Search This Blog

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beyond the 'Big Book' . . . Beyond the 'Inner Dialogue' . . . Beyond the Confines of the 'Self'

The 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous is, of course, our most valuable resource in early recovery, offering, as it does, a complete guide for rapidly taking the newcomer through the Twelve Steps so that he or she may be released from active alcohol addiction. But how effective is it, in and of itself, for working with the "alcoholic who still suffers" years (and, perhaps, many years) into sobriety as he or she continues to struggle, not with the obsession over alcohol, but with "the bondage of self"?

Realistically, there are many within the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations), and many returning to these rooms sober, whose spiritual experiences have not been so "deep and effective" as to relieve them from the obsessive nature of the mind. There are those, too, who have had illuminating spiritual experiences only to fall from such spiritual heights and who continue to struggle to recapture what they once had. These are the "still suffering" alcoholic addicts with minds that no longer obsess over alcohol but, rather, minds that obsess about the ordinary human trials and tribulations of life - the instinctive drives for security, sex and society - in their many varieties. The 'Big Book' is necessarily silent about such men and women, as it was written so early in the experience of the then-recovering alcoholics.

Bill Wilson thought that perhaps the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions would help those, like himself, "who had begun to run into life's lumps in other areas than alcohol." Indeed, a decade or so into his own sobriety, when he wrote the second book, "he was suffering almost constant depression and was forced to confront the emotional and spiritual demons that remain 'stranded' in the alcoholic psyche." ("Pass It On," pages 352 and 356.)

"The problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind," we read in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thus, for the alcoholic addict who is "still suffering" in sobriety, it is crucial that he or she comes to terms with the self-centered nature of ordinary human consciousness. That is, he or she must transcend the "egoic self" in order to experience the inner quiet and peace that is inherent to our nature. To do so, however, it is first necessary, that he or she recognize and then learn to let go of the mechanical and learned nature of our 'ordinary' self-centered thinking.

As spiritual teacher and author, William Holden recently blogged on The Huffington Post:
". . . (A)wakening to our original enlightened nature involves interrupting the ordinary flow of linear, language-based, thinking so that we can rediscover "the mind within the mind". Focusing on external circumstances or teachings is not what triggers the moment of (spiritual awakening), in other words. Rather, it is focusing on the absence of internal commentary. Because it is impossible to "think" without words, this practice of stopping the flow of running commentary on our lives involves cultivating a mindset of no-thought (wu-nien) in an attempt to experience each moment as it is without silently talking to ourselves about it."
In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (at page 98) Bill W. points out that a logically interrelated practice of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" will, in effect, allow the practitioner to access the hidden depths of our being, yielding him or her "an unshakeable foundation" for spiritual living. The Twelve Steps are designed to let us practice this spiritual methodology effectively.

The "maintenance of our spiritual condition" (and with it the ability to move beyond the small and suffering 'self') if practiced over time is the solution to the real problem of the alcoholic addict, the problem centered in his or her mind. It is a solution that all spiritual and religious traditions point to (as outlined in the audio clip, attached below), a solution that moves the alcoholic addict beyond his or her "painful inner dialogue."

If the alcoholic addict still suffering in sobriety is to "move beyond the confines of mere rationalism" and overcome the obsessive nature of the mind, and the problems in life which it presents, he or she may be well advised to look beyond the 'Big Book' and more deeply into the many and varied spiritual and religious paths that complement the Twelve Steps. This may require moving even beyond the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and other A.A. literature, and further into the realm of the spirit, being quick to see where religious people may be right and making "use of what they to offer: 'Big Book,' page 87.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Thoughts, Character Defects, and Awakening

Consider, if you will, the following short, succinct, yet powerful statements taken from different sections of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, reshuffled and juxtaposed in a different order. Together, I believe, they set out the primarily 'mental aspect' of alcoholism, as well as a good description of the 'nature' of the inner spiritual transformation which can effect a recovery from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body":
"(T)he main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body. . . . Many of us tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely. . . . The actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. . . . At certain times (he) has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense.
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 23, 58 and 43.
"(However), once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. . . . Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. . . . With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. . . . Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it 'God-consciousness'. . . . (The alcoholic's) defense must come from a Higher Power."
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 27, 567-568 and 43.
In "The Iron Lady", the recent movie which chronicles the life of Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister cautions her advisers: "Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habit. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."

See: "As a Man Thinketh", a book
used to good effect by many early
A.A. members.

I've seen this quote, which is probably anonymous, attributed to every one from Dr. Seuss, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Lau Tze. Regardless of its origins, however, it points to a universal truth: "As a man thinketh, so he is." This spiritual truism that our thought life eventually becomes our character and destiny is particularly apt, it seems to me, for the alcoholic addict in recovery.

A man who continually thinks angry and volatile thoughts becomes an irritable and angry man. A man who continually thinks about how he is perceived by others becomes either a shy man or a vain man. A man who continually thinks about alcohol becomes, and remains unless his thoughts and character change, a drunken man. Thus, the necessity for a spiritual awakening in which our habitual "ideas, emotions, and attitudes" are cast to one side.

