I once confessed to a guru that I suffered from an addictive personality. He startled me by roaring with laughter. “You and everyone else on the planet, Mira,” he retorted. “Anyone not fully enlightened is an addict of samsara.” Today I interpret his words this way: some of us are outright addicts to a range of substances. But there are subtle addictions too — to a particular lifestyle, a work routine that massages the ego, a favorite person, a diet, attention from others, sexual gratification, the consuming need to be appreciated by the world — and the list goes on, ad nauseam.
Substance addictions are the most easy to spot — and therefore easier to heal. Stop smoking, for instance, and you instantly halt the addiction. But subtle addictions are far more slippery: how to deal with the egoic compulsion to impress others with one’s beauty, intelligence, talent or wealth? Especially in an increasingly insane and plastic world, where we are encouraged to live artificial lives and are held to false standards, and where the workaholic, film star or billionaire is lauded and applauded?
If you too were born with an addictive personality, don’t worry, you are in stellar company. Here’s a short list of famous folks who used substances to run away from their pain demons: Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, reputedly addicted to opium; Charles Dickens, who used opium right up to his death by massive stroke; Bela Lugosi, early horror-movie star, who haunted opium dens and abused morphine; Florence Nightingale, another notorious opium user; comedian John Belushi, who died of an accidental overdose on a speedball (a lethal mixture of heroin and cocaine); Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana and heroin addict, who shot himself to death in his Washington home; Janis Joplin, iconic rock star of Woodstock and the radical 60′s, often forced to cancel shows because she was too stoned to go on stage; that haunting blues singer Billie Holiday, who succumbed to her heroin habit and massive quantities of alcohol; rising movie star River Phoenix, who died of a heroin-speedball overdose in Hollywood; Carrie Fisher, screenwriter and Star Wars Trilogy star, who abused prescription painkillers; Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll, who died in the mid 1970′s from a drug overdose in his fabulous Graceland home.
If you’ve been grappling with the demon yourself, you’ll be interested in this second list of celebrity addicts, past and present, most of whom succumbed to the dis-ease…. Alexander the Great, Ulysses Grant, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Jim Morrison. And now for some famous folk who won over the demon and are staying determinedly sober: Anthony Hopkins, Elton John, Betty Ford, Steven Tyler, Eminem, Mackenzie Phillips, Robert Downey, Jr., James Taylor, David Bowie, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, and Stephen King.
India’s Bollywood boasts its very own glittering array of addicts and alcoholics. Here’s a short list: film director Mahesh Bhatt, who has poured his angst into his movie-making; Nepali actress Manisha Koirala, now reputedly sober; Arjun Rampal, brand ambassador for Chivas, unusually open (by close-mouthed Indian standards) about his long-standing affair with the bottle; Meena Kumari, haunting 60s Bollywood icon who succumbed to liver cirrhosis at the age of thirty-nine; Dharmendra, who used his creative energies to soothe his addictive demons;. lyricist Javed Akhtar, rumored to have composed his most sublime music in alcoholic states; Sanjeev Kumar, driven to drink by his unrequited love for south Indian diva Hema Malini, Guru Dutt, who played Svengali to actress Waheeda Rehman and ended his life with a lethal combo of pills and alcohol, and Silk Smitha, the sultry southern movie star whose gloom over her failed career and love life led her to commit suicide. God alone knows how many more are still in the closet.
Why does celebrity screw up the lives of so many? As a maven of eastern philosophy, allow me to explain it this way: the life of the actor/actress/model is rooted squarely in what Vedanta would term the unreal — an inherently unsatisfying realm of consciousness, for it is based on the shifting sands of a mass audience’s fickle perceptions, whims and fancies. The world, in a word, is a whore. As Andy Warhol said, in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.
Does one eschew a life in the public eye altogether? Far wiser to cultivate the attitude of the spiritually inclined folk who learn — most often via the school of hard knocks — to endure the kicks life regularly delivers to us all, even as they grow in wisdom. What is this attitude? You must find your own unique variation of: all righty then, today I’m famous, but pretty soon someone more cool, prettier, smarter, wittier or just plain sexier, is definitely going to usurp my seat on the Titanic. And the truth of the matter is that all of samsara is the majestically sinking Titanic — because even the most glorious career must come to an end, bringing to an abrupt halt all the superficial benefits of stardom.
Just for the record, while it’s clear that many of the world’s most charismatic people have also been the worst addicts, and it’s not your fault if you were born with an addictive personality, it is your responsibility to recover!