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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is it Really JUST the 'Big Book' We Need?

One trend I do not remember from when I sobered up 20-odd years ago was the fanaticism over the idea - or the very idea itself - that the 'Big Book' of Alcoholism Anonymous is the "only" text that should be used in sobering up, or in taking a newcomer through the 12 Steps. It seems to me that this somewhat militant stance - directed particularly towards the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in my local area in Southern Ontario, Canada - is at once intellectually dishonest, close-minded, and demonstrates an unwillingness to grow beyond the initial working of the Steps as outlined in the 'Big Book,' which is, admittedly, our "basic text."

Without the Twelve Steps and Twelve Tradition, we would not have the all-important Serenity Prayer, nor would we have the 11th Step Prayer. Additionally, the lessons on daily living drawn from essays on how to "practice" Steps 3, 6, 7, and 11 are vital tools in our "spiritual tool-kit."

This does not mean that I don't take sponsees through the Steps as outlined in the 'Big Book,' or don't strongly recommend to other sponsors that this is what they should do, but I (and many, many others) have found the  Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions to be absolutely essential in attaining, maintaining and improving a conscious contact with the God of our understanding - particularly in tough times.

In times of great emotional stress, sometimes the only thing I have to rely on is the Serenity Prayer. In the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, "taking" Step Three is simply described as reciting - some insist on one's knees - the Third Step prayer set out on page 63. Yet, while one snippet from the Third Step Prayer ("relieve me of the bondage of self") is perhaps my most frequent prayer, having once recited that prayer is not sufficient to practice Step 3 months, or years, later. And this is particularly so in times of grave emotional distress. At such times, even having recited the Third Step Prayer in the morning may not suffice.

This is why Bill W. concludes his essay on "practicing" the Third Step in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions by recommending that we take the following actions in the times of great difficulties we are bound to face:
'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."'
 Just as we do not "pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness" pray just once; neither is what "separates the men from the boys" (according to Bill's "spiritual sponsor," Father Ed Dowling"), the hour we spend at home after sharing our Fifth Step reviewing our progress so far and seeing if we've scrimped anywhere, as Step Six is outlined in the 'Big Book.'

We need to consistently and logically interrelate and weave together the continual process of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" if we are to have "an unshakeable foundation," as it says in Step 11 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. To do this, the more help the better I say; and it is likely this attitude that prompted A.A.'s commissioning Bill to write down in essay form his thoughts and experiences with the Steps and Traditions in the first place.

We cannot have too much insight into the nature of, and spiritual solution to, our basic problem - ego-centricity - and there are any number of valuable references outside of the 'Big Book' that are of assistance to the newcomer and old-timer alike.

Indeed, in the "Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous" pamphlet, Dr. Bob states quite plainly that he 'cultivated' the habit of reading an average of one hour a day from a variety of sources over the 15 years of his sobriety. (The key concept here being the variety of sources, rather than the amount of time spent reading.)

In its group consciouness, Alcoholics Anonymous saw fit to publish nine separate books and a wide variety of pamphlets, as well as setting up the "Grapevine" and The AA Grapevine Inc., to publish what the General Service Conference recognized as "the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous," and a treasure trove of other material helpful to the recovering alcoholic addict.

To say that we should narrowly restrict our study to just the 'Big Book' and to shun at all costs the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is precisely the attitude that Doctor Bob warned of in his last major talk (published in the "Co-founders" pamphlet), when he observed:
"We are all inclined to have pretty closed minds, pretty tightly closed. That's one reason why some people find our spiritual teaching difficult. They don't want to find out too much about it, for various personal reasons . . . "

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Cause of "Self-Centered Fear" - A Buddhist Perspective

"What now is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering? It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and giving up, the liberation and detachment from it."

"But where may this craving vanish, where may it be extinguished? Wherever in the world there are delightful and pleasurable things, there this craving may vanish, there it may be extinguished."

"Be it in the past, present or future: whosoever of the monks or priests regards the delightful and pleasurable things of the world as impermanent (
annica), miserable (dukkha) and without an Ego (an-atta), as a disease and sorrow, it is he who overcomes the craving."
["A Buddhist Bible," Dwight Goddard, ed., page 31.]

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"The chief activators of our defects has been our self-centered fear," we read in Step Seven of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, "primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration."

What then is the source of our "self-centered fear?" Quite obviously it is our attachments to and desires (or cravings) for some person, thing, idea, circumstance or situation that we are essentially powerless to hold onto or grasp, as everything in life it turns out is fleeting at best.

This is an essential truth of all wisdom or religious teachings, and is the Second Noble Truth, the truth of the cause of suffering, in the great Buddhist tradition. The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering, is that if we end this perpetual clinging and craving (we give up our "usnsatisfied" and, ultimately, unsatisfiable "demands") we end our suffering. "No peace was to be had unless we could find a means of reducing these demands," Bill observes. A true statement, indeed, in my experience.

In the first of a series of articles on The Huffington Post, author Kevin Griffin ("One Breath At a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps"), writes:
"The function of the first Step . . . is more than just telling us we have a problem with addiction. It is the realization that the whole premise of our pleasure-seeking lives is flawed. Another classic template for spiritual transformation makes this same statement: the Buddha's Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha starts his teaching with the recognition of all the ways that life is challenging, physically and mentally: that we're often stuck with what we don't want or wishing we had something else; that we inevitably get old and sick and die. Just like Step One, he's trying to get us to see past the surface to what's really going on. The starting point of both paths, then, is to see the truth: in 12 Step terms, to come out of denial; in Buddhist terms, to shed delusion. To begin on any spiritual path, and to deal with the destructive power of addiction, we have to be honest with ourselves."

Once we have made this honest start, and have "come to believe" that there is a "Power" or "Great Reality" that we can tap into which remains, for now, "obscured" but that is "deep down within us" ("Alcoholics Anonymous," page 55), we can set about clearing away the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" that obscure this "inner resource" (the "Spiritual Experience" appendix). And, we do this by working on the craving for, or clinging to, our "old ideas" that there is a person, thing situation or circumstance that will bring us ultimate happiness and satisfaction. Like the "Power" that manifests these feelings, in reality, true happiness and satisfaction are only found within.

We therefore need to disattach from our outer "self" - or "ego" - along with its clinging to the idea that something we have or might get will ultimately fulfill us. It is an illusion, and these desires give rise to the fear (the unthought recognition, perhaps) that we will not attain our misdirected goals, and so activate our character defects. And, it is when our actions are motivated by these character defects that we step on other people's toes, in our vain efforts to "manage life."

Thus, as Bill (and the Buddha) recognized, while the "chief activator of our defects has been our self-centered fear," it is our unexamined desires that activate this ego-centric, or self-centered fear. Or, as Griffin notes:

"As long as we believe that pleasure-seeking and acquisition are the way to happiness, and that all we have to do is get better at acquiring and holding on to things, we will never resolve the real problem. That's because, as the Buddha tells us, what's actually causing suffering is the very attempts to control and acquire, our craving and clinging. He points out that, since everything is constantly changing, there's nothing that we can actually control or hold on to. His strategy, then, is to let go, to surrender -- exactly the solution offered by the 12 Steps." (Emphasis added.)

