Can Rock And Roll Be A Transformational Experience?

addiction spirituality May 17, 2023

 The other day I did a fun little livestream in my private FaceBook group (@JimSavageRecovery) that took quite an interesting turn—and opened the door for a lot of stimulating discussion since I posted it.

I actually had no plan for what I was going to talk about when I decided to "go live." I was really just doing it for the sake of practicing "going live," as I'm still figuring out some of the behind the scenes tech stuff that goes into creating content like this for social media.

If anything, my purpose was to let people know about some upcoming things I'm going to be doing from my new studio using music and other creative production projects, all aimed at supporting recovery. I decided to present a video I had made the day before of a song that has nothing to do with recovery or any of the topics I typically talk about in my "day job" as a drug counselor. I was just having some fun playing a little rock and roll. 

(Watch video at the top of this page for replay of the livestream)

As you can hear in the video, I had a little fun as I tried to spin this into some sort of recovery-related theme or message. And I actually surprised myself when, by the end of the video, I realized there perhaps really was something to what I was spinning... But the impromptu comments I made during the livestream barely scratch the surface of what was rolling around in my head as it occurred to me that the song in the video actually touches on a topic that goes to the heart of addiction and recovery.

I'm a firm believer that there is a direct connection between addiction and the desire for a transformational, or spiritual experience. It's a pretty deep topic, but that's where I was headed in my lighthearted attempt at finding something recovery related about a video of me playing a Lou Reed song called Rock And Roll. However, since what I talked about in the livestream was just the tip of the iceberg on what I can turn into a fairly heavy topic, I decided I ought to do a blog post for a more in-depth discussion on the relationship between addiction and spirituality. 

So here we go.

To set the stage on where I'm going with this, I need to begin with a fascinating story about an interaction between Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychiatry, and Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  



There's a story in the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous where a "certain American business man" was trying everything he could to overcome his alcoholism. He eventually went to Europe and got himself in to be treated by the renowned Carl Jung.

After working with him for a while, Jung eventually told the man he was hopeless and that there was nothing more he could do for him.

He informed him that the only people he had seen recover from such a hopeless state were those who had had what he referred to as a "vital spiritual experience." They had experienced an entire "psychic rearrangement" in which their entire attitude and outlook on life had changed. Jung informed the man he had been trying to make this happen for him, but wasn't having any luck. His best advice was to get around some religious folks and hope to have a "spiritual experience." As it says in the Big Book, "Our friend felt as though the gates of hell had closed on him with a clang."

The man returned to America and got involved with a particular religious organization that ended up becoming an influence on Bill Wilson, and as the dominos fell, this contributed to the eventual formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Many years later, after AA had taken off and become a hugely successful program for helping people overcome alcoholism, Bill Wilson wrote Carl Jung a letter, wanting him to know what a significant contribution he had made in getting this off the ground through his interaction with that early alcoholic patient. 

Bill Wilson got an immediate response from Carl Jung.

And the gist of what Jung told Bill Wilson was that at the time there was much he wanted to say, but he wasn't sure the patient would be able to understand where he was coming from. He went on to share with Bill that he believed "The alcoholic's craving for alcohol is not unlike the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness; expressed in medieval language: the union with God." 

In other words, addiction is about trying to achieve some type of spiritual experience. 



But here's where it gets interesting.

Jung went on to give Bill Wilson a little lesson in linguistics. He told him that the Latin word for alcohol is spiritus; that "the same word is used for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison."

A portion of Carl Jung's letter to Bill Wilson, January 30,1961

Further study on the interpretation of the word "alcohol" shows that it actually comes from the Arabic word "alkuhl," which means "body eating spirit." The English word "ghoul" derives from this word as well. The ancient alchemists saw the effects of alcohol (which I'm going suggest might be adapted to "addiction") as something that completely takes over a person, robbing them of their soul. The AA Big Book actually has a line in it that describes alcoholism as leading to "annihilation of all things worthwhile in life."

