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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reducing Ego at Depth through Accurate Self-Survey

Why the necessity of taking both an initial and a continuing moral inventory? Principally, it is because we manufacture our own troubles and problems. "They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so." Indeed, the troubles and problems of most individuals - alcoholic addicts and so-called "normal" people alike - are mostly self-manufactured.
"It is a man's own internal defects which often contrive against him and which show their faces in many of the external troubles that beset him," observes philosopher and spiritual sage, Paul Brunton. "Yet it is hard for him to accept this truth because his whole life-habit is to look outwards to construct defensive alibis rather than to engage in censorious self-inquisition."
[Brunton, "The Notebooks of Paul Brunton," Vol. 1, p. 137.]
Does this sound familiar?

"(T)he aspirant who is really earnest about the (spiritual) quest," observes Brunton, "should develop the attitude that his personal misfortunes, troubles and disappointments must be traced back to his own weaknesses, defects, faults, deficiencies and indisciplines. Let him not blame them on other persons or on fate. In this way he will make the quickest progress whereas by self-defending, or self-justifying, or self-pitying apportionment of blame to causes outside himself, he will delay or prevent it. For the one means clinging to the ego, the other means giving it up. Nothing is to be gained by such flattering self-deception while much may be lost by it." (Emphasis added.)
"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. 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 place us in a position to be hurt."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62.]
Even for the non-alcoholic to make significant spiritual progress, he or she must first practice a rigorous self-survey, according to Brunton, not seeking to blame others, but instead facing how his or her troubles originate in the egoic, self and its distorted perceptions of the world and other people.
"He must bring himself to admit frankly that he himself is the primary cause of most of his ills, as well as the secondary cause of some of the ills of others. He must recognize that the emotions of resentment, anger, self-pity, or despondency are often engendered by a wounded ego. Instead of reviling fate at each unfortunate event, he should ananlyse his moral and mental make-up and look for the weaknesses which led to it. He will gain more in the end by mercilessly accusing his own stubbornness in pursuing wrong courses than by taking shelter in alibis that censure other people. Like a stone in a shoe which he stubbornly refuses to remove, the fault still remains in his character when he stubbornly insists on blaming things or condemning people for it. In this event, the chance to eliminate it is lost, and the same dire consequences may repeat themselves in his life again.
[Brunton, supra.]
For those who have done multiple Fourth Step and Tenth Step inventories, and particularly for those who have been on the receiving end of another alcoholic addict sharing his or her Fifth Step, it soon becomes clear just how universal and impersonal the human ego is. Indeed, it can rightly be portrayed as a "false self" - an attitude and identity that is manufactured and/or adopted rather than developed organically. It is only by painful yet accurate self-survey that we may confront and overcome both the supposed "realities" the ego presents to us, and the power its distorted way of "seeing" things holds over us.
"The faith of the lower ego in itself and the strength with which it clings to its own standpoint are almost terrifying to contemplate," Brunton observes. "The (spiritual) aspirant is often unconscious of its selfishness. But if he can desert its standpoint, he shall see that his miserable fate derives largely from his own miserable faults. He is naturally unwilling (at first) to open his eyes to his own deficiencies and faults, his little weaknesses and large maladjustments. So suffering comes to open his eyes for him, to shock and shame him into belated awareness and eventual amendment."

"But quite apart from its unfortunate results in personal fortunes, whenever the aspirant persists in taking the lower ego's side," Brunton notes, "he merely displays a stubborn resolve to hinder his own spiritual development. Behind a self-deceiving facade of pretexts, excuses, alibis and rationalizations, the ego is forever seeking to gratify its unworthy feelings or to defend them. . . . The aspirant must choose between denying his ego's aggressiveness or asserting it. The distance to be mentally travelled between these two steps is so long and so painful that it is understandable why few will ever finish it. It is only the exceptional student who will frankly admit his faults and earnestly work to correct them. It is only he whose self-criticizing detachment can gain the upper hand, who can also gain philosophy's highest prize."
[Brunton, supra.]
Remember! "At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 58.]

Thus, despite the oft-time bitter and painful nature of radical self-survey, those who persist in taking a fearless and thorough moral inventory are those who overcome the egoic self, and those for whom the full promises of Alcoholics Anonymous become a reality. Beyond the ego, lies true emotional sobriety.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Birth of a Spiritual Experience

Regarding the taking of Step Five, the author of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that it is at this point in our recovery, when we share our moral inventory with another human being and the God of our own understanding, that we really begin to 'experience' the spiritual awakening which will relieve our alcoholism. At page 75 of the 'Big Book,' the author observes:
"We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past. Once we have taken this step withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall away from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. (Emphasis added.)
 For those who may have already experienced a certain grace in their recovery, as well as those who have just doggedly pursued their path of recovery by working the Steps, it is at Step Five, we are told, that our spiritual beliefs (and I would add faith) are turned into a palpable spiritual experience.

Why is this so? I would suggest that before taking Step Five, our minds are awash with the fears, resentments and remorse that characterize the content of the ego, or "self." Afterwards, freed of this mental baggage, we can (as is foretold, above) "be alone at perfect peace and ease." "Peace" and "ease" being the characteristics of the higher, God-consciousness of our authentic "Self," rather than the smaller "self" of merely ego-centric consciousness. It is at this point where "the ideas, emotions and attitudes" which were heretofore the guiding forces of our lives may be "cast to one side" and replaced with "new conceptions and motives." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 27.)

Before Step Five, my resentments, fears, and the remorse I experienced when thinking of past peccadilloes, were wholly my own affair. My greatest hope was that nobody would find out about them, much less confront me with them. After having shared these closely held anguishing thoughts and memories with my sponsor, I gained a certain perspective on my all-too-human condition, and was thus able to move forward to make the amends necessary to solidify my newfound sense of peace and ease.

This is not to say that all resentments, remorse and fear were at once removed, but I became more readily able to see them for what they really are, the thought-stuff of the ego that separates me from everyone and everything. Knowing this, it has become far easier to dismiss such thoughts (and the ensuing emotions they produce) as the merely mental tricks of my smaller self. And, in some instances, the only times when I ever think of certain past actions that once haunted me, it is to help another person struggling with the same levels of shame, remorse, anger and fear that these old thoughts once produced in me.

