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Monday, December 27, 2010

Spiritual But Not Religious? What Are We Really Talking About?

How many times do we here someone describe him or herself as "spiritual but not religious?" And, how many times do we hear that A.A. (or a sister 12 Step Program) is not a "religious" but a "spiritual" program?

While the 12 Steps are decidedly a spiritual program - the point of which is to provide a "spiritual solution" to the problem of addiction which will "render the sufferer happily and usefully whole" - do the continual and repeated admonitions against 'religion' per se serve the still suffering alcoholic addict well?  Do they not foster close-mindedness when open-mindedness is one of the three prerequisite mental attitudes (along with willingness and honesty) that are essential to recovery.

It is good to remember Herbert Spencer's pointed warning at the end of the Spiritual Experience appendix in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation". (Emphasis added.)
I have been as guilty as any of the most recalcitrant and dogmatic of AA purists who adamantly protest that "AA is not a religious program!".  Citing our Preamble that says "A.A. is not affiliated with any sect denomination, association, political organization etc., I would self-righteously proclaim that "religion has no part in A.A.!" (Man! It feels good to be self-righteously right; particularly when you are sure you are right.)

Perhaps the uncomfortable bursting of my self-righteous bubble over the issue of 'religion' in AA is why I now try to debunk - in a reasonable and, I hope, informative manner - the myth that 'religion' has no part in a 12 Step Program.

When Bill Wilson had his famous flash-of-light spiritual awakening at Towns Hospital after Ebby had brought him through the Oxford Group's word-of-mouth program, he questioned his sanity.  Bill was somewhat reassured by Doctor Silkworth telling him he'd heard of such things before, and with great foresight urging Bill he ought to hold onto whatever it was he had experienced because "it was better than what he had before."

Ebby later returned and gave Bill a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experiences. Reading this book, Bill was relieved and came to understand that he had undergone a 'religious' or 'conversion' experience that had removed his alcoholic cravings and obsession.

In the whole 'spirituality versus religion' debate, it is enlightening to realize what William James meant by "religious experience." His book was about "inner" religious experiences; the deep inner reordering of thought and consciousness undergone by the deeply spiritual individuals, saints and mystics of various religious traditions. The "outer religious" traditions and sects themselves, however, with their various dogmas, rites and physical structures, were "outer" religious matters and, as such, beyond the scope of phenomena James was concerned with.

In this sense, the 12 Steps and 12 Step Recovery groups have a strongly "inner" religious concern, but are wholly unrelated to any "outer" religious sect, denomination or belief system.

The word "religious" itself is derived from the Latin re ligare, a verb that means "to tie," "to bind" or "to unite;" as in a "ligament" (which ties a muscle to a bone), or "ligatures" (the stitches which tie or bind a wound). "Religion," in the strictest sense of the word, is what re-unites or re-attaches an individual's consciousness to a deeper universal consciousness (referred to as "God-consciousness" in AA's Spiritual Experience appendix) that exists within each individual being.

This "inner religious" re-union or re-attachment to a deeper universal consciousness (i.e., a "power greater than ourselves") is the effect that the 12 Steps are designed to produce, once the seemingly unbreakable attachment to the thought streams of the ego (i.e., "the bondage of self") is severed. The means of severing this attachment to the "bondage of self" - the processes of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" urged by Bill Wilson in his Step 11 essay in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions - are, thus, strictly speaking an inwardly "religious" as well as "spiritual" methodology.

The Spiritual Experiences appendix, in fact, reassures the alcoholic addict that the "personality changes, or religious experiences" (emphasis added) that may be required as the solution to his or her addiction do not have to be "in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals," but may just as readily be of what "William James calls the educational variety because they develop slowly over a period of time."

A repeated course of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" (i.e., the application of the 12 Steps) is thus an "inner" religious path to spirituality and spiritual awakening; and distinguishing "religion" and "spirituality" is really a false dichotomy caused, in large part, by our usually (at least it was for me) prejudiced and uninformed opinion of what the actual words really mean.

