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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Not Like Other People . . . But More So

 ". . . (T)hinking without awareness," writes spiritual teacher/author, Eckhart Tolle, "is the main dilemma of human existence."

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

Many years from my last drink, but only one warped train of thought and fatal decision away from my next, Tolle's observation rings true and is, perhaps, the clearest and most concise description of the mechanical nature of the human ego. Why is this important for, and so aptly applicable to, the alcohol addict? The simple answer is because (as we read at page 23 in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous)" the main problem of the alcoholic centres in his mind, rather than his body."

Later in the 'Big Book' we come to understand that we must see through the false illusion that one day we will be able to once again "control and enjoy our drinking." We are also told at this point that we must get rid of the delusion that "we are like other people, or one day will be." ('Big Book', page 30.) A full understanding of the second of these delusions enables us to more easily practice the 'meat' of the program.

In one sense this second delusion is right. We have exhibited a progressive addiction to alcohol, and in A.A.'s experience it is fatal and progressive. It does not get better. The old adage that you can't turn a pickle back into a cucumber holds true. We have long experience in our fellowship - too many at the funerals we have attended - that shows alcoholic drinkers do not turn into moderate or social drinkers. In respect to the consumption of alcohol, we are not like other people. They will be fine if they have a couple of drinks, while the odds are steep that if we do so, we will quickly get very sick and, perhaps, die.

In other matters, however, it seems to me that we are exactly like other people, perhaps only more so. The third delusion the 'Big Book' discusses is in the description of "the actor" on pages 60-62. Here, the 'Big Book' notes that "(m)ost people try to live by self-propulsion, that each person is like an actor that wants to run the whole show. . ." (Emphasis added.)

And what is the "basic problem" of each such person (alcoholic addict and non-addict alike)? "Is he not really a self-seeker," we read on (page 61), "even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?" (Emphasis added.)

Still speaking about most people, in general, the 'Big Book' observes that "(s)elfishness (and) self- centeredness is the root of our troubles." "Driven by a hundred forms of self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity," it points out, "we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate."

And what is "self" - what is "ego" - if it is not the "thinking without awareness" Tolle describes, above? What is "ego" or "self" if it not the incessant chatter of the mind, the "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts" of the past that the vast majority of all people suffer from?

Look at the nightly news, pick up a newspaper, read the history of the modern world, and it becomes readily and quickly apparent that most people, even whole nations, are "driven by" a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity." Whole industries, not least the advertising industry, are founded upon this curious human trait of ego identification. In this respect, alcoholic addicts and  non-addicts alike suffer from the same dysfunctional mindset, mode of thinking, and method of interacting with the world. (Psychologically, it seems that each man is an island, despite the famous caution that no man is.)

"(O)ur troubles, we think, are basically of our own making," we read. "They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so." ('Big Book', page 62.)

Thus, in one respect - i.e., with respect to the consumption of  alcohol - "we are not like other people," nor will we ever be. In all other respects, however - i.e., in how each of us tries to "manage" life well in order to "wrest satisfaction and happiness" out of it - we are just like other people only, perhaps, more so. Most people are self-centered (that is, ego-centric) and do not know they possess an 'inner center' beyond the limited egoic self. "Alcoholics," we read at page 24 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, are "self-centered in the extreme." Other, so-called 'normal' people, it seems to me, are just 'extremely self-centered.'

Why is it important for us to understand that apart from the alcoholic addiction we are just like other people, only perhaps more so? Principally because it allows us to get over the deep resentments that have crippled us in our relationships to others and, thus, fueled our alcoholism. If we understand that other people are, for the most part, identified with and driven by their own egoic way of thinking - of "thinking without awareness" - then we can more readily realize "that the people who harmed us were perhaps spiritually sick." ('Big Book,' page 66.)

Realizing that most people are just as driven by their ego-centric mode of interacting with the world as we are, and while not liking "their symptoms and the way these (disturb) us," allows us not to react, but rather respond to them with "tolerance, pity and patience," perhaps, even with love. ('Big Book,' page 67.) Recognizing that virtually all people suffer from the same human dilemma of mistaking their smaller selves or egos for their true identity allows us to more readily forgive others for what they have done to us (and in that process to receive inner forgiveness for what we have done to others.)

