Gabor Maté and The Nature of Addiction (Lecture Summary)
I have shared some snippets of this guy’s work in the past. Gabor Mate is a medical doctor, neurologist and psychologist who has specialized in addiction. He emphasizes the psycho-social causes of addiction, yet also hearing him speak about brain chemistry, advanced spiritual concepts, and the woes of consumer culture, I can say he is a VERY holistically wise man. This post is a summary of one of his lectures/dialogues at The Genius Network Annual Event. The insights included here are foundational knowledge to Gabor’s understanding and discoveries in the field of addiction. But before that, why I am so motivated to learn and share on this topic? It’s because I see addiction as a universal social problem. It is an all-pervading disease in the modern world that affects us all, albiet in different ways. I feel that understanding and curing addiction at the root can be a great step toward an Enlightened society. So with that preface, let us look at the summary of Gabor’s key concepts on addiction.
The starting point is a definition of addiction. Gabor defines addiction as any behaviour which has the following four traits:
1- Provides comfort and relief.
2- And so the person craves it.
3- Yet has negative long-term consequences.
4- And the person can’t give it up.
Notice how he said, “any behaviour”.
Therefore it’s not limited to substance use. It could include shopping, eating, over-sexing, gambling, and maybe others.
The next big insight is when Gabor says that addiction is never a primary problem, it is always a secondary problem. To illustrate this point he asks the crowd a question: “When you engage in your addiction, what does it give you?” Some answers people gave include…
- Relief… “From what?”… Pain
- Escape… “Escape from what?”… Anxiety, Powerlessness, Depression
So he says the primary problem is never addiction. It is always pain. For anyone addicted, the question to ask is, “What is the cause of your pain/trauma?” What is causing the presence of pain, anxiety, powerlessness, or depression?” Addiction is an attempt to treat the pain, yet never addresses the pain at the root. In fact, it always amplifies the pain in the end. As Eckart Tolle said in The Power of Now: All addictions begin in pain and end in pain.
So what is a common cause of the hidden pain and trauma in modern society? While everyone is different, much of our pain is psycho-emotional rather than purely physical. Our psycho-emotional wounds often come from early childhood. Understanding developmental trauma is a huge part of Gabor’s work. To illustrate how this works, Gabor shares the story of his own childhood trauma. He came from a Jewish family at the time of the Holocaust. His father and brother were out on labouring duty, while Gabor lived alone with his mother. His mother was clearly very stressed, anxious, upset and depressed, because at any moment she or her son could be taken. Witnessing his mother’s trauma, Gabor picked it up. Kids are extremely suggestible and self-centred. They always take things personally. Gabor was meant to be a little ray of sunshine, yet his mum was depressed and upset in his presence. The little kid then thinks, “If she’s always depressed around me, it must be because of me. I am not worthy of love and happiness.” This then becomes a hidden belief, and one can spend a lifetime chasing validation to fill this hole in their self-worth. That’s why Gabor says, “ The greatest gift you can give a child is your own happiness”. Children tend to adopt the relative function, dysfunction, and emotional tone of their home environment.
A very important tangent here is generational trauma. Gabor highlights the extremely high addiction rate in Native American Reservations. This directly mirrors the Indigenous Australian population. The huge disruption of genocide and enslavement, with all the pain and trauma it caused, can create a roll-over effect of emotional problems from generation to generation.
So what is the solution to the problem? I don’t have all the answers just yet, but an obvious starting point is addressing the root of our traumas. The root of developmental trauma is one of two things: The presence of something which should NOT have been there (like abuse), or the absence of something which SHOULD have been there (like care and support). When either of these things happen, it can create a negative belief and attitude-pattern about oneself or the world. Things like I am not worthy, no-body loves me, or the world is a hostile place. These beliefs cause pain from within, and can manifest as destructive behaviours. So a solution is to examine what painful and negative beliefs you may have. Pull out a sketch pad and write out the negative beliefs that circle in your mind. Sometimes you don’t even notice them until you verbalise them clearly. Once your limiting beliefs/thoughts are clearly observed, you are halfway toward clearing them. There are many techniques to clear negative beliefs and their corresponding emotion. Some include timeline therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, The Work by Byron Katie, or the Clear Your Shit by Dane Thomas. The common thread to all these is to clearly see your limiting belief, understand that it is no longer relevant or useful, then create a new belief in its place that is much more relevant. It also helps to anchor in the new belief to a positive emotion, plus taking steps to integrate the new belief.
The second and final potential solution I will give, stems from this idea of, “Things which should be there but are not, and things which should not be there but are.” This step is like cleaning out the room of your life. If there are things which should not be in your life, like excess stress, abuse, or boredom, you should take steps to remove those things from the root, in a healthy and sustainable way. If there are things in your life which are not present but should be, like love, community, health and purpose, you should seek out these things directly. It may be initially harder and take more work, but leads to sustainable happiness. On the other hand, If you ignore your internal needs and go the short-cut route of masking pain with addiction, the end result will never be lasting health and balance. So in short, its about understanding which human needs you are lacking, and moving straight toward them. It helps to seek support for these steps when necessary.
So with these two solutions, the first one is the internal journey. It is about clearing one’s mental and emotional trauma. It is about uncovering one’s past, examining internal beliefs, and gaining better perspective. It is the internal journey, to improve the way you think and be. The second solution is more external and action-oriented . It is the “cleaning of your room” so your life has order and nourishment, much like a healthy eco-system with all of its critical elements. This eco-system should be informed by human needs: the things we are MEANT to have; love, stability, security, purpose.
I hope this little article summary on addiction has been helpful. I know that addiction can be complex, but it’s necessary to create a starting point somewhere. That is my intention. As I said, addiction is a universal social problem among humans, so helping ourselves and each other on this path is very useful. We need to remove the stigmas around addiction, plus the big dichotomy we draw between blue collar addictions like heroin and white colour addictions like money and power. All these individuals are human beings in pain, so they should not be punished, but rather they should be loved, understood, treated and integrated back into society. This social change starts with YOUR OWN attitude toward addiction, and your own willingness to learn, heal, and help others. Giving Love and Light. Namaste.
link to the full discussion, which has more info than what I shared: