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Friday, October 5, 2012

Thoughts, Character Defects, and Awakening

Consider, if you will, the following short, succinct, yet powerful statements taken from different sections of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, reshuffled and juxtaposed in a different order. Together, I believe, they set out the primarily 'mental aspect' of alcoholism, as well as a good description of the 'nature' of the inner spiritual transformation which can effect a recovery from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body":
"(T)he main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body. . . . Many of us tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely. . . . The actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. . . . At certain times (he) has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense.
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 23, 58 and 43.
"(However), once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. . . . Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. . . . 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'. . . . (The alcoholic's) defense must come from a Higher Power."
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 27, 567-568 and 43.
In "The Iron Lady", the recent movie which chronicles the life of Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister cautions her advisers: "Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habit. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."

See: "As a Man Thinketh", a book
used to good effect by many early
A.A. members.

I've seen this quote, which is probably anonymous, attributed to every one from Dr. Seuss, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Lau Tze. Regardless of its origins, however, it points to a universal truth: "As a man thinketh, so he is." This spiritual truism that our thought life eventually becomes our character and destiny is particularly apt, it seems to me, for the alcoholic addict in recovery.

A man who continually thinks angry and volatile thoughts becomes an irritable and angry man. A man who continually thinks about how he is perceived by others becomes either a shy man or a vain man. A man who continually thinks about alcohol becomes, and remains unless his thoughts and character change, a drunken man. Thus, the necessity for a spiritual awakening in which our habitual "ideas, emotions, and attitudes" are cast to one side.

Such a change in thoughts, words, actions, habits, and character are absolutely necessary if we are to "trudge the road of Happy Destiny" in recovery. And, the key lies in letting go of our "old ideas," for they shape our 'attitudes' (that is, our 'habitual ways of thinking') and produce the resulting emotions which only serve to reinforce and perpetuate our old thought patterns.

Just as over time a path is worn into the shortest route across a field by people crossing and re-crossing it, so, too, are paths or grooves worn into our consciousness by the continual movement of our thoughts in certain habitual directions - towards ongoing resentments, towards judgement of others, towards our fears, towards specific episodes of the past that fill us with guilt and remorse, and so on. Habitually, we let our thoughts roll down these mental grooves unchecked, not even noticing what we are thinking until suddenly - or so it seems - we are upset, our pride is wounded, we are filed with spite, envy or anger, etc., etc., etc.

Various religions and wisdom traditions have different names for these 'mental grooves': Buddhism calls them 'obscurations', Islam calls them 'veils' or 'nafs', the Hindu Vedanta calls them 'skhandas', Christianity 'sins' or even 'demons.' In Alcoholics Anonymous (and its sister organizations) we call them 'defects of character' or 'shortcomings' and we pray (and work) to have them removed. For virtually everyone, alcoholic addict and so-called 'normal people' alike, confronting and overcoming damaging thought patterns (or attitudes) - i.e., character-building - is a lifetime work which must start with developing an inner awareness of just what it is we are thinking at any moment.

A metaphor that is shared by many traditions is that of a poisonous snake. If you are in a hut and you see a poisonous snake beginning to slither its way through a hole in the wall, you are advised to pick up a hoe and hack off the snake's head before it makes it all the way into your hut where it can harm or kill you. In just the same way, we need to be alert and aware of the first thought or "old idea" that sweeps us down the stream of consciousness, goading us to say things and do things that are harmful to ourselves and those around us.

When I was new to recovery old-timers would point out, "If you are hit by a train, it isn't the caboose that kills you." So, too, it is not the last drink of a spree, but the first drink that starts it. And, so too, it is not the last thought ("Arggh! I need a drink!") but the first of a series of thoughts - a powerful thought-stream that quite often is at first wholly unrelated to drinking - that sets the ball rolling. (See the story of "Jim" in the 'Big Book'  at pages 35-37, and how he felt irritated at the thought he worked at a car dealership he once owned, how he thought he'd just go for a drive in the country, and how, suddenly and unexpectedly he began drinking even though he knew the certain consequences drinking held for him.)