Next time someone "offends" you, makes a mistake in traffic, follows too closely, forgets to signal a turn, or whatever, instead of rushing to judgement, realize that he or she is more likely than not just as caught up in the stream of unconscious self-consciousness as we usually are. And don't get sucked into your own inner and egoic dialogue about them. Practicing this non-judgmental identification with the egoic suffering of others is a key to freedom from "the bondage of self," a practice that lies at the heart of "self-forgetting."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Perils, Pitfalls & Promise of the "Twelve & Twelve"

A.A. Co-Founder, Bill W.
In a letter dated October 5, 1953, A.A. co-founder and author, Bill W., wrote of the expectations he had for the newly-penned 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions'. "At first," he observed, "I was dubious whether anyone would care for it, save oldtimers who had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol. But apparently, the book is being used to good effect even upon newcomers." ('Pass It On', at page 356.)

Of course, many in A.A. nowadays hold fast to the notion that the Twelve and Twelve is ruinous to A.A., and/or that its use, particularly its exclusive use, with newcomers is perilous to their prospects of attaining and maintaining sobriety. To my mind, and in my experience, such A.A. "fundamentalists" or "Big Book Thumpers" are right . . . but only partially right. Along with the perils and pitfalls that the Twelve and Twelve can present to overly-reliant newcomers, the book holds great promise and practical spiritual wisdom for the more seasoned alcoholic addict in recovery when he or she is presented with life's inevitable challenges.

In words that have quite literally saved the lives of millions of alcoholic addicts, and in a manner that the reader can use to see if he or she is alcoholic, the 'Big Book' ('Alcoholics Anonymous') clearly sets out the physical and mental aspects of the disease, a spiritual solution to this primarily mental illness, and a process of steps that can (and are) used to effect a spiritual solution to the malady. I know of few, if any, members with long-term sobriety that would start a newcomer off without going through the 'Big Book.' The methodology for working through the 12 Steps is invaluable, particularly the concise directions for getting through Steps 4 through Step Nine (a.s.a.p.) and, thereby, initiating a process of spiritual awakening that promises to arrest and alleviate the effects of the disease. Likewise, I know few (if any) old-timers who do not, or have not, benefited from what is laid out in the Twelve and Twelve.

My experiences with the 'Big Book' and the 'Twelve and Twelve' over several decades have been decidedly mixed, as I suspect the experience of many others probably have been.

In my case, by happenstance and misleading advertising, the first group I joined was a Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions group. (It was announced that February was "membership month" and that the group still had several "openings" which were available. Knowing nothing of A.A. - or recovery, for that matter - and being but a few weeks sober, I thought I had better grab one of those openings before I was shut out.) I stayed with that group, maintaining my sobriety without relapse, for over five years, until I left to help start up another group and, shortly thereafter, to move to another city. In that time, week after week, we would go through the Steps, one after another in relentless fashion.  I remember nothing of what I shared, and now shudderingly marvel that there was anything of value I could have shared!

I learned but little about the true nature of my disease, but much about how to stay sober in that time. Additionally, I read the 'Big Book' cover to cover, as suggested, but little sank in, due not to the message in the book but to the prejudice and contempt I had for all things spiritual or, somehow, 'Godly.' (Not that I wouldn't participate in the Serenity Prayer, Lord's Prayer etc., and not that I didn't read my daily meditations from the 'Twenty Four Hours a Day' book, or 'Daily Reflections' when it came out. I would grudgingly do the little I was told to do, but only that much!)

During that time I was, however, taken through the Steps both by my sponsor and then by a relative "oldtimer" within my group utilizing the 'Big Book.' I listed my resentments and fears, inventoried my sex conduct, made the list, made amends etc., and it was beneficial - to me, my family, and my employer, etc. - yet I failed to grasp the key understanding that my life in sobriety had become and continued to be "unmanageable." (See page 61.) Thus, I was handicapped from the start in my ability to "enlarge" my spiritual being.

Sobering up at age 28 in the late-Eighties, I was one of the younger members of A.A. in my area. I therefore took much false solace in the Twelve and Twelve's description of the younger "alcoholics who still had their health, their families, (and) their jobs," etc. I was mightily relieved to read that I had been "spared that last ten or fifteen years of literal hell (other A.A.s) had gone through." (Little did I know, or suspect, that years of "figurative hell" were to come.) Reading through the rest of that paragraph in the Twelve and Twelve's first chapter, I utterly failed to grasp the meaning or importance of the following question:
"Since Step One requires an admission that our lives have become unmanageable, how could such people as these take this Step?
That is a great question, indeed. For my part, and to myself alone, I saw Step One as: "Admitting that I was powerless over alcohol (and other drugs) and that my life had (potentially) become unmanageable (if I ever drank or drugged again)." Keeping all the parts in brackets to myself, I marched on in sobriety, determined to get "Good Orderly Direction" in my life. For the next five years, I relied on my Twelve and Twelve meeting, my sponsor, and thereafter on the fellowship of AA to stay sober. (This worked for me to the limited extent that I stayed straight, but I adamantly warn off others who would try it this way. I've seen too many fatalities via this route.)

