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Cave Paintings, Substance Abuse and Lawyers

One of the most dramatic struggles in pre-history recorded in the Bible and myths of old was the conflict between the old order of hunter-gatherers and the new order of farmers. Gradually of course the farmers won, but not entirely. In a way the struggle still goes on in the neurochemistry of our brains. And among lawyers the hunter-gatherers are still thriving.

Reading a book on cave painting in the Paleolithic period, it dawned on me that what was smudged on the walls of caves in southern France 25,000 years ago offered a clue as to why there was more alcoholism and other drug addictions among lawyers than the rest of the population. A clue perhaps as to why I often see among lawyers who are or have experienced problems with alcoholism and other drugs also a problem with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Much recent literature on attention deficit disorder suggests ADD is largely a cultural issue. It is the problem created when you take a hunter-gatherer out of the woods where attention moves rapidly from one object or sound to the next and put him or her (interestingly much more often boys than girls and for that reason I will use the male pronoun) into a non-sensory stimulating environment and tell him to be quiet and concentrate on his math problems.

For thousands and thousands of years man was a hunter-gatherer and much of that way of being seems to be still programmed into many of us. It is a way of being that provides quick reactive alertness and an aggressiveness in facing danger which are skills a good trial lawyer benefits from. But sometimes it does not fit in with a learning culture that is patterned more on the slow methodical discipline of the farmer cultivating his patch of squash, corn and beans.

The cave paintings come from a time when the hunter-gatherer cultural was in ascendancy. A recent study by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams convinces that the cave paintings were a part of the regular practice of hunter-gatherers to learn how to access alternative states of consciousness. It was important for survival to develop a number of people particularly skilled in this process, shamans, who would help heal the sick and foretell weather and thus help assure the continuation of the tribe; and it was also an important skill for the average hunter who would by this process be able to commune with the animal he was seeking to kill.

Altered states of conscious vary along a spectrum but the state that shamans valued was that of deep trance and hallucination. Trance states are caused by a wide range of factors. There is some overlap between certain conditions that today we characterize as pathological which are apt to be conducive to hallucination such as temporal lobe epilepsy, migraine and schizophrenia. But while some shaman may have been mentally ill by our standards today and simply turned their handicap to their own advantage, the achievement of trance states was also ordinary among healthy people.

There are many ways that trance states are induced. One of the most well known and ancient is the use of psychotropic drugs. But other methods, just as effective, include forms of sensory deprivation, intense pain, vigorous dancing, rhythmic drumming and chanting. Religious mystics from many diverse traditions have used some or all of these methods as ways of changing their consciousness and achieving a state of ecstasy.

What is extremely interesting is that cave paintings show the same three stages through which an ancient hunter-gatherer passed that modern neuropsychological research shows what subjects go through as they go deeper and deeper into trance. Cave paintings were then not only an expression of a shamanistic experience but a place to come to re-invoke that experience. The third stage itself is reached via a vortex or tunnel which the caves themselves duplicate in the literal non-hallucinatory world. Cave paintings tell us the same thing that William James does in his classic work “The Variety of Religious Experience;” and what an old-timer in AA means when he says that he is thankful for his alcoholic illness because only by reason of it has he come to a profoundly new experience of living life’s the reality, efficacy and pervasiveness of spiritual experience.

This dovetails with the comment of Carl Jung to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, about a man Jung had treated unsuccessfully over an extended period of time for alcoholism, that short of some kind of spiritual experience he had no hope for this man being able to overcome his chemical addiction.

Maybe there is still wired in us from the hunter-gathers this need from time to time to escape our ordinary consciousness and plug into the consciousness of the world. Like anything we humans do there are both destructive and creative ways to try to get to the same goal. On the one hand there are the documented cases of people trying one session of a psychotropic drug like LSD and being pushed into a disabling schizophrenia from which they are unable to escape the rest of their lives. There are a number of middle of the road methods such as daily use of alcohol that tease the body with a brief feeling of mood elevation but then actually hinder by depressive affect any meaningful spiritual journey. And, on the other end, there are those methods cultivated by mainstream religious traditions of meditation, fasting, singing and chanting that can induce altered state experiences. Maybe the East became farmers sooner for this region has had a longer experience moving from the more active methods of the hunter-gatherers to the methods of disciplined concentration to achieve altered state experiences. In Tibet and India the disciplines of meditation and sensory deprivation have extensive histories and traditions as means to obtain altered states of consciousness and to integrate that consciousness into daily life.

