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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spiritual Experience a.k.a Religious Experience

"Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer."

Alcoholics Anonymous, page 87
"The terms "spiritual experience" and "spiritual awakening" are used many times in this book which, upon careful examination, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested among us in many different forms."

"Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous."

". . . Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts. He can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial." (Emphasis added.)
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 567-568

Neither Alcoholics Anonymous nor its sister organizations is "allied with any sect (or) denomination." Indeed, the Foreword to the Second Edition of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1955, makes clear that A.A. at that time in its history included "Catholics, Protestant, Jew, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Moslems and Buddhists." Moreover, the "We Agnostics" chapter is devoted to those who may have no particular faith or belief in "a Power greater than (them)selves," let alone "a God of (their) own understanding." Why, then, in the "Spiritual Experience" Appendix does the 'Big Book' talk of "religious experience"? And, are people that stress that A.A. is "a spiritual not a religious program" wholly right?

The answer to that last question, it seems to me, is both yes and no. While we may respect the validity and usefulness of all creeds and denominations - being "quick to see where religious people are right" - we embrace none in particular. What William James termed "outer religion" -  steeples, bells, incense, liturgies, vestments and ceremonies, etc. - has no part whatsoever to play in A.A. However, what James termed "inner religion" in his masterwork, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (the only outside reference in the 'Big Book'), has everything to do with the spiritual solution which we seek.

Religion - from the Latin re ligare, meaning to 're-tie' or 'reunite' - in its "outer sense" means to tie or unite a group of individuals in a congregation, or communion. In its "inner sense," however, it means to reunite our highest and self-less consciousness with a greater consciousness or Being, perhaps with the "God-consciousness" referenced in the "Spiritual Experience" appendix.

In Eastern traditions, which tend to stress meditation even more so than prayer, the word that is used for this "inner sense" or practice of religion is "yoga." Derived from the same Sanskrit term for the English word "yoke" - i.e., that which ties the ox to the cart - it, too, means to 're-tie' or 'reunite' our deepest consciousness and being with a greater consciousness and Being, itself.  Thus, in A.A., from its very start, individuals have knowingly or unknowingly sought the  inner "religious experience" which is the very same "spiritual experience" (or "spiritual awakening") we are, more or less, comfortable and familiar with
"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:29-30     
Bill W., in his belated correspondence thanking Carl Jung for the unknowing initial impetus he gave to what would become A.A., acknowledged the insights that Jung had passed on to Rowland H., the "certain American business man" whose experience is described at pages 26-28 of the 'Big Book.' Citing the advice Jung gave to Rowland, Bill wrote:
"First of all you told of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. . . . When he then asked you if there was any other hope, you told him there might be, provided he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience - in short, a genuine conversion. "  ("Pass It On," page 382.)
 Bill then told Jung of his own spiritual awakening and those of "many of thousands" other A.A. members. "As you will now see clearly," he wrote, "this astonishing chain of events actually started long ago in your consulting room, and it was directly founded upon your own humility and deep perception. . . . Because of your conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion, and two dollars' worth of chemicals, you have especially endeared yourself to us. . . ."

In response, Jung noted that (at least as it was in Rowland's case) the "craving for alcohol" is "the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval terms: the union with God."

Carl G. Jung
"Jung is considered to be the
first modern psychiatrist to view
the human psyche as"by nature 
religious" and make it the focus 
of exploration." See: wikipedia
"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience," Jung continued, "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. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond mere rationalism."

"Alcohol in Latin is spiritus," he concluded, "and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as you do for the most depraving poison. The helpful formulas therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum."

In a further letter responding to Jung's correspondence, Bill wrote:
"Your observation that drinking motivation often includes that of a quest for spiritual values caught our special interest. I am sure that, on reflection, thousands of our members could testify that this had been true of them, despite the fact that they often drank for oblivion, for grandiosity, and other undesirable emotions. Sometimes, it seems unfortunate that alcohol used in excess, turns out to be a deformer of consciousness, as well as an addictive poison."  ("Pass It On," page 385.)
Additionally, acknowledging the help that many A.A. pioneers had received from reading Jung's "Modern Man in Search of a Soul," he praised Jung's observation that: "(M)ost persons having arrived at age 40 and having acquired no conclusions or faith as to who they were, or where they were, or where they were going next in the cosmos, would be bound to encounter increasing neurotic difficulties; and that this would be likely to occur whether their youthful aspirations for sex union, security, and a satisfactory place in society had been satisfied or not. In short, they could not continue to fly blind toward no destination at all, in a universe seemingly having little purpose or meaning. Neither could any amount of resolution, philosophical speculation, or superficial religious conditioning save them from the dilemma in which they found themselves. So long as they lacked any direct spiritual awakening and therefore awareness, their conflict simply had to increase."