Just shy of 10 years sobriety, having completed a university education and graduate school, with a wife now sober, and with two small girls - one of them named for my first sponsor - I started a job as a newly-minted professional in a new city. The days and weeks were very long, life seemed manageable, and I made a conscious decision to stop attending A.A. in order to spend what little time was left over with my wife and kids.

Little did I know that the five years after that fateful decision would be an at-first slow descent into madness, a madness in which I finally lost marriage, family, career, house and my mind. Just as the oldtimers had warned me, all those things that I had put in front of my sobriety I had lost. Beaten by life and this disease, obsessing over escape from a painful and seemingly hopeless life via the bottle, I was brought back to A.A. and to a wise and loving sponsor who took me back through the Steps. The 'Big Book' was read and explained to me. Re-doing the Steps with a new understanding, I experienced the spiritual release that is available through our program of action. My mind was opened, and with the help of several spiritual mentors, day-by-day I began - with several epiphanies along the way - to grow spiritually.

Interestingly, not only had the import and significance of the 'Big Book' - its application to my life and circumstances - soared, but the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions had also become inextricably important to my growth in spirit and consciousness. With fifteen years clean and sober - most of it being "stark, raving sobriety" - I had become one of those whom Bill so mildly puts it "had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol."

There are, indeed, perils and pitfalls along the way if one ignores the 'Big Book' in favour, grudgingly, of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as I did. Some seem to avoid the mistakes that are so often made. I did not. But having survived these perils and pitfalls, I know that the Twelve and Twelve, holds much promise for further growth, written as it is for those who have already completed the 12 Steps as outlined in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous.

My closest spiritual mentor, a profoundly dedicated man with 35 years of sobriety at the time, often stressed that having taken the Steps and having recovered from the hopeless state of alcoholism - wet or dry - it is imperative that one incorporates Step Three, Step Seven and Step Eleven into one's daily life; relying on Step Ten where we screw up, and utilizing Step Twelve in carrying the message where we can. It is here, and in this process, that the experience of Bill's years of sobriety, as set out in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, becomes so important. Indeed, I find it is needlessly hard, if not impossible, to practice these Steps without the various spiritual nuggets of wisdom he shares there.

Consider, as examples, the following passages from the essays on Steps Three, Seven and Eleven:
  • "Our whole problem had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God's intention for us. To make this increasingly possible is the purpose of A.A.'s Twelve Steps, and Step Three opens the door."

    "Once we have come into agreement with these ideas, it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. 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."" (Step Three, pp. 40-41. Emphasis added.)
  • "For us, the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievably painful. . . . It was only at the end of a long road, marked by successive defeats and humiliations, and the final crushing of our self-sufficiency, that we began to feel humility as something more than a condition of grovelling despair. . . . The admission of powerlessness over alcohol . . . is but the barest beginning. To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the human spirit, to be willing to work for humility as some thing to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time."

    "We saw that we needn't always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have. It marked the time when we could see the full implication of Step Seven: "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."" (Step Seven, pp. 72-73, 75.)
  • "There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. Taken separately, these practices 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." (Step Eleven, p. 98.)
 As it says in 'Pass It On' (at page 352):
"If (the) 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions' is a small volume in terms of length, it is large in its depth and content. Whereas the Big Book, written in 1938, radiates Bill's joy and gratitude at having finally found a way to stay sober, the 'Twelve and Twelve' reflects an entirely different mood. In 1951 and 1952, when Bill wrote the second book, he was suffering almost constant depression and was forced to confront the emotional and spiritual demons that remain "stranded" in the alcoholic psyche when the high tide of active alcoholism recedes. The 'Twelve and Twelve' provides a highly practical and profoundly spiritual prescription to exercise those demons."
Thus, in my experience there are indeed grave perils and deep pitfalls that can be (as they were for me) life-threatening if one overly (or solely) relies on the Twelve and Twelve without reference and reliance on the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. That being said, there is great promise to alleviate the residual suffering of "the alcoholic psyche" after, but not before, "the high tide of active alcoholism recedes."

The spiritual path that is so meticulously laid out and explained in the two volumes, if walked day-by-day, promises us a new perspective on life and what it means to be sober, indeed it offers us "a gift that amounts to a new state of consciousness and being." (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 107.)

