Addiction Recovery and the Philosophy of Seneca and Stoicism

Addiction Recovery and the Philosophy of Seneca and Stoicism


If you are in addiction recovery, I believe it is worth considering some of the philosophy of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD).

Seneca was a stoic philosopher and his ideas are not so much about intellectual theories, but rather they are about practical application.

This guy was concerned with living, and of getting the most out of life, and of living a good life. As such, I think he has a lot to offer us who are in recovery.

I was shocked when I investigated Stoicism and found it to be extremely “hands on” and practical. I had thought that the philosophy was all about suppressing emotions, but this turned out to be a misconception on my part. Stoicism is generally only concerned with suppressing harmful or negative emotions.

Stoic technique that can help you in recovery: Negative visualization

The stoics were big on something called negative visualization. This is counter-intuitive because in our modern world we tend to hear the opposite of this approach over and over again–that we need to visualize positive things in our lives and work towards them.

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Negative visualization is characterized by the simple statement: “Well, it could be a lot worse.”

What the stoic philosophy suggests is that you take the time to visualize yourself experiencing much greater misfortune. They urge you to do this on a regular basis as a means of creating more gratitude in your life on a regular basis.

Really, what could be more useful for the recovering addict or alcoholic than a way to appreciate life and increase their gratitude? This is a gold mine of practical application for people in recovery!

The principle is based on something called “hedonistic adaptation.” What this means is that we tend to place a condition on our happiness, such as thinking that we will be happy just as soon as we reach one year sober and start sponsoring people in recovery, for instance. So then that event finally occurs for us, and we are suddenly happy.

But then what happens? We quickly adapt to our new situation. It could have been anything, we could have been hoping to win the lottery, and then finally won the money. Believe it or not, that initial glow of happiness eventually wears off because we go through this “hedonistic adaptation.” The happiness wears off as we can’t help but start to take our new situation for granted.

This happens over and over again in our lives and so most people just set a new goal, they find a new “carrot on the stick” to dangle in front of their mind, something that they have to acquire or achieve again in order for them to become happy.

But this is insane! Why not be happy right now, all the time, and simply enjoy the journey, enjoy the process itself? Life is an adventure and there is a way to access gratitude and appreciate all of it, even the challenges.

So the stoic philosophy teaches students all of this and argues that the best way to “reset your hedonistic adaptation” is to use the technique of negative visualization.

It is easy to find opportunities to do this in recovery because we are surrounded by failure and relapse. If you go to lots of 12 step meetings then you will no doubt become witness to lots of people who eventually relapse while struggling to stay clean and sober. It happens all the time and the more exposure you have to a wide variety of recovering people then the higher the incidence of relapse you will witness.

I was personally living in long term treatment and attending in-house AA meetings for the first two years of my recovery, and this was connected to a short term rehab that had a constant influx of new people in recovery. The meetings were huge and consisted of about 40 to 60 people, and the median amount of sober time was probably less than 30 days. So the rate of relapse occurring in that environment was really high. There was no shortage of failure because I was connected with such a large community and we were all quite early in recovery.

It is this sort of occurrence (someone relapsing in recovery) that can become a powerful opportunity for you to practice negative visualization. You do not have to dwell on it for hours or anything. Simply realize that this could have been you. You could have been the one who relapsed. They even have a saying for this: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Meaning, I am grateful that I did not relapse.

The stoics recommend that you practice this technique daily in order to “reset” your hedonistic adaptation. If you hear the news or watch any media it is not difficult to find examples of extreme misfortune in others. People losing their livelihoods, their lives, their health, their families, their homes. Every one of those examples could have been you, any one of us could walk outside tomorrow and get hit with a random toaster falling out of the sky, and it is but for the grace of God (or the universe if you will) that we can thank our lucky stars that we are still alive, healthy, intact.

Maybe something bad does happen to you and you lose your car or your home or a family member. Or maybe your health is bad and your prognosis is not good. In any case, if you are still alive and able to think then you can still practice negative visualization, and things could still be worse. There is always the ultimate negative: you could be dead. There is always a point of gratitude and it could always be worse….you just have to imagine how it could be worse, thus finding the gratitude in your current situation.