* * * * * * *
What is your reaction to this unorthodox look at the 12 Steps process? Do you have any comments that you would like to share. If you do, please do so, below.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Meditation: Why? and How?

"The action of the mind which is best is that in which it is sometimes raised above itself and unites with God."
- St. Gregory Palamas -
Why is meditation an essential part of the 12 Step program of "self-examination, meditation and prayer?" How does it relive us of "the bondage of self?" How do we begin the practice, and where does it lead us?

The central problem of the alcoholic (just as is the case in most everyone) is that he or she is "self-centered - ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays." ("Alcoholics Anonymous," page 61) Our drinking and/or drugging we are told is just a "symptom" of a deeper problem, and the "root of our troubles" is our identification with and attachment to the processes of the ego, the myriad manifestations of "self."
"Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt."

"So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must or it kills us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid.
" ("Alcoholics Anonymous," p. 62.)
Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
That is the "why." Through prayer we can affirm that the God of our understanding is 'everything rather than nothing' and ask for his aid and comfort; but, it is in meditation that we effect a conscious contact with God, and so are relieved, albeit briefly of our narrow and painful sense of 'self' or 'ego-consciousness.'

For those atheistic or agnostic alcoholics who have problems with the word "God" and prefer another concept or idea of "a Power greater than" their egoic 'selves,' the radically ecumenic and non-denominational spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, put it this way:
"Meditation is one of the most important things in life; not how to meditate; not meditation according to a system; but rather that which meditation is. If one can find out, very deeply, the significance, the necessity and the importance of it for oneself, then one puts aside all systems, methods, gurus, together with all the peculiar things that are involved in the Eastern type of meditation."

"It is very important to uncover for oneself what one actually
is; not according to the theories and the assertions and experiences of psychologists, philosophers and the gurus, but rather by investigating the whole nature and movement of oneself; by seeing what one actually is."

"One does not seem to be able to understand how extraordinarily important it is to see what one is, actually, as though one is looking at oneself in a mirror, psychologically; thereby bringing about a transformation in the very structure of oneself. When one fundamentally, deeply, brings about such a transformation, or mutation, then that mutation affects the whole consciousness of man. This is an absolute fact. A reality."

(Jiddu Krishnamurti, "The Wholeness of Life," page 141.)
Paul Brunton (1898-1981)
It is thus, through meditation that one rids oneself of the "selfish" obsession for booze and/or drugs. And it is through meditation that one seeks to remove the remaining obsessive thoughts of "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" that keep us locked in our narrow, egoic self-centered thinking. It is through meditation that we seek to attain, what our more religious members call God-consciousness, and which most of us see as the essence of the spiritual awakening necessary to arrest our alcoholism.

That is the "why" of it, but what about the "how?" The philosopher and Self-realized perennial spiritual aspirant, Paul Brunton, described the "how" of meditation, broadly, in the following manner:
"Before [the spiritual aspirant's] mind can understand truth, attain the Real, and enjoy happiness, it must reach a quiet state. No disturbances, no agitations, and no resistances must get in the way. To make such a state possible, it must first be reached spasmodically during special periods each day, that is, during meditation periods. As it becomes more and more accustomed to the silencing of its negative activities in this way, it will eventually become more and more settle in the state by habit during the rest of the day. Finally the habit becomes a trait of character, permanent and unbroken. Here is the further reason why the practice of meditation exercises is a necessity, indispensable to a complete [spiritual] quest."
(Paul Brunton's "Notebooks," Vol 3., page 15)

 The Oxford Groupers showed Ebby T. (and Ebby showed Bill) how they would sit quietly for ten minutes first thing in the morning - before they even had their coffee - trying to push out the ordinary rushing thoughts of the ego. Following this period of what they called  "guidance," they would write out a simple plan for the day. They would then repeat ten minutes of quite introspection each evening.

I've found this to be an effective method for myself, and for those I've worked with. However, many sources say that a beginning meditator should seek the help of a more experienced practitioner or teacher, as a first-time meditator's initial acquaintance with the raucous voice of the ego and the stillness underneath may be maddening; some go as far as saying it may induce psychosis; and there is a very real possibility that it may.

Yet, the alternative to meditation and lonely self-scrutiny are the continuing obsessions and the obsessive nature of our narrow, self-consciousness, which is the root of our disease. It is clear, at least in my experience, that sobriety without meditation and prayer is indeed maddening, in and of itself.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why Do So Many of Us 'Balk' At Sharing Our Inventory With Others?

Why do so many of us resist the 4th and 5th Steps? Is it because we are ashamed and fearful of what we will find, let alone having to disclose it to "another person?" Are we afraid that if we share what we might find, we will be more alone than ever?

Bill W. insightfully writes in the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" that we tend to suffer from a sense of "anxious apartness."  Ironically, it is this sense of "anxious apartness" which seems to keep us from taking a deep, honest and thorough 4th Step, yet it is precisely this sense of "anxious apartness" that the Fourthth and Fifth Steps are designed to eradicate.

In an insightful, 'must-see video' from, one of those 'so-called normal people',  Dr. BrenĂ© Brown (a researcher professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work), talks about everyone's  sense of connectedness, shame, worthiness, courage and vulnerability. She notes that we are wired biologically for "connectedness, and that"shame" is really "the fear of disconnection," and an almost-universal emotion.

We are afraid, Brown says, that if someone really "saw" us they would find us unworthy of being connected to. The "courageous" among us, however, she says are those who are willing to embrace their vulnerabilies and their fear of being disconnectedness and ostracized if they allow themselves to really "be seen."

Ms. Brown takes us through the story of her intensive research into "shame,"  shares how this research took her into her own dark places, and tells how the resulting nervous "breakdown" led her to her own "spiritual awakening."

The truly "courageous" are those, she observes, who believe (or, presumably 'come to believe') "their vulnerabilities are what make them beautiful."

The video may perhaps be an explanation to those of us going through the 12 Steps for the first time why Alcoholics Anonymous does not suggest but, rather, begs us "to be fearless and thorough from the very start." And, perhaps it will serve others as a reminder that we are not bad people trying to be good, but that we are sick people striving to get well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

On Acceptance . . . and "God-consciousness"

“… (A)cceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation - some fact of my life - unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in [this] world by mistake… . (U)ntil I accept life completely on life’s term, 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.”
("Alcoholics Anonymous," page 417.)

Likely the most often quoted passage from the "Stories" section of "Alcoholics Anonymous," this paragraph cuts to the chase. In one paragraph it diagnoses the fundamental problem of the alcoholic addict and suggests the solution: acceptance that life is as it is in this moment, and what is needed is a change in one's attitude from resistance to an acceptance of life on life's terms.

The underlying cause of almost any addiction (including, foremost, an addiction to one's thinking patterns) is that the addict is essentially attached to and identified with an overly active and compelling inner narrative of self-consciousness - the  ordinary, human "ego," or what William James called "the stream of consciousness." Indulgence in the behaviour that provides temporary relief from this incessant mental chatter and the painful emotions that accompany it - drinking, drugging, gambling, an eating disorder, emotional outbursts, etc. - is the symptom of this addiction to the addict's self-conscious life. What is needed, therefore, is a change in one's inner life, a change in one's "attitude" (one's habitual way of thinking) or, in short, a change in the level of one's 'inner consciousness.'