Step Five was thus, without my knowing it at the time, the beginning of spiritual experience, the beginning of my living - however falteringly and slow - a life of the spirit, rather than a life of mere spiritual belief. And by working the 12 Steps on a daily basis I am enabled to grow within, yet never outgrow, this experience.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ill-Advised, Yet Effective, Advice: "Don't Drink and Go to Meetings"

To "just keep coming back," to go to "ninety meetings in ninety days," or to simply heed the advice "don't drink and go to meetings" is good, in and of itself, but it is no guarantor that the newcomer to A.A. will survive in sobriety, or stay sober at all. Such well-intentioned advice - dangerous as it is on its face - may, however, backhandedly trigger the presumably intended effect: it may prompt the newcomer to hang around and stay sober long enough to actually take the 12 Steps, if for no other reason than so that he or she may truly feel a part of A.A. And taking the 12 Steps, as so many of us can attest, may save his or her life. The danger, however, lies in giving such seemingly harmless advice to someone who may lackadaisically and discontentedly hang around the A.A. fellowship for years, never really working the A.A. program and never really recovering. He or she, in turn, becomes the person who is most likely to dish out the only partially effective advice above. Worse still, such a "white-knuckler" may actively recruit other disaffected newcomers and actually sponsor them.

"There is a widely held belief in A.A.," writes the author of the "Member's Eye View" pamphlet, "that if a newcomer will simply continue to attend meetings, "Something will finally rub off on you." And the implication, of course, is that the something which rubs off will be (the) so-called miracle of A.A. "

"Now there is no doubt, in my mind," he points out, "that many people in A.A. accept this statement quite literally. I have observed them over the years. They faithfully attend meetings faithfully waiting for "something to rub off." The funny part about it is that "something" is rubbing off on them. Death. They sit there - week after week - while mental, spiritual and physical rigor mortis sets in."

"I believe." he notes, "(that) the real "miracle of A.A.," the "something" that will rub off, we hope, is simply the alcoholic's willingness to act."
"In A.A.," our anonymous reporter explains, "the reporting is clear and unmistakable. "Here are the steps we took," say those who have gone before. The newcomer finally sees that he, too, must take these Steps before he is entitled to report on them. And in an atmosphere where the constant subject is "What I did" and "What I think," no neurotic can long resist the temptation to get in on the action. In an organization whose members are always secretly convinced that they are unique, no neurotic is long going to be contented with a report of what others are doing."

"The 12 Steps are so framed and presented," he points out, "that the alcoholic can either ignore them completely, take them cafeteria-style, or embrace them wholeheartedly. In any case, he can report only on what he has done. Till he does, he knows that he is more a guest at A.A. than a member, and this is a situation that is finally intolerable to the alcoholic. He must take at least some of the Steps or go away. In my opinion, this is the answer to what finally rubs off on the waiting, inactive, hostile A.A. member, and also the answer to why it happens."

"Don't leave before the miracle happens," - another trite saying heard around the rooms of A.A. - may be a more fitting way of putting it; the "miracle" being a willingness to work the Steps and therein find much-needed relief and the common solution to our common problem.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unlearning Old Ideas and Attitudes

One of the unique, paradoxical aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations) is "the reversal of form that A.A.'s educational process takes." As one wizened old-timer demonstrated to me - undoubtedly paraphrasing the "Member's Eye View" pamphlet - there is nothing to learn in A.A., it is a process of unlearning; particularly unlearning our old "ideas, emotions and attitudes" so that new "conceptions and motives" can arise to take their place.

The author of "A Member's Eye View," undoubtedly one of A.A's most helpful pamphlets, puts it this way:
"The newcomer to A.A. is asked, not so much to learn new values, as to unlearn those he comes in with; not so much to adopt new goals, as to abandon old ones."

"To my mind," he notes, "one of the most significant sentences in the entire book "Alcoholics Anonymous" is this: "Some of us tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely." The rigidity with which even some nondrinking alcoholics will cling to the opinions, beliefs, and convictions they had upon entering A.A. is well-nigh incredible."

"One of the major objectives of A.A. therapy," he points out, "is to help the alcoholic finally recognize these ideas and become willing to relinquish his death grip on them."
It was Albert Einstein who famously said that "we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." The newcomer to A.A. is unlikely to stay clean and sober for long unless she is able to find some relief from the punishing self-centered, ego-centric thinking that is the root problem of her alcoholic addiction. It is therefore incumbent upon us to help him or her recognize egoic thinking by sharing our stories about what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now, emphasizing the changes we have experienced mentally and emotionally as we worked the Steps, and perhaps reserving how we have changed spiritually until he or she is convinced we know what we are talking about. Not all alcoholic addicts necessarily drink the same, but certainly they think the same.

The great psychologist, Carl Jung, in explaining to Rolland H. the nature of the spiritual awakening that had periodically worked to relieve the sufferer of his alcoholism, observed:
"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, p. 27.]
Now, however, we know that not all such awakenings need be sudden and overwhelming, that they can, in fact, be what William James called awakenings "of the educational variety." Therefore, first and foremost, it is necessary for us to allow the newcomer an opportunity to identify with us, to allow him or her to relate to the way in which we drank, thought and suffered, and then, and only then, to present him or her with the spiritual solution we have found to our drinking (and thinking) problem. After all, "As a man thinketh, so he is."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Power, Coercion and Acceptance

In yet another paradox, the first half of Step One - the admittance that we are alcoholic - is perhaps the easiest one to take, yet admitting (and acting like one has admitted) that our lives "have become unmanageable" - the second half of Step One - is perhaps the most difficult of all. After all, from our earliest years on, we have been taught by our society and culture that life needs to be managed, and managed well - or else!

The great analogy of the alcoholic as "the actor" who insists on running all of the show, including, lights, scenery, ballet etc., is startlingly apt when we consider it deeply and see that it addresses the second half of Step One explicitly and directly.
"Most people try to live by self-propulsion," we read on page 60 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show, is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If only his arrangements would stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous, even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, be may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.

"What," we are asked, "Usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think that life doesn't treat him will. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit hum. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not a self-seeker even when trying to be kind. Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this life if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all that they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?

"Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric, as people like to call it today." (Emphasis added.)
Bluntly, or perhaps very, very, subtly, almost everyone of us - alcoholic addict and non-alcoholic addict alike -  try in our own ways to manipulate and shape life in order to satisfy our instinctive drives, staunch our fears, and/or quench our fundamentally unquenchable desires. We in A.A. (or any of its many sister organizations) are very fortunate, indeed, in that we learn that life is inherently unmanageable, it is already organized under a far Higher Power that we often cannot or do not see, and that our task is to accept and adapt ourselves to life, rather than trying to bend it to our own narrow self-interests.