As an illustration, the Hindu word for "religion" is "yoga," a word that shares the same Sanskrit root with the English word "yoke" (i.e., the wooden harness that attaches or ties the ox to the plow). Yoga is, of course the method of self-examination, meditation and prayer that many varieties or Eastern wisdom traditions advocate for reuniting the consciousness of the yogi with the godhead within which every individual and the universe exists. Yet while we constantly hear the admonition that the 12 Steps are "spiritual and not religious," there is no talk of "yoga practice" versus "spirituality.

The words we use - and the ideas we share - are important. We should ask what they mean and use them wisely; particularly when we share our experience and insights with those still suffering from alcoholism and/or addiction.

A "Self" Imposed Crisis - Part One: What is 'Self'?

An alcoholic addict is eventually "crushed by a self-imposed crisis" he or she can "no longer postpone or evade." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 53.) But what is meant by "self," and how do we begin to overcome this "self-imposed crisis?"

What is "self" is the most important question that I never asked my first sponsor. And, in my recovery (as in my life), coming to an understanding of, and a reliance upon, a "power greater than myself" - the solution to this "self-imposed crisis" - was the longest-running, most perplexing and most difficult task I have faced. In retrospect, the biggest impediment in coming to such an understanding and reliance was that I had no conception of what "self" is. I assumed it simply meant "me" - my body, my mind, my person . . . everything within my skin, so to speak.

Thus, I was stuck trying to come to an understanding of "a power greater than myself" that was "out there" somewhere. Small wonder, then, that I could not effect a "conscious contact" with such an ethereal thing or being. In childhood, I'd given up all fantasies about a supra-human "God" out there in some celestial Heaven.

Initially, I tried to return to some belief in such an entity, with very poor and dangerous results - a madness brought about by mere sobriety with neither sanity serenity. For that "power" I needed to "restore me" to sanity, the "Great Reality" specifically identified on Page 55 of the Big Book, can only be discovered/uncovered "deep down within us;" as in "the last analysis" (i.e., once we have looked everywhere else for this mysterious "power") "it is only there [i.e., "deep down within us"] it may be found."

I did not know that, nor could my initial prejudices about the word "God" be overcome without further suffering. Yet, after that further suffering, I finally became willing to listen to others who had discovered or been shown this great truth.

"What?," I finally asked. "I need to find and learn to rely on "a power greater than myself," yet I have to find this power "deep down within" me?" This seemed totally nonsensical until the true meaning of "self" was explained to me by a true "old-timer," one steeped in years of meditation and contemplation. Thus, began my true recovery from "the self-imposed crisis" I faced (as described on page 53 of the Big Book).

"Self" it was explained to me, in simple terms, is "the voice in the head" which we listen to, reason with, and identify with as "who" we are. This was a strange notion to contemplate. Was this seemingly ever-present "voice in the head" not me? Was it not the essence of who I am? "Not so," I was told. "That," I was told, "is merely the 'egoic self', or ego."

As in the world's great wisdom traditions, in recovery "self," I was shown, does not refer to the entirety of an individual; rather, it refers only to the egoic self (the "voice in the head," or what Bill Wilson calls in Step 7 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, "that punishing inner dialogue") or, more precisely put, it refers to the ego. (Thus, AA has often been referred to as "ego deflation at depth.")

The pertinent definition of "ego" in the Oxford English Dictionary is, "the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality." Thus, when on page 22 of the Big Book, Bill writes that "the problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind," he means that the true nature and local of the alcoholic or addictive malady is in the individual 'ego', or the individual's 'self.' (Indeed, at page 64 of the Big Book, in concluding his description of the alcoholic addict as an "actor," he plainly states: "Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays.")

And, paradoxically, the ultimate solution to this "self-imposed crisis" is effecting a "conscious contact" with a power greater than one's "self." But, I was shown, to effect such "conscious contact, it is necessary to go beyond the confines of the "ego" and to effect a "conscious contact" with a deeper, greater part of "consciousness" itself - that which Bill called "the Great Reality."