Such a change in thoughts, words, actions, habits, and character are absolutely necessary if we are to "trudge the road of Happy Destiny" in recovery. And, the key lies in letting go of our "old ideas," for they shape our 'attitudes' (that is, our 'habitual ways of thinking') and produce the resulting emotions which only serve to reinforce and perpetuate our old thought patterns.

Just as over time a path is worn into the shortest route across a field by people crossing and re-crossing it, so, too, are paths or grooves worn into our consciousness by the continual movement of our thoughts in certain habitual directions - towards ongoing resentments, towards judgement of others, towards our fears, towards specific episodes of the past that fill us with guilt and remorse, and so on. Habitually, we let our thoughts roll down these mental grooves unchecked, not even noticing what we are thinking until suddenly - or so it seems - we are upset, our pride is wounded, we are filed with spite, envy or anger, etc., etc., etc.

Various religions and wisdom traditions have different names for these 'mental grooves': Buddhism calls them 'obscurations', Islam calls them 'veils' or 'nafs', the Hindu Vedanta calls them 'skhandas', Christianity 'sins' or even 'demons.' In Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations) we call them 'defects of character' or 'shortcomings' and we pray (and work) to have them removed. For virtually everyone, alcoholic addict and so-called 'normal people' alike, confronting and overcoming damaging thought patterns (or attitudes) - i.e., character-building - is a lifetime work which must start with developing an inner awareness of just what it is we are thinking at any moment.

A metaphor that is shared by many traditions is that of a poisonous snake. If you are in a hut and you see a poisonous snake beginning to slither its way through a hole in the wall, you are advised to pick up a hoe and hack off the snake's head before it makes it all the way into your hut where it can harm or kill you. In just the same way, we need to be alert and aware of the first thought or "old idea" that sweeps us down the stream of consciousness, goading us to say things and do things that are harmful to ourselves and those around us.

When I was new to recovery old-timers would point out, "If you are hit by a train, it isn't the caboose that kills you." So, too, it is not the last drink of a spree, but the first drink that starts it. And, so too, it is not the last thought ("Arggh! I need a drink!") but the first of a series of thoughts - a powerful thought-stream that quite often is at first wholly unrelated to drinking - that sets the ball rolling. (See the story of "Jim" in the 'Big Book'  at pages 35-37, and how he felt irritated at the thought he worked at a car dealership he once owned, how he thought he'd just go for a drive in the country, and how, suddenly and unexpectedly he began drinking even though he knew the certain consequences drinking held for him.)

"The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 43.)

In order to ready that defense which will inevitably be needed sooner or later, in order to access a Power that is greater than our limited selves, and in order to awaken and remain awake spiritually, it is necessary that we do the 12 Steps and, thereafter, continue to nourish our growth in Spirit by the habitual practice of self-examination, meditation and prayer.

Self-examination consists of being aware of what we are thinking at any given time, and quickly realizing when we are being swept down the rusting tracks of old thought-patterns by the powerful train of our old ideas and attitudes. It is the recognition that 'the poisonous snake' of our ego-centric, self-centered thinking, as in the metaphor above, is once again slithering through the hole.

Prayer is the affirmation and invocation of our Higher Power, the God of our own understanding, the Great Reality deep down with us, that allows us to lay aside our thinking. ("Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.") It is our picking up the hoe and hacking the head off the snake of egoic thinking.

Meditation is sitting in the quiet awareness of our being and that Power within us which is greater than the small 'self' of ego. It is practicing and nourishing the clarity of a mind that is truly awake, recharging the inner vitality for the efforts of vigilance we will need throughout the day if our innermost 'hut' is to be free of 'snakes' and other dangers.

In this way, we watch our thoughts so that our words and actions increasingly conform to God's will for us, so that our habits of thought forge a new character as our old character defects are removed, so that our lives are changed (inwardly and outwardly) as we "trudge" the road to our destiny.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beyond Our Many 'Selves' . . .

"More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputa­tion, but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it."
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 73
In active addiction, the alcoholic addict is forced of necessity to play an outward role that is designed, it is hoped, to cover his or her affliction. Meanwhile, inside all is turmoil, leading him or her on to drink or drug again in order to alleviate the feelings (and the suffering) such inner turmoil creates. Then, in the earliest days of recovery, this difficult and painful acting role continues.

The alcoholic addict in recovery tries to maintain his or her outward facade without the relief from the racing mind - and the resulting overwhelming emotions - that booze and/or drugs had once provided. Unless he or she does something to be rid of the discomfort and pain created by trying to present one coherent persona to the world while inside a hundred different 'selves' manifest themselves - the angry 'self', the shameful 'self', the remorseful 'self', the indignant 'self', the smug and superior 'self', etc. - there is a distinct probability he or she will return to the chemical 'pain-killers' that seemed to have worked at one point to relieve such psychic pain.