That our futile grabs for power to control the fundamentally unmanageable is all-pervasive, and ultimately futile and frustrating is illustrated in the following passages written by the late, great Sufi teacher, Idries Shah:
"Almost all human organizations," Shah notes, "are power organizations."

"Since the receipt and and exercising of power is imagined to be connected with forceful behaviour," he observes, "people cannot any longer identify a power organization. Consequently they do not understand what they are doing and what is happening to them."

"As an example," he points out, "force and influence are contained in the 'emotional blackmail' situation to exactly the same extent as in one where anger or fothrightness are expressed."

"When people in authority have the reputation for being kind and soft-hearted, others assume (quite wrongly) that the pressure exerted by such people is not pressure at all. If someone says: 'You must do this because I would be disappointed if you did not,' he is saying exactly the same as 'Do this because I demand that you do it.'"

"To say that this fact has been observed already is of no importance whatever, because something which has been said or observed and not acted upon is as good as non-existent as a lesson."

"People try to exercise power upon those 'below' them," he notes. "But people upon whom power is supposed to being exercised are, in fact, by frustrating the effect of that power, themselves exercising power."
"Power situations can only exist," Shah observes, "where there is a contract arrived at violently or otherwise, in which people will do things or else things can be made uncomfortable for them. 'Do this or I will make you uncomfortable' is the formula for both types of power: the power exerted by people above on those below, and the power exerted from the people below upon those above."

"Where there is no such contract," he notes, "where one party can do without the other, NO POWER SITUATION CAN EXIST. Neither can it be deemed to exist. But, faced with a situation in which there is no power ingredient, people CONTINUE TO BEHAVE AS IF THEY CAN COERCE OR BE COERCED."

"In doing this," Shah points out, (people) give themselves away. To any observer who is aware of the power phenomenon, they clearly show that they belong to the power structure and want to operate it. They generally become furiously angry when this is pointed out to them.

[Idries Shah,"Knowing How to Know," pp. 79-80.]

At Step Three, we make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him. Yet, how often when we are in a situation where there is no effective power that we can personally exert ("a situation in which there is no power ingredient," to use Shah's terminology) do we act as if there is some personal power we can exert to change things? How many of us lean on the horn to let out our frustrations when stuck in slow traffic? How many seethe inwardly or act rudely when forced to wait at the checkout counter as a clerk checks the price of some item or another? How many of us are judgmental and inwardly self-righteous when they see people doing things that they assure themselves they would never do? Almost all of us, I am sure.

Having nominally accepted our personal powerlessness to manage life, and having done (we assure ourselves) our best to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a Power greater than ourselves, we continue to forget our personal inability to manage life and, in accordance with Khan's analysis, we continue to behave as is we can coerce others to bend to our will, or we ourselves continue to be coerced to bend to the will of others.

Accepting the inherent unmanageability of life, and turning our will and our lives over to the care of the God of our understanding - and leaving it there - are ideals that take both great insight and years of practice to even approach.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Overcoming the Paradox of "Self"

Anyone familiar with 12 Step living has undoubtedly noted the many paradoxical concepts that underlie it: the need to surrender in order to win, coming to A.A, because of our drinking only to find out that drinking is not the problem but a symptom of the problem, how sharing our story with another helps us irrespective of whether it helps the other, etc.

Nowhere are the deep paradoxes underlying our program more apparent, however, than they are when we come to believe "in a Power greater than ourselves" only to find "the Great Reality deep down within us." Solving this "paradox of the self" is, I believe, the key that unlocks our understanding of the 12 Steps, and encourages us in our quest to attain and then "improve our conscious contact with God as we (understand) Him."

Merriam-Webster's dictionary has two germane definitions of "self" that lie at the heart of this paradox. Most commonly, "self" is defined as "the entire person of an individual." Secondarily, it is defined as "the union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person." It is this latter definition, rather than the former and more common meaning, that is being used when we talk of "self" in reference to the 12 Steps; a definition that is consistent with the way that the concept of "ego" is also used in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, not as "pride" but as "the self, especially as contrasted with another self or the world." (The Oxford English Dictionary, has another, more helpful definition of "ego," defining it as "the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality.")

I suspect that many newcomers (and even old-timers) are somewhat stymied in their spiritual development, as I was, because of this underlying confusion as to what is meant when Step Two talks "about a Power greater than ourselves." It sounds like this Power is something exterior to us, rather than a Power that is actually within us, albeit a Power which is obscured by the self/ego and the "calamity. pomp and worship of other things" that are the thought stuff of the self/ego complex.

The 'Big Book' explicitly states (at page 45) that "lack of power" was our dilemma, and that we need "to find a power by which we could live, and that it had to be a Power greater than ourselves." Then it states that "how" and "where" to find such a Power is "exactly" what the 'Big Book' is all about. The "how," I put to you, is through taking the 12 Steps and applying them to one's life, while the "where" is deep down within one's being. In other words, we are not looking externally for a "God of our own understanding," but internally.

Consider the following passage taken from the middle paragraphs from page 55 of the 'Big Book':
". . . (D)eep down in every man, woman and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. . . . Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that he may be found."
Consider, also, if you will, the following passage taken from Appendix II of the 'Big Book' (i.e., the Spiritual Experience appendix):
"With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it "God-consciousness."" (Emphasis added.)
From the above, it should be clear that we are not looking for some entity that is wholly exterior to us, but rather for a broad yet heretofore hidden aspect of our very being, that wholeness of our being beyond the limited and limiting egoic self which is co-extensive with God.

At page 53 of the 'Big Book' we are shown how "crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that God is everything or else he is nothing. God either is, or He isn't."

By looking outside of our being, instead of looking at our being beneath the limiting self of the ego, we are in essence saying that God is not everything. We exclude ourselves from God and create a false duality that cannot be overcome. It is only in looking deep within our being (mainly through meditation, but also through self-examination and prayer) that we find our own God-consciousness, and come to the realization that we are an integral component of all that is.