"The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power." (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 43.)

In order to ready that defense which will inevitably be needed sooner or later, in order to access a Power that is greater than our limited selves, and in order to awaken and remain awake spiritually, it is necessary that we do the 12 Steps and, thereafter, continue to nourish our growth in Spirit by the habitual practice of self-examination, meditation and prayer.

Self-examination consists of being aware of what we are thinking at any given time, and quickly realizing when we are being swept down the rusting tracks of old thought-patterns by the powerful train of our old ideas and attitudes. It is the recognition that 'the poisonous snake' of our ego-centric, self-centered thinking, as in the metaphor above, is once again slithering through the hole.

Prayer is the affirmation and invocation of our Higher Power, the God of our own understanding, the Great Reality deep down with us, that allows us to lay aside our thinking. ("Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.") It is our picking up the hoe and hacking the head off the snake of egoic thinking.

Meditation is sitting in the quiet awareness of our being and that Power within us which is greater than the small 'self' of ego. It is practicing and nourishing the clarity of a mind that is truly awake, recharging the inner vitality for the efforts of vigilance we will need throughout the day if our innermost 'hut' is to be free of 'snakes' and other dangers.

In this way, we watch our thoughts so that our words and actions increasingly conform to God's will for us, so that our habits of thought forge a new character as our old character defects are removed, so that our lives are changed (inwardly and outwardly) as we "trudge" the road to our destiny.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beyond Our Many 'Selves' . . .

"More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputa­tion, but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it."
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 73
In active addiction, the alcoholic addict is forced of necessity to play an outward role that is designed, it is hoped, to cover his or her affliction. Meanwhile, inside all is turmoil, leading him or her on to drink or drug again in order to alleviate the feelings (and the suffering) such inner turmoil creates. Then, in the earliest days of recovery, this difficult and painful acting role continues.

The alcoholic addict in recovery tries to maintain his or her outward facade without the relief from the racing mind - and the resulting overwhelming emotions - that booze and/or drugs had once provided. Unless he or she does something to be rid of the discomfort and pain created by trying to present one coherent persona to the world while inside a hundred different 'selves' manifest themselves - the angry 'self', the shameful 'self', the remorseful 'self', the indignant 'self', the smug and superior 'self', etc. - there is a distinct probability he or she will return to the chemical 'pain-killers' that seemed to have worked at one point to relieve such psychic pain.

Of course, this dilemma of being "an actor" is not unique to the alcoholic addict. "Most people," we know, "try to live by self-propulsion" and "(e)ach person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show." ('Big Book', page 60.) Yet alcoholic addicts are, perhaps, 'terminally unique' in that quite often they will turn back once again to using the alcohol and/or drugs that have exacerbated and intensified the sense of duality, emptiness and incompleteness caused by the fractured psyche that virtually everyone suffers from. And, due to the progressive and potentially fatal nature of this vicious cycle, they risk their very lives in an attempt to escape from the intensified feelings that the many 'selves' of their particularly fractured psyches generate.

"If when you honestly want to, you find that you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little or no control over the amount you take, you may be suffering from an illness," we read, "which only a spiritual experience will conquer." The work that is suggested in A.A. and its sister organizations - i.e., actually doing and thereafter practicing the 12 Steps - like the work suggested by all of the world's great religions and wisdom traditions, are intended to enable the individual to have just such a "spiritual experience." (Spiritual and/or religious beliefs, faith and knowledge are all well and good, but without the integrating experience resulting from following one of the various spiritual paths that are now so readily available to all, such beliefs, faith and knowledge avail the individual but little.)

"(The alcoholic's) thirst for alcohol," Carl Jung pointed out, "(is) on a low level the thirst of our being for wholeness, in medieval language: union with God." (See post:"Jung-Wilson Correspondence")

Such "wholeness" requires that we "uncover, discover and discard" (to use a favourite turn of phrase employed by a beloved and wizened old-timer) the many false "selves" which separates us from our true being, from our innermost real Self, from "the God of our own (experiential) understanding."

