ensure our own happiness. The second is that we will be happy if we just get this, that or the other. Happiness simply in being here and being alive, without further agenda, seems not to be even on the radar, and this condemns us to failure in our search. Whatever object of desire we get, the mechanism starts up again.
Enjoying a good feeling from simply being alive may be a natural thing, but it’s not the default these days; we need to actively work on it. This involves some kind of sustained practice and effort. It’s not something you can ‘get’.
Brand lists his own daily spiritual practices, and in the context of trying to keep himself from actively harming himself and others, it’s not so easy to make fun of them. It seems a brave act, and hopefully a helpful one for people who feel miserably out of control of their own minds and behaviour.
The comprehensive information, examples and translation of the steps into layman’s terms (‘Are you a bit f***ed?’) are certainly helpful, and the polemic and comedy is pretty good too, but the really moving part of the book for me was the description of the birth of Brand’s daughter:
I’ve heard new fathers say, ‘I never knew such love was in me,’ but I always knew, I just didn’t know what to do with it. When I saw her I knew. I knew her and I knew what to do. (p.254)
Knowing what to do with love, at last, sounds like recovery to me.
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