Dr. Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus of psychology, performed an experiment in the 1970s. His team built two cages for laboratory rats. In one cage a rat was alone and isolated. It couldn’t see or touch other rats and had nothing to do. In the other cage called Rat Park, they had good food and lots of cheese, running wheels for exercise, colored balls, platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding and many other rats to play and have sex with.
Rat Park soon filled with babies. In both cases, rats had access to two drinking bottles: a bottle of water and a bottle of water with morphine. Morphine is pure heroin. Unlike street heroin that contains brick dust, bleach powder, cement and other contaminants, morphine is much stronger. At the end of each day, researchers measured the two bottles to see if rats preferred the pure water or the heroin water.
The rats in solitary confinement almost always chose the heroin water. They always became addicted and killed themselves. In Rat Park, they almost never drank heroin water. None become addicted or overdosed. Rats are social, sexual and working beings just like humans.
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
Is what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
– Mark Twain
People who become addicted don’t have to be put in cages. It’s enough for them only to feel caged-in a job, in a relationship, in a family or in a country. They will drink or take drugs to cope with the situation. Prof. Alexander concluded that addiction is an escape from an environment where human connection is impossible. Alcohol or drug dependence is the consequence of not bearing being present in your own life.
While prof. Alexander was studying the effects of the social environment on rats, the Vietnam war was unfolding on the other side of the world. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 20 percent of the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. The public in the United States was terrified that hundreds of thousands of veterans will become junkies but this never happened.
When they returned home, 95 percent of the addicted soldiers stopped using heroin within one year. Another study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry revealed that addicts who didn’t receive any treatment were as likely to stop using drugs as those who went rehab. They changed the environment, they changed their behaviors.
Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, wrote that rats in solitary confinement and soldiers in Vietnam didn’t become victims of the drug but of their environment. Addiction was their way of coping with “being dislocated from everything that gave them meaning,” wrote Hari. When you feel caged, and your world becomes intolerable, you leave physically if you can or mentally if you cannot. When soldiers returned home to a meaningful life, they gave up the drugs.
People who live in a social environment where they can connect with others and bond with their work will not become addicted even if they have alcohol and drugs around them because they want to be present in their lives. But if you feel trapped or caged in a situation, a job or a relationship, if you cannot bond because of you in life in a social context that punishes you for expressing who you are and for living your truth, you will find refuge in whatever takes your pain away. Prof. Peter Cohen, director of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, suggested that we need to replace the word addiction with the word bonding. We have a fundamental human need to bond with our work and with others, but we can only bond if we live our truth and open our hearts.
You don’t need to live in a cage, or to go to war to feel caged, and not be able to find meaning in life. Your own mind, your unconscious beliefs, a toxic friendship, a job environment or family relationship can choke your will to express who you are with the same tragic effects. The heart’s calling – your will – is only love and cannot be anything else. Your will flows through your heart and pulls you towards what you most value in life.
When you embrace it, you find meaning. When you block it, you find pain. Love is the force that pulls us to follow our dreams and step into the unknown, to reveal and express who we are, to explore, to discover, to create and to bond. Whenever your behaviors conflict your will, whenever you think and act against love, tension grows within yourself. Strain turns into pain. Anger, anxiety, and depression follow.
The Importance of Living Your Truth
I have a friend who is project manager for a financial corporation, but her dream is to open a restaurant. Her will is to start this new business. Every time she thinks about her calling her heart fills with joy. She feels love. But immediately her mind drags her in the opposite direction: ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ ‘I am in my thirties, and I have a child. ‘What will my parents say about me quitting my job after they supported me through college?’
She then acts as she thinks she should and stays in her job without actually willing to do so. Everyone envies her. She earns a great paycheck, has a loving husband and a beautiful child, and she’s sinking into depression. She feels even worse when she looks around her because apparently, she has no reason to feel depressed. The truth is she has the only reason to feel depressed: her heart is screaming from a golden cage, and she doesn’t listen.
Finding Peace of Mind and Joy with Truth
The greater is the gap between what love calls you to do and what you actually do, the deeper the depression you can fall into. The way to find joy is to leave the cage, not to make it prettier. Why do you think the waiting rooms of psychologists and psychiatrists are filled with successful people who realized after twenty or thirty years of work that money, a career and a house in the suburbs do not bring peace of mind and joy of heart?
They keep hoping that by changing the external conditions of their lives – earn more money, be in a better physical shape, have another partner or travel more – will change how they feel. It never works because the emptiness is not around them. The emptiness is within them. And the only way to come back to life is to acknowledge that little voice rising from your heart and begging you to return to love, to return to truth.
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