Consider the following excerpt of an article discussing the fractured nature of the human psyche by spiritual teacher and author, Ted Nottingham.
"We are not one person. There is no "I am," but many "I's" coming from numerous places within us. There is the "I" who is in command when it is hungry. There is the "I" who is in a bad mood, there is the "I" that loves to read poetry, and on and on. . . . In (our accustomed state), we just assume that we always act as the same person. Inner knowledge tells us that we are made up of many disconnected, fragmentary facets without unity. When such information is verified, then a presence besides those many "I's" is also present. You can no longer fall entirely for the illusion of unity. . . ."
"It is no small thing to begin to see who we are. It will impact our whole life. We are not one, but many. The aim is to become one, the true one behind the many "I's". The mysterious metaphor "man is legion" refers to the multi-faceted being that we are in our separation from the unifying Source. Part of our inner work, then, is to develop an awareness of the feeling of "I" in the moment. Such an effort will allow us not to be that fragmentary self claiming to be our whole identity. Any change in the sense of "I" will also transform the world around us. . . . "
"We generally encounter the world as an egotistical bundle of personal reactions and that is the cause of so much of our unnecessary unhappiness. We must develop a feeling of "I" that is different from the one we have now. We all have the experience of constant chatter in our heads. We are always thinking something, responding to something, imagining something. We say "I" to each activity in our mind: "I hate this . . . I am this . . . I want this." But this flood of constant response and talk in our brain is nothing more than life acting on our personality and our personality responding to it. We can form in ourselves, in our own psychology, a little bit of awareness that can stand back from that torrent of thought and activity and simply see -- without response to it, without judgement or justification."
". . . (W)hat we are not conscious of will control us. When we are completely caught up in our ordinary sense of self, there is no chance of change. We are convinced that we are right, we take for granted that this is who we are. We don't create that inner space which allows a new evolution to take place. So long as we take ourselves as one person, we cannot move from where we are."
"As you begin to distance yourself from this inner ocean, you will be able to observe parts of yourself that we are calling I's which are not only contradictory but entirely foreign to what you really care about. For instance, you can be a religious person as well as the very opposite. In order to strengthen the part of yourself that wants to be a spiritual person over against the part that couldn't care less, one has to intentionally give power to those I's that will do the work of spiritual evolution and remove power from those that will not. This requires serious personal separation. As things are now, all of these I's claim to be yourself whenever they appear."
"When you make that space -- which is the detachment of the mystic -- and you see these armies of light and darkness inside, then you know where the battle must take place. You will also see that the army of darkness is much bigger than the one of light, those I's that wish to love God and the universe and transcend their selfishness. Over against them is this horde of barbarians that are only interested in being comfortable and satisfying their desires."
". . . (N)othing can change in us if we identify with all our I's. The whole point is to discover that we are not all that inner traffic. This insight gives us independence from the external world. This is a fundamental aspect of spiritual maturity and freedom. If we look at the teachers of humanity, they were independent of the forces around them. They were truly themselves and able to act in the world regardless of surrounding influences. That is one characteristic of higher consciousness."
Can anyone relate to that? Does the alcoholic addict in recovery, at least initially, not suffer, and suffer greatly, from "all that inner traffic?" Bill W. called this ceaseless chatter of our many lesser 'selves' (the raucous vying for attention of what Nottingham identifies as our multiple "I's") a "painful inner dialogue" and "terrifying ghosts." Until we face, face down, and are freed from identification with these many 'selves' true recovery, sanity, and spiritual transformation will be illusive at best.

Fortunately, there are many paths and practices - including, and in addition to, the 12 Steps - which will lead us experientially through and beyond our many 'selves' to "a new state of  consciousness and being."
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[Note: Ted Nottingham is a prolific author and spiritual teacher who facilitates an ongoing, online course on "The Practice of Spiritual Awakening" at]