One of the books in Bill W.'s library at "Stepping Stones' - his home just outside New York City where he lived when writing the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" - is Richard M. Bucke's classic psychological profile of "enlightened" persons throughout history and across cultures, "Cosmic Consciousness." (Bucke, was an intimate friend and 'follower' of the poet, Walt Whitman, and the Superintendent of an "insane asylum" in Hamilton, Ontario at the time he wrote "Cosmic Consciousness.") The book was first  published in 1901 and was used as a source book for William James' critically important book,"The Varieties of Religious Experience."

Richard M. Bucke
In it, Bucke distinguishes between three different levels of "ordinary" consciousness: receptive, perceptive and conceptive consciousness. As far as we know with certainty, we are the only species with "consceptive consciousness," while we share with lower order species the more basic states of consciousness which Bucke terms 'perceptive' and 'receptive' in order of descending evolutionary development.

In "What God Wants," author Neale Donald Walsh, classified these same levels of consciousness in the way more popularly discussed today as 'human' consciousness, 'mammalian' consciousness and 'reptilian' consciousness. Walsh used an apt illustration of a cobra, a lion and a jealous husband to illustrate how these varying states of consciousness trigger a response once there is something in the environment that seems to be a call to action.

To paraphrase Walsh, he notes that if you get to close to a cobra - invading its territory, so to speak - it will instinctively coil and then strike out with a venomous bite. However, a crucial distinction is that there must be a direct stimulus or 'threat' in its immediate environment to trigger this response. (Bucke would term this "receptive" consciousness, as the organism is receiving a direct stimulus and reacts to it.)

At the next higher level - 'mammalian,' or what Bucke would call "perceptive" consciousness - a male lion patrolling its territory smells the urine markings of a competitive male, and this indirect perception of a 'threat' triggers a response; the lion 're-marks' its territory and aggressively tries to hunt down the other male it perceives as threatening its interests.

Shakespeare: "There is nothing either
good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
"Hamlet," Act II, Scene II.
At the 'human' or 'ordinary' level of self-consciousness (or what Bucke calls "conceptive" consciousness) a man going to a dinner party knows that a man who could be a potential rival might be there. He thinks to himself that the man might hit on his wife, or the wife might flirt with the potential rival, and that mere thought or 'concept' triggers an emotional response of jealousy. There is no direct stimulus, just the act of conceiving the ideas in his mind produces the effect. As far as we know it is only mankind (and 'perhaps' some higher order mammals, like chimpanzees, dolphins or whales) that are capable of manifesting this higher order of self-consciousness.

We may, in fact, be unique in that, as others have observed, somehow 'we know that we know.' And isn't the sure conviction of knowing that we 'know' our 'problems' what causes the irritability, restlessness and discontent in the alcoholic addict? And, isn't the knowing that we 'know' a solution for this discomfort what keeps an addict in his or her active addiction?

Fortunately, as others have again noted (both alcoholic addicts and other so-called 'normal people,' alike), we are capable - once we know that we know - of a still higher state of consciousness that we all have the potential of reaching. It is as Bucke, the philosopher Gerald Heard (a friend of Bill W.'s) or Andrew Cohen, a teacher of what he terms "Evolutionary Enlightenment,"  would call an evolutionary potential. It is a higher state of consciousness that I would term an "acceptive consciousness" although Bucke and others have various names for it, "cosmic consciousness" being one preferred description.

Yet, because it is for now a "potential" state of consciousness, the person who wishes to reach that state must work towards becoming capable of manifesting it. He or she must 'consciously' and 'actively' nurture it, as very few attain to this state through force of circumstance; although, historically some lucky few have attained it spontaneously, and mostly in very trying circumstances.

The "Spiritual Experience" appendix to the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that a vital spiritual experience, whether of the "sudden" or "educational variety" is what we need to arrest and recover from both our addiction to booze and/or drugs - as if booze weren't a drug - and the addiction we have to the ordinary self-consciousness that drives us blindly. Fortunately though, it assures us that we all have the potential for this higher consciousness, and - assuming we put in the continual daily effort to practice this program of self-examination, meditation and prayer - a very good chance of attaining this higher state of being.

The "Spiritual Experience" appendix, first published in the second edition of "Alcoholics Anonymous" when there were approximately 150,000 A.A. members, notes:
"With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception ot 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."
"Acceptive" or "God-consciousness" 
is a 'love' without object or conditions.
Ultimately, it is resorting to this higher state of radical acceptance (a sense of 'love' without objects or conditions), this state of "God-consciousness" (or as I prefer "acceptive consciousness"), that allows us to accept life on life terms, that allows us to accept the "person, place, thing, or situation" that is disturbing us "as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment," without the necessity of drinking or drugging to get by.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quieting the Mind: 'The Tao of the Doughnut Hole'

To lead a contented and purposeful life, the alcoholic addict in recovery is dependent upon a "spiritual awakening" - the opening up of a 'new' consciousness, beneath and above the internal dialogue of the 'ego,' or what we ordinarily thnk of as self-consciousness - as well as the daily maintenance of the 'spiritual condition' of what is really the 'renewed consciousness' of our fundamental innocence.

I call it a 'renewed,' or 'recovered' innocence  - the two words share a common meaning - because it is an innocence which we have experienced more or less often as children before the onset of the constant internal voice of the ego took firm hold. After all, it is fundamentally this "painful inner dialogue" and the accompanying discomfort of the 'existential pain' of unrelenting self-consciousness that the drink and/or the drugs relieved us of. "We loved the effect alcohol had on us" precisely because of the extemporaneous internal relief from the constant thinking and emotions which arise through our self-consciousness; relief from the sense of being an 'actor' on stage without his or her lines.

But if we are to let go of our "old ideas" and the attitudes that foster them, if we are truly able to admit the fundamental unmanageability of the whole of life by us and "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God" as we understand (or grasp to understand) God, what will become of us?

To accept that we are powerless to run our own lives goes against all the instincts of the ego and the 'lessons' we've learned in life. We have been taught, in a certain sense, that life is a problem to be figured out, and that we must somehow figure out how to figure it out.

Turning our 'will' (our decision-making about what we will do or say) and our 'lives' over to the care of an 'innermost reality' that we have - let's face it - very little understanding of goes against all the inner emotional pressure we face to 'appear' just like so-called 'normal people' and everybody else; that is, firmly in control of ourselves and confident in our inner core at all times. (Small wonder, then, that we so often hear how our fellow alcoholic addicts talking about having wished they felt like other people looked.)

So what is the result of this big, existential and fundamental challenge we face? Usually, unless we can truly "admit complete defeat," as it says in Step One of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," it is a profound reluctance to "Let Go and Let God," and an internal, reluctant dialogue and rationalization that goes much like this:
"Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence, Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep on turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else what will become of me? I'll look like the hole in the doughnut."
("Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," page 36.)

And this is the point. The hole is the essence of the doughnut. The rest is eaten, but the hole remains. In turning our will and our lives over to the care of a Power greater than ourselves and our egoic, self-centered thinking are we ready to trust (even on an experimental basis) that we can rely on the essence of our being?