Of course, this dilemma of being "an actor" is not unique to the alcoholic addict. "Most people," we know, "try to live by self-propulsion" and "(e)ach person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show." ('Big Book', page 60.) Yet alcoholic addicts are, perhaps, 'terminally unique' in that quite often they will turn back once again to using the alcohol and/or drugs that have exacerbated and intensified the sense of duality, emptiness and incompleteness caused by the fractured psyche that virtually everyone suffers from. And, due to the progressive and potentially fatal nature of this vicious cycle, they risk their very lives in an attempt to escape from the intensified feelings that the many 'selves' of their particularly fractured psyches generate.

"If when you honestly want to, you find that you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little or no control over the amount you take, you may be suffering from an illness," we read, "which only a spiritual experience will conquer." The work that is suggested in A.A. and its sister organizations - i.e., actually doing and thereafter practicing the 12 Steps - like the work suggested by all of the world's great religions and wisdom traditions, are intended to enable the individual to have just such a "spiritual experience." (Spiritual and/or religious beliefs, faith and knowledge are all well and good, but without the integrating experience resulting from following one of the various spiritual paths that are now so readily available to all, such beliefs, faith and knowledge avail the individual but little.)

"(The alcoholic's) thirst for alcohol," Carl Jung pointed out, "(is) on a low level the thirst of our being for wholeness, in medieval language: union with God." (See post:"Jung-Wilson Correspondence")

Such "wholeness" requires that we "uncover, discover and discard" (to use a favourite turn of phrase employed by a beloved and wizened old-timer) the many false "selves" which separates us from our true being, from our innermost real Self, from "the God of our own (experiential) understanding."

Consider the following excerpt of an article discussing the fractured nature of the human psyche by spiritual teacher and author, Ted Nottingham.
"We are not one person. There is no "I am," but many "I's" coming from numerous places within us. There is the "I" who is in command when it is hungry. There is the "I" who is in a bad mood, there is the "I" that loves to read poetry, and on and on. . . . In (our accustomed state), we just assume that we always act as the same person. Inner knowledge tells us that we are made up of many disconnected, fragmentary facets without unity. When such information is verified, then a presence besides those many "I's" is also present. You can no longer fall entirely for the illusion of unity. . . ."
"It is no small thing to begin to see who we are. It will impact our whole life. We are not one, but many. The aim is to become one, the true one behind the many "I's". The mysterious metaphor "man is legion" refers to the multi-faceted being that we are in our separation from the unifying Source. Part of our inner work, then, is to develop an awareness of the feeling of "I" in the moment. Such an effort will allow us not to be that fragmentary self claiming to be our whole identity. Any change in the sense of "I" will also transform the world around us. . . . "
"We generally encounter the world as an egotistical bundle of personal reactions and that is the cause of so much of our unnecessary unhappiness. We must develop a feeling of "I" that is different from the one we have now. We all have the experience of constant chatter in our heads. We are always thinking something, responding to something, imagining something. We say "I" to each activity in our mind: "I hate this . . . I am this . . . I want this." But this flood of constant response and talk in our brain is nothing more than life acting on our personality and our personality responding to it. We can form in ourselves, in our own psychology, a little bit of awareness that can stand back from that torrent of thought and activity and simply see -- without response to it, without judgement or justification."
". . . (W)hat we are not conscious of will control us. When we are completely caught up in our ordinary sense of self, there is no chance of change. We are convinced that we are right, we take for granted that this is who we are. We don't create that inner space which allows a new evolution to take place. So long as we take ourselves as one person, we cannot move from where we are."
"As you begin to distance yourself from this inner ocean, you will be able to observe parts of yourself that we are calling I's which are not only contradictory but entirely foreign to what you really care about. For instance, you can be a religious person as well as the very opposite. In order to strengthen the part of yourself that wants to be a spiritual person over against the part that couldn't care less, one has to intentionally give power to those I's that will do the work of spiritual evolution and remove power from those that will not. This requires serious personal separation. As things are now, all of these I's claim to be yourself whenever they appear."
"When you make that space -- which is the detachment of the mystic -- and you see these armies of light and darkness inside, then you know where the battle must take place. You will also see that the army of darkness is much bigger than the one of light, those I's that wish to love God and the universe and transcend their selfishness. Over against them is this horde of barbarians that are only interested in being comfortable and satisfying their desires."
". . . (N)othing can change in us if we identify with all our I's. The whole point is to discover that we are not all that inner traffic. This insight gives us independence from the external world. This is a fundamental aspect of spiritual maturity and freedom. If we look at the teachers of humanity, they were independent of the forces around them. They were truly themselves and able to act in the world regardless of surrounding influences. That is one characteristic of higher consciousness."
Can anyone relate to that? Does the alcoholic addict in recovery, at least initially, not suffer, and suffer greatly, from "all that inner traffic?" Bill W. called this ceaseless chatter of our many lesser 'selves' (the raucous vying for attention of what Nottingham identifies as our multiple "I's") a "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts." Until we face, face down, and are freed from identification with these many 'selves' true recovery, sanity, and spiritual transformation will be illusive at best.