The Spiritual Experience appendix (Appendix II of the Big Book) explicitly describes the "spiritual awakening" (Step 11) or "essential psychic change" (Big Book, page xvii) that occurred amongst the vast majority of early AA members who had effected such a conscious contact with this hidden power of consciousness:
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 than (them-selves). Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than (our-selves) is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it "God-consciousness."[Emphasis added.]
The "self " is not, as it turns out, who and what I thought I was, nor was this "power greater than my-self" what or where I had assumed. Thus, began my true recovery and the most important lesson of life and reality I could ever learn.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Angel" by Two Deeply Spiritual Musicians - Sarah McLachlan and Carlos Santana

I cannot think of another song so sweetly sorrowful, yet spiritually uplifting, as this beautiful duet version of "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, with Carlos Santana accompanying her on acoustic guitar. The lyrics suggest the universal sufferings of not just the addict or alcoholic, but the universal sufferings that the human heart and spirit are vulnerable to when isolated with seemingly nowhere to turn.


(Lyrics and Music by Sarah McLachlan)

"Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance,
For a break that would make it okay.
There's always some reason
To feel not good enough,
And it's hard at the end of the day.

I need some distraction.
Oh beautiful release,
Memories seep from my veins.
Let me be empty,
Oh, and weightless, and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight."

"In the arms of the angel,
Fly away from here;
From this dark cold hotel room,
And the endlessness that you fear.

You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie.
You're in the arms of the angel,
May you find some comfort here.

So tired of the straight line,
And everywhere you turn
There's vultures and thieves at your back.
The storm keeps on twisting;
Keep on building the lies
That you make up for all that you lack.

It don't make no difference,
Escaping one last time,
It's easier not to believe
In this sweet madness,
Oh this glorious sadness,
That brings me to my knees.

In the arms of the angel
Fly away from here,
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear.

You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie.
You're in the arms of the angel,
May you find some comfort here.

You're in the arms of the angel,
May you find some comfort here.”

Click here to read an article on the spiritual journey of Carlos Santana, his intentions, motives and purpose, which is available on the website of Andrew Cohen's EnlightenNext Magazine.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

God, Everything or Nothing: A Proposition to Face Fearlessly

"Imagine life without faith! Were nothing left but pure reason, it wouldn't be life. But we believed in life - of course we did. We could not prove life in the sense that you can prove a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, yet, there it was. Could we still say the whole thing was nothing but a mass of electrons, created out of nothing, meaning nothing, whirling on to a destiny of nothingness? Of course we couldn't. The electrons themselves seemed more intelligent than that." Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 54.

"When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else . . . is nothing. God either is, or . . . isn't. What was our choice to be?" Alcoholics Anonymous, p.53.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Three Delusions: Facing the Truths of Our Addiction

There are three specific delusions set out in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Two of these delusions are set out in the first two paragraphs of the chapter "More About Alcoholism."  The third delusion - and the most important for the sober alcoholic addict - is set out on page 61 of the "How it Works" chapter, following the description of the alcoholic as "the actor who wants to rum the whole show." The first two delusions, I believe, relate directly to Step 1 and Step 2, respectively; while the third delusion speaks to the second half of Step 1, and illustrates the necessity of practicing Step 3.

Before looking at these specific delusions, it is important to distinguish a "delusion" from "denial". The word "denial" is a treatment-center word, it is not a word used widely in the AA literature (although, unfortunately, one inevitably runs across it all too often in certain discussion groups). "Delusion" on the other hand is most definitely an AA word. "Denial" is essentially a lie - I tell you something didn't happen, or isn't true, when I know that it is in fact untrue. "Delusion", on the other, is when I tell you something didn't happen or isn't true, and I honestly believe that is the case, when in reality it is nonetheless true. Note again, suffering under a delusion I may have been willfully blind to the truth, but nonetheless I believe wholeheartedly in its opposite.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rumi - Spiritual Awakening in the Tavern of Life

When I was 15, or so, years sober, and newly returned to Alcoholics Anonymous, following a 4-1/2 year dry drunk, an old-timer took me in hand. We reviewed the essentials of the AA Big Book, and he shared his story and the great spiritual insights he had gained in his 35 years (and more) on the spiritual path. He suggested (as I've noted in a previous blog) that if I was serious in my quest for spiritual awakening I should read Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and The Essential Rumi. Picking up Coleman Bark's masterful translation of the Sufi master's poetry, I read the following:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How To Know God

I did not pick up a 10 year medallion. At nine-and-a-half years, convinced I would not drink or drug again, I set off to cash in on a law degree that I had earned in my sobriety. I didn't drink or drug again, but thus started the craziest (and most painful) portion of my life. Five years later, I finally made my way back to AA, with the urging and help of an old AA friend, and my sponsors to be.