It is exceedingly difficult and painful, in my experience, to sober up and remain sober without a firm foundation in the 'Big Book.' It is equally difficult and even more painful, I have found, to remain mentally and emotionally sober without a firm foundation in the Twelve and Twelve.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Riddle of Ego, Self, and Innermost Self

To borrow the oft-quoted line from Winston Churchill, the 'secret' of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations) is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Those who have solved this "riddle" often smile mysteriously and enigmatically - like the slight and knowing smile of the Sphinx - when trying to explain it. The "riddle" goes something like this: "You have to find a Power greater than yourself, but you have to find this Power deep down within yourself."

 What??? If you are like I was, perhaps it is at this stage that you shut down and start asking others what God is, what they use as their Higher Power, or just what the heck 'It' is that we are supposed to rely on.

The answer to this seemingly inevitable question given to me by my first sponsor was "Good Orderly Direction." Others have been told, "Group of Drunks," or a variety of other responses. In my case, this answer combined with my close-mindedness and fierce "will to win" led me on a nearly 15-year wild goose chase to "wrest happiness and success out of this world" by managing life well, that is by getting me some of that 'Good Orderly Direction' in my thinking. (See, page 61 of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

However, there is, I believe, a very straightforward 'key' to solving this "riddle" and discovering just what the 'secret' (so to speak) of A.A. is -  i.e., exactly where and how to access "a Power" greater than oneself that will solve the alcohol problem and render the alcoholic addict "happily and usefully whole." That 'key' is (or was in my case) understanding the relationship between (i) one's "ego" (ii) one's "self" and (iii) one's "innermost self".

"Ego" is variously defined in metaphysics as "a conscious thinking subject," in psychology as "the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality," and in popular usage as "a sense of self esteem" or pride: (Oxford English Dictionary). "Self" - in its turn - is defined as "a person's or things own individuality or essence" and "a person or thing as the object of introspection or reflective action." One's "innermost self" is undefined (although "one's better self" - defined as "one's nobler instincts" - comes close.)

The 'key' to the 'riddle' lies in these definitions and, most importantly, in understanding that ego does NOT mean pride in A.A. literature. Almost invariably, "ego" is used interchangeably with "self". ("Our actor," we read on page 61 of the 'Big Book', "is self centered -- ego-centric, as people like to call it today.") A working definition of both "ego" and "self" for our purposes, therefore, may be something like: "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality and has, or gives us, a sense of our own identity and individuality."

It is this constant inner stream or commentary of thoughts, images and ideas - "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality" - together with their bodies, that the vast majority of people (alcoholic addict and non-addict alike) take themselves to be. It is 'who' they 'are '- or so it seems to them. (Interestingly, Bill W. in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions variously calls this constant inner stream of ego/self a "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts.")

If one can understand that the ego/self is not who we are, but that "ego" or "self" is but a fraction of our mind - an attitude or way of relating to the world that is learned - and that underneath that small but loud and unceasing fraction lies "an innermost self" that is the "essence" of who we are, then he or she can productively begin to work the 12 Steps, the first of which is: "to fully concede to (his or her) innermost self that (he or she is) alcoholic" or an addict. (Admitting to one's "innermost self" that one's life has become, is, and will continue to be "unmanageable" comes next.)

Consider these points from the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous:
  • "The problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than his body." (Page 23)
  • "We alcoholics . . . have lost the ability to control our drinking." (Page 30)
  • "Whether such a person can quit upon a non-spiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not." (Page 34)
  • "(T)he actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception. will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge." (Page 39)
  •  "The alcoholic at certain times has no effective defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power." (Page 42)
  • "If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried." (Pages 44-45)
  • "Our human resources, as marshalled by the will . . .  failed utterly." (Page 45)
  • "Lack of power . . . was our dilemma." (Page 45)
  • "We had to find a power by which we could live (free of alcohol, drugs, etc.), and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves." (Page 45)
  • "(W)here and how were we to find this Power?" (Page 45)
  • "(The) main object (of the 'Big Book') is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem." (Page 45)
  • "We found the Great Reality deep down within us." (Page 55)
  • "(L)iquor is but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions." (Page 64)
So the alcoholic addict learns that the loss of control over liquor, drugs, etc., is not the problem but is symptomatic of a deeper problem that centers in her mind, and that she needs to find a Power that is greater than her 'self'. Self-knowledge will not cut it. How and where, then, is she to find such a Power that will relieve her symptoms, particularly if she doesn't believe in a quasi-mythic Old Testament God 'out there' somewhere? That, we learn, is the "main object" of the process.