And by acting in accordance with - and from the place of - this newfound God-consciousness, we are finally able to rightly align ourselves with the world and its inhabitants, and to overcome the necessary suffering caused by the self/ego complex and thinking - a feeling and a feat we had only been previously able to do under the influence of booze and/or drugs when, and if, they still worked for us.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Acceptance: An Old Take On a New Perspective

(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 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."

[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 417.]
Bill W. once commented that the only thing original in A.A. was the ability of one alcoholic to relate to another alcoholic at depth, and that all the rest had been borrowed from other sources. Not a surprising comment when one considers the universality of true religious or spiritual insights and teachings.

On "acceptance" we have the oft-quoted passage, above, from the story "Acceptance Was The Answer" in the back of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. Below, is a similar passage on the need for acceptance of people, places, things and situations as they manifest in our lives, this time from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor more famous for his Meditations than for his then-renowned victories over the Germanic tribes.
"If you are distressed by anything external," writes Aurelius, "the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. If the cause of your trouble lies in your own character, set about reforming your principles; who is there to hinder you? If it is the failure to take some apparently sound course of action that is affecting you, then why not take it instead of fretting? 'Because there is an insuperable obstacle in the way.' In that case, do not worry; the responsibility for inaction is not yours. 'But life is not worth living with this thing undone.' Why then, bid life a good-humoured farewell; accepting the frustration peacefully, and dying like any other man whose actions have not been inhibited."
[Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations," VIII:47.]
Of course, Marcus Aurelius, was a philosophic stoic, a mindset that is increasingly uncommon in a culture that tells us we can do anything, achieve anything, be anything we want if we just apply enough power and have enough fortitude to prevail. But "lack of power," remember, "was our dilemma." Fortunately for him (and for us), this 'philosopher-king' recognized that all power comes from a higher Power - i.e., the divinity within himself.
"Take me and cast me where you will," he writes, "I shall still be possessor of the divinity within me, serene and content so long as it can feel and act as becomes its constitution. Is the matter of such moment that my soul should be affected by it, and changed for the worse, to become a cowering craven thing, suppliant and spiritless? Could anything at all be of such consequence as that?"
[Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations," VIII:45]
Wise words from a wise sage. Further wise words, with which I will close this posting, concern Aurelius' take on that "Great Reality" which each of us, knowingly or unknowingly, have "deep down within us;" the higher Power which, in this passage, Aurelius calls his "master-reason."
"The master-reason is never the victim of any self-disturbance; it never, for example; excites passions within itself. If another can inspire it with terror or pain, let him do so; but by itself it never permits its own assumptions to mislead it into such moods. By all means let the body take thought for itself to avoid hurt, if it can; and if it be hurt let it say so. But the soul, which alone can know fear or pain, and on whose judgement their existence depends, takes no harm; you cannot force the verdict from it. The master-reason is self-sufficient, knowing no needs except those it creates for itself, and by the same token can experience no disturbances or obstructions unless they be of its own making."
[Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations," VII:16.]
"When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity," Aurelius advises, "lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery over it."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stealing a Little Vicarious Pleasure

"In our belief any scheme of combating alcoholism which proposes to shield the sick man from temptation is doomed to failure. If the alcoholic tries to shield himself he may succeed for a time, but he usually winds up with a bigger explosion than ever. We have tried these methods. These attempts to do the impossible have always failed."

"So our rule is not to avoid a place where there is drinking, if we have a legitimate reason for being there. That includes bars, nightclubs, dances, receptions, weddings, even plain ordinary whoopee parties. To a person who has had experiences with an alcoholic, this may seem like tempting Providence, but it isn't."

"You will note that we made an important qualification. Therefore, ask yourself on each occasion, "Have I any good social, business, or personal reason for going to this place? Or am I expecting to steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places?" If you answer these questions satisfactorily, you need have no apprehension. Go or stay away, whichever seems best. But be sure that you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good."

-- Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 101-102--
Here, Bill W., the principal author of the 'Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, makes not one, but two, important qualifications for the alcoholic addict exposing him or herself to their old stomping grounds, so to speak. First: Is there a legitimate reason for our being at that particular bar, party, reception etc.? And, second: Are we spiritually grounded before we expose ourselves to our old environs? (Remember, as it says on page 85 of the 'Big Book,' "We are never cured of alcoholism. What we have is a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition.")

When reading the caution, above, I am always reminded of Bill's description of the night in Akron when, in desperation and fearing that he was about to succumb and take a drink, he reached out to make contact with the Oxford Group, and to find through them a drunk - who turned out to be Dr. Bob - with whom he could share his story.

Bill often described how he paced the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, disheartened by a business deal that had for the moment cratered, listening to the sound of laughter and merriment drifting out of the hotel bar. He thought he might have a ginger ale, or perhaps a drink or two; his thinking being that then he would not have to spend a weekend alone with himself and his thoughts of failure and despair. Thankfully, at the other end of the lobby there was a list of local ministers and a payphone he could use to try and do what would eventually become known as "Twelfth Step work." After several dead ends, he connected with a Reverend Tonks, and through him, Henrietta Sieberling, and eventually through her, Dr. Bob. If Bill had succumbed and gone in to the bar, perhaps just to have a ginger ale and "to steal a little vicarious pleasure," I know that my life, and that of millions of others would have been radically different.

I also remember an A.A. acquaintance who had been through the ringer, but was sober a few precious months and was a regular attendee at all our local morning and evening meetings. His name was Al, and he would always say, "I'm still Al, and I'm still an alcoholic!" One morning he confidently shared how after finishing the part-time job he held, he was stopping at the local bar to read his newspaper and have a ginger ale. After the meeting, I shared with him the advice about having a legitimate reason for being in a tavern etc., and how if he was just there to soak up the vibrations, it probably wasn't a good idea. That was the last any of us saw of him. He undoubtedly died drunk, as it was clear that he didn't have another shot left in him.

When I was new in A.A., I was told by the old-timers, "Hang around the barbershop long enough and sooner or later you are going to get a haircut." It's advice well-founded through long experience, and it has served me well for years. I do not shy away from pubs, parties and receptions so long as I'm spiritually fit and have a legitimate reason to be there. But I've found that hanging out at a coffee shop with friends, or going to a meeting, is a far better place "to steal a little vicarious pleasure," or to outright enjoy myself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fear, Desire, and Instincts Run Wild

"Creation gave us instincts for a purpose. Without them we wouldn't be complete human beings. If men and women didn't exert themselves to be secure in their persons, made no effort to harvest food or construct shelter, there would be no survival. If they didn't reproduce, the earth wouldn't be populated. If there were no social instinct, if men cared nothing for the society of one another, there would be no society. So these desires - for the sex relation, for material and emotional security, and for companionship - are perfectly necessary and right, and surely God-given."