In the great Taoist treatise, Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching," we read:
"The thirty spokes converge on one hub, but the usefulness of the cart is a function of the 'nothingness' inside the hub. We knead clay to shape a pot, but the usefulness of the clay pot is a function of the 'nothingness' inside it. We construct windows and doors to make a room, but the usefulness of the room is a function of the 'nothingness' inside it. Thus, it might be 'something' that we attain that provides function and value, but it is by the virtue of  'nothing' that we can put it to use." (Tao Te Ching, XI)
In a very real sense we construct our own mental prison that locks us into our alcoholic, self-centered and self-absorbed attitudes. "What will become of me? I'll be like the hole in the doughnut," the ego cries out. It is precisely this thinking that perpetuates alcoholic suffering, active or inactive.

"This," we read, "is the process by which instinct and logic seek to bolster egotism and frustrate spiritual development." To overcome this process, it is necessary to face and face down our instinctive fears of not being able to survive without trying to exert control over our world and the people in it, To overcome this process we need to slow down and quiet our logical processes that tell us we will find a solution that will take care of our illusory problems if we just give it enough thought.

And it is precisely here that the practice of Step Three needs to kick in. Every time we do not know what to do and our emotions are in overdrive we need to recognize, through the practice of self-examination, just what a perilous situation our egoic minds have once more put us into. Then, just as it says in the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," we are able to pause, recenter on the essence of our being, and from the quiet and stillnes of that essence, 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."
There is only one thing we can "change" in an instant, and that is the level of our thinking. To know the fundamental difference between the  thoughts of the ego and our inner essence - between the doughnut and the doughnut hole - and to recognize that the function of the quiet void below the raucous 'noise' of the ego is to provide "serenity" and safe haven, is true "wisdom" that is indeed worthy of the Tao.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous: Part II

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961)
In "Carl Jung and Alcoholics: Part I," we touched on Bill W.'s correspondence with the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, discussed why letting go of our "old ideas" is crucial to recovery from alcoholic addiction, and highlighted the following pithy description of just what "vital spiritual awakenings" consist of. Talking to Roland H. several years before Bill W. attained sobriety, Jung described the latter as "phenomena," whereby:
"Ideas emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces in the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and new conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."
It is essential to rid oneself of "old ideas," or at least work at letting go of them, in order to obtain a truly open mind and allow new conceptions of what one's life is really about to take root. For it is in obtaining such a new worldview that we are truly relieved of the craving for the experience and relief from ourselves that came with taking the first of what inevitably turned out to be too many drinks.

As Jung explained to Bill W. in the course of their correspondence some thirty or so years after Jung had last treated Rolland H., the thirst of the alcoholic is symptomatic of a much deeper existential craving. In Jung's words:
"His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God."
Jung, as he explained to Bill in his letter of January 30, 1961, was deeply concerned at the time that his then (and now) somewhat 'controversial' views with respect to the 'spiritual' or 'religious experiences' undergone by many reformed alcoholics might be misunderstood. Nonetheless, he would explain to Bill just how such experiences took root, as he had concluded that Bill had acquired an understanding "above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism."

In explaining the spiritual paths that lead to what he termed a "religious experience" (undoubtedly an "inner religious" as opposed to an "outer religious" experience, employing the terminology used by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience"), Jung explained:
"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience 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 a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal 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 of mere rationalism."
I was extremely blessed to have received the benefits of "an act of grace" one evening, like so many other alcoholics I have met, while staring into the eyes of a very sick man reflected in my bathroom mirror. It was just the result of another typical day of drinking, but it was my last day of drinking some twenty-odd years ago.

I was doubly blessed to have the "personal and honest contact with friends in my first years in Alcoholics Anonymous," particularly the hundreds of hours that I was able to spend with my first sponsor before he died.

And, yet, even this was insufficient to trigger within me that deep and effective "spiritual" or "religious experience" Jung describes. I would spend five years in the lonely wilderness of sobriety after a decade clean and sober; a decade when all my time and effort was given over to a newly acquired profession and a growing young family that I put before my mental and spiritual sobriety. The result was not atypical, a slow and almost imperceptible descent into the depths of insanity, with a frightening drop at the end, as I hit bottom in sobriety.

I was fortunate to have survived bottoming out in sobriety. Many people I knew did not. And I was thrice blessed, because after hitting bottom in sobriety I was humbled and finally ready to receive "a higher education of the mind before mere rationalism."

As strange as it may seem at first, largely because many of us misconstrue rationalism with sanity, "mere rationalism" can be a block to the true and effective spiritual awakening that will relieve us of the symptoms of alcoholism, just as "the good can be the enemy of the great," as the saying goes.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the man who penned the "Serenity Prayer" explained that there is a  plane of thought and inspiration above the ordinary self-conscious "rationalism" or "reasoning" that we witness even so-called "normal people" struggling with. In delivering the annual Gifford Lecture (the same lectures that William James used as his basis for writing "The Varieties of Religious Experience") Niebuhr observed:
"Individual selfhood is expressed in the self's capacity for self-transcendence and not in its rational capacity for conceptual and analytic procedures."
I was extremely fortunate upon hitting bottom in sobriety to encounter two old-timers that would lead me on "a higher education of the mind beyond mere rationalism." Neither of them made it as far as high school even, yet with their spiritual experience in hand they were able to demonstrate to me (with my two university degrees) that a rigorous program of "self-examination, meditation and prayer." particularly meditation - could and would open an entirely new plane of existence to me.

And it is in attaining this promised "new plane of inspiration" or existence that one perfects the promise of a spiritual awakening and gains a whole new set of conceptions and motives with which to live a radically different life; it is on this plane that one can, in actuality, find a "contented" (and more importantly) a "purposeful life."

To find this new plane of existence and purposeful life is essential for long-term, contented sobriety. As Jung noted in his letter to Bill, in an observation that is at least as relevant, if not more so, today as it was fifty years ago in 1961:
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil.
Fortunately, the alcoholic addict in recovery no longer needs to be isolated in society - unless he or she so chooses, as I did - nor must he or she be left unprotected outside "the protective wall of human community" or unaided by "an action from above."

Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous: Part I

The only place where an "absolute" is mentioned in the first half of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous is in the introductory remarks about our "old ideas" in the "How It Works" chapter - right there in the paragraph immediately before the 'suggested' Twelve Steps are laid out.

"Many of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas," we are cautioned each time the "How It Works passage is read out, "but the result was nil until we let go absolutely." Nothing changes. We remain just as "restless, irritable and discontented" as we were before we took that last 'first drink' for just as long as we try to hang on to our old mental life.

But why are our "old ideas" flagged as the only aspect of our former lives that we must let go of lock, stock and barrel - or  "absolutely"? The answer, it seems, like so much else - indeed, the entire Twelve Steps movement - has its "taproot" in the work of the psychologist Carl Jung with a single patient, Roland Hazzard. Roland would go on to join the Oxford Group, find a "solution" to his alcoholic addiction, and pass the message of recovery on to Ebby T. who passed the message on to Bill Wilson. And getting rid of "old ideas" is at the heart of the message which Roland indirectly passed on to Bill W.

The crux of the message was that a sufficiently forceful - or "vital" - "spiritual experience" could arrest an almost always fatal alcoholic addiction:
"Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."
("Alcoholics Anonymous," page 27; emphasis added.)
"What man by taking thought ever
added one moment to his life span?"

