What does venerating the cross teach us about how to deal with our addictions and habitual sins?
From the beginning of this series, I’ve been talking about how seeing iconographically — seeing with the eye of the heart, the nous — changes everything. Last time, I talked about the way in which repentance is the context in which the eye of the heart can be opened enabling us to see truly — to begin to perceive a fuller Reality behind the veil of the world.
What we are trying to do is to transform our desires so that they more closely reflect what they really are in their deepest significance: a desire for union with God… and doing this in the knowledge that this desire really can be ultimately fulfilled — in perfect union in Christ — in theosis!
Remember the words of St Paul: “I do not know what I am doing! … In fact, the good which I desire, I do not do; but the evil which I do not desire, this is what I do! … What a wretch I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But then he adds, “I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! … there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 7:15-8:1).
If we want to stop doing something but somehow are unable to stop… today we commonly call this addiction. In this general sense, we can also call it habit or habitual sin.
In the 1970s and 80s there were a series of experiments on animals testing the addictive nature and effects of drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In one, a rat in a cage was given a source of the drug and observed to see how he used it. He tried it; began to use it regularly; began to increase his consumption; then followed a period of bingeing on the drug with small periods of abstinence in between… but in the end, he took a lethal overdose.
At the same time as these experiments, there was a rapid growth in 12-step programs for drug users. These had started in the 1950s and 60s based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In the 1970s and 80s there gradually grew a general public recognition of addiction and some of the models of assistance, support groups and therapies which aimed to deal with it.
And it is clear that in some ways people are like that rat in the cage… we may try a drug, we may become addicted, we may binge and abstain, and finally kill ourselves with an overdose. And a lot of the now standard help that is offered is very good and practical… The need to acknowledge the problem, to admit that we need help and seek it out, to examine ourselves and confess our failings, to find the desire to change, to make amends and to help others. The need for an accountability partner — a friend that we can turn to in moments of weakness. The need to establish positive patterns of behaviour and practise them, replacing our negative, descending spirals with positive ones. All of these are examples of solid, practical advice for anyone struggling with an addiction to pornography just as they are for those addicted to drugs or alcohol.
And in fact the original 12-step programs go further than this: they require participants to recognize that there is a Higher Power and that submission to and confession to this Higher Power is an integral part of finding freedom from addiction.
But along with all of this good advice, there also crept into popular consciousness some dangerous advice… For example, looking specifically at pornography, popular wisdom would have it that more opportunities for actual sexual relationships or experiences would cause the desire for pornography to be subsumed. But this is simply not the case. According to more than one inside source, the founder of Playboy magazine, accustomed to multiple sexual partners, nevertheless turns away from these actual women to reach his climax with pornography.In marriage the misdirected desires can be transformed in a union that is more than merely physical Click To Tweet
Of course we are not likely to hear this advice within the Church… but we might hear a variation of it: you need to get married. This is a misunderstanding of St Paul’s advice “if they do not have self-control let them marry” (1 Cor 7:9) — it is not that getting married will magically make these other problems go away, or that once you’re married it’s ok to burn with lust as long as it’s lust for your spouse… no. It is that marriage is a path where these misdirected desires can be transformed in a fuller union that is more than merely physical.
So there is good advice and bad advice. The good advice is practical and helpful — and essential in the short-term — but it is most important to address the deeper issue: to do more than just avoid temptation, or replace a bad habit with a better one, important as these things are.
The key in all these things is to look iconographically at what is going on. What is the symbolism? How does this veil — this addiction — reveal the deeper Reality behind it? To do this I need to see iconically and to venerate rather than just fight. This is not easy. I remember one Lent listening to a sermon on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross and hearing about the need to carry one’s cross. But then I heard that I need not only to carry my cross, but to venerate it. I thought something like… “this is way too hard for me. OK, this Orthodox thing is very beautiful, but I think I’ll just go home now; I can’t do this.”
We often hear the line, “love the sinner, hate the sin”… but this is simplistic. Actually we have to venerate because the truth lies behind the sin… the sin is the veil which can allow us to see something of eternal Reality and eternal significance behind it. We have to venerate the cross we carry. Only then can we truly understand it, and only then can it become an icon of resurrection rather than of death… through transformation into glory.