Fortunately, there are many paths and practices - including, and in addition to, the 12 Steps - which will lead us experientially through and beyond our many 'selves' to "a new state of  consciousness and being."
 * * * * * * * * * * * * *
[Note: Ted Nottingham is a prolific author and spiritual teacher who facilitates an ongoing, online course on "The Practice of Spiritual Awakening" at]

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Not Like Other People . . . But More So

 ". . . (T)hinking without awareness," writes spiritual teacher/author, Eckhart Tolle, "is the main dilemma of human existence."

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

Many years from my last drink, but only one warped train of thought and fatal decision away from my next, Tolle's observation rings true and is, perhaps, the clearest and most concise description of the mechanical nature of the human ego. Why is this important for, and so aptly applicable to, the alcohol addict? The simple answer is because (as we read at page 23 in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous)" the main problem of the alcoholic centres in his mind, rather than his body."

Later in the 'Big Book' we come to understand that we must see through the false illusion that one day we will be able to once again "control and enjoy our drinking." We are also told at this point that we must get rid of the delusion that "we are like other people, or one day will be." ('Big Book', page 30.) A full understanding of the second of these delusions enables us to more easily practice the 'meat' of the program.

In one sense this second delusion is right. We have exhibited a progressive addiction to alcohol, and in A.A.'s experience it is fatal and progressive. It does not get better. The old adage that you can't turn a pickle back into a cucumber holds true. We have long experience in our fellowship - too many at the funerals we have attended - that shows alcoholic drinkers do not turn into moderate or social drinkers. In respect to the consumption of alcohol, we are not like other people. They will be fine if they have a couple of drinks, while the odds are steep that if we do so, we will quickly get very sick and, perhaps, die.

In other matters, however, it seems to me that we are exactly like other people, perhaps only more so. The third delusion the 'Big Book' discusses is in the description of "the actor" on pages 60-62. Here, the 'Big Book' notes that "(m)ost people try to live by self-propulsion, that each person is like an actor that wants to run the whole show. . ." (Emphasis added.)

And what is the "basic problem" of each such person (alcoholic addict and non-addict alike)? "Is he not really a self-seeker," we read on (page 61), "even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?" (Emphasis added.)

Still speaking about most people, in general, the 'Big Book' observes that "(s)elfishness (and) self- centeredness is the root of our troubles." "Driven by a hundred forms of self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity," it points out, "we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate."

And what is "self" - what is "ego" - if it is not the "thinking without awareness" Tolle describes, above? What is "ego" or "self" if it not the incessant chatter of the mind, the "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts" of the past that the vast majority of all people suffer from?

Look at the nightly news, pick up a newspaper, read the history of the modern world, and it becomes readily and quickly apparent that most people, even whole nations, are "driven by" a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity." Whole industries, not least the advertising industry, are founded upon this curious human trait of ego identification. In this respect, alcoholic addicts and  non-addicts alike suffer from the same dysfunctional mindset, mode of thinking, and method of interacting with the world. (Psychologically, it seems that each man is an island, despite the famous caution that no man is.)

"(O)ur troubles, we think, are basically of our own making," we read. "They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so." ('Big Book', page 62.)

Thus, in one respect - i.e., with respect to the consumption of  alcohol - "we are not like other people," nor will we ever be. In all other respects, however - i.e., in how each of us tries to "manage" life well in order to "wrest satisfaction and happiness" out of it - we are just like other people only, perhaps, more so. Most people are self-centered (that is, ego-centric) and do not know they possess an 'inner center' beyond the limited egoic self. "Alcoholics," we read at page 24 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, are "self-centered in the extreme." Other, so-called 'normal' people, it seems to me, are just 'extremely self-centered.'

Why is it important for us to understand that apart from the alcoholic addiction we are just like other people, only perhaps more so? Principally because it allows us to get over the deep resentments that have crippled us in our relationships to others and, thus, fueled our alcoholism. If we understand that other people are, for the most part, identified with and driven by their own egoic way of thinking - of "thinking without awareness" - then we can more readily realize "that the people who harmed us were perhaps spiritually sick." ('Big Book,' page 66.)

Realizing that most people are just as driven by their ego-centric mode of interacting with the world as we are, and while not liking "their symptoms and the way these (disturb) us," allows us not to react, but rather respond to them with "tolerance, pity and patience," perhaps, even with love. ('Big Book,' page 67.) Recognizing that virtually all people suffer from the same human dilemma of mistaking their smaller selves or egos for their true identity allows us to more readily forgive others for what they have done to us (and in that process to receive inner forgiveness for what we have done to others.)

Next time someone "offends" you, makes a mistake in traffic, follows too closely, forgets to signal a turn, or whatever, instead of rushing to judgement, realize that he or she is more likely than not just as caught up in the stream of unconscious self-consciousness as we usually are. And don't get sucked into your own inner and egoic dialogue about them. Practicing this non-judgmental identification with the egoic suffering of others is a key to freedom from "the bondage of self," a practice that lies at the heart of "self-forgetting."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Perils, Pitfalls & Promise of the "Twelve & Twelve"

A.A. Co-Founder, Bill W.
In a letter dated October 5, 1953, A.A. co-founder and author, Bill W., wrote of the expectations he had for the newly-penned 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions'. "At first," he observed, "I was dubious whether anyone would care for it, save oldtimers who had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol. But apparently, the book is being used to good effect even upon newcomers." ('Pass It On', at page 356.)