In Paleolithic culture shamanism was not an addendum to society, it was an all embracing way of life and thought. In our culture the use of alcohol and other drugs is not an addendum, but it is an all embracing way of life for our culture and for many people. Maybe the lesson from those ancient cave painters is not to condemn outright those who have followed a spiritual impulse in a destructive manner, but to acknowledge the validity of universal spiritual longing and to recognize that today we have a choice of the means, destructive or creative, by which that longing is expressed; and that the most effective treatment methods for those who have made a destructive choice are ones that allow the individual to find in the depths of addiction’s destruction the positive realization of his or her own individual spiritual desire.

The cave paintings also tell us why recovery spirituality is not about religion. In a sense the cave painters solved the fundamental problem religions later came to face: how to create a theology that changes as people’s experience of life changes. Many of the people who suffer from active alcoholism are alienated from God or mad at God. Or, as Father Leo Booth has written so eloquently about have been subject to religious abuse. How does one have an understanding of help outside one’s self that works for the religiously abused person the same as it does for the unaddicted lawyer who is middle class and successful, goes to church every Sunday and is worried about his kids use of drugs? Or the lawyer who has stopped full time practice and devoted his life to working with a Christian disaster relief team? The cave painters solved this problem by having a theology of practice not an ideological theology. What we surmise as important to their religion was the practice of rituals that allowed them to have transcendent religious experiences. These experiences were kept alive and invoked by the images on the cave walls.

Unlike ideas the meaning of images can change from person to person and change with a person as one’s understanding of life grows and needs change. The people that I know who have active meaningful spiritual lives tell me that their understanding of God has changed significantly over the years, often dramatically during a time of crisis. But for many of these people the images that contain their connection to their spiritual aspect have stayed the same. Images like those of the Buddha, the cross, or the black Madonna illustrate how powerfully images can connect people in a spiritual way without the fetters of ideology.

In addition to the physiological addiction that an alcoholic suffers, i.e., the physical craving messages for alcohol that the brain is sending to the body, there usually are among lawyers (often whether chemically addicted or not) an underlying psychological addiction to power and control. Breaking the physical craving requires addressing the underlying psychological need for control and power. It is impossible to address this fear based issue by attempting to foist on a person someone else’s control, i.e., someone’s else ideology.

Part of the great wisdom of twelve step recovery is that it has no ideology. In our modern world that is so full of visual images it is probably good that unlike the cave painters it does not rely on visual images. But it does follow the cave painters idea of a theology of practice not of ideology. It incorporates certain universal practices of spirituality: prayer, meditation, forgiveness, gratitude, to deal with the soul sickness and devastation that the disease of addiction has brought and to open up the possibility of transcendent change.

Through the daily practice of a few simple principles human lives are saved. Of course we are a meaning-hungry species and we constantly search for ideas to hang on the bare limbs of any practice, but none seem necessary for recovery to work.

The other day I was told by a friend who is in recovery that his teenager had asked how did he possibly think in praying for someone that he could be telling God anything God didn’t know or be persuading God he had a better understanding of a situation than God did. He replied to his teenager that what if anything happens to the prayed for person is a part of prayer that is a spiritual mystery he didn’t understand, but what he did know is that the routine practice of pray changes the person who prays, especially if you pray for those who wrong you, that you resent. When this is done he said one is freed from the bondage of resentment that keeps one caught in what happened yesterday and opens the opportunity to be fully present in life each day. In this way a simple spiritual practice can return the same sense of awe and wonder to life that is seen in the long ago paintings our ancestors made in caves.

– by Don Carroll

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