"Yet these instincts, so necessary for our existence, often far exceed their proper functions. Powerfully, blindly, many times subtly, they drive us, dominate us, and insist upon ruling our lives. Our desires for sex, for material and emotional security, and for an important place in society often tyrannize us. When thus out of joint, man's natural desires cause him great trouble, practically all the trouble there is."

-- The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 42 --
 In taking our 4th Step inventory, Bill W. points out that "(w)e want to find out exactly how, when, and where our natural desires have warped us. We wish to look squarely at the unhappiness this has caused others and ourselves. . . . Without a willing and persistent effort to do this," he warns, "there can be little sobriety or contentment for us." (The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 43)

It is necessary for us to get to the root of our discontentment, if we wish to remain clean and sober. After all, we alcoholic addicts drank primarily for the effect that it had upon us. The discontents which we harbored and drank to overcome, we learn, are rooted in the overblown, unquenchable desires of instincts gone awry. Thus, by objectively examining (and sharing) our resentments, fears and sex conduct, we become able to find not only how our actions have affected and affect others, but how and why we too were so affected.

In elaborating upon how and why our overblown instinctual desires fuelled our drinking, Bill asserts that "(a)lcoholics, especially, should be able see that instinct run wild in themselves is the underlying cause of their destructive drinking,"
"We have," he observes, "drunk to drown feelings of fear, frustration, and depression We have drunk to escape the guilt of passions, and then have drunk again to make more passions possible. We have drunk for vainglory - that we might the more enjoy foolish dreams of pomp and power."
"This perverse soul-sickness is not pleasant to look upon," he warns. "Instincts on rampage balk at investigation. The minute we make a serious attempt to probe them, we are liable to suffer severe reactions." (The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 44-45.) But, if we are to free ourselves from addiction, investigate them we must. Hence, the importance of sharing them with not just ourselves, and the God or our own understanding, but with another human being, preferably one who has taken the lonely road of self-examination him or herself.

"The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates observed. To that we may add, for the alcoholic addict, an unexamined and unreconciled life cannot be lived soberly. Why? Simply because without a working knowledge of how our warped instinctive desires have driven us blindly, and the ability to make amends for how we have hurt others, we will find no relief from ourselves. And, sooner or later, we will need to seek relief - in whatever form it takes.
"Each of us would like to live at peace with himself and his fellows," Bill notes. "We would like to be assured that the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We have seen that character defects based upon shortsighted or unworthy desires are the obstacles that block our path towards these objectives."

"The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear," he points out, "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. Therefore, no peace was to be had unless we could find a means of reducing these demands."
[The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 76.]
 Steps Four through Step Nine are the initial means we take to reduce our instinctive desires to the level where we can attain and maintain our sobriety and continue on the spiritual path. Steps Ten through Twelve is where we work to continue reducing our overblown desires - and the egoic self-consciousness that fuels them - at depth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Ego and Its Resentments: Anger, Anguish and Angst

"It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcoholism returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die."

"If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things were poison."

Alcoholics Anonymous, page 66 --

"Anger," according to a Chinese proverb, "is a corrosive poison, that eats away the vessel that holds it from the inside out." In Buddhism, it is recognized as one of "the three poisons," along with lust and ignorance, that produce dukkha (i.e., suffering), and thus blocks the individual from the higher consciousness of nirvana. And, the great Roman philosopher, Seneca, observed that "anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it."

Thus, we see that in virtually all traditions, the destructive force of anger has long been recognized; Nonetheless, looking out at the world around us  - from the frustrations of the traffic jam, to road rage, to the seemingly unending wars, terrorism and ongoing strife that are regular features on the nightly news -
we seem to see an evermore impatient, fearful and angry world. Thus, we see that the "dubious luxury" of anger is not working out very well for so-called "normal men," and we can be forewarned that it is even more perilous for us.

Anger, anguish, and angst - our distemper, suffering and fears - are all symptomatic of a life lived in the throes of the egoic self, rather than in "the sunlight of the Spirit." Inevitably, if unchecked, these symptoms of our deeper soul sickness will lead the sufferer back into the throes of active addiction. "The spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it." And we cannot live a spiritual life while harboring anger and deep resentments. Thus, the imperative need to move into the action steps - Steps Four through Step Nine - to strip away the resentments that mask our true nature as spiritual beings.

The inner thought stream of the ego - what Bill once called the "painful inner narrative" of self - will not be gotten rid of (or, at least, deflated "at depth") without our effort. Identifying our resentments, seeing how they affect us, determining our part in them, and then making amends for the hurtful actions that caused or arose from them, are thus essential if we are to live consciously in this spiritual life.

The alternatives to not facing the anger, anguish and angst of the ego may, indeed, prove fatal.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dealing with Fear: "Face Everything and Avoid Nothing"

"(Fear) was an evil, corroding thread; the fabric or our existence was shot through with it."
-- Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 67 --
"The achievement of freedom from fear," wrote Bill W., "is a lifetime undertaking, one that can never be wholly completed. When under heavy attack, acute illness, or in other conditions of serious insecurity, we shall all react, well or badly, as the case may be. Only the vainglorious claim perfect freedom from fear, though their very grandiosity is really rooted in the fears they have temporarily forgotten."

"Therefore," he observed, "the problem of resolving fear has two aspects. We shall have to try for all the freedom of fear that is possible for us to attain. Then we shall need to find both the courage and the grace to deal constructively with whatever fear remains. Trying to understand our fears, and the fears of others, is but a first step. The larger question is how, and where, we go from there."
[Bill W., January 1962 Grapevine article.]

There are two widely repeated acronyms for the word "fear" that one often hears: "Face everything and recover," or, "F**k everything and run," The first, is of course, the spiritual solution to the fears that underlie and are prone to activate our character defects, while the second is the way that so often leads to a relapse into addictive behavior. "The first requirement of spirituality is courage," Gandhi observed. "A coward can never be moral." We must, therefore, uncover and encounter our fears, as while they remain active within us, we will inevitably have to face them.

Spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen, observes that "facing everything, and avoiding nothing," one of the central tenets of leading an enlightened life, "is the ultimate form of spiritual practice." The human ego - our egocentric smaller "self" - is a false identity that is primarily created by the fears and desires that we identify as being central to the very essence of our being. It is a false and powerless construct, however, as we find "the Great Reality deep down within us." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 55.) Listing, facing, and ultimately facing down our fears whenever and wherever they crop up is, thus, an essential requirement of attaining and maintaining our sobriety, and thereafter finding out just 'who' and 'what' we are - what Cohen calls "the authentic self" as opposed to "the ego."

"Only an individual who truly wants to be free will be prepared to abandon the pretense of the ego and to see things as they are," Cohen notes. "Only one who strives for transparency, authenticity, and emptiness of self, and who is deeply motivated by the impulse to evolve, is going to be able to face reality in this way. Anyone else, in the end, will find that they are too invested in maintaining the pretense of a separate self to even begin to practice (facing everything and avoiding nothing) in earnest."

"But," he notes, "as we begin to identify less and less with the fears and desires of the ego and more and more with the evolutionary passion of the authentic self, we will experience less fear, hesitation, and resistance to seeing what is true. We will find the strength and the moral courage to be able to bear whatever we need to bear in order to face everything, and avoid nothing, at all times, in all places, under all circumstances. Why? Because we want to be free more than anything else. "                                                                   []

This, I believe, is thus the answer to Bill's larger question of "how and where to go" after the recognition and listing of our fears. It is where our fears - and their flipsides of desire - are burnt up in the crucible of our higher God-consciousness and our faith in "a Power greater than ourselves," that is, our self-centered egos.

"In my own case," Bill observed, "the foundation stone of freedom from fear is faith: a faith that, despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, causes me to believe that I live in a universe that makes sense. To me, this means a belief in a Creator who is all power, justice and love; a God who intends for me a purpose, a meaning and a destiny to grow, however little and halting, towards his own image and likeness." A God, he might add, that embraces, and is embraced by, our "authentic selves."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Letting Go of Anger and Emotional Disturbances

"It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. But are there no exceptions to this rule? what about "justifiable" anger? If somebody cheats us, aren't we entitled to be mad? Can't we be properly anger with self-righteous folk? For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions. We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it."

-- The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 90 --
Why this "spiritual axiom?" Is it not because anger, and particularly "justified" anger, is inimical to our spiritual health and is always poised to delver us back into "the bondage of self" which lies at the root of our problem?

Each time we are "disturbed" - whether by anger, greed, jealousy lust, or some other emotion - it is a sure sign that we have a Step One problem; that is, we are right in there, again, trying to manage our lives (and the people in our lives) in a futile search for self-satisfaction and ego-gratification. In the famous passage on acceptance (at page 417 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous), we read that:
"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 God's world by mistake." (Emphasis added.)
Notice that in both these passages we are talking of being "disturbed."  Identifying and recognizing when, in fact, we are disturbed is thus the key to dealing with an ever-varying world that is beyond our capacity (or calling) to manage and control. The solution to this Step One problem thus lies in the renewed application of Step Three. When we realize that we are disturbed, we need to act on our decision "to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God" as we understand Him. But how should we act in the face of such disturbances? Fortunately, we have instructions on what to do in such instances.
"(I)t is really easy to being the practice of Step Three," we read. "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.""
[The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 40-41.]
There is nothing we can "change" in an instant other than our attitude - i.e., the level of our consciousness and thought. Thus, when disturbed we need to immediately move from the egoic resistance to life's circumstances, to higher consciousness and an acceptive, radical non-resistance to what is. ("To argue with 'what is' is insanity," said the philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, "yet the thoughtless cannot resist doing so.")

Next, we must have the "courage" - which may only be found beyond the fear-based ego - to make the switch from egocentric to God-centric consciousness. Here, we must "take heart," which is the fundamental meaning of 'courage', a word that comes from the French and Latin word for 'heart' - 'cour.' ("Fearlessness," Gandhi observed, "is the first requirement of spirituality. A coward can never be moral.")

Lastly, we must know "the difference" between what we can and cannot change at the moment we are disturbed. It is, thus, essential that we know there is the small "self" of ego-consciousness, and the higher "Self" of God-consciousness, and that there is a vast different to the thought processes and emotional reactions of both states. For it is only in this latter 'self-less' state that we can "accept that person, place, thing, or situation" which disturbs us "as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment."

At Step Three in the 'Big Book' we read:
"This is the how and why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn't work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom."

"When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn."
 Thus, if we ignore the "spiritual axiom" that in all instances of emotional disturbance it is we who are upset, all this falls away, and we are once again assuming sole responsibility to manage and direct a life which will immediately and rapidly spiral out of all control, resulting in emotional outbursts and actions we will later regret and have to make amends for - or it may result in much, much worse.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Overcoming Remorse and Self-Loathing

In the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most prominent but least discussed aspects of the alcoholic addict's dilemma is the crushing shame and remorse that he or she feels for their actions when they are not tied directly to another person. Of course, Steps Five through Step Nine deal minutely with the whats, whys, whens and hows of making amends for harm done to others, but little is said about the "free-floating" remorse and self-loathing generated by years of alcoholic addiction.

Sometimes one hears that "the first amends I had to make were to myself," or worse, that "the 12 Steps are a selfish program." Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. The basic problem of the alcoholic addict is that he or she is utterly self-absorbed and self-centered to the extreme, and a radical process of "ego-deflation at depth" is needed if he or she is to recover.
"Selfishness," we read, "self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred different forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity, we step on the toes of others 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!"
[Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 62.]
How then, are we to be rid of the remorse and self-loathing for the seemingly horrible things we have done that did not directly, or even indirectly, affect others? How do we account for those actions at which we shudder when we remember: "Yes, I did that?"

The solution to this dilemma is found in taking and then sharing our Step Four inventory. "Being convinced," we read, "that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations."
 [Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63.] 

In regards to our "moral inventory," we read: "The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong." But, we continue reading, "(t)o conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got."

"The usual outcome" of this, we read, "is that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way the worse matters got. As in war, the victor only seemed to win. Our moments of triumph were short-lived." (Emphasis added.)
[Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 64-65.]

Thus, rather than making amends to one's self, one takes a moral inventory of one's self, highlighting the remorse we feel for our actions that did not affect others as resentments we hold against ourselves. We are told that "an alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature," and we need highlight those most unlovely incidents not affecting others that we have nonetheless come to abhor.

