Search This Blog

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.


  1. I believe my higher power was working in my recovery long before I was aware of having a higher power. My bottom came in a very uneventful way. I was home alone and nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was sittimg on a step in my house and just pondering why I was so miserable, all I wanted to do was die and I knew my husband and kids were just as unhappy as I. All of a suden a thought popped in my head "I think I need to stop drinking and taking all these perscriptions". Such a strange thought for me, one I had never had in my whole life. I did stop and for some reason, I'm sure it was my higher power, because I have no memory of anyone telling me to guard my thoughts...every time I had the slightest thought of drinking or using, I immediately started to do multiplication tables, naming states and their capitols, reciting poetry, any mental activity to block that thought I didn't want. I did this hundreds of times a day in the beginning and it took almost exactly a year for that thought to quit visiting me, but it did. I believe my thoughts are my spiritual estate and I am responsible for every thought I allow in my head and I stay mindful of what I am thinking and that has changed my destiny. I love your blogs, thank you for sharing and Great Big Hugs

    1. That's a spiritual awakening if I've ever heard one, a "brief moment of clarity" that the 'Big Book' describes, an act of grace. Who would've known that God was with us all along, waiting with infinite patience to manifest in our consciousness?

  2. ....I had something of an epiphany while re-reading this...i became aware of just how much i tend to zero in on and dwell upon the negative aspects of people and life in general,which i think is greatly influencing/affecting my overall demeanor and disposition and personality..I've been called a pessimist on numerous occasions,and i've always justified it by telling myself that i was either wiser than them or that they were "in Denial",or both...this must be something i need to work on..

    1. your part of the work is done, you recognized it. now, ask God to remove it. now, continue to watch for this and other defects, when they crop up... (see pg 84, after 9th step promises)