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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Spiritual Conceit and Prejudice: From Closed to Open-Mindedness

"Instead of regarding ourselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God's ever advancing Creation, we agnostics and atheists chose to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of all. Rather vain of us, wasn't it?"

"We, who have traveled this dubious path, beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the human frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to life. People of faith have a logical idea of what life is about."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 49.]
Religion - from the Latin 're' + 'ligare' - means to retie or reunite, and all of the world's great wisdom traditions lay out methods and practices by which this reunification of the individual with a Power greater than his or her "self" may be accomplished. Thus, there is nothing in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that need threaten the religious newcomer. It is more often than not, I suspect, the non-religious or decidedly atheistic newcomer that is threatened by all this talk of a God of one's understanding. I am sure that many, like me, were nearly fatally put off by all mention of a Higher Power.

When I got my first sponsor in A.A., he told me that I had to look beyond the First
Step and its admittance of alcoholism and unmanageability, that I had to look at the Step Two. Being swift on the uptake, I immediately asked him the absolutely wrong question: "What is God?" Of course, at this stage I was not even concerned with God. Step Two merely suggests belief in a power greater than one's "self." I would have been far better served, it turns out, to have asked him what was meant by "self."

As it was, my first sponsor gave me the old fob, by explaining that "God" in his view was "Good Orderly Direction." Don't get me wrong, my first sponsor thus made A.A. "acceptable" to me. But for ten years after his premature death I chased after getting some kind of "good orderly direction" in my thinking, and the two university degrees and professional training I received culminated in a near-fatal suicide and admittance to a psychiatric facility. This is the power that "self" unchecked can have - without picking up a drink.

I was fortunate, indeed, to have an A.A. "old-timer" - not ironically, my first sponsor's best friend - reach out to me and reclaim me from the ash heap of the life I'd burned through. With a new sponsor, one who had drank after 15 years, and at that time had achieved another 15 years of the very best sobriety, I worked through the Twelve Steps again, this time with a truly open mind. With his assistance, and the later assistance of two 35-year A.A. veterans - one who showed me "what" it was I was in need of, and the other who taught me "how" through meditation and prayer I could find it - my eyes were finally opened, and I was able to experience the spiritual awakening others had experienced.

My mind had been closed by "prejudice" towards all things "spiritual" or "religious." While we are told to "be quick to see where religious people are right," I could not get beyond where they were so clearly wrong.* After all, with my education and scientific background, I knew that dinosaurs had existed, and that all the evidence showed the universe to be about 13.8 billion years old. But I was wholly ignorant of the "religious experiences" that have manifested in individuals since time immemorial, nor was I a believer that just such an experience was what restored alcoholics to sanity and emotional sobriety. I did not know anything of higher states of consciousness (other than being an alcoholic and drug addict for 20 years!), nor did I have any notion of the connection that these higher states of consciousness and being have with spirituality, the God of my understanding, or my recovery from alcoholic addiction and final restoration to sanity. But I was set to learn.
"There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others," wrote the great psychologist, William James, "in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of  happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," page 47.]
An eternal present. Who would have thought?

Of course, many had. Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor more famous for his Meditations than his victories on the Teutonic battlefield, pointed out that "all we have to live or lose, is this ever-passing present moment."

Could it be, I wondered, that what science, psychology and religion all point to is a spirituality of the present moment, and that consciousness itself, is an integral (or, perhaps, the integral) component of the universe? Could we be, in fact, as Bill describes above, "spearheads of God's ever advancing Creation?" It sure seems, I found out, that we are.
"At bottom," James observes, "the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?"
Could I discerningly accept as true whatever science provided evidence for, yet remain unswayed by the "religious" or "spiritual experiences" - including eventually my own - reported by men and women throughout the ages?
"It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one," James points out, "whether one accept the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints. The difference is as great as that between passivity and activity, as that between the defensive and the aggressive mood."

"Gradual as are the steps by which an individual may grow from one state into the other, many as are the intermediate stages which different individuals represent, yet when you place the typical extremes beside each other for comparison, you feel that two discontinuous psychological universes confront you, and that in passing from one to the other a 'critical point' had been overcome."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," pp. 42-43.]
 For me, it took a crisis in life to get sober. Being close-minded, however, it took a greater crisis deep into my sober life for me to reach the 'critical point' that James referred to before I was restored ('somewhat') to sanity. When sharing my experience, I emphasize the need to set aside prejudices and develop an open mind - the sooner, the better - and to question what concepts such as "self," "sanity" "consciousness" and "a Power greater than ourselves" mean.

"Seek until you find," I was advised by one of my old-timers, "and study all religions until you can see the sameness in them all." Or, as Bill advises in the 'Big Book," "(b)e quick to see where religious people are right."*

* Alcoholics Anonymous, page 87.

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