Acknowledging that these views had had "an immense impact" on some early members, Bill acknowledged that "(w)e saw that you had perfectly described the impasse in which we had once been, but from which we had been delivered through our several spiritual awakenings. This 'spiritual experience' had to be our key to survival and growth. We saw that an alcoholic's helplessness could be turned to vital advantage. By the admission of this, he could be deflated at depth, thus fulfilling the first condition of a remotivating conversion experience." ("Pass It On," pages 385-386)

Bill's "conversion experience" is, of course, the same as a "spiritual awakening," as a "spiritual experience," or as a "religious experience." It can be found through "outer" religious practice, but mere religious beliefs, knowledge and/or practice are not necessarily sufficient to bring it about. It must be found "in reality" beyond mere self-consciousness, or ego-consciousness.

Awakenings to  such "higher understanding" or "higher consciousness" (a.k.a. "God-consciousness" as many A.A.'s refer to it) are reported in all religious traditions, but such a "spiritual experience" or "religious experience" is wholly an "inner phenomenon." It is, as it describes, first and foremost experiential. In this sense, and this sense only, the Twelve Steps are indeed, and in fact, just as much a "religious" as a "spiritual" program.

* * * * *

Jung's letter to Bill W., dated January 30, 1961:

Jung died on June 6th, 1961, before he could return Bill W.'s second letter.

* * * * *
"Hear only this through the Holy Spirit within you, and teach your brothers to listen as I am teaching you. When you are tempted by the wrong voice, call on me to remind you how to heal by sharing my decision and MAKING IT STRONGER. As we share this goal, we increase its power to attract the whole Sonship, and to bring it back into the Oneness in which it was created."
"Remember that "yoke" means "join together" and "burden" means message. Let us reconsider the biblical statement "my yoke is easy and my burden light" in this way. Let us join together, for my message is Light. I came to your minds because you had grown vaguely aware of the fact that there is another way, or another voice. Having given this invitation to the Holy Spirit, I could come to provide the model for HOW TO THINK."

"Psychology has become the study of BEHAVIOR, but no-one denies the basic law that behavior is a response to MOTIVATION, and motivation is will. I have enjoined you to behave as I behaved, but we must respond to the same mind to do this. This mind is the Holy Spirit, whose will is for God always. It teaches you how to keep me as the model for your thought, and behave like me as a result."
"The power of our joint motivation is beyond belief, but NOT beyond accomplishment. What we can accomplish together has no limits, because the call for God IS the call to the unlimited. Child of God, my message is for YOU, to hear and give away as you answer the Holy Spirit within you."
From "A Course In Miracles," Chapter V ("The Voice for God")

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Two Different Paths

"More sobriety brought about by the admission of alcoholism and by attendance at a few meetings is very good indeed, but it is bound to be a far cry from permanent sobriety and a contented, useful life."
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 39-40
In writing the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. used much the same method he had used in writing the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. He circulated drafts of the essays to friends and editors for suggestions and critiques, and he then revised the transcript and made certain editorial changes - except, in doing so, this time he was assisted by his nonalcoholic secretary, Nell Wing (see "Pass It On," pp. 354-357). I often wonder, however, if during one of these revisions or transcriptions the words "(m)ore sobriety" leading off the above-quote (from his essay on Step Three) were not changed from "(m)ere sobriety."

Many (and perhaps most) of us have, it seems, suffered from the "mere sobriety" of just not drinking at one point or another in our recovery. Looking back, I spent most of my earliest sobriety in the state of being "stark raving sober," although, of course, I was not aware of it at the time. Indeed, it was not until after I had been institutionalized for the increasing insanity resulting from being "merely sober" that I clued into their being a wholly different and entirely new depth of experience available through the rigorous practice of the Twelve Steps.