Of course, many in A.A. nowadays hold fast to the notion that the Twelve and Twelve is ruinous to A.A., and/or that its use, particularly its exclusive use, with newcomers is perilous to their prospects of attaining and maintaining sobriety. To my mind, and in my experience, such A.A. "fundamentalists" or "Big Book Thumpers" are right . . . but only partially right. Along with the perils and pitfalls that the Twelve and Twelve can present to overly-reliant newcomers, the book holds great promise and practical spiritual wisdom for the more seasoned alcoholic addict in recovery when he or she is presented with life's inevitable challenges.

In words that have quite literally saved the lives of millions of alcoholic addicts, and in a manner that the reader can use to see if he or she is alcoholic, the 'Big Book' ('Alcoholics Anonymous') clearly sets out the physical and mental aspects of the disease, a spiritual solution to this primarily mental illness, and a process of steps that can (and are) used to effect a spiritual solution to the malady. I know of few, if any, members with long-term sobriety that would start a newcomer off without going through the 'Big Book.' The methodology for working through the 12 Steps is invaluable, particularly the concise directions for getting through Steps 4 through Step Nine (a.s.a.p.) and, thereby, initiating a process of spiritual awakening that promises to arrest and alleviate the effects of the disease. Likewise, I know few (if any) old-timers who do not, or have not, benefited from what is laid out in the Twelve and Twelve.

My experiences with the 'Big Book' and the 'Twelve and Twelve' over several decades have been decidedly mixed, as I suspect the experience of many others probably have been.

In my case, by happenstance and misleading advertising, the first group I joined was a Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions group. (It was announced that February was "membership month" and that the group still had several "openings" which were available. Knowing nothing of A.A. - or recovery, for that matter - and being but a few weeks sober, I thought I had better grab one of those openings before I was shut out.) I stayed with that group, maintaining my sobriety without relapse, for over five years, until I left to help start up another group and, shortly thereafter, to move to another city. In that time, week after week, we would go through the Steps, one after another in relentless fashion.  I remember nothing of what I shared, and now shudderingly marvel that there was anything of value I could have shared!

I learned but little about the true nature of my disease, but much about how to stay sober in that time. Additionally, I read the 'Big Book' cover to cover, as suggested, but little sank in, due not to the message in the book but to the prejudice and contempt I had for all things spiritual or, somehow, 'Godly.' (Not that I wouldn't participate in the Serenity Prayer, Lord's Prayer etc., and not that I didn't read my daily meditations from the 'Twenty Four Hours a Day' book, or 'Daily Reflections' when it came out. I would grudgingly do the little I was told to do, but only that much!)

During that time I was, however, taken through the Steps both by my sponsor and then by a relative "oldtimer" within my group utilizing the 'Big Book.' I listed my resentments and fears, inventoried my sex conduct, made the list, made amends etc., and it was beneficial - to me, my family, and my employer, etc. - yet I failed to grasp the key understanding that my life in sobriety had become and continued to be "unmanageable." (See page 61.) Thus, I was handicapped from the start in my ability to "enlarge" my spiritual being.

Sobering up at age 28 in the late-Eighties, I was one of the younger members of A.A. in my area. I therefore took much false solace in the Twelve and Twelve's description of the younger "alcoholics who still had their health, their families, (and) their jobs," etc. I was mightily relieved to read that I had been "spared that last ten or fifteen years of literal hell (other A.A.s) had gone through." (Little did I know, or suspect, that years of "figurative hell" were to come.) Reading through the rest of that paragraph in the Twelve and Twelve's first chapter, I utterly failed to grasp the meaning or importance of the following question:
"Since Step One requires an admission that our lives have become unmanageable, how could such people as these take this Step?
That is a great question, indeed. For my part, and to myself alone, I saw Step One as: "Admitting that I was powerless over alcohol (and other drugs) and that my life had (potentially) become unmanageable (if I ever drank or drugged again)." Keeping all the parts in brackets to myself, I marched on in sobriety, determined to get "Good Orderly Direction" in my life. For the next five years, I relied on my Twelve and Twelve meeting, my sponsor, and thereafter on the fellowship of AA to stay sober. (This worked for me to the limited extent that I stayed straight, but I adamantly warn off others who would try it this way. I've seen too many fatalities via this route.)

Just shy of 10 years sobriety, having completed a university education and graduate school, with a wife now sober, and with two small girls - one of them named for my first sponsor - I started a job as a newly-minted professional in a new city. The days and weeks were very long, life seemed manageable, and I made a conscious decision to stop attending A.A. in order to spend what little time was left over with my wife and kids.