Most people who hear of this idea object to it right away and say “I don’t want to be thinking negative thoughts all the time! This sounds awful! This will just depress me if I am visualizing negative things happening to me! I don’t want to do it! etc.”

This is where practical application overrides theory. You don’t have to wonder what it would be like–just start trying it. When you get the opportunity each day, start to practice a little negative visualization and see how it feels. See if it helps you to “reset” your happiness gauge, and if it helps you to start appreciating what you have: your health, your cognitive abilities, your sobriety. You don’t have to wonder if this will work or not, just try it. Then you will know if it works.

The stoics have other techniques that they teach but negative visualization is one of the more important ones. It is simple, effective, and powerful, so they tend to place a heavy emphasis on it as an important practice for students.

Because addicts and alcoholics do so well to find gratitude in their lives, this technique should definitely be experimented with by people in recovery. Anyone who is truly grateful in recovery would never relapse, as they would have no reason to self medicate. They would be completely happy and satisfied with their present situation as it is; no need to change themselves by self medicating with drugs or alcohol. So if you can use negative visualization to find more gratitude on a daily basis then this will help distance yourself from the possibility of relapse.

People who pick up a drink or a drug at that moment of relapse are NOT grateful. They are in a state of mind that is the exact opposite of gratitude, in fact. They have decided that they are lacking, that they need something, that they deserve to self medicate, or that they are a victim and the world has done them wrong and that they deserve to take drugs or alcohol. Whatever they are thinking at the moment of relapse, it is definitely NOT gratitude.

So if you can practice something that drastically increases your gratitude–genuine happiness for your current situation in life, without needing to add anything–then this is very powerful for recovery.

Like I said, it is definitely counter-intuitive. You would think that someone who goes around every day and imagines how things could be worse for themselves would be miserable. But you have to try it in order to see how it will affect you, and how it can change your perception of things and create gratitude and happiness.

So this stoic technique of negative visualization is definitely worth experimenting with, but there are several quotes below from Seneca that I thought applied to recovery as well:

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

This definitely hits home for someone who has been wasting their life with drugs and alcohol for years, only to get sober and realize just how precious their life in recovery is.

I think it also speaks to the idea that we can, if we are not careful, end up wasting our life in recovery as well. I have known several people in recovery who managed to maintain sobriety but I secretly questioned if they were “really living.” For example, they may be people who avoid making any sort of positive changes after getting sober and they avoid personal growth at all costs. They were not ones to push themselves to achieve new things, learn new things, or experience new kinds of growth.

In my opinion this is not “living well” in recovery. I believe that it is important to continue on a path of personal growth in recovery and to continue to make positive changes. Not only will this help you to remain sober, but it will also make life worth living. What is life if not challenges and growth experiences? My vision is that we are here to learn and to grow. I think Seneca is warning us of wasting our life if we are those who refuse to take positive action and find new things to learn in life.

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”

Here is the learning/growth idea again, but stated more directly. Recovery is one big learning process, and it starts with the ego-crushing process of surrender where you have to admit that you do not know how to live successfully. This is the foundation of all future growth and it is this moment of surrender that opens the door for future learning. If you are too proud and too sure of your own methods in recovery then you can not learn anything useful because you will be closed off to it.

Even people who have twenty or thirty years of continuous sobriety will tell you that they are still “learning how to live.” The recovery process is a learning process that never ends. Seneca may not have been addicted to anything but he still approached life and learning in the same way that a recovering addict should.

“Begin at once to live, and count each day as a separate life.”

Profound wisdom here. How many of use are postponing our life or our happiness for some future event or moment? How many of us are not even aware of the hedonistic adaptation that makes us start to take our current situation for granted and not really live at all? How many of us think that we deserve something more in order to be happy, and thus postpone our happiness until certain demands or conditions are met?