This view of alcohol in the context of "spirits" reminds me of one of the great "Chalk Talk" videos from Father Martin back in the early days of treatment where he goes in this same direction by describing the solvent properties of alcohol—not unlike mineral spirits, i.e. paint thinner or turpentine.  

He described alcoholism as something that seeps in and dissolves:

  • It dissolves marriages.
  • It dissolves bank accounts.
  • It dissolves physical health. 
  • It overtakes and consumes.

On the other hand, in the religious context, the Latin word "spiritus" literally translates as "breath." As in the "breath of Life which comes from God." Here it could be said that what Jung was referring to as "the highest religious experience" is something that comes in, fills us, overtakes us, consumes us. The same as alcohol (addiction), only in a positive way. 

In my work with treatment clients, I frequently suggest that someone in the throes of addiction is stuck between the sacred and profane. They know what they want; they know there's this good person in there, they want to be that person, they want to feel whole and fulfilled. 

But at the same time they know that their addiction has a hold on them and they're not able to get loose from it. 

And it usually takes some type of dramatic, or drastic experience to break free from the psycho-spiritual trap that is the domain of addiction. 



Jung said the only people he saw successfully recover from alcoholism are those who have had what he referred to as a "vital spiritual experience." He went on to describe this as resulting in an entire "psychic rearrangement." 

To take all the woo-woo or heavy duty religious connotation out of this, just think of Jimmy Stewart in "It's A Wonderful Life." A near-death experience results in an entire new attitude and outlook on life. It's the darkest hour before the dawn. "The gates of hell closing with a clang" on the man being treated by Carl Jung. In recovery terms, it's the "ego-deflation at depth" that Bill Wilson referred to as an inherent dynamic that precedes the spiritual experience. Or as many people in treatment relate to, it can simply be the feeling of "something missing," and finding something that lights them up and leads to feeling fulfilled. 

As a result of my own spiritual experience and coming to recognize this relationship between addiction and the desire for spiritual connection, I decided early on that helping others achieve their own spiritual experience was going to be the primary focus of my work in addiction treatment. And after thirty years of creating programs and facilitating activities designed to help treatment clients explore recovery from this perspective, I can say that opening the door to the idea of some type of transformational experience is one of the most powerful ways to inspire them to move past that stuck place between addiction and wholeness. 

Perhaps this dynamic of being stuck is best captured in a song I wrote called "All That I Can Do." It's from from my rock musical The Journey, which is a musical program I use in treatment as an educational curriculum for examining addiction and recovery. One particular section of the song reflects this desire to be "filled," yet it remains unclear what the singer's relying on to achieve this fulfillment: 

Feeling like I don't know what to do

There's a hole in my soul where the wind blows through

Fill me up, make me feel brand new

Like only you can do

During the stage production of the musical, the lead character is holding a joint in front of her face, struggling not to smoke it, knowing that she wants something better. She wants a mystical, awesome experience. She wants to medicate the "hole in her soul." Jung would say she's wanting "union with God."

But she's stuck in getting this through her marijuana high. 

Those lucky enough to break through this barrier and step into recovery frequently identify this as nothing short of a "spiritual experience."

Watch video of the song: All That I Can Do



Which brings us back to what started this whole conversation... 

I posted a video in my recovery FaceBook Group of me playing a Lou Reed song that had nothing to do with recovery. In a lighthearted attempt to spin this into something having to do with recovery, I realized this song describes pretty much what I've been trying to convey through this post in a more simple and straightforward way:

a. Young girl feels like something's missing. 

b. She discovers something that changes her life. 

c. It was alright. 

As I considered my attempt to spin this into a recovery message, it occurred to me that Mr. Reed, in all his rock and roll glory, was literally describing a transformative experience when he wrote:

"Her life was saved by rock and roll"

So to answer the title question, "Can rock and roll be a transformational experience?"

I'll leave that up to you. We're really just having a little fun here. But underneath the fun, I hope I've provided something helpful for broadening your understanding of addiction and how this relates to the desire for spiritual fulfillment and wholeness. 

For more material on topics like this and other inspiring content join us on FaceBook @JimSavageRecovery




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