The other place where we deal with remorse is in listing our fears, for each of us holds memories of what we have done unwitnessed that we live in dread of ever having exposed. Who, at first, has not thought, "if only they knew . . ."?

Rather than holding some vague and fallacious idea that somewhere in Step Nine we need to "make amends to ourselves," it is rather in Step Five where we admit "to ourselves, to God and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs" that we earn freedom from our remorse and self-loathing.

Most often, we will find that are personal peccadilloes are not so unique, and that they vary only in kind rather than in quality to those "wrongs" committed by others. That, at least, has been my experience.

Moreover, such personal and dreadful incidents, once shared, lose their power over us. If we think of them at all, we are no longer filled with remorse, but rather we are in a position to use them to demonstrate to another alcoholic addict that they, too, are not as "bad" or "unique" as they may believe themselves to be. Our most shameful memories, are thus turned into assets we can use to help others.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Addiction to 'Self'

"(O)ur 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 free of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes this possible."
-- Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62 --
The "nature of our wrongs," our "defects of character," and our "shortcomings," as set out in Steps Five through Step Seven are, in essence, the same thing - they are all manifestations of the self-consciousness, or ego-identification, that seemingly separates us from everyone and everything in this world. This purely psychological "self" is the underlying root of all addiction, and its desires and the fears it creates must be overcome in a daily struggle if we are to attain, maintain and improve a "conscious contact" with the God of our understanding.

If we look at "the seven deadly sins" which Bill discusses in Step Seven of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions - pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth - we can see that all of these "sins" (or, better yet, thinking that has gone awry) are manifestations of an egocentric concern that the desires of the "small self" or "ego" will not be fulfilled. We are "proud" because we fear that we are better (or worse) than others, "jealous" because we fear the loss of someone or something we have, "envious" because we fear we will not get something we currently lack, etc.

The truth is, however, that it is impossible to stem the desires or quell the fears of the human ego. By its very nature - being nothing but a false mental perspective and identity driven by out-of-control desires and fears - our "small self" is divinely incapable of being satisfied. Thus, if we are to survive and flourish in recovery, we must find the means of moving beyond the ego's "false self." Self-examination, meditation and prayer makes this possible.

"Relieve me of the bondage of self," we pray in the Third Step Prayer. "I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad," we avow in the Seventh Step Prayer. And, in the Eleventh Step Prayer, we acknowledge that "it is by self-forgetting that we find."

Yet prayer, while in and of itself bringing great benefit, must be accompanied by continuing (and, ideally, continuous) self examination and the practice of meditation if we are to make the breakthrough that we so desperately need. It is through these interrelated disciplines that we become able to distinguish the voice of our small, egoic self from the higher awareness of God-consciousness, a consciousness which amounts to "a new state of consciousness and being."
[The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 107.]

In sobriety, with the crisis of active addiction in our past, we must next confront our addiction to ego-identification, a confrontation that for most of us will result either from a tremendous act of grace or, perhaps more usually, from a profound crisis or intense suffering in sobriety. After all, we now no longer have the fleeting reprieve from such crises and suffering that we once found, however fleetingly, in drink and/or by drugs; and, if we are to truly find peace of mind and lasting sobriety we must need overcome the self-will that runs riot within us, tormenting us and hurting us (and those around us) by its corruptive action.

Our suffering, one noted author observes, triggers "an inner realization, a perception which pierces through the facile complacency of our usual encounter with the world to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot. . . . When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can precipitate a profound personal crisis. It overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, (and) leaves old enjoyments stubbornly unsatisfying."
[Bhikku Bodhi, "The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering," p. 1.]

The antidote to the "small self" of the "ego" lies in the faith that "deep down within us" we can make a conscious connection with a Power greater than our egoic self-sense. "In the last analysis," we read, "it is only there" where such God-consciousness "can be found." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55.)

By refusing to react to the crises that try our spirit by further exertion of self-will, and by rather responding to such crises by application of the 12 Steps (particularly through a renewed emphasis on self-examination, meditation and prayer), we begin to overcome the addiction to self that lies at the center of all our difficulties, and we thus begin living a life of emotional sobriety devoid of the overbearing desires and fears of the ego.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Prejudice, Peril and a Higher Power

"Besides a seeming inability to accept much on faith, we often found ourselves handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice. Many of us have been so touchy that even casual reference to spiritual things made us bristle with antagonism. This sort of thinking had to be abandoned. . . . In this respect alcohol was a great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness. Sometimes this was a tedious process; we hope no one else will be prejudiced for as long as some of us were."

-- Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 47-48 --
As an individual who has made a long journey in recovery from atheist to agnostic, to gnostic, I can attest that the way to a working faith in a Power greater than one's 'self' can be not just a "tedious process" but also a very perilous path. And, of course, as is pointed out, "prejudice" to all things spiritual was the great stumbling block.

Obstinately clinging to the belief that science was the be all and end all of human knowledge and accomplishment, to my great peril I had no room to contemplate those great areas on which science, by its nature, is necessarily silent - spirituality, metaphysics and consciousness. As a result, I continued to suffer from the obsessive nature of "the ego" - the sense of the seemingly separated "self" that lies at the root of the alcoholic addict's dilemma.

In his enlightening correspondence with Bill W., the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (the man who gave the initial impetus to the chain of events that would result in the emergence of A.A.) observed that it had been long known that a vital inner religious or spiritual experience could effectively relieve the symptoms of alcoholism. Yet, he noted that such an experience must be grounded "in reality." (Who, after all, did not think he or she had found something of the divine in the ecstasies of alcohol or drugs while their effects still worked for them?)

Jung also observed that for such an experience to take hold, one must be "on a path," but not just any path. Rather, he wrote that one must be on a path "in reality" that leads the sufferer "to higher understanding." Further, he implies that such "higher understanding" must be one that is "beyond the confines of mere rationalism."

How, then, even when working the 12 Steps, was a committed scientific rationalist to make the leap of faith that would effect the requisite spiritual awakening? The truth is, that it did not for many years, even though I was able to maintain my physical (although not my emotional) sobriety.