When I returned, and after perhaps another nine months regaining some semblance of AA balance in my life, two old-timers came in to my life and became my spiritual mentors. They were Harry, who would teach me meditation and explain the highest potentials attainable through the spirit, and Chuck who would explain the true nature of alcoholism to me, and who would become my co-adventurer into all aspects of spiritual life.
After my first sit-down with Chuck and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, he said that if I was serious about this spiritual quest, I should read The Essential Rumi and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. I ordered both of these from the bookstore.  Finding, the first was easy as it is a best seller translated by the poet, Coleman Barks.  But I had to choose from over a hundred different commentaries on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras that were then available. Fortunately, while I was waiting for my book order, my other mentor Harry lent me a copy of what he called his "Book of Spiritual-Realization". It  was called How to Know God: A Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written by Christopher Isherwood and his teacher Swami Prabhavananda. (Synchronistically, when my book order arrived, I had picked the exact same commentary from amongst the 100's available!)

In How to Know God (which can be found here), Isherwood and Prabhavananda render a wonderful analogy of the mind and the "skhandas" - or habitual thought patterns - which are in essence the same as what we would call "character defects" in AA. They explain that "yoga" - the word for "religion" in the East - means to reunite with the Godhead that is imbued throughout every being, and which is the essence of each being.  In this sense, "yoga" (which derives from the same Sanskrit word as the English "yoke") is the same as the inner religious path examined by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. (The word "religion" comes from the Latin re, meaning again; and ligare, meaning to tie or unite - as in ligature, or ligament.) In other words, as Isherwood and the Swami explain, yoga is the practices by which the individual reunites with his authentic being, or the atman in Hindu parlance.  Patanjali's second sutra, or thread, says that, "the practice of yoga is learning to still the thought stuff or the mind"

(It is important to for the reader to know that Patanjali's yoga practices do not include the "hatha yoga" practices that are common in the yoga studios of the West.  Hatha yoga is seen as a later practice that is viewed as merely preparatory, readying the body and mind fit for studying the six limbs of classical yoga.)

Isherwood and Prabhavananda go on to give the following beautiful analogy of the mind, and the skhandas or character defects which obscure its true nature. (Remember, that page 55 of the Big Book says that the fundamental ideas of God is within each man, woman and child, "although it may be obscured by calamity, pomp and worship of other things.")

In How to Know God, the authors describe the mind as being like a clear lake, at the bottom of which rests the atman, or God within. While at first it is possible to see straight through the lake to God, thought waves and thinking stirs the surface of the Mind-lake and its water column, so that in time the lake becomes turgid and we can no longer see to the bottom.  And just like a muddied lake, there are habitual currents and eddies (i.e., our habitual ways of thinking, or our "old ideas") that build up sandbanks and pebble beds that further obscure the lake bottom.

They explain, however, that as one learns - through self-examination, meditation and prayer - to still the thought waves of the mind, and through a disciplined practice of doing so, the mud settles out of the water and we can again see to the lake bottom.  Yet, even when the water is again clear, we are left with the sandbars of the skhandas (our defects of character), which tend to channel our thoughts, just as sandbars channel the currents in a lake.  But, they explain, through patient and persistent practice even these obstructions pass away, so that once again the Mind-lake becomes clear and we can see all the way to the bottom - which is the Ground of Being - and, thus, we complete the process of reuniting with the Godhead, or making conscious contact with our Higher Power.

