The Abstinence Myth: 5 Unexpected Principles

“Do I Need Religion To Recover From My Addiction?”

This is a great question and quite frankly there is probably no adequate answer. 

I’m sure you’re looking for a “yes” or a “no”….

But I’ll do you one better. 

How about a yes and a no.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
― John Milton

What You Need To Recover

In Adi Jaffe’s book The Abstinence Myth he argues that four primary camps battle to be adorned with the gold around their neck. You know, reign as the number one factor in the so-called addiction-cure. 

These specific schools are:

  1. Spiritualists/Religionists
  2. Psychotherapists/Traumatists
  3. Neuroscientists/Biologists
  4. Environmentalists/Social Scientists.

Each camp thinks they have the upper hand. 

“You need God!” declares the religionist.

“You obviously have repressed trauma and difficulty regulating emotion,” notes the therapist.

“It’s clearly a chemical imbalance and dysfunction in brain processing,” argues the neuroscientist.

“If you cannot see this as the result of one’s environmental conditions, then you’re blind,” says the social scientist.

The Abstinence Myth

But is this not reductionism at its finest?

In the book Jaffe provides a comprehensive outline detailing how the one factor is indeed all four camps. 

Common sense, right?

Maybe holism isn’t as marketable or profitable. 

Historically as a species, we are never satisfied with complex answers. I blame Occam and his sharp reductionist razor, but just because we prefer a simple answer doesn’t mean it’s the correct one. 

I’ll never understand why humanity always wants to find the “one ring to rule them all.” We saw how that played out. The cost was too great to bear. And in the darkness bind them? Yeah – no thanks.

The Abstinence Myth

Why Spirituality Is Vital

Anywho, Jaffe’s provides an unbelievably practical outline of the importance of the spiritual component. In his book he dissects each camp – it’s worth the read, but the nature of this article is the religious camp. 

He notes that though people often see spirituality as religious, it’s actually a fairly intuitive enterprise given our nature. 

He provides 7 Spiritual Elements Critical for Addiction Recovery and they so happen to wonderfully answer our question here.

So, do you need religion to recover? 

Well, only if religion provides the following:

The Abstinence Myth

In this article, I wanted to examine these points a bit further, you know, perform the old conceptual vivisection. What did I uncover? The 5 Principles Necessary For Total Recovery.

The Abstinence Myth

Purpose, Contribution & Something Greater Than Yourself

I often hear addicts say “I want to live, not just exist.” 

Well, I reckon all of humanity agrees on this point, that is if I’m understanding it correctly. 

What’s the difference between existing and living? What are they referring to when they say this?

Namely, that to exist is to float through life with no real meaning, purpose, value, or direction. 

There is no contribution to community or anyone for that matter, its just gratification of one’s appetite until death. 

The Abstinence Myth

It’s what Gabor Maté refers to as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

Hungry ghosts are the demon-like creatures described in Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain texts as the remnants of the dead who are afflicted with insatiable desire, hunger or thirst as a result of bad deeds or evil intent carried out in their life times. Found in every part of the Far East, from the Philippines to Japan and China, Thailand, Laos, Burma, India and Pakistan, they are universally described as human-like wraiths with mummified skin, narrow withered limbs, grossly bulging stomachs, long thin necks and tiny mouths.

Defined by a fusion of rage and desire, tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding impossible satisfactions, hungry ghosts are condemned to inhabit shadowy and dismal places in the realm of the living. Their specific hunger varies according to their past karma and the sins they are atoning for. Some can eat but find it impossible to find food or drink. Others may find food and drink, but have pinhole mouths and cannot swallow. For others, food bursts into flames or rots even as they devour it. Japanese hungry ghosts called gaki must eat excrement while those called jikininki are cursed to devour human corpses. According to Hindu tradition, hungry ghosts may endlessly seek particular objects, emotions or people, those things that obsessed them or caused them to commit bad deeds when they were living: riches, gems, children, even fear or the vitality of the living.

In Buddhism, hungry ghosts are often seen as a metaphor for those individuals who are following a path of incorrect desire, who suffer from spiritual emptiness, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting what has already happened or who form an unnatural attachment to the past.  Hungry ghosts are also sometimes used as a metaphor for drug addiction.

Is this not a perfect analogy for the human plight? 

Existing is therefore simply looking for resources to consume and never be satisfied. 

Living therefore must be referring to becoming the resource rather than the consumer and this leads to emotional fulfillment and a life filled with meaning and purpose. 

No words come close to a description of this concept than those of Viktor Frankl:

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”

In short, becoming the resource creates a “why” to live.

The Abstinence Myth

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Principle #1: Be The Resource Rather Than The Consumer.


Anthony De Mello, master of awareness and mindlessness (yeah you read that right) teaches us how awareness and even the absence of the so-called mind is the bread and butter of self-transcendence.

When you renounce something, you’re tied to it. The only way to get out of this is to see through it. Don’t renounce it, see through it. Understand its true value and you won’t need to renounce it; it will just drop from your hands. But of course, if you don’t see that, if you’re hypnotized into thinking that you won’t be happy without this, that, or the other thing, you’re stuck. What we need to do for you is not what so-called spirituality attempts to do—namely, to get you to make sacrifices, to renounce things. That’s useless. You’re still asleep. What we need to do is to help you understand, understand, understand. If you understood, you’d simply drop the desire for it. This is another way of saying: If you woke up, you’d simply drop the desire for it.