Last time I said that two of the main elements in addiction that I need to face are my fear and my desire for the ‘feel-good’ pleasure of sin. These are essential things I have to face in any act of veneration: to venerate requires me to face fear and to be willing to give up pleasure, knowing that this is the only way that both can be transformed into love and true joy.
My fear is occasionally straight-out terror or panic, but more usually it’s manifest as tension or anxiety. These feelings bubble below the surface, and because I don’t know how to face them, they subtly and subconsciously infect all my actions and relationships. This creeping dread, this anxiety, this tension… it wants to be released, and so I find some way of releasing it without facing it. This can be through reducing my inhibitions and awareness through alcohol or drugs, or it can be through a physical release of tension through sexual behaviour, alone or with others.
Deep inside, my fear can build up so that I am afraid to face myself, afraid of the true nature of my being. We often refer to this as self-hatred or self-loathing. The usual responses to fear are fight, flight or freeze. This is a fight response, but it is a fight response turned inward: anger or violence against myself. On the other hand, I might turn my fight response outward in anger and violence. This is one of the sources of the desire for violent pornography which is increasingly prevalent on the internet. In the Freedom to Live program, we call this kind of passion the “monstrous hybrid”… when the fighting passions of anger and violence get tied up together with the desiring passions of lust and neediness.Deep fear, anxiety or tension is a veil over a loss or lack which needs to be grieved, not hidden Click To Tweet
Most of the time, violent anger tied to fear is a veil over a deeper need to grieve. St John of the Ladder hints at this when he says that an antidote to anger is tears, and that although anger is better expressed than internalized… better still is to express it as grief. This applies also to this deep fear, anxiety or tension: it is a cover — a veil — for some loss or lack which needs to be grieved rather than hidden.
So overcoming fear means learning to grieve, which implies learning to share myself… learning to truly confess.
Of course, rather than grieving, sharing and confessing, I would rather avoid the suffering and seek a feel-good escapism in my addiction… I would rather avoid the Reality of what lies behind the veil of Creation, seeing pornographically rather than iconographically.
So let’s examine the feel-good escapism more closely. What is it about? On the physical level, it’s about brain chemicals; on the psychological level, it’s about established patterns of behaviour, reactions to past hurt and broken relationships, patterns of avoiding life’s difficulties and not succeeding in living up to my own ideas (doing the evil I do not want to do); on the spiritual level, it’s about degrees of separation from God (that is, from the Reality behind the veil). Of course, these levels are not separable from each other in reality… the body, mind and spirit all affect each other.
But looking at the physical level more closely, the modern scientific concept of neuroplasticity — the word for the constant reworking of the brain — this concept is an acknowledgement that we are constantly a work in progress, that Creation isn’t over, and that we’re partaking in it… including in the ongoing Creation of ourselves. St Isaac the Syrian said, this life was given you for repentance, do not waste it in vain pursuits. We might explain that one reason for this is that I need to set up the habitual pattern of my life into repentance because that practice will be continually forming the person I am becoming. Conversely, if I practice those “vain pursuits”, I am still co-Creating myself, but I am Creating myself not via the narrow path of repentance towards fulfilling my deepest desires in union with God, but on the broad and easy path of separation from God and towards the prison of being enslaved in my own desires while never able to fulfil them. Yes, the work is urgent because every delay forms me just a little bit more in the wrong way… away from the person I really want to be — the person that God created me to be.
As I indulge my addiction, I form myself more and more into that pattern of fear, of running after the ‘feel-good’ pleasure, of avoidance of the path towards fulfillment. On the physical level, I achieve this either with or without chemicals that I put into my body… You know, nicotine patches are advised for those trying to give up smoking, but they only help in fewer than 20% of cases, because like any addiction, the chemicals coming from outside are only a small part of the story. It is not so much what I put into my body that makes me impure as what I already have inside there… I generate my own chemicals to imprison myself further in the cage of fear and misdirected desire. That’s why I think it is reasonable to talk about things like pornography as addictions. The neurological effects alone are adequate to explain why it is hard to give up these addictive behaviours.