Little did I know that the five years after that fateful decision would be an at-first slow descent into madness, a madness in which I finally lost marriage, family, career, house and my mind. Just as the oldtimers had warned me, all those things that I had put in front of my sobriety I had lost. Beaten by life and this disease, obsessing over escape from a painful and seemingly hopeless life via the bottle, I was brought back to A.A. and to a wise and loving sponsor who took me back through the Steps. The 'Big Book' was read and explained to me. Re-doing the Steps with a new understanding, I experienced the spiritual release that is available through our program of action. My mind was opened, and with the help of several spiritual mentors, day-by-day I began - with several epiphanies along the way - to grow spiritually.

Interestingly, not only had the import and significance of the 'Big Book' - its application to my life and circumstances - soared, but the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions had also become inextricably important to my growth in spirit and consciousness. With fifteen years clean and sober - most of it being "stark, raving sobriety" - I had become one of those whom Bill so mildly puts it "had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol."

There are, indeed, perils and pitfalls along the way if one ignores the 'Big Book' in favour, grudgingly, of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as I did. Some seem to avoid the mistakes that are so often made. I did not. But having survived these perils and pitfalls, I know that the Twelve and Twelve, holds much promise for further growth, written as it is for those who have already completed the 12 Steps as outlined in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous.

My closest spiritual mentor, a profoundly dedicated man with 35 years of sobriety at the time, often stressed that having taken the Steps and having recovered from the hopeless state of alcoholism - wet or dry - it is imperative that one incorporates Step Three, Step Seven and Step Eleven into one's daily life; relying on Step Ten where we screw up, and utilizing Step Twelve in carrying the message where we can. It is here, and in this process, that the experience of Bill's years of sobriety, as set out in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, becomes so important. Indeed, I find it is needlessly hard, if not impossible, to practice these Steps without the various spiritual nuggets of wisdom he shares there.

Consider, as examples, the following passages from the essays on Steps Three, Seven and Eleven:
  • "Our whole problem had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God's intention for us. To make this increasingly possible is the purpose of A.A.'s Twelve Steps, and Step Three opens the door."

    "Once we have come into agreement with these ideas, it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done."" (Step Three, pp. 40-41. Emphasis added.)
  • "For us, the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievably painful. . . . It was only at the end of a long road, marked by successive defeats and humiliations, and the final crushing of our self-sufficiency, that we began to feel humility as something more than a condition of grovelling despair. . . . The admission of powerlessness over alcohol . . . is but the barest beginning. To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the human spirit, to be willing to work for humility as some thing to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time."

    "We saw that we needn't always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have. It marked the time when we could see the full implication of Step Seven: "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."" (Step Seven, pp. 72-73, 75.)
  • "There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. Taken separately, these practices bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakeable foundation for life. Now and then we may be granted a glimpse of that ultimate reality which is God's Kingdom." (Step Eleven, p. 98.)
 As it says in 'Pass It On' (at page 352):
"If (the) 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions' is a small volume in terms of length, it is large in its depth and content. Whereas the Big Book, written in 1938, radiates Bill's joy and gratitude at having finally found a way to stay sober, the 'Twelve and Twelve' reflects an entirely different mood. In 1951 and 1952, when Bill wrote the second book, he was suffering almost constant depression and was forced to confront the emotional and spiritual demons that remain "stranded" in the alcoholic psyche when the high tide of active alcoholism recedes. The 'Twelve and Twelve' provides a highly practical and profoundly spiritual prescription to exercise those demons."
Thus, in my experience there are indeed grave perils and deep pitfalls that can be (as they were for me) life-threatening if one overly (or solely) relies on the Twelve and Twelve without reference and reliance on the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. That being said, there is great promise to alleviate the residual suffering of "the alcoholic psyche" after, but not before, "the high tide of active alcoholism recedes."

The spiritual path that is so meticulously laid out and explained in the two volumes, if walked day-by-day, promises us a new perspective on life and what it means to be sober, indeed it offers us "a gift that amounts to a new state of consciousness and being." (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 107.)

It is exceedingly difficult and painful, in my experience, to sober up and remain sober without a firm foundation in the 'Big Book.' It is equally difficult and even more painful, I have found, to remain mentally and emotionally sober without a firm foundation in the Twelve and Twelve.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Riddle of Ego, Self, and Innermost Self

To borrow the oft-quoted line from Winston Churchill, the 'secret' of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations) is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Those who have solved this "riddle" often smile mysteriously and enigmatically - like the slight and knowing smile of the Sphinx - when trying to explain it. The "riddle" goes something like this: "You have to find a Power greater than yourself, but you have to find this Power deep down within yourself."

 What??? If you are like I was, perhaps it is at this stage that you shut down and start asking others what God is, what they use as their Higher Power, or just what the heck 'It' is that we are supposed to rely on.

The answer to this seemingly inevitable question given to me by my first sponsor was "Good Orderly Direction." Others have been told, "Group of Drunks," or a variety of other responses. In my case, this answer combined with my close-mindedness and fierce "will to win" led me on a nearly 15-year wild goose chase to "wrest happiness and success out of this world" by managing life well, that is by getting me some of that 'Good Orderly Direction' in my thinking. (See, page 61 of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

However, there is, I believe, a very straightforward 'key' to solving this "riddle" and discovering just what the 'secret' (so to speak) of A.A. is -  i.e., exactly where and how to access "a Power" greater than oneself that will solve the alcohol problem and render the alcoholic addict "happily and usefully whole." That 'key' is (or was in my case) understanding the relationship between (i) one's "ego" (ii) one's "self" and (iii) one's "innermost self".