"How" to find such a Power is quite clear: Do the 12 Steps! But  the "how" of doing the Steps if you do not believe in a "God" or "Divinity" which most cultures teach is 'out there' is exceedingly difficult, indeed. Fortunately, the "where" of finding a Higher Power is set out on Page 55 of the 'Big Book'. Here we find a concise rebuttal to the cultural norm that God, Yahweh, Ishwara, Allah, Buddha-mind, the Divine, one's Depth, the Ground of Being - whatever one chooses to call It - is exterior to us.

Although it is often obscured by "the calamity, pomp, and worship of other things" characteristic of the "self" or "ego" (i.e., "the thinking part of the mind that reacts to reality and has, or gives us, a sense of our own identity and individuality"), we find that there exists within us "an Innermost Self" that is the "Essence" of our "Being." It is this "Inner Self" that all the world's great religious and wisdom traditions seek to activate and develop.

Page 55 sets out, in clear and precise language, that:
"We (find) that Great Reality," i.e., our 'Inner Self' or 'Essence', "deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He (or She, or It) may be found."
In a letter to Bill W., the great psychologist, Dr. Carl Jung, pointed out that: "(The alcoholic's) thirst for alcohol (is) the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: union with God."

Although he was much concerned that he would be misunderstood when using such culturally freighted words and concepts, he nonetheless elaborated further on such an "experience" - that is, the psychological and spiritual "union with God" at the heart of all the world's great wisdom traditions.

"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience," Jung notes, "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." That is, one must follow a spiritual path without aid of drugs or booze, a path or methodology (like the 12 Steps) that leads you to a "higher understanding" and "experience" of one's mind beyond the ordinary, ego-centric perspective and narrative of "self."

"You might be led to that goal," - i.e., to a "spiritual awakening" of one's 'Inner Self' or 'Essence' - Jung points out, "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 or mere rationalism." Fortunately for the alcoholic addict, "the path" laid out in the 12 Steps, the work we do, and the fellowship we find in A.A. (or any of its sister organizations) offers all three.

But the key to realizing grace, receiving meaningful friendship, and transcending the mind to a level "beyond the confines of mere rationalism" is in solving the "riddle" presented by the "ego" or "self" in which we are seemingly confined. In finding our 'Innermost Self', in experiencing our 'Essence' in consciousness, we access the "mysteries" at the heart of the world's great religions and esoteric traditions. In working our way through the seeming "paradox" of finding a "Power" that is at once greater than one's "self" but which is ultimately found "deep down within" one's 'Innermost Self', we begin to solve our alcohol problem and we open up to the potential and experience of what Bill W. calls "a new state of consciousness and being."

Our collective experience is that: "With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped into an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than 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."" (Alcoholics Anonymous, Appendix II, pages 567-568.)

As Jung succinctly points out in his letter to Bill W., "(A)lcohol in Latin is 'spiritus' and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: "spiritus contra spiritum."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Needing To Know & Needing To Be Right

"Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely."
Alcoholics Anonymous, "How It Works," p. 58.
I've often heard it said that two of the hardest things to do in life are: (a) to admit we were wrong, and (b) to admit we do not know. Doing either, it seems at first, threatens our instinctive drives for security, sex and society. If we don't know, or if (gasp!) we're wrong, what will become of us?

The first of these challenges, admitting that we were wrong, is explicitly dealt with in Step Ten. When we are wrong, we "promptly admit it." In time, and with practice, admitting we've made a mistake and/or acted wrongly becomes much easier. It is a valuable discipline which leads directly to ego-deflation and self-abnegation (i.e., the "forgetting" of "self").

Dr. Wayne Dyer
'Letting Go and Letting God', as spiritual teacher, Dr. Wayne Dyer, observes, "involves relinquishing ego’s attachment to, or fear of, something. The single most pronounced attachment for most of us during the morning of our lives," he points out, "is the attachment to being right!"

"There’s nothing (the) ego loves more than to be right," Dyer notes, "which makes it an important and satisfying attachment to practice letting go of."

The second proposition - admitting that "we do not know" - is not as explicitly addressed in the Twelve Steps, however. But it is an integral part of the Step One admission that our lives were, are and will remain unmanageable. After all, if we rather than God were omniscient, omnipotent and all-knowing our lives would not be unmanageable, and we would be just fine, thank you. But that is decidedly not how it is.