In hindsight, I had been the recipient of an act of grace that led me to stop the drinking and drugging that was my daily way of life for eighteen years, although I knew nothing at the time about grace. Unaware of the true nature of my experience, and obstinately unwilling to attribute it to anything spiritual, I was unable to admit the insanity I continued living in. Granted, I was able to cede that my drinking and drugging was a form of insanity, but I was unwilling to look at the insanity of my alcoholic and addictive mind until its obsessive nature indeed pushed me to the point of madness and beyond . . . all while I maintained my sobriety and gained (and then lost) all the worldly goods and success I could only have imagined years earlier.

The problem of the alcoholic addict does, indeed, center in the mind, as the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous points out. Despite the best intervention of learned physicians and therapists, I did not reach the point of sanity until in desperation, many years into sobriety, I returned to work the 12 Steps anew. Miraculously, I once again experienced the "fierce act of grace" and sudden "clarity of mind" that characterized the night I initially quit drinking. It was many months thereafter, diligently working with old-timers who were far more advanced than me in their understanding of spiritual realities, that I came to know what had really happened and the nature of my ultimate adversary, the human ego.

Surprisingly, once I came to know this, I found a plethora of resources to help me on my spiritual quest both within A.A. (and its sister organizations) and outside the protective walls of its community. Indeed, it turns out, "we have no monopoly," and there are a multitude of so-called "normal" people out there who are striving to overcome the same self-centered egocentricity that characterizes the alcoholic addict.

"I am not here to bend the world to my own narrow will," a wizened man once told me. Rather, he said, "I have a deep and abiding faith in the infallible rightness of the course of events."

I am indebted to that man, an experienced medical doctor and psychoanalyst, for putting so clearly the fundamental lesson of A.A., and I can now assuredly agree with the author(s) of the 'Big Book' when they outlined the "three pertinent ideas" that apply, I now know, to all of us: "(a) that "we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives"; (b) that "probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism;" and, (c) that "God could and would if He were sought."

I, too, now hope "that no one will be prejudiced"  for as long as I once was. I am amongst a fortunate few. I know that many - perhaps most - do not survive their prejudices for as long as I did on my own self-will and bitter resources before emerging into "the sunlight of the Spirit".

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Alcoholism and Addiction: A Transpersonal View

"(The) craving for alcohol (is) on a low level the thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: union with God."

(Carl Jung to Bill Wilson, letter dated January 30, 1961.)
In the attached must-see video, noted transpersonal psychologist, Christina Grof (author of "The Thirst for Wholeness: Attachment, Addiction, and the Spiritual Path") shares her insights on the spiritual crises underlying alcoholism and addiction, as well as the insights she garnered from her own descent into alcoholism after she had already established herself as a successful psychotherapist and a noted "spiritual teacher".

Ms. Grof's story brings to mind that of the person "full of faith but still reeking of alcohol," and she tackles this issue, as well as issues about powerlessness and those revolving around the personal crises that evolve well into sobriety when repressed or forgotten incidents, often from far into childhood, emerge.

Speaking about the irony that alcohol and other drugs brings about what she calls "a pseudo-mystical experience," and tipping her hat to William James and Bill Wilson, Grof notes that "addicts and alcoholics are seekers," and that "they want to know about the mysteries of God and life, but they make the mistake of looking in the wrong places."

"Unless the spiritual aspect of addiction and alcoholism is addressed," she notes, "the quality of recovery is really limited."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Carl Jung: On the Benefit of Self-Examination

In explaining the nature and necessity of the spiritual (or religious) experience that he saw as requisite for the successful treatment of alcoholic addiction, the great psychologist, Carl Jung observed that "(t)he only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happen 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," Jung continues,"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."

Written in the last year of his life, Jung's letter to Bill Wilson (from which the above is extracted) was an explanation in many ways of the sum of his experiences treating not only alcoholics, but in treating his patients in general. In his letter to Bill (attached below), he observes:
"I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if not countered 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, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouse so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible."
Just what did Jung mean by these observations, and why (other than Bill's evident open-mindedness) did he confide these observations to A.A.'s co-founder? Much insight into Jung's meaning may be gained from the close perusal of a slim volume, 'The Undiscovered Self,' which Jung published several years earlier, in 1957. In it, Jung states that the fundamental question that one must answer in life is: "Have I any religious experience and immediate relation to God and hence that certainty which will keep me, as an individual, from dissolving into the crowd?"

"To this question," he points out, "there is a positive answer only when the individual is willing to fulfill the demands of rigorous self-examination and self-knowledge." (Thus, the necessity of taking, and continuing to take, a searching and fearless moral inventory of one's "self.")

"If he follows through on this intention," Jung continues, "he will not only discover some important truths about himself, but will also have gained a psychological advantage: he will have succeeded in deeming himself worthy of serious attention and sympathetic interest. He will have set his hand, as it were, to a declaration of his own human dignity and taken the first step towards the foundation of his consciousness - that is, towards the unconscious, the only accessible source of religious experience."

"This is not to say," he cautions, "that what we call the unconscious is identical with God or is set up in his place. It is the medium through which the religious experience seems to flow. As to what the further cause of such an experience may be, the answer to this lies beyond the range of human knowledge. Knowledge of God is a transcendental problem."
[Jung, 'The Undiscovered Self,' pp. 100-102.]
"There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer," writes Bill W. "Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakeable foundation for life. Now and then we may be granted a glimpse of that ultimate reality which is God's kingdom. And we will be comforted and assured that our own destiny in that realm will be secure for so long as we try, however falteringly, to find and do the will of our Creator."
['The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,' p. 98]

The process of taking the 12 Steps - i.e., engaging in the process of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" that Bill writes of - is the process that opens the alcoholic addict (or any other addicted person) to "a religious (or spiritual) experience and immediate relation to God." And it is this experience - the solution to Jung's "transcendental problem" - that relieves the alcoholic of his or her sole reliance on a limited self-consciousness to get by in life. And by opening him or herself to a higher, dilated consciousness, this process relieves the sufferer of the obsession to transcend self-consciousness with alcohol and/or drugs.

Thus, through membership and participation in A.A. (or its sister 12 Step organizations), the addict is opened (a) to "an act of grace", and provided with (b) "a personal and honest contact with friends," and (c) the opportunity for "a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism."

"The religious person," as Jung points out in 'The Undiscovered Self,' "enjoys a great advantage when it comes to answering the crucial question that hangs over our time like a threat: he has a clear idea of the way his subjective existence is grounded in his relation to 'God.'"