"Ego" is variously defined in metaphysics as "a conscious thinking subject," in psychology as "the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality," and in popular usage as "a sense of self esteem" or pride: (Oxford English Dictionary). "Self" - in its turn - is defined as "a person's or things own individuality or essence" and "a person or thing as the object of introspection or reflective action." One's "innermost self" is undefined (although "one's better self" - defined as "one's nobler instincts" - comes close.)

The 'key' to the 'riddle' lies in these definitions and, most importantly, in understanding that ego does NOT mean pride in A.A. literature. Almost invariably, "ego" is used interchangeably with "self". ("Our actor," we read on page 61 of the 'Big Book', "is self centered -- ego-centric, as people like to call it today.") A working definition of both "ego" and "self" for our purposes, therefore, may be something like: "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality and has, or gives us, a sense of our own identity and individuality."

It is this constant inner stream or commentary of thoughts, images and ideas - "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality" - together with their bodies, that the vast majority of people (alcoholic addict and non-addict alike) take themselves to be. It is 'who' they 'are '- or so it seems to them. (Interestingly, Bill W. in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions variously calls this constant inner stream of ego/self a "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts.")

If one can understand that the ego/self is not who we are, but that "ego" or "self" is but a fraction of our mind - an attitude or way of relating to the world that is learned - and that underneath that small but loud and unceasing fraction lies "an innermost self" that is the "essence" of who we are, then he or she can productively begin to work the 12 Steps, the first of which is: "to fully concede to (his or her) innermost self that (he or she is) alcoholic" or an addict. (Admitting to one's "innermost self" that one's life has become, is, and will continue to be "unmanageable" comes next.)

Consider these points from the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous:
  • "The problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than his body." (Page 23)
  • "We alcoholics . . . have lost the ability to control our drinking." (Page 30)
  • "Whether such a person can quit upon a non-spiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not." (Page 34)
  • "(T)he actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception. will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge." (Page 39)
  •  "The alcoholic at certain times has no effective defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power." (Page 42)
  • "If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried." (Pages 44-45)
  • "Our human resources, as marshalled by the will . . .  failed utterly." (Page 45)
  • "Lack of power . . . was our dilemma." (Page 45)
  • "We had to find a power by which we could live (free of alcohol, drugs, etc.), and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves." (Page 45)
  • "(W)here and how were we to find this Power?" (Page 45)
  • "(The) main object (of the 'Big Book') is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem." (Page 45)
  • "We found the Great Reality deep down within us." (Page 55)
  • "(L)iquor is but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions." (Page 64)
So the alcoholic addict learns that the loss of control over liquor, drugs, etc., is not the problem but is symptomatic of a deeper problem that centers in her mind, and that she needs to find a Power that is greater than her 'self'. Self-knowledge will not cut it. How and where, then, is she to find such a Power that will relieve her symptoms, particularly if she doesn't believe in a quasi-mythic Old Testament God 'out there' somewhere? That, we learn, is the "main object" of the process.

"How" to find such a Power is quite clear: Do the 12 Steps! But  the "how" of doing the Steps if you do not believe in a "God" or "Divinity" which most cultures teach is 'out there' is exceedingly difficult, indeed. Fortunately, the "where" of finding a Higher Power is set out on Page 55 of the 'Big Book'. Here we find a concise rebuttal to the cultural norm that God, Yahweh, Ishwara, Allah, Buddha-mind, the Divine, one's Depth, the Ground of Being - whatever one chooses to call It - is exterior to us.

Although it is often obscured by "the calamity, pomp, and worship of other things" characteristic of the "self" or "ego" (i.e., "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality and has, or gives us, a sense of our own identity and individuality"), we find that there exists within us "an Innermost Self" that is the "Essence" of our "Being." It is this "Inner Self" that all the world's great religious and wisdom traditions seek to activate and develop.

Page 55 sets out, in clear and precise language, that:
"We (find) that Great Reality," i.e., our 'Inner Self' or 'Essence', "deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He (or She, or It) may be found."
In a letter to Bill W., the great psychologist, Dr. Carl Jung, pointed out that: "(The alcoholic's) thirst for alcohol (is) the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: union with God."

Although he was much concerned that he would be misunderstood when using such culturally freighted words and concepts, he nonetheless elaborated further on such an "experience" - that is, the psychological and spiritual "union with God" at the heart of all the world's great wisdom traditions.

"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience," Jung notes, "is, that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding." That is, one must follow a spiritual path without aid of drugs or booze, a path or methodology (like the 12 Steps) that leads you to a "higher understanding" and "experience" of one's mind beyond the ordinary, ego-centric perspective and narrative of "self."