In his many talks, A.A. pioneer, and author, Chuck C. ("A New Pair of Glasses"), would point out that he was brought up to believe he must "out-think, out-smart and out-perform" all comers in order to get what is needed out of life. He, like all of us, had fallen victim to the "delusion" that all would be well and we could "wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if (we) only manage well." ('Big Book,' page 61.) It is this delusion, our pride, and the fear of the unknown that grips us when we encounter the unfamiliar that makes it so difficult to admit, even to ourselves, that we are not all-knowing. 

If we admit that "we do not know" what to do in a situation, "we do not know" the answer to a question, or, perhaps, "we do not know" some key information we think we really should know, how does that make us feel? How does it affect how others will think of us? Are we not somehow diminished in our own eyes and the eyes of others? Isn't such an admission shattering to one's self-confidence? Do we not need to know in order to manage life?

Andrew Cohen, Editor-in-chief,
EnlightenNext magazine.
Paradoxically, as ever, and as counter-intuitive as it seems at first, the admission that "we do not know" is a sign of inner strength and an honest admission of our powerlessness. No one person is omniscient and knows everything he or she might wish, and this despite what he or she wishes to convey to the world. After all, as spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen, points out, the reality is that "beyond a certain point we do not know, we cannot know, and we do not need to know."

Our readiness and ability to let go of this "need to know" is, thus, like our ability to admit it when we are wrong, a good indicator of our spiritual growth. The ego has a fierce desire to know everything and be right all of the time. In facing, accepting and admitting to others the truths that "we do not know" and/or that "we were wrong" we take giant strides towards curbing our self-righteousness and moving beyond the "small self" of the ego towards the "Authentic Self" which is the core and essence of our Being.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Spiritual Way of Life

In the attached video, A.A. pioneer, Chuck C. (author of "A New Pair of Glasses") shares his insights into living "A Spiritual Way of Life" with a non-alcoholic audience of students at the University of California.

"I don't think we have a life of our own, and I don't think we have a mind of our own," he tells his audience. "I think there is one life with many faces, (and) one mind common to all men. And you and I have our identity in It. We have our identity in life.

"We are," he says, "individualized centers of God-consciousness."

 "You cannot change the reality of your own being," he notes, "you can only change your experience in reality. . . . We can change our experience, but we can't change the reality of our own being."

"(O)ur own peace of mind, serenity and purpose," he observes, "cannot depend upon any person, place, circumstance or condition outside ourselves. (This) depends only on our own relationship to our very own God."

"And," he points out, "its an inside job!"

Monday, September 10, 2012

Maintenance of Our Spiritual Condition

"It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do. . . . We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition." (Emphasis added.)
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 85
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"More sobriety brought about by not drinking and attendance at a few meetings is very good, indeed," Bill W. observed. "(B)ut," he pointed out, "it is bound to be a far cry from permanent sobriety and a contented, useful life." (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pages 39-40.)

Why is this?

Simply because it is all too easy to let up on the spiritual work that must be practiced daily if we are to stay on the spiritual path, to attain and enlarge our spiritual consciousness, and to attain "a new state or consciousness and being." The daily practice of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" - a practice that all of the world's great wisdom traditions advocate - is required for spiritual growth and spiritual living.

Almost invariably, however, at some point in their recovery most alcoholic addicts will let up on the "daily . . . maintenance of (their) spiritual condition." Some, like me, will survive by dint of good fortune (or, perhaps, good karma) to again take up the spiritual path. Others will die - quickly or slowly - often after many repeated and failed attempts to regain their sobriety.

Each day that elapses without practicing the necessary measure of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" that is required to deflate one's ego (and keep it deflated),  in my experience, makes it easier for another day to pass without the requisite practice. The inevitable outcome is grave, however, physically or literally.

Having once attained sobriety and obtained some freedom from the ceaseless chatter of the egoic self - having reduced to some extent the intensity and frequency of one's "painful inner dialogue" - it becomes all too easy to turn to the matters of the world and neglect the matters of the psyche and the soul. This is particularly so, if we fall victim (as I did) to the "delusion" that life has somehow become "manageable."

All our time time then, it seems, is taken up by the struggle to either: (a) keep the things (money, possessions, relationships, etc.) we have attained and think are necessary for our continuing security and happiness, or (b) to pursue the things we don't have, but which we think are necessary to make us feel happy and secure.

Unfortunately, the sense of "calamity, (the) pomp, and (the) worship of other things" engendered by such pursuits obscures "the fundamental idea of God" that is inherent in each of us. (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55.) It is a spiritual truth that happiness and security is attained not by what we have, but rather by what we do not need to have.

