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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back From Life's Precipice

"It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it's just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but a few of us who has never known one of those rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much - everything - in a flash - before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence."
-- Joseph Conrad --
["Lord Jim," Chapter 13.]
In his correspondence with Bill W. (attached below), the great psychiatrist, Carl Jung - who was the first link in the chain of events that would start A.A., as we know it  - observed that an alcoholic addict's cravings are "the equivalent on a low level of the thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: union with God."

For the alcoholic addict, while the booze and drugs continued to work, the drunk or the high was like that. We became complete, for a time, connected with our fellows and part of the world as an unbroken whole. But, alas, this seeming bliss was temporary and caused by alcoholic spirits rather than by true Spirit. Each time, we would crash from the heights of this unitive Wholeness and would awaken just a little bit more disconnected, more self-absorbed - perhaps, more self-loathing - and just that much more imprisoned in the bondage of self-consciousness than we were just a day or a week ago.

And the longer, and necessarily more, we drank or drugged, the more fleeting the elusive feeling of Wholeness became - and the sharper the fall. Eventually, this is how for some or, perhaps, most of us finally reached a point where we could not stand ourselves no matter how sober, drunk or high we became. This is described in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, as reaching "the jumping-off place."
"For most normal folks," we read, "drinking means conviviality, companionship and colorful imagination. It means release from care, boredom and worry. It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good. But not so with us in those last days of heavy drinking. The old pleasures were gone. They were but memories. Never could we recapture the great moments of the past. There was an insistent yearning to enjoy life as we once did and a heartbreaking obsession that some new miracle of control would enable us to do it. There was always one more attempt — and one more failure."

"The less people tolerated us, the more we withdrew from society, from life itself. As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did — then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen — Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair. Unhappy drinkers who read this page will understand!"

"Now and then a serious drinker, being dry at the moment says, "I don't miss it at all. Feel better. Work better. Having a better time." As ex-problem drinkers, we smile at such a sally. We know our friend is like a boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits. He fools himself. Inwardly he would give anything to take half a dozen drinks and get away with them. He will presently try the old game again, for he isn't happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 151-152.]
It is because, sooner or later, the alcoholic addict will inevitably find him of herself at just such an existential cliff's edge - yearning to feel whole again, and at peace with his or her fellow travelers, yet with no apparent means of achieving such peace and wholeness - that a spiritual experience or awakening achieved with real Spirit (instead of false spirits) can be effective in overcoming addiction.

Who, with no other options discernible, would not trade in the "Four Horsemen" of terror, bewilderment, frustration and despair for the sense of freedom, wholeness and faith that he or she may be shown in A.A. (or any of its sister organizations) by God manifesting through us? Few, indeed, it would seem if they have, in fact, reached the "jumping-off place," and if they are assured through the presence of our consciousness and being that "one of those rare moments of awakening" (as Conrad puts it) might also be available to them. Perhaps then they, too, may walk back from the existential cliff's edge and join us as we "trudge the Road of Happy Destiny" in recovery.

There are three ways that one may find such an experience, Jung assured Bill. "The only right and legitimate way to such an experience," he observed, "is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. 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."

For "a higher understanding" achieved "by an act of grace," God is responsible. For helping the newcomer find "a higher understanding" by "a personal and honest contact with friends," we, as alcoholic addicts in recovery, are collectively responsible. And, for achieving "higher understanding" by "a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism" each of us is individually responsible, although we can, and should, show the newcomer how this may be achieved through the continuing practice of "self-examination and prayer" that Bill describes on page 98 of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

We are fortunate indeed if, through any or all of these means, we have achieved a spiritual awakening - an awakening which Conrad describes as being "rare" and fleeting amongst everyday men and women.  We are then able to utilize the experience strength and hope we have gained to help a fellow sufferer on life's precipice. We are in danger if we neglect doing so, for in such negligence we fail to grow along the path towards our own ultimate enlightenment.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 As promised, below is the letter from Carl Jung to Bill W., which contains the all-important prescription for the alcoholic addict: "spiritus contra spiritum."

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