What is it about celebrities that makes them so appealing? Is it their larger-than-life personas? Their access to money, fame, opportunities that most people only dream of? Of course, we know the reality is that celebrities often lead very tumultuous lives. The attainment of external markers of success doesn’t necessarily make you happy.
In some ways, the rise of the celebrity teaches us so much about our longing for greatness, and about the pitfalls of focusing on external validation versus self-cultivated confidence and inner peace. Consider that celebrities represent an extension of our culture’s emphasis on gaining status and success through things like wealth, glamour, romantic attention, or other external symbols, like a new car.
In other ways, I think people are attracted to celebrities because they represent the attainment of genuine emotional and spiritual yearnings. How many of us wish to be seen and heard? How many of us wish to transcend the ordinary, mundane existence of every day?
I had the pleasure of speaking to the hilarious, talented, and insightful Russell Brand on this episode. I admire how Russell transformed his life from one where he was struggling with an addiction to substances and fame, into the life he has now, where he is walking a spiritual path.
“The material world is an illusion…the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth…no material thing can ever make you happy. This idea is culturally reiterated everywhere and insidiously ignored everywhere” – Russell Brand
Russell and I discussed how achievement satisfies a need for greatness, and also how it falls short of providing true spiritual sustenance. He also shared the advice he’d give to those seeking a truly fulfilling life. Let’s get started!
Comedian, actor, author, and activist, Russell has famously evolved from wild child movie star to spiritual luminary. He is the author of several best-selling books including Recovery and Revolution. He is also a podcaster and influencer who freely shares spiritual guidance, meditation techniques, and cutting-edge yoga practices. Above all, Russell has committed to upturning the status quo, to pioneering new ways of thinking and being in the world.
Having risen from a hellish addiction to crack cocaine and heroin, Russell has experienced plenty of highs and lows. After his recovery, he committed to helping people release addictions of all kinds. His refreshing course, Recovery, takes students through Russell’s unique take on the 12-step system.
Being a gifted comedian, Russell is as funny as he is wise. Given the subject matter, the conversation sometimes took a heavy turn, but his self-deprecating humor and laser-sharp insights had me laughing as much as I was thinking.
I’m so grateful Russell joined me for this enlightening and delightful conversation.
When I asked Russell to describe the truth about fame and what it really means to him, he said:
“Fame kind of mimics a deeper greatness.” – Russell Brand
But while he acknowledges that celebrities can be extraordinary humans, it’s not a guarantee.
According to Russell, celebrities of the past (he referenced the poet Lord Byron and the playwright Oscar Wilde) had a magnetism that was often based on spiritual impulses or cultural critique. Byron wrote about the sublime aspects of life and nature. Wilde was commenting on his materialistic culture. But in many ways, today’s celebrities are an “extension of commerce.”
“Greatness can be an inadvertent factor within fame, but it is not a defining one any longer because greatness so frequently comes at a price.” – Russell Brand
What is this price? In many cases, extraordinary people have to go against the grain to live their purpose. They have to listen to their inner vision. While past luminaries may have been socially chastised for this, today it might mean you give up some distractions, negative thought patterns, or beliefs you inherited from your parents in order to live your life’s purpose.
Russell went on to describe what led him to pursue fame. It’s no surprise that the pursuit came from very human needs, rooted in childhood:
“I wanted to be famous because I felt insufficient and inadequate as I was…Who knows what choices I would have made if I’d have had access to spiritual principles as a child. And as a young man, if people said, look, there’s something in you, that you’ve got gifts and stuff. Why don’t you explore those gifts in this direction[?]…In the absence of that, I took the gifts in that the dominant direction of our culture and the magnetism of our culture” – Russell Brand
He shared that growing up in England, it was important for boys to be good at two things: fighting and football. Russell wasn’t good at either. So he pursued attention, fame, and celebrity as a way to compensate for these feelings. But as with all bandaids, the fame only worked for so long. Russell described how it was never enough, how he always wanted more, and how this also fueled his addictions.
Do you see how no matter how many external markers of success you have, you’re still you? You still have to deal with your emotions, you still have to make peace with your past. Greatness is an inside job. The rest is secondary. So you can be great and be a celebrity. Great and talented. But you have to do the work first.
I really appreciated Russell’s insights into addiction. I found it very humane and real, taking me beyond judgment and into awareness of how humans do strive to connect to something bigger than themselves. They just don’t always know how to do it in a healthy way.
“Look at the idioms around it: get off your face, get smashed, destroy yourself. But that is on some level…using inappropriate means to transcend and become free of the self. It’s a spiritual impulse…when you think that spirituality is simply the valorizing of the inner life over the outer life, the need to connect, the need to feel something truthful and real, then anyone that picks up a drink ever or smoked a joint is after a spiritual experience, they’re trying to feel better.”
– Russell Brand
Much like stardom itself, substances are an escape hatch to feel something that we all want to feel. We want to get out of our heads and break free from limiting beliefs—away from our unworthiness, our inadequacies, our fear of failure and disappointment.
It doesn’t take a needle to be an addict. You can be addicted to anything. Your phone. Attention. Work and perfectionism. Relationships and sex. You can even be addicted to worry and fear itself.
There are many reasons for this, but I think it’s clear that these are all temporary coping mechanisms. There will always be another fix to get. The monkey mind will always create conflict and desire, and it’s no wonder we’re searching for ways to escape this endless cycle. Russell shared that, in some ways, he’s happy that he went down the path of addiction:
“It takes you to [the] extreme. So you’re confronted with the fallibility of the choices you’re making. These choices won’t work for you. I think a lot of people…are able to struggle along with moderate addictions to food or sex or success or whatever, never, ever reaching the point of crisis that would facilitate transformation. Metamorphosis. Real change.” – Russell Brand
Can you think of any band-aids or escape hatches you’re using to avoid your experience? What if the next time you reach for a cookie to distract you, or check how many likes your post got, you paused. Ask yourself: What do I really want at this moment? What do I really need? Is there another healthier way I can give that to myself?