"Why, is it," author, videographer and minister, Rev. Ted Nottingham is asked (in the video below), " (that) after introducing the . . . inner work on one's self and meditation to so many people, do so few actually move forward (on the spiritual path) in a committed, long-term way?" It is, I think, a very good question for all of us in recovery to consider.

"It is so hard to find even those few who are interested in these profound realities," Rev. Nottingham notes, "in part because it requires such change on our part to enter into the wisdom teachings - whatever they may be - from across all great traditions. If one truly discovers the core of their meaning, it has to do with spiritual awakening, spiritual evolution, self-awareness, brutal self-honesty, and an understanding of what it takes to go against the current of one's self."

"(M)ost people . . . drop off very quicky," he observes. "Even to begin with there are so few who are interested in just the general concepts. But then, (even) amongst those (few), there may be an initial excitement, curiousity (or) enticement into the mysteries of the sacred, of a greater conscious, of new understanding, of self-mastery, (and) of understanding others. . . . And, yet, before you know it they just drift back to the old ways."

"Numerous teachers have pointed out that you are worse off having found something and then turned away from it," he notes, "because (then) you can never go back to sleep in quite the same way (and) live as if you hadn't discovered another path."

"It is indeed a great human tragedy," says Nottingham, "to have come close to life transforming teachings that offer the kind of human wholeness and fulfillment, radiance, (and) goodness that they are designed to do, and then to walk away from them and fall back into the dreary egoism and self-absorption that makes life ultimately meaningless."

"Do not leave before the miracle happens," A.A. newcomers are often urged. "It is exceedingly hard," as many old-timers who have 'slipped' point out, "to have a head full of A.A. and a belly full of beer." Yet, there seems to be (as Nottingham points out) an all-too human propensity to fall off the spiritual path once one has had the barest tasting of the spiritual fruits that continuing and advancing on the path will yield. (This, I would note, may be especially true of alcoholic addicts who are, it has been observed, "rebellious by nature.")

"The main reason to those out there who wonder why so few remain consistently (and) focused on these teachings of whatever variety," says Nottingham, "is to recognize that it is part of our human condition, to be so fragile, to be constantly on the edge of just falling off (or) falling back into automatic routines and the easy way."

I am neither Christian, nor am I non-Christian, per se.  Rather, I follow the advice given to me by my late spiritual mentor  to "study all religions until I become able to see the sameness in them all." Or, as Bill W., advised, at page 87 of the Big Book: "Be quick to see where religious people are right. They have much to offer us." )

In that vein, there is a particularly cogent observation of Jesus that so figuratively answers the question of why so many people let up on the spiritual practices that have saved, or can save their lives. That being:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
Matthew 7:13-14

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Suffering and Spiritual Awakening

"As long as we placed self-reliance first, a genuine reliance upon a Higher Power was out of the question. That basic ingredient of all humility, a desire to seek and do God's will, was missing."

"For us, the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievably painful."

". . . In every case (however), pain (has) been the price of admission into a new life. But this admission price has purchased more than we expected. It brought a measure of humility, which we soon discovered to be a healer of pain. We began to fear pain less, and desire humility more than ever."

". . . We saw we needn't always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It  could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering." (Emphasis added.)

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pages 72 & 76

Arctic explorer, Knud Rasmussen, (1879-1933), returned to Europe with stories of the suffering endured by Inuit shamans, the "medicine men" of the High Arctic, in their ritual initiations. One such shaman, Igjugarjuk, told Rasmussen how as a young adolescent he had been taken out on the ice-floes by an elder shaman. There, in the constant dark and cold of a polar winter, he had been left by himself in a snow shelter for forty days with minimal contact in order that he might meditate upon "the Great Spirit," and thereby attain a spiritual awakening.

"Sometimes I died a little," Igjugarjuk said. But, then, he told Rasmussen, "a helping spirit" arrived "in the form of a woman who seemed to hover in the air above (me)." After this, he was taken home by the elder shaman, there to diet and fast for an additional five months under the elder shaman's guidance. Such ordeals, he told Rasmussen, are "the best means of attaining a knowledge of hidden things."

"The only true wisdom," lgjugarjuk said, "lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others."

Najagneq, circa 1922
Another shaman, Najagneq, told Rasmussen of his "venture into the silence," an ordeal in which he met the spirit he called Sila - a spirit, according to Najabneq, that "cannot be explained in so many words." "Sila," he told Rasmussen, is "a very strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact of all life on earth. (A spirit) so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas, or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing."