(Matthew 6:27)
The setting aside of "old ideas," together with the emotional content of those thoughts and our habitual process of how we think (our "attitudes") is the spiritual experience we need to arrest our alcoholism and recover. It is the setting aside of "old ideas" that creates within us the "open mind" uncluttered by egoic thinking and by the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things ("Big Book,' page 55) that separate us from the "Great Reality deep down within us." It is the setting aside of "old ideas" that reveals to us "the unsuspected inner resource" ('Big Book' Spiritual Experience appendix) which almost without exception early A.A. members identified with "their own conception of a Power greater than themselves."

We utilize the 12 Steps and its suggested program of "self examination, meditation and prayer" to rid our 'selves' of our 'selves' in essence. Through this process, the "ideas, emotions and attitudes' of our ordinary, egoic 'self-consciousness' are suddenly (or gradually) replaced with a 'higher consciousness,' or what the "more religious" early A.A. members called "God-consciousness," which brings with it a "whole new mindset of "conceptioins and motivations'" according to Jung.

That attainment of this 'higher consciousness' is sufficient to arrest and treat an alcoholic addiction is "no coincidence," Jung would much later point out in a prized letter to Bill W. In the Jung-Wilson correspondence (discussed in Part II of this article) Jung notes that, "Alcohol in Latin is "spiritus" and you use the same word for the highest religious [or spiritual] experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum."

However, in order for us to follow this formula, we must continually strive to rid ourselves of the ego and its old ideas, even as they continually arise in us through our egoic streams of consciousness. And, it is in this process of "self-forgetting" that we let go of ego-consciousness and so establish or re-establish our conscious contact with an 'understandable' God within our Being.

And, it is in this continual "self-forgetting" of the 11th Step Prayer that "we find" a higher consciousness and Jung's "new conceptions and motivations" despite the challenge of doing so. Because, let's face it, after several minutes of our egos chewing on it, virtually any thought will begin to grow old and stale.

(Click, here, for "Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous: Part II")

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Restless, Irritable and Discontented . . . "Who Me?"

Once again the topic of "Irritability, Restlessness and Discontent" - the base state of the alcoholic without alcohol or drugs in his/her system - whether still in 'active addiction, or in 'inactive yet untreated' alcoholic addiction (i.e., "dry" sobriety) - came up for discussion at our local discussion meeting. The topic comes from an oft-recited passage from the "Doctor's Opinion" in the introductory section of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. It reads:
"Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery."
("Alcoholics Anonymous," pp. xxviii-xxix.)
In Doctor Silkworth's opinion, this is what keeps drunks picking up "that first drink" (and it is not uncoincidentally, and most often simultaneously, what incites the addict to pick up his pipe or his pills). We like the effect that drink and/or drugs has on us. Without this effect we are, quite literally, 'out of our minds' with a mental restlessness that produces great feelings of irritability and profound discontent. Yet, unless our thinking and attitudes have changed dramatically we have only one solution to this condition . . . and that is to use again.

Most alcoholic addicts continue on this treadmill until it kills them, often after years of great suffering, perhaps with intermittent years "coming in and out" of church basement's where recovery from alcoholic addiction is discussed but not experienced by them. Yet, for some, they experience "an entire psychic change" that allows them to keep their fatal maladay in remission, based upon their attaining and maintaining a certain "spiritual attitude."

But what about the alcoholic addict who has put the bottle and the bag down and is "white knuckling" it? Or, the reformed alkie-addict that has years of not drinking or drugging under his or her belt, has settled for a form of milquetoast sobriety while enjoying the benefits of a chemically sober life, but has settled into a far less purposeful and contented life than is readily possible?

What about the person who remains "restless, irritable and discontent" for years into sobriety, whether this is the result of a lack of true understanding or good sponsorship, an aversion to working the steps or plain old procrastination and laziness, or because he or she has hurriedly dumped all the obsessions of the self-driven mind into their "performance" in another area of life, such as work, physical fitness, or making a lot of meetings just for the sake of the brief respite of Fellowship and "prestige" they might offer?

Let's look at the so-called normal person. Do they not appear to be similarly prone to the same irritability, restlessness and discontent which can become rampant within the rooms of any 12 Step group? Consider the husband and wife who snipe at each other, or the person who tailgates you on the freeway until finally he can zoom past you at twice the speed limit while talking on his cell phone and giving you the American Sign Language salute for "have a nice day"?

Consider ourselves faced with the pressure of the work-a-day problems of everyday living. Are we not all prone to this epidemic of restlessness irritability and discontent in our society? It is all well and good for the "so-called normal person" who will muddle along as best she can, and who may finally find a spiritual solution for her 'problems' as well. But for the alcoholic addict without the eventually fatal luxury of going back to the bottle or back on the pipe, this irritability, restlessness and discontent may very well lead him to buy a bottle, buy a bag, or buy a gun and buy the farm.

Irritability, restlessness and discontent must be addressed with spiritual means, and not tolerated, albeit at a reduced level from what it was when we were full-blown. If not?  It is too often fatal!

But what about the spiritually adept? How does he or she go about weeding out the last roots of this poisonous trio? A start may be made in meditation. I recently read a passage from David Bohm, a renowned theoretical physicist, and an accomplished spiritual aspirant. He talked about how, at the very deepest level of consciousness there is an "emotion of wishing to think."

I know from my own meditation practice what this vague emotional stirring "of wishing to think" feels like. My first meditation teacher (an A.A. old-timer with 35+ years of daily, and intensive, meditation and prayer) taught me that an awareness of this stirring, and a mindful returning to the object of meditation would dissipate that stirring. And it does . . . sometimes. When it doesn't and I break out into full, egoic "think, think, thinking," it is a reminder that meditation is a "practice."

Self-centered, egoic self-consciousness (or "ego consciousness") is the main root of our habitual 'thinking' problem. ("Think, think, think . . . stink, stink, stink . . . drink, drink, drink", I was taught.) And, thus, an awareness of this needing to think, is essential if we are not to break out in full-blown irritability, restlessness and discontent. When in our continuous self-examination, we note these feelings (Step Ten), it is time to affirm that life remains "unmanageable" at the level of the ego (Step One), and that we need to "stop, pause and from the quiet" (Step Three) and affirm and invoke a Power which is greater than "self" to aid us in going forward with serenity and an 'acceptiveness' of life.

We "need more grace," as Rumi - that lover of wine and of life's tavern - noted.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Overcoming the Suffering of the "Self"

"Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric. . . "
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 61.
How do we overcome the suffering caused by the ego, or small "self"? Over and over the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that the root cause of alcoholic addiction is "self" - a.k.a. the human "ego." Specifically we are told:
Selfishness - self centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. . . . So our troubles we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! (Emphasis added.)
God helps us to get rid of our "self" centeredness and all its manifestations we are immediately told, and working through the 12 Steps helps us to do that - to "deflate ego" in depth. Having done the work, how then can we continue to work on keeping the voice of the ego - "self" - in check? Fortunately, A.A. has "no monopoly" on this process of "self-forgetting." And all of the world's great wisdom traditions speak to this.

Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn, a renowned Buddhist monk from Vietnam (who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.), has written a small book, "Beyond the Self," that fits easily into one's pocket or purse. In it he examines the three mechanisms that help to drive the ego: ignorance, anger and lust. Of these, perhaps our ignorance of what "self" is, and how the "ego" operates, is probably our biggest barrier to allowing "a Power greater than ourselves" into our life and being, in order that this might surplant the raucous, painful and fear-based inner dialogue of the "ego" which drives us so blindly.

"Buddha," Thich Nhat Hahn notes, explains that "ignorance gives rise to impulses." It is our job to refrain from acting on our "self-centered" impulses. Hahn recommends "mindfulness" as a means to doing so, a practice that is an integral part of the continuing mental inventory of our thoughts and actions that we take in Step Ten. It is pretty well equivalent to what Bill W. means by "self-examination."
"Ignorance," Thich Nhat Hahn observes, "means that we don't understand what is happening, so we behave in a certain way. If we are able to see clearly we will behave differently. Each one of us is caught, to a larger or smaller extent, in our emotions, in our difficulties, and in our experiences of suffering in the past. Because we're caught, we repeat the same suffering over and over again. We have a habit energy of reacting to circumstances in a rote way."
Or, as it says in the "How It Works" reading: "Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely." Nil, nada, nothing! As one wizened old-timer pointed out to me, that is the only "absolute" that we find in the first part of the Big Book. He told me (and rightly so, I believe) that, "there is nothing to learn in A.A. It is a process of 'unlearning." It is a process of letting go of our "old" ideas and unlearning our "attitudes," which is defined in my dictionary (the "O.E.D.") as "a settled opinion or way of thinking," i.e., our "habit" of thought. And, God only knows how much an alcoholic addict loves and clings onto his or her habits!

So how do we let go of old ideas and habitual thought patterns? If we have completed the Steps we turn to Step Three . . .  if not, we pick up a pen and paper and begin working on Step Four. Assuming we are working Step Three, every time we don't know what to do, or our thoughts are running wild and we are feeling "emotionally disturbed," we are told to stop, pause and, from the quiet within us, say the Serenity Prayer.

In a very real sense, this is the practice of "mindfulness," a concept or practice that is increasingly understood and used in the West, but which is essentially and originally an Eastern (particularly Buddhist) term and methodology. "Mindfulness" is, to my mind at least, the result of the interwoven and logically interrelated practices of "self-examination, meditation and prayer;" what Bill describes  in Step Eleven of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," as "an unshakeable foundation."

Thich Nhat Hahn then further illustrates how we are habitually driven by our old ideas and ways of thinking, and describes how "mindfulness" can relieve us of this "bondage of self."
"Our habit energy is what causes us to repeat the same behaviour thousands of time. Habit energy pushes us to run, to always be doing something, to be lost in thoughts of the past or the future and to blame others for our suffering. And that energy does not allow us to be peaceful and happy in the present moment."

"The practice of mindfulness helps us to recognize that habitual energy. Every time we can recognize the habit energy in us, we are able to stop and to enjoy the present moment. The energy of mindfullness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit of energy and transform it."
 In a very real sense, practicing "mindfulness" is our practicing the 'presence of God' in our lives; a practice that asks us not to conform to, or change the world, but rather to recover and to be "transformed" by the "renewal" of our minds. (Romans 12:2)

(Excerpts are from Thich Nhat Hahn, "Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way," Parallax Press, Berkeley CA: 2010)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three Paths: Self-Examination, Meditation and Prayer

As alcoholic addicts "in recovery" we are blessed people. Most addicts will die without ever knowing recovery . . . perhaps without knowing, or believing, there is such a thing as recovery. Many friends we ran with are already gone. And, even most the so-called "normal" people will go their own graves questioning if there is such a thing as God . . . or, worse yet, 'bargaining' with him. Very few will awaken to the reality that underneath their ordinary ego-consciousness lies the Infinite and the Divine.
"For the most of us the secret of man still remains to be mastered. What has lain dark in the earlier centuries remains unrevealed. . . . The majority of men will die without caring and without knowing whether man has something divine in him or is a mere skin-bag of flesh, blood, bones nerves and muscles. They are strangers to their own selves.
          (Paul Brunton, "Discover Yourself," page 133.)
However, to reap the blessings that recovery offers, it is essential that we work to attain the higher levels of "God-consciousness" that are available within us. The 12 Steps require a concerted and daily practice of prayer, meditation and self-examination to do so.

While prayer - like self-examination and, particularly, meditation - is 'good in and of itself' and "can bring much relief and benefit," It is when meditation, self-examination and prayer "are logically related and interwoven" that they provide us with "an unshakeable foundation for living." ("Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," page 98.) We begin the process of "self-examination" by writing out a 4th Step moral inventory, and continue to (or continuously) take a "fearless moral inventory" through application of Step 10. In Step 11, both prayer and meditation are required.

Meditation without prayer is mute; prayer without meditation is deaf; either, without an initial and continuing self-examination, are bound to fall short of providing a sane, happy and purposeful life, as one will basically be talking and listening to one's "self."

Without consistent and persistent "self-examination, we are blinded to the spiritual reality that we are far greater than, and separate from, that "painful inner dialogue" of our egoic "self." If we are to establish and build a channel to our higher consciousness (or "God-consciousness," as the more religious call this inner resource), we need to discipline our apparent "self" so that it may be "reduced at depth."

Remember the cautionary warning we are given in Step Three of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," pp. 39-40: "More sobriety brought about by the admission of alcoholism and by attendance at a few meetings is very good indeed, but it is bound to be a far cry from permanent sobriety and a happy and contented life."

Add caption
Those who work through - and then work on - the 12 Steps are offered a gift that is rare, and perhaps rarer still in the world outside of meetings and our circles of friendships. As Swami Vivikenanda, one of the first and great Eastern spiritual teachers to visit the West in the early 1900s, observed:
" . . . (N)ot one in a million can think of anything other than phenomena. To the vast majority of men nature appears to be only a changing, whirling, combining mingling mass of change. Few of us ever have a glimpse of the calm sea beneath."

* * * * *
The alcoholic addict in recovery is truly a blessed person . . .
and all our suffering was just a blessing we could not see at the time!

"Humility Consists in Having a Perfectly Open Mind"

"Honesty" = We don't have to remember the "stories" we've told.
"Humility" = We don't have to remember the "roles" we've played.

Greek "Tragedy" and "Comedy" Masks
(Note the grapevines on "Comedy.")
The analogy of the alcoholic addict as an 'actor' is an effective one. Like all good metaphors and analogies, it works because there is so much truth in it. With a continually humble attitude - true 'humility' - we move from being "the actor" always trying to hit a "mark" we've imagined, and to "deliver the lines" we imagine we need to, so that life will turn out good for everyone - even ourselves.

We can, however, if we stay humble, move from being stage-frightened actors to comedians joyfully ad-libbing our way through life one day at a time, confident that the whole life process - the whole "show" - is in the hands of a manager/director infinitely more capable than we are of running things on our own resources.  No more "scripts" to remember; no more "roles" to rehearse; no more "characters" to play. (It is no coincidence that the ancient Greek word for an "actor" was "hypokrite.")