Maybe you’re feeling lonely so you open up your Facebook account, even though you always feel worse after scrolling through everyone’s posts. Take a step back. Reflect, breathe and get out your journal. Could you give yourself some of the attention and positivity that you’re craving from outside sources? If not, is there a mentor or teacher who can show you how to do that?
I agree with Russell that people can easily exist in states where they’re not really living. The years go by as they’re numbing, avoiding, and escaping, all in very ordinary, culturally accepted ways. So what’s going to be your wake-up call? Should you wait until there’s a crisis? Maybe you do, or maybe you want to start changing your patterns now because it’s ultimately better for you.
I asked Russell what he wished he would have known when he was young and pursuing fame. He gave the example of a young actor pursuing a career in the movies.
“Live in service of the thing you claim to love. If [you’re] saying that you want to be an actor, make sure that what you don’t secretly want is actually just loads of attention and power and glory and glamour. Make sure that you are in service of acting or music or whatever it is…All of us have gifts and we often use these gifts. We put the gift to work like …get out there and make me some money…Imagine if it was like a little bird or a child or something. I would have to look after it and take care of it.” – Russell Brand
You can look at any pursuit like this. Let’s say you’re pursuing a love interest. Do you really love that person the way you claim to? Are you looking for validation and admiration? Or are you genuinely in love with that person?
Now you might be wondering if you should pursue something if some of your motivation is about what you can get out of it. You might wonder if you should abandon your plans to be a CEO because you’re hoping, on some level, that it will fulfill your need for social status.
Well, unless that’s the only reason you’re pursuing it, then no. Russell shared that, when pursuing comedy, he was truly wanting to be of service to the craft of comedy more than anything else. But, he also wanted fame, followers, and attention. So just check in to see whether you’re pursuing something only because of these factors.
In all cases, try shifting into this service mindset. It’s a great, healthy way to get outside of your ego-mind, connect to something bigger than you, and access that connection we crave.
I asked Russell what skills he wished he’d had earlier in life. He had a lot to say about the lessons learned in 12-step recovery programs. I was struck by one of his descriptions:
“As they say in some of the great [12-step] literature, [you don’t need to always be] scrambling to be on the top of the pile or hiding underneath it. [Be] happy to just be a person among people, not always seeking to either isolate or separate [yourself]…being happy to be part of a community or part of a group or part of a family.” – Russell Brand
His description of being at the top or bottom of the pile really hit home for me. So often, I see people who want to either stand out as superhuman, or they see themselves as lacking worth and less than other people. Oftentimes, this alternates…sometimes in the span of a few hours!
Do you see how the mind can catapult us from high to low? How can we go from feeling unworthy to grandiose? When we view ourselves in others’ eyes, we have a fickle and unstable sense of self. It crumbles so easily.
It seems that we can attain deeper peace when we move beyond both the self-deprecating thoughts and the self-important thoughts. We cease to be the center of the universe, believing ourselves to be either the victim or hero. We’re grateful just to be humans, having a human experience with other humans. To be okay with that, to be happy with that, is the blessing Russell shares.
Given all the transformational work Russell has done, I wanted to hear from him how he manages negative thoughts. He spoke of drug addiction, but he also shared that he was dismantling other harmful patterns, such as monitoring his social media page. He shared with a friend how social media comments were negatively impacting his emotional state. Then, when he felt the need to check his account, he would wait and call his friend.
“We talk about the feelings we have and what it elicits in us when we want to do it and what it feels like not to do it.”– Russell Brand
An important takeaway? We don’t have to do everything alone! If you have a close friend who can hold you accountable, ask them to. Or make a pact together. Or hire a mentor, coach, or therapist. Russell shared what he tells his spiritual mentors:
“[I’ll tell them] this is how I’m feeling about my family. This is how I’m feeling about being a man. This is how I feel about fatherhood, work, whatever it is” -Russell Brand
I found Russell’s comparison of fame and greatness to be powerful. In a way, you can see that the trajectory of his life was always a spiritual quest. He just didn’t know it at the time. And I think this can go for everyone, however they define that quest.
“Fame is bolted on to greatness. A friend of mine said, oh, even in your pursuit of fame, it was obvious that what you were after was God… but the culture doesn’t know how to give you God.” – Russell Brand
I’m so happy Russell found new, more satisfying ways to connect to this purpose.
Please do yourself a favor and listen to the episode. Russell is just a pleasure and a delight to listen to and he had so much wisdom to share. Anyone who is put off by the usual moralizing about addiction will find his approach really refreshing. Don’t forget to share the episode with someone who needs to hear it: You could change someone’s life.
Follow Russell on social media (listed in the show notes below), listen to his book Revelation on Audible, and check out his podcast Under the Skin.
I want to acknowledge Russell for being an incredible human, agent of transformation, and spiritual rock star. Many thanks to him also for bringing his compassionate perspective of addiction to the public.
“We have to be a channel of the peace and of the light. We have to be of service. We [have to] accept our flaws and fallibility. If the entrance price [to heaven] is perfection, then none of us can pay it. But greatness truly understood and truly achieved is to actualize what it is that you were supposed to be…that there is a purpose to being here” – Russell Brand
Friends, join me on Episode 1109 to learn about fame, fighting addiction, and spiritual freedom with Russell Brand. It’ll change your life!
let us know your thoughts