There are those who say that alcoholism and addiction are problems of the will, and that drinking or using is a matter of choice. In the recovery community at large, however, the message is this: If you can exercise willpower and choose, go ahead—we’re here for those who cannot. The art of addiction recovery is for those for whom all else has failed.
The mystery, of course, is how can a seemingly intelligent person continue to make what appears to be such a terrible choice over and over again, even when they realize the damage it’s causing them? Many alcoholics and drug addicts have a sincere desire to quit, but rationalize one more drink or drug—living, ironically, a day at a time in the cycle of addiction.
In today’s recovery parlance, surrender indicates an admission that fighting the impulse to drink or take a drug is bound to be an ineffective defense against initiating the next spree. The explanation is that the thing we’re using to wage the battle—our brain, or reasoning ability—has been hijacked by an obsession that undermines our motivation to abstain. In a battle of conflicting desires, the on-off switch for drinking seems to be spring-loaded to switch to the “on” position, and stay there, without our having control over it.
So, how to tackle a problem that doesn’t lend itself to frontal assault? In our traditional methods of treatment, 12-step work has been shown to be helpful for many—if they want recovery badly enough. And one of the key tenets of 12-step work is that we should stop fighting. This concept has its analog in an ancient Chinese tradition called wu wei.
Wu wei is an essential part of the philosophy of Taoism, which predates Christianity by several centuries. Wu Wei can best be characterized as “non-doing” or, better, “the action of non-action.” In recovery, real freedom from alcohol and drugs isn’t a matter of rigorous abstention—begrudgingly declining intoxicants in spite of their attraction, because we understand the dangers—but rather an absence of desire. We are no longer interested in altering our condition in that way, and have found tools to deal with frustration, anxiety, and other negative states without resorting to mind-altering substances. In this way, we do an end run around the problem of addiction: we plant the seeds of recovery through action, and then we allow them to develop without our intervention. We practice wu wei and allow life—externally and internally—to proceed in accordance with natural flow.
In Taoism’s primary text, the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu wrote:
The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without a condition
The highest justice is to see without a preference
When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
When the art of addiction recovery is internalized and becomes the template for thinking and action, the problem of addiction evaporates.