I find this to be a wonderful analogy of how the AA program works.  We come in with a muddied mind, but come to believe that there is a Higher Power somewhere within our access.  We then work to clear the waters, through a shared moral inventory, making amends and continuing to watch for character defects through a continuing inventory.  Then we practice the arts of self-examination, meditation and prayer, through which we realize a spiritual awakening. Finally, by consistent effort, we may be afforded what Bill describes in Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as "a new state of consciousness and being."

I am grateful to the two old-timers who picked me up and became my spiritual mentors, as I am to my sponsor and those who came before him.  Through these people, a message was carried that helped show me there is a far Greater Reality than that which I had only theretofore experienced in the choppy waves at the top of my Mind-lake - the dangerous waters of the ego, or if you like, the bondage of self. And this is a message that is handed down to us, not only through more experienced AA members, but from the wisdom traditions passed down from the very sands of time itself

Friday, August 6, 2010

Spiritual Experience: Living the Spiritual Life

There are two small sentences - one a proposition, the other an assertion - that, I believe, lie at the heart of the AA program.  Both are keys to a new 'attitude': i.e., new thoughts and a new way of thinking about the world,  and who and what we are. It is this new attitude that allows the recovering alcoholic addict to live at peace in a world that is inherently unmanageable, without compulsively seeking to either manage his or her experience, or seek the comfort and ease that might elusively be found in a continuing addiction.

The first proposition is found at page 53 of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA's basic text. "When we become alcoholics," it reads, "crushed by a self-imposed crises we could not postpone or evade, we had to face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing, God either is, or He isn't." [Emphasis added.] It then asks us, "What is our choice to be?".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The 11th Step Prayer - Invocation, Meditation & Contemplation

In the 11th Step prayer (or St. Francis' Prayer), set out on page 99 of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we pray that God "make us a channel of thy peace." How do we become a "peace channel", and why a "channel" at all?

Page 55 of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, makes it clear that "the fundamental idea of God" is deep within the consciousness of each of us - man, woman and child. Such higher consciousness (most especially in the mind of the chronic alcoholic addict) may, however, be obscured by the cloud of three particular mental manifestations or constructs of extreme 'self-consciousness': namely, those of "calamity, pomp and worship of other things".

It is this "Great Reality deep down within us" described on page 55 - or what the Spiritual Experience Appendix describes as "an unsuspected inner resource" - which is the "peace" in the channel of peace sought through the 11th step prayer. It is by facing the powerful, inner and near-hypnotizing manifestations of "self" - the inner calamity, pomp, and worship of other things such as money, prestige, sex relations - and then going beyond the narrow confines of this self-consciousness to a deeper consciousness, that we will find true peace of mind. But how specifically do we do this?

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Mysterious, Depth & God - An "Unsuspected Inner Resource"

In The World As I See It, an autobiographical collection of Albert Einstein's papers, notes and lectures etc., the most renowned scientist of the twentieth century - and not unrelatedly one of that century's most visible and public atheists - makes the following comments regarding religion, God and the deep mysteries of life:

"The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery--even if mixed with fear--that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fear, Desire and Suffering

Re-reading, yet again, the Seventh Step in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, I was struck anew by (a) how profoundly fear, desire and suffering are interrelated, (b) how integral the realization of suffering is in order to gain the humility necessary for removal of our character defects, and (c) how closely the commentary on Step Seven - whether knowingly or unbeknownst to Bill - reflects the simplicity of the Buddha's primary spiritual teaching. It teaches the nature of our suffering and how to remove it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Evolving Consciousness

Perhaps the most frequently referenced quote from the stories section in the back of the Big Book is that dealing with 'acceptance' from the chapter "Acceptance Was The Answer" (formerly, "Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict"). It is found at page 417 in the fourth edition of Alcoholics Anonymous and reads:

"And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. Whenever I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, thing or situation - some fact of my life - unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes."

Acceptance is at the heart not only of the Serenity Prayer, but at the heart of most of our slogans. To "Live and Let Live" is acceptance. Acceptance is the 'grace' in "But for the Grace of God," the 'first thing' in "First Things First," the level of thought to aspire to in "Think, Think, Think," and the means of 'letting go' of old ideas in "Let Go and Let God".