Paul Brunton (1898-1981 )
Yet, true humility is difficult for all of us - alcoholic addict and so-called 'normal person,' alike. As the philosopher, Paul Brunton, observed:
"The average man is not humble; he may appear to be so, but inwardly he sets up mental resistance and barriers, and builds walls of prejudice against truth. Humility consists in having a perfectly open mind, as though you were new-born, and being able to receive with complete faith not only the words of those who know, but what is still more important, that which is behind the words which is Spirit."
It is, of course, a great challenge - some might call it, life's greatest challenge - to keep a perfectly open mind. As with so many other challenges in our program, we aim at perfection while knowing that we will consistently fall short. But recovery is found in our attempt to reach perfection.

But how many newcomers (or old-timers, for that matter) would interpret humility as "keeping an open mind"? Few, I would suspect. That would not only have never  occurred to me. I suspect that I would have argued vociferously against such an interpretation, just as I argued (if silently) against all spiritual axioms and principles. Yet, this is indeed, what humility means; an open mind, free of the wholly "self" conscious "stream of thought."

On Dr. Bob's desk in his Akron, Ohio home, I am told there is a plaque bearing the words which to him best described what true "humility" is. It reads:
Dr. Bob (1878-1950)

Perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble, It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore; to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me.

It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised, it is to have a blessed home in myself where I can go in and shut the door and pray to my Father in secret and be at peace, as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and about is seeming trouble.
But how to keep this "open mind;" how to find this "blessed home" in oneself? This is exactly what the 12 Steps are designed to open up and maintain. But first we must get rid of our "old ideas" and "old attitudes," or the habitual way we have learned to think and perceive the world.

Remember, in "How It Works," we read that "some of us tried to hold onto our old ideas, but the result was nil until we let go absolutely." That, it was pointed out to me, is the only "absolute" in the first 164 pages of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. Old ideas, can quickly and easily cloud one's "open mind," and thus, irrespective of length of sobriety, rob the then-suffering alcoholic addict of all humility and "quietness of heart."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How NOT to Act via 'Self-Will'

The"Stream of Consciousness" versus "God-Consciousness"

"We found the Great Reality deep down within
us. In the last analysis it is only there He may
be found." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 55.)    
Knowing that "self" is none other than the ordinary human "ego" - what the psychologist, William James, termed the "stream of consciousness" - how do we refrain from acting (or "acting out") based on the thought stream that is coursing through our mind? How exactly can we be released from "the bondage of self"?

The key is in our ability to "respond" to whatever the situation is (implying a sober, second 'thought') rather than "reacting" to it (implying immediate, instinctive 'action' based on our first thoughts about the situation) Fortunately, the Twelve Steps give us several tools that help us do this, thereby allowing us to operate under the care and protection of a Power greater than our "selves" rather than under our own "steam."

First, and foremost, we have Step Three and the Serenity Prayer. In the "Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous' taking the Third Step for the first time is quite simple: You say the prayer, then pick up pen and start writing out your moral inventory. However, having gone through Steps Four to Step Nine, we are required to "practice" Step Three (as well as Step Ten) on a continuous basis: But how do we practice Step Three effectively, so that what we 'do' or 'say' (or 'don't do' or 'don't say') - i.e., the exercise of our will, or deciding faculty - is based on "God's will" rather than on the imperative drives and instincts of the ego and our egoic, 'self-will'?

Plan A: Step Three and the Serenity Prayer

In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (at pages 40-41) we read that each time we are emotionally disturbed or indecisive (i.e., we don't know what we should either 'say' or 'not say, or 'do' or 'not do'), we  can (if we so choose) "stop," "pause," ask for "quiet" and say the Serenity Prayer. (Of course, this means we need to 'stop' and pause' the raucous thoughts of the "ego' or "stream of consciousness" rather than slamming on the brakes when frustrated over the traffic on the freeway. We are always dealing in Step Three with the level of our consciousness - the "self," or ego-consciousness, versus the "innermost Self" or "God-consciousness,"as our "more religious members call it.")

To effectively "stop" and "pause" the ego (or what Bill elsewhere calls "that painful inner dialogue"), however, it is essential that we take periods of "quiet time" in the morning and evening in order to find the place of "quiet" within our consciousness (in this instance, God-consciousness) that we can then retreat to when our emotions are running wild or we just don't know what to say or do in the situation we are presented with. This is an absolutely essential component of "the daily maintenance" that we need to "maintain our spiritual condition."

Our instinctive emotions, if used effectively, can be a wonderful tool - a biological 'early warning device' - that allows us to know that our thinking (the "ideas" that drive our "feelings," and our" "attitude, or the habitual way we think and our thought patterns) has once again gone askew. To correct our ideas and attitude, and to rid ourselves of the toxic emotions that would otherwise cause us to "react" rather than "respond" to our circumstances, we consider and recite the Serenity Prayer.

First, we ask for the "serenity," which is really an affirmation and invocation of the presence of a "conscious contact" in our mind with a Power that is greater than our egoic selves - i.e., we invoke, or turn our mind, to our "higher, God-consciousness." To do so, we need "courage" in facing whatever our circumstances are at that moment. "Courage" - from the French "couer," meaning "heart" - is the process of "letting go" of our self-absorbed, ego-consciousness and "letting God," or the God-consciousness that is at the center, or 'heart' of our being, emerge so that we may "respond" with the right action, rather than "reacting" from the ego-powered and most-often misguided and fear-driven drives and instincts. Finally, the "wisdom," which we have already gained from the cumulative, day-after-day practice of the Twelve Steps (particularly Steps Three and Step Eleven) is simply the knowledge that there are, in essence, two "selves" - the narrow "self" which is the "ego," and the expansive, all-inclusive "Self" which is an integral part of, and acts as an agent of, "the God of our understanding." (After all, if God is truly "everything or nothing," we are a part of that Whole, in which "we live, and move, and have our being.").

Plan B: The Four Absolutes

While the Serenity Prayer is best suited to, and is essential for, the moments in life when we are emotional disturbed (i.e., consumed by 'fear-activated' pride, greed, anger, lust etc.), the little known Four Absolutes are immensely helpful when we really "do not know what to do" - when we are truly "indecisive." (Note: This is different from knowing what the right thing to do is - like promptly admitting when we are wrong - but not wanting to do it!)

The "Four Absolutes" at Dr. Bob's graveside.
Little known - as they were not included in A.A.'s early literature out of concern that the then-well known Four Absolutes would publicly identify A.A. with the Oxford Group - Bill, when asked why there was no reference to them in the 'Big Book' or Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, explained they were "implicit" in each of the 12 Steps.

In the "Co-Founders" pamphlet, Dr. Bob explains that when he did not know what to do he would run his ideas through the Four Absolutes (honesty, purity, unselfishness and love) and usually they would provide him with the answer of what to do - based on God's will and not his own. If still indecisive, he said, he would then run the potential scenarios past a friend that was better positioned to make such a decision. (Note to the A.A. "purist" - aside from the "Co-Founders" pamphlet, the Four Absolutes are discussed in "Doctor Bob and the Good Old-Timers," as well as in "Pass It On!," all of which are Conference-approved A.A. literature.)