"You might be led to that goal," - i.e., to a "spiritual awakening" of one's 'Inner Self' or 'Essence' - Jung points out, "by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines or mere rationalism." Fortunately for the alcoholic addict, "the path" laid out in the 12 Steps, the work we do, and the fellowship we find in A.A. (or any of its sister organizations) offers all three.

But the key to realizing grace, receiving meaningful friendship, and transcending the mind to a level "beyond the confines of mere rationalism" is in solving the "riddle" presented by the "ego" or "self" in which we are seemingly confined. In finding our 'Innermost Self', in experiencing our 'Essence' in consciousness, we access the "mysteries" at the heart of the world's great religions and esoteric traditions. In working our way through the seeming "paradox" of finding a "Power" that is at once greater than one's "self" but which is ultimately found "deep down within" one's 'Innermost Self', we begin to solve our alcohol problem and we open up to the potential and experience of what Bill W. calls "a new state of consciousness and being."

Our collective experience is that: "With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped into an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it "God-consciousness."" (Alcoholics Anonymous, Appendix II, pages 567-568.)

As Jung succinctly points out in his letter to Bill W., "(A)lcohol in Latin is 'spiritus' and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: "spiritus contra spiritum."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Needing To Know & Needing To Be Right

"Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely."
Alcoholics Anonymous, "How It Works," p. 58.
I've often heard it said that two of the hardest things to do in life are: (a) to admit we were wrong, and (b) to admit we do not know. Doing either, it seems at first, threatens our instinctive drives for security, sex and society. If we don't know, or if (gasp!) we're wrong, what will become of us?

The first of these challenges, admitting that we were wrong, is explicitly dealt with in Step Ten. When we are wrong, we "promptly admit it." In time, and with practice, admitting we've made a mistake and/or acted wrongly becomes much easier. It is a valuable discipline which leads directly to ego-deflation and self-abnegation (i.e., the "forgetting" of "self").

Dr. Wayne Dyer
'Letting Go and Letting God', as spiritual teacher, Dr. Wayne Dyer, observes, "involves relinquishing ego’s attachment to, or fear of, something. The single most pronounced attachment for most of us during the morning of our lives," he points out, "is the attachment to being right!"

"There’s nothing (the) ego loves more than to be right," Dyer notes, "which makes it an important and satisfying attachment to practice letting go of."

The second proposition - admitting that "we do not know" - is not as explicitly addressed in the Twelve Steps, however. But it is an integral part of the Step One admission that our lives were, are and will remain unmanageable. After all, if we rather than God were omniscient, omnipotent and all-knowing our lives would not be unmanageable, and we would be just fine, thank you. But that is decidedly not how it is.

In his many talks, A.A. pioneer, and author, Chuck C. ("A New Pair of Glasses"), would point out that he was brought up to believe he must "out-think, out-smart and out-perform" all comers in order to get what is needed out of life. He, like all of us, had fallen victim to the "delusion" that all would be well and we could "wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if (we) only manage well." ('Big Book,' page 61.) It is this delusion, our pride, and the fear of the unknown that grips us when we encounter the unfamiliar that makes it so difficult to admit, even to ourselves, that we are not all-knowing. 

If we admit that "we do not know" what to do in a situation, "we do not know" the answer to a question, or, perhaps, "we do not know" some key information we think we really should know, how does that make us feel? How does it affect how others will think of us? Are we not somehow diminished in our own eyes and the eyes of others? Isn't such an admission shattering to one's self-confidence? Do we not need to know in order to manage life?

Andrew Cohen, Editor-in-chief,
EnlightenNext magazine.
Paradoxically, as ever, and as counter-intuitive as it seems at first, the admission that "we do not know" is a sign of inner strength and an honest admission of our powerlessness. No one person is omniscient and knows everything he or she might wish, and this despite what he or she wishes to convey to the world. After all, as spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen, points out, the reality is that "beyond a certain point we do not know, we cannot know, and we do not need to know."

Our readiness and ability to let go of this "need to know" is, thus, like our ability to admit it when we are wrong, a good indicator of our spiritual growth. The ego has a fierce desire to know everything and be right all of the time. In facing, accepting and admitting to others the truths that "we do not know" and/or that "we were wrong" we take giant strides towards curbing our self-righteousness and moving beyond the "small self" of the ego towards the "Authentic Self" which is the core and essence of our Being.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Spiritual Way of Life

In the attached video, A.A. pioneer, Chuck C. (author of "A New Pair of Glasses") shares his insights into living "A Spiritual Way of Life" with a non-alcoholic audience of students at the University of California.

"I don't think we have a life of our own, and I don't think we have a mind of our own," he tells his audience. "I think there is one life with many faces, (and) one mind common to all men. And you and I have our identity in It. We have our identity in life.

"We are," he says, "individualized centers of God-consciousness."

 "You cannot change the reality of your own being," he notes, "you can only change your experience in reality. . . . We can change our experience, but we can't change the reality of our own being."

"(O)ur own peace of mind, serenity and purpose," he observes, "cannot depend upon any person, place, circumstance or condition outside ourselves. (This) depends only on our own relationship to our very own God."

"And," he points out, "its an inside job!"