Principle 1: Understanding what we are up against
These behaviors are very addictive. To quote Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski in a recent talk:
You have no idea as to what category of people have fallen victim to internet pornography. We would not think that these type of people would be capable of it. Hopefully nobody who’s a Yirei Shamayim is going to go look for that kind of trash and that kind of filth. However, it is perfectly possible that while monkeying around with the internet, you hit a button and there’s a pop-up of a pornography scene. You weren’t looking for it, but it happened. You have exactly 3/10ths of a second to turn it off. And if you avoid it for 4/10ths of a second, you may become addicted. That’s how severe it is. It's one of the most powerful addictions. Day after day after day - I get letters and calls from people who say, "what can I do to save myself?
If we find that we keep falling into inappropriate behaviors that go against our conscience and better judgment, and we have tried countless times to stop in the past but always seem to fall back to them in the end, then we are probably struggling with an addiction. As Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski says:
The ultimate distinction between man and animals is not that man is more intelligent, but that animals are creatures that have no choice over their behavior. They must do whatever their bodies demand. They cannot choose what they should do. Man has the ability of self-control, to choose one's behavior, even in defiance of physical urges. If a person loses one's ability to choose and is dominated by urges one cannot control, one is indeed an addict.
We may have tried to do Teshuvah many times in the past, but the standard model of Teshuva (Azivas Hachet, Charata and Kabbala al Haba) doesn't always work for us very well anymore. Addiction is a type of disease, and our Sages understood the nature of addiction, as the Gemara (Avodah Zara 17a) says in relation to the story of “Ben Durdaya” who had been with every prostitute in the world, “Kivan dehava adik be’aveira tuvah, ki’minus dami – since he was entrenched in the sins a lot, it was similar to heresy”. Rabbi Twerski points out how the word “adik” is very similar to the word “addict”. Also, Rebbe Asi said: "The Yetzer Harah in the beginning is compared to a strand of a spider web, and in the end like a rope that is used to tie cattle". Our Sages recognized that once a person repeats a particular sin a number of times "it becomes to him as if it is permitted". Even more so, in this area where our Sages have said: "The more it is fed, the hungrier it gets". Therefore, the standard Teshuvah techniques are not usually sufficient in our case anymore. Once these behaviors have progressed to addictive levels, will power alone is rarely effective in dealing with them and it is no longer just a "Yetzer Hara" issue. Addiction is a spiritual and psychological disease. It is important to understand that we are not simply dealing with a “stronger than usual” Yetzer Hara, and we are not just “weak-willed” people who can’t control ourselves. The Sefer haChinuch on the Mitzva 387 “Do not stray after your heart and eyes”, compares lust to alcohol addiction, describing how the more it is fed, the more it wants and the harder it is to break free of it. The nature of the addiction is analogous to someone standing on the railroad tracks while he watches the train bearing down on him, and yet he can't move himself out of the way. And as Rabbi Twerski puts it in his book "Addictive Thinking": We place our hands on the stove, get burned, and yet we feel compelled to do it again.
How do these behaviors lead to addiction? It’s simple neuroscience. Just like with any pleasure, the pleasure sensory is stimulated in the brain. Whether its cocaine, alcohol, or pleasure one might get from inappropriate scenes viewed during a movie, the serotonin levels spike and the dopaminergic pleasure pathways are activated in the standard "addiction" pattern. As a matter of fact, these behaviors have been shown to be MORE powerfully addictive than most drugs, in one study. It's not a big wonder why that would be. It's an intense pleasure stimulation, even more direct than a hard drug. And upon repeated exposure to certain types of stimulation, one tends to seek out even more perverse and intense stimulation, leading to that vicious self-destructive cycle that is typical of addictions. What was enough yesterday to achieve a ‘high’, is no longer enough today to achieve the same effect.
The addiction didn’t appear overnight. We developed the addiction slowly over time, by accustoming ourselves to arouse lust in our minds, whether through viewing inappropriate material or through self-pleasuring and fantasies. And we did this many thousands of times. And every time we did this, yes, every single time, we were blazing neuron pathways in our brain that kept getting stronger and stronger. And today, these pathways are deeply ingrained in our minds.
Also, there are many levels of this addiction. The fewer times we acted out on lust, the less defined the neuron pathways will be in our minds, and hence, the addiction will be at a less advanced stage. This is vital to understand and should serve as a powerful incentive for us to do everything in our power to stop these behaviors now. Because every single time we act out on lust, we are making the addiction worse, and harder to deal with for the long term.
The symptoms of this addiction are twofold. Firstly, we have accustomed our minds to crave the chemical rush that lust gives us, in the same way that an alcoholic craves alcohol. We have often learned to use lust as a drug for self-soothing purposes. We crave to ‘lose ourselves’ in lust to ‘medicate’ our feelings of inadequacy, guilt and depression, or even simply as an escape from the realities of life. The second symptom of the addiction is that stimulation triggers a much stronger arousal for addicts than it does in normal people. We have become hypersensitive to stimulation, to the point that we feel powerless when faced head-on with lust. This is actually a medical/psychological condition that can be tested through scientific devices. In the mind of someone with this condition, the dopaminergic pleasure pathways in the brain are triggered much faster and more intensely than in normal people.
It is important to understand that as an addiction, this is not something we can remove by simply talking ourselves out of it. A therapist may be able to help us discover why we became addicted in the first place, but that alone is not enough. Now that we have these pathways engrained in our minds, all the understanding in the world won't change the fact that we have this problem, in the same way that understanding a broken leg won't heal it. It is also important to understand that once the addiction has advanced to a certain level, it will likely be there for life, as the saying goes: “Once an addict, always an addict.” What that means is that once we have trained our minds to use lust as a type of drug, we must learn to keep far away from lust. And no matter how much progress we might think we’ve made in this struggle, once we let ourselves take that first “drink”, we will feel powerless all over again. In the 12-Step literature, the addiction is compared to an allergy. If someone has an allergic reaction to peanuts for example, they can’t get close to them without getting an allergic reaction. And even if they haven’t had peanuts in 20 years, the moment they ingest peanuts again the allergic reaction will return in full force!
As one of the 12-Step pamphlets says:
Lusting, for us, is like riding a roller coaster. Once started, it is nearly impossible to stop. Therefore, lust must be stopped where it begins, with the first drink. Getting out from under the influence of lust, therefore, requires us to avoid getting on board in the first place.
Our addiction to lust is like the alcoholic’s problem with alcohol. Just as the alcoholic cannot tolerate one drink of alcohol, we cannot tolerate even the smallest drink of lust. Lust always leads to more lust, eventually making us drunk with it. Once drunk, the urge to act out is impossible to resist. Just a little lusting simply doesn’t work for us.
But as scary as all this may seem, it is not really so bad. Someone who has a chronic iron deficiency can still lead a perfectly normal life, as long as they take his daily iron pill. Someone who has diabetes can also be fine, as long as they take their insulin. So too with us; we may have a type of disease but there are many techniques that can be used as our “medication" every day, to keep the addiction in check.
Instead of the standard Teshuvah model, we need to begin to change our entire attitude. We learn the tools and techniques of how to sidestep the lust instead of trying to fight it head on. And we learn how to give our will over to Hashem and live with His help, instead of trying to use our own strengths to fight something that is stronger than us.