Especially in recovery we need to take each day as a separate gift, because that is exactly what it is. Many of us comment in recovery that “we do not deserve to even be here” because if got what we deserved based on all of our drug and alcohol abuse we should, by all rights, be dead. This goes back to the negative visualization technique and the cultivation of gratitude.

It is not worth it to delay living. It is not worth it to think of our happiness as some moment out in the future that we might achieve if certain conditions are met. We need to take each moment and each day as a gift and start really appreciating life and living it to the fullest.

“What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.”

Seneca follows that up with “That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.”

This is a common theme in recovery, that we need to discover ourselves, get to know ourselves, and perhaps most importantly–start to like ourselves.

This also speaks to the idea that we need to forgive ourselves in recovery if we are going to make progress and move forward with our lives.

“Being your own friend” and “being able to be alone” is definitely something to strive for in recovery. The phrase typically heard today is “being comfortable in your own skin.” Many addicts and alcoholics have expressed the idea that they never were really “comfortable in their own skin” and this is part of what made them self medicate.

So obviously in recovery we have to learn how to be comfortable in our own skin, and that means learning “how to be your own friend” and be OK with being by yourself, without all of the chatter and distractions of the modern world. Perhaps this is why many recovery programs tend to emphasize meditation? (Step 11 in AA or NA).

If you can sit quietly with your own mind every day and not be uncomfortable in the least, then that is surely progress compared to our life in addiction. When we were actively abusing drugs or alcohol, we relied on self medicating to quiet our minds, black out our thoughts, or become comfortable in our own skin. In recovery, we no longer have that luxury, and have to figure out how to do these things on our own.

Seneca realized just how challenging this was, and realized how much growth it took to be able to forgive yourself and become comfortable in your own skin.

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”

Same as above (becoming your own friend): if you can get comfortable with yourself, with forgiving yourself, with living in your own skin, without having to distract yourself or self medicate, then that is real progress.

“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”

Recovery is a process.

It is a learning process that never ends.

The goal is to be healthy and happy and helpful to others.

These are not necessarily easy goals to achieve. The challenge is in living them every single day.

The statement above is really about the power of distraction, and how we use it to avoid living. It speaks of complacency as well, and the danger for the addict to fall into a routine, the same old routine of busy-ness, and lose sight of what is truly important in life.

At one point I noticed that I had fallen into a certain routine in my recovery, and as a result I was sort of stuck in a rut. I was existing, I was going through the motions, but I do not think that I was really growing at the time….I was not really learning, I was not pushing myself to do new things, to learn new things, to challenge myself. I had a schedule of meetings that I would attend and I had some other things going on (therapy, sponsorship, etc.) but I do not think I was truly living yet at that point.

I was busy with my recovery routine and I was so worried and so intent with the idea of follow through. I was telling myself “I have to go to these meetings and I have to keep doing the counseling thing and I have to make sure that I never stop and that I follow through so that I do not end up relapsing and become another failure in recovery.”

I was on a path of recovery and I was trying very hard but at the time I was not really living yet.

At this time I started to go through a transitional period where I really discovered myself and discovered how to live. At the end of this transition I had stopped worrying about “follow through” with my recovery. I had stopped worrying that I might relapse if I did not go to meetings. I had started to take positive action to pursue goals for myself and I was now concerned with living rather than with meeting recovery objectives.

I had to find my own path in recovery and I believe that every person ultimately does the same thing. It is not that you have to cast off AA or any other program of recovery necessarily, you just have to find your own unique path in life and start living it. I could not do this when I was stuck in my recovery routine and petrified that I was going to relapse if I stepped away from the path. I had to discover my own path in recovery that would lead me to make positive changes and find my own personal growth experiences. This led me away from organized programs but that is not the point. Your path may be different. The point is that you need to find a path of conscious growth, rather than just going through the motions of recovery. Being busy for the sake of busy-ness does not serve you, just as sitting in AA meetings for the next ten years and not pushing yourself to make positive changes is not serving you either.

At the very least, experiment with negative visualization and see if it produces more gratitude and happiness in your life. If not, discard the technique.


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