"When times are good," Najagneq told Rasmussen, "Sila has nothing to say to mankind. He has disappeared into his infinite nothingness and remains away as long as people do not abuse life but have respect for their daily food. No one has ever seen Sila," he said. "His place of sojourn is so mysterious that he is with us and infinitely far away at the same time."

"The inhabitant or soul of the universe," Najagneq said, "is never seen; its voice alone is heard. All we know is that it has a gentle voice, like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot become afraid. And what it says is: 'Sila ersinarsinivdluge,'" i.e., "There is nothing to be afraid of in the universe."
(From Schizophrenia: The Inward Journey, by Joseph Campbell)

The alcoholic addict, in recovery, knows much about suffering - both the untreated suffering of addiction, and the suffering that is frequently endured in sobriety as he or she awakens to to the spiritual power that resides "deep down in every man woman and child." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55.)

"Faith is a dark night for man," St. John of the Cross wrote in The Dark Night of the Soul, "but in this very way it gives him light. . . . Like a blind man he must lean on dark faith, accept it for his guide and light, and rest on nothing of what he understands, tastes, feels, or imagines. . . . To reach the supernatural bounds a person must depart from his natural bounds and leave self far off in respect to his interior and exterior limits in order to mount from a low state to the highest."

"When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or avoid," writes Bill W. (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 53), "we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else he is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice to be?"

Painful as it may be, for every alcoholic addict has a lower or higher pride - be it pride of intellect, pride of independence, pride of person, pride of strength, or even pride of faith - each such person, on attaining true humility, will have passed his or her 'Dark Night of the Soul' and will have attained to a quiet consciousness of the Spirit, or God, that pervades their being and the world around them.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dealing With Anger

"When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically. In dealing with resentments, we set them down on paper. We listed people, institutions or principles with whom we were angry. We asked ourselves why we were angry. In most cases it was found that our self-esteem, our pocketbooks, our personal relationships (including sex) were hurt or threatened. So we were sore. . . . "

"We saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how? . . ."

"This was our course: We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like the symptoms and the way they disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, "This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done."" (Emphasis added.)
 Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 64-67
"You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self . . . to be made new in the attitude of your minds . . . to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore . . . “In your anger do not sin." Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."
Ephesians 4: 22-26
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Resentments are, simply put, thoughts that anger us which we hold onto over time. Thus, in all the world's great wisdom teachings, anger is seen as a base emotion that must be addressed promptly as it separates the person who is angered from Wholeness. 

In Buddhism, anger is seen as one of the "three poisons" that perpetuate the suffering of the unenlightened being. A Chinese proverb observes that "anger is a toxic poison that eats away the vessel which contains it from the inside out." In Christian teachings, anger is seen as one of "the seven deadly sins" - meaning one of the seven ways in which our thoughts are misdirected and harmful. (Thus, we are advised not to "let the sun go down" while we are still angry, for anger held over time becomes deep resentments that separate our being in consciousness from God.) 

In A.A. parlance, "anger" is seen as one of the character defects of the ego which must be removed in order to allay the spiritual malady (i.e., the separation from Wholeness) which lies at the heart of our alcoholic addiction." Thus, we are cautioned (at page 66) in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous that:  
"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 are poison."
But what a subtle, varied, yet powerful, emotion anger is. How deeply held are the "old ideas" that give rise to our anger in the form of resentments; and how powerfully do anger and resentments continue to affect us. "To be angry," observes Rev. Ted Nottingham (in the attached video), "puts us outside of God's will."

"According to the Holy Teachings, not only of (the Christian) religion, but of all Great Teachings, "he points out, "anger is a poison, anger is a lie. Because when we are angry all that we can see is what justifies us. . . . We can only see that little piece that we think allows us to be angry. We'll never give that to the other person who is angry - we'll never justify their anger - but we can always come up with lots of good reasons for (ours). . . . (Yet) suddenly all of our justifications, all of our self-righteousness, all of our bad habits are laid bare (and) shown for what they are."
"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
"Be sure," Rev. Nottingham notes, "that every time you are angry you are turning away from the Holy (and) disabling . . .  Spirit in your life." And this is true, it seems, irrespective of the many variations of anger that may manifest in our consciousness, including (according to Nottingham): "malice, irritability, rejection, resentment, hatred, intimidation, dissatisfaction, complaining, criticizing, condemnation, annoyance, frustration (and) indignation.

"The way we live!" he exclaims. "You can go from first thing in the morning until the last thing at night and (anger) is all you have got. No wonder," he notes, "people can't find God. We are cutting ourselves off. . . . We are supposed to oppose that part of us that is turned away from the will of God."