The root of evil is within you. As you begin to understand this, you stop making demands on yourself, you stop having expectations of yourself, you stop pushing yourself and you understand. Nourish yourself on wholesome food, good wholesome food. I’m not talking about actual food, I’m talking about sunsets, about nature, about a good movie, about a good book, about enjoyable work, about good company, and hopefully you will break your addictions to those other feelings.

Gabor Maté draws similar conclusions, rendering addiction a dysfunction with the needs of present moment. Namely, it’s an attachment to unhealthy expectations or demands of the self – you know, the one that needs transcending. 

The ability to navigate these emotionally loaded expectations is through what he calls “emotional competence,” i.e. awareness.

Emotional competence requires the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress; the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries; the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past.

What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others. Stress occurs in the absence of these criteria, and it leads to the disruption of homeostasis. Chronic disruption results in ill health.

In each of the individual histories of illness in this book (Realm Of Hungry Ghosts), one or more aspect of emotional competence was significantly compromised, usually in ways entirely unknown to the person involved. Emotional competence is what we need to develop if we are to protect ourselves from the hidden stresses that create a risk to health, and it is what we need to regain if we are to heal. We need to foster emotional competence in our children, as the best preventive medicine.

What’s the best way to develop emotional competence? To need to master the subject. Who’s the subject? You!

Principle #2: Life Change Begins By Getting To Know Yourself


Tim Keller once commented on the nature of freedom and I believe his words hold serious weight here,

“Modern people like to see freedom as the complete absence of any constraints. But think of a fish. Because a fish absorbs oxygen from water, not air, it is free only if it is restricted to water. If a fish is ‘freed’ from the river and put on the grass to explore, its freedom to move and soon even to live is destroyed. The fish is not more free, but less free, if it cannot honor the reality of its nature. The same is true with airplanes and birds. If they violate the laws of aerodynamics, they will crash into the ground. But if they follow them, they will ascend and soar. The same is true in many areas of life: Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities of our own nature and those of the world…”

What’s the right restrictions of freedom? Well, per Bonhoeffer it may in fact be other people. 

“Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in him. Anyone investigating man to discover freedom finds nothing of it. Why? because freedom is not a quality which can be revealed–it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence–but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”

Do you want freedom? Perhaps self-transcendence is found when the self extends its parameters to include many other selves.

The major thrust of my book, The Internal Advertising Agency,  is that human flourishing is intricately linked to a very nuanced definition of community. 

In any event, If you have a difference of opinion or any other quotes you’d like to share, please comment in the section below. The power of community can never be overstated.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.” – Herman Melville

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much” – Helen Keller

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

The Abstinence Myth

Principle #3: If You Think You Can Do This By Yourself, Stop Thinking.


Bruce Lipton, renegade developmental biologist, brilliantly commented,

Biological behavior can be controlled by invisible forces, including thought, as well as it can be controlled by physical molecules like penicillin, a fact that provides the scientific underpinning for pharmaceutical-free energy medicine…

Because we are not powerless biochemical machines, popping a pill every time we are mentally or physically out of tune is not the answer. Drugs and surgery are powerful tools when they are not overused, but the notion of simple drug fixes is fundamentally flawed. Every time a drug is introduced into the body to correct function A, it inevitably throws off function B, C, or D. It is not gene-directed hormones and neurotransmitters that control our bodies and our minds; our beliefs control our bodies, our minds, and thus our lives … Oh ye of little belief!”

Sometimes when Lipton speaks my mind melts, or maybe it’s because all the meds I’m on? 😉

In any rate, could you imagine what would happen to your body, mind, and life if you practiced gratitude on a daily basis? I pray you find out.

The Abstinence Myth

Principle #4: Gratitude Is God-titude


David Brin once commented, “When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.” 

This elucidates the principle of attraction, namely, you’re always going to find what you’re looking for. Privacy without accountability is like a relationship without honesty – it’s not sustainable.

As Peter Bregman brilliantly noted, “Accountability is about delivering on a commitment. It’s responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”

Or, as Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People concludes, “Accountability breeds response-ability.” That dude is a freaking genius. 

Without accountability you cannot truly be free. Without freedom you cannot truly choose. Without choice your response is determined. 

Accountability however is when another is allowed to affirm your true identity. It’s humility in action.

The Abstinence Myth

Truthfully, there is a delicate balance between freedom and responsibility. 

Freedom without responsibility is decadence. 

Responsibility without freedom is captivity. 

The only agent that’s sole purpose is to balance the scales is accountability. 

Principle #5: Accountability Affirms Authenticity


I think Jaffe is correct, that though people often see spirituality as religious, it’s actually a fairly intuitive enterprise given our nature. 

So, do you need religion to get sober? No. But you most certainly do need the following:

  • Purpose
  • Contribution
  • Mindfulness
  • Something Greater Than Yourself
  • Community
  • Gratitude
  • Accountability

Yes, most religions provide the above but they are not at all limited to them. One thing is certain, however, it cannot be done in isolation. 

⇒Get Jaffe’s book The Abstinence Myth