Some of the more significant of these internal addictive drugs triggered in pornography addiction are the hormones or neurotransmitters called dopamine, noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine) oxytocin, and serotonin:
a. Dopamine is related to feelings of pleasure. (It’s the “feel-good hormone.”) Dopamine reinforces the behaviour associated with it with pleasure — it establishes a pathway in the brain so that we are encouraged to repeat the behaviour to attain the same pleasure again. Artificially elevating dopamine in the brain — such as by an extensive time using pornography — leads to desensitization (i.e. you get used to this level of dopamine and need more to feel the same effect) which leads to greater dependency on the behaviour and in more severe cases the need to intensify the behaviour — such as by looking for more extreme or new kinds of stimulation within the pornography.
b. noradrenaline / norepinephrine mobilizes the body for action (it “gets you high”). It also focuses attention, and enhances the formation and retrieval of memory — for example, imprinting pornographic images in the mind, intensifying the connection between feeling full of energy and pleasure and the experience of looking at pornogrpahy.
c. Oxytocin is associated with relationship attachment and connection / bonding. (It’s sometimes called the “love hormone”.) It’s especially associated with physical touch in relationship and sexual arousal. [Another use is to induce labour; and this hormone has also yielded one of the scientific explanations for why positive social relationships can have positive effects on physical health — it’s associated not only with relationship and bonding, but also with the healing of wounds through modulating inflammation]. Some have speculated that an effect in pornography MAY be that it forges a bond between the user and the image on screen. (Remember the Playboy example? He’s not the only one to prefer pornography to actual relationships.)
d. Serotonin is associated with feelings of “well-being”. Lowered serotonin levels (e.g. after drinking or in depression, anxiety) can reduce the control of the sexual and impulsive drives which serotonin regulates. So increasing anxiety about the behaviour can paradoxically make the temptation to indulge in it harder to resist. After climax, serotonin is released — it’s sometimes called “the natural Prozac” — it calms and releases tension and stress: it’s a big temptation to seek this temporary answer to the fear or anxiety.
Of course, addiction is not all about the physical level — the psychological and spiritual levels are significant too. Let’s think back to the rat in the cage, addicting himself to heroin until he overdoses. That demonstrates the physical effect neatly. But some scientists in the 1970s and 80s saw something missing in that experiment. They came up with another experiment to test their hypothesis, and this is popularly known as the Rat Park experiment. They thought that perhaps the rat was lacking something in its life. He had nothing else to do after all, so why not turn to drugs. So they designed a sort of Rat Paradise instead of the the original cage. Things to do, lots of activities, other rats to socialize with. It was a different world. And the results were different too. Those rats tried the heroin, but they didn’t become addicted and they didn’t overdose. They had other things to add meaning to their lives… So with addiction, nothing is as simple as it looks… It’s always an interaction between the physical, psychological and spiritual.To deal with addiction, changing our environment is key Click To Tweet
So this is another important lesson on how to help with addictions. As with Rat Park, changing your environment (in the broadest sense) is key… that is, developing new patterns and filling life (remember the parable of cleaning out a demon and making your soul clean and tidy for the invasion of seven more?) and especially, developing meaningful relationships. Of course, we are not living in a Park all the time, and it is well-known that it is when times are hard that we find it hard to be the best version of ourselves. That’s one reason we practice with ascetic efforts such as fasting… can we make life more difficult and yet live well? Can we forgo food and still not yell at the driver in front? Can we face hard times and keep free of addiction?
So in overcoming addiction, in overcoming the fear and the desire to chase after pleasure, we need to work on a comprehensive retraining program: a physical one, including liturgy, prayer, and the careful use and gradual building of ascetic practices; a psychological one, including liturgy, prayer and the creation of new patterns of life, and new ways of thinking about the past and our reactions and responses; and a spiritual one, including — of course — liturgy, prayer, and an opening of the eye of our heart so that we can see God in and through his Creation… so that we can see iconically more than is present to our physical eye alone.
Let’s start now.