The four Absolutes, themselves, are very easy to quickly and effectively use. In respect of 'Absolute Honesty' - the first of the Four Absolutes - one asks oneself, in respect of what one is about to 'say' or 'do' (or 'not say' or 'not do'), "Is it true or is it false?" In respect of Absolute Purity, one asks: "Is it right, or is it wrong?" In respect of Absolute Unselfishness, putting oneself and one's own interests out of the situation and completely out of mind, one asks: "How will this affect the other fellow?" And, in terms of Absolute Love, one asks: "Is it beautiful, or is it ugly?"

In the "Co-founders" pamphlet, which sets out the ever-practical and humble Dr. Bob's last major public talk, he says this (in part) about the history, application and usefulness of the Four Absolutes:
"The four absolutes, as we called them, were the only yardsticks we had before the Steps. I think the absolutes still hold good and can be extremely helpful. I have found at times that a question arises, and I want to do the right thing, but the answer is not obvious. Almost always, if I measure my decision carefully by the yardsticks of absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love, and [if] it checks up pretty well with those four, then my answer can't be very far out of the way. If, however, I do that and I'm still not satisfied with the answer, I usually consult with some friend whose judgment, in this particular case, would be very much better than mine. But usually the absolutes can help you to reach your own personal decision without bothering your friends."
 "Four Absolutes" pamphlets can still be purchased through the Cleveland District's Central Office (here), or can be downloaded from a number of independent websites (here and here).

[Reminder to myself: "Thy will, not mine, be done!"]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Meditation? Isn't Prayer Enough?

". . sought through prayer and meditation to
improve our conscious contact with God . . ."
In discussion groups, I hear much about prayer. But I hear little about prayer's "bigger brother," so to speak, meditation. In Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill describes our program as an ongoing process of "self-examination, meditation and prayer." Self-examination without prayer is mute; yet, prayer without meditation is deaf. We need all three.

But if we are to initially effect a "conscious contact" with God - and thereafter improve that "conscious" contact - we need to adjust the level of consciousness in which we live and 'make our decisions' (i.e.,  exercise our will). Remember: "We found that Great Reality deep down within us. Ultimately, it is only there it may be found." (page 55, Alcoholics Anonymous.) Thus, if we are to effect a conscious contact with God, we must practice going to a deeper level of consciousness, below the ordinary self-consciousness of the ego, a level of consciousness in which our mind co-mingles with the mind we share with a Power that is greater than "self."

If we were to listen to the mind of an "ordinary Joe" - not alcoholic, not a drug addict - it would sound something like this: "Hmm. . . .my feet hurt. . . . Damn, I'm gonna be late!  . . . WTF is that guy up to? Moron. . . . Erin thinks I'm fat. . . . And, then I'd say to her . . . Man, I love coffee . . . Dah-dah-dah . . . da-da-da-da, Hey Jude . . . we slipped the bonds of earth . . .  stupid politicians!"

Our "ordinary Joe" is just as 'self-conscious' as we normally are, and suffers from exactly the same self-centered thoughts of "calamity, pomp and worship of other things," only he (or she) is not likely not drink him/herserlf into a blackout, or drive into a highway abutment, in order to still what Bill calls this "painful inner dialogue." Ordinary people can live fairly 'normally' and 'happily' while self-absorbed with their continual inner dialogue, for alcoholic addicts it is liable to be fatal.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, the renowned spiritual commentator, had this to say about 'ordinary' egoic self-consciousness:
The I, as one observes, says "I must have that," a few days later it wants something else. There is the constant movement of desire; the constant movement of pleasure; the constant movement of what one wants to be and so on. This movement is thought as psychological time. The I who says, "I suffer," is put together by thought.  Thought says, "I am John, I am this, I am that." Thought identifies itself with the name and with the form, and is the I in all the content of consciousness; it is the essence of fear, hurt, despair, anxiety, guilt, the pursuit of pleasure, the sense of loneliness, all the content of consciousness. When one says, "I suffer," it is the image that thought has built around itself, the form, the name, that is in sorrow.
                      (Krishnamurti, "The Wholeness of Life," page 153.)

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
All the world's great wisdom traditions and spiritual teachers say essentially the same thing about the seeming 'reality' of ordinary ego-consciousness. Jesus asked, "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?" (Matthew 6:27). It's a rhetorical question, however. None of us can. We only diminish ourselves and others through with these ordinary and habitual ego-centric thought processes.

So what is the solution? Prayer is the asking for the solution, while meditation is finding it. Jesus advises us to "seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matt. 6:33) - the "kingdom of God" which "is within" us (Luke 17:21) - while A.A. advises a period of quiet time and meditation in the morning, and again each evening. An effective meditation practice is, in my experience, necessary if I am to be able to practice Step 10 and detach from the dialogue of the ego whenever I catch "myself" thinking self-consciously without awareness during the day.

Krishnamurti, in the following passage from "The Wholeness of Life" (p. 142), elaborates on how meditation relieves this acute self-consciousness we all "suffer" from:
Meditation implies the ending of all strife, of all conflict, inwardly and therefore outwardly. . . . In uncovering what one actually is, one asks: Is the observer oneself, different from that which one observes - psychologically that is? I am angry, I am greedy, I am violent; is that I different from the thing observed, which is anger, greed violence? Is one different? Obviously not. When I am angry there is no I that is angry, there is only anger. So anger is me: the observer is the observed. . . . Part of meditation is to eliminate all conflict inwardly and therefore outwardly. To eliminate conflict one has to understand this basic principle; the observer is not different from the observed, psychologically. When there is anger, there is no I, but a second later thought creates the I and says: "I have been angry" . . . When anger occurs and there is no observer, no division, it blossoms and then ends - like a flower, it blooms, withers and dies away. But as long as one is fighting it as long as one is resisting it or rationalizing it, one is giving life to it. When the observer is the observed, then anger blossoms, grows and naturally dies - therefore there is no psychological conflict in it.

One lives by action; action according to a motive, according to an ideal, according to a pattern, or habitual and traditional action, all without investigation. A mind that is in meditation must find out what action is.
"Know the truth, and the truth will set you free!"
"Know Thyself!," is the age old admonishment. Those who meditate come to know both what "self" is, and how to overcome it. Those who don't . . . in my experience,  don't.

Every old-timer (and new-comer) I've ever met and talked to who has that peaceful, yet intense and joyful look that comes with the very real presence of God in their consciousness tells me they practice meditation. On the other hand, virtually all the bitter old-timers who still manifest the "irritability, restlessness and discontent" we all know too well, usually scoff at meditation, or worse, tell me all I have to do is "ask not to drink" in the morning and say "thank you" at night.

I've tried it both ways - and my own way - in my 20-odd years of sobriety. While one can look successful, happy, even enviable, on the outside, it is all too easy to stay "dry" in A.A., if one neglects meditation - even when one prays. I've tried it and suffered the consequences. Unfortunately, you can ask my children and my ex-wife what that is like.

Yet, when I consistently practice the "self-examination" of Step 10, and interweave it logically with the prayer -  and meditation - suggested in Step 11, it truly affords me a happiness and purposefulness (and a new sense of awareness and belonging to this world) that I never had before, during or after my drinking career - until I earnestly began a meditation practice. I can only thank the God of the old-timers who shared this vital message with me.