As in all spiritual or religious practices and teachings, there are different paths and depths to the practice of the AA program - and different realizations and results to be experienced and achieved. Bill undoubtedly was aware of this, even to the extent that he wondered about the usefulness of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. "At first," he wrote in correspondence dated October 5, 1953, "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," he observed, "the book is being used to good effect even upon newcomers."

The different depths of practice and result are apparent throughout the Twelve and Twelve, although perhaps nowhere more explicitly noted than above (from the Step Three essay),  and in the following observations (at page 98) made in regard to the practice of Step 11:
"There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. 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."
"(M)uch relief and benefit" is, of course, available through prayer, meditation and self-examination, as is "(m)ore sobriety brought about by the admission of alcoholism and attendance at a few meetings." The question thus becomes whether one is satisfied with the mere relief the program provides for the symptoms of active alcoholic addiction, or whether one truly seeks the "new state of consciousness and being" that Bill describes in his Step 12 essay (at page 107). For the mere relief of alcoholic addiction's symptoms (though such relief may well prove to be impermanent) there is one depth to the application of the 12 Steps; for inner transformation, however, a much greater depth must be explored. Such is the nature, per force, of all spiritual teachings.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. "
Matthew 7:13-14
"Buddhas became enlightened because of realizing their essence. Sentient beings became confused because of not realizing their essence. Thus there is one basis or ground, and two different paths. . . . There are two choices, two paths. One is the path of knowing, the wakefulness that knows its own nature. One is the path of unknowing, of not recognizing our own nature, and being caught up in what is being thought of . . . "
(Emphasis added.)
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
"As It Is," vol. II, pp. 43-47
The first step on both paths is to admit our alcoholism. This admission of alcoholism and attendance at a few meetings will lead to "more sobriety," but not necessarily "permanent sobriety and a contented, useful life." Sadly, many, perhaps most (at least for a time), settle for the "mere sobriety" that this gives. No longer in active addiction, their material life usually improves, and they may "settle" for the conventional aspirations that most people embrace as life's purpose - family, making money, success, etc. This is, perhaps, taking the lesser path, or, if you like, going through "the wide gate."

The next step on the inner path, however, is the admission that life was, is and will remain "unmanageable" by one's self-conscious and unaided will, not merely "unmanageable" when one was drinking and/or drugging. With this comes an understanding and - through understanding - a "belief" that there is a power greater than one's "self" or "ego" that will restore the sufferer to the "sanity" (i.e., "wholeness") of one's authentic Being. Such belief turns into a prayer and aspiration to be relieved of "the bondage of self." These are the first tenuous steps that mark the beginning of "the narrow path."

For those who choose or settle for "mere sobriety," Steps Four through Step Nine merely get the heat off them for past misconduct when they were in their active addiction, while Step 10 keeps the heat off. For the spiritual aspirant, though, Steps Four through Nine identify and remove the old "ideas, emotions and attitudes" that separate them in consciousness from their Being, while Step Ten becomes a "continuous" moral inventory, or self-examination, that alerts them when they have once again slipped back into ordinary egoic self-consciousness.

Few are those on "the wide path" who effectively practice Step 11, even those who do meditate and/or pray. For, as Bill notes, above in his Step 11 essay, it is only when we logically interrelate and interweave the practices of "self-examination, meditation, and prayer" that we are afforded, however briefly, spiritual awakening and true insight into the very nature of our Being, call it nirvana, mystic union, samadhi, enlightenment, God's kingdom, or what you will.

It is as a result of the "spiritual awakening" afforded by the inner path that we are enabled to truly and effectively carry the message of Alcoholics Anonymous to the alcoholic who still suffers, rather than merely "suggesting" that he or she "join a group, get a sponsor, go to meetings, and work the 12 Steps" etc. It is only through enlargement of our "new state of consciousness and being" that we enabled "to practice these principles in all our affairs."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Deep Down Within Us

" . . (D)eep down within 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. . . ."

Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55
 * * * * *
"All sentient beings are buddhas,
But they are covered by temporary obscurations.
Hevajra Tantra
* * * * *

"This temporary obscuration is our own thinking, If we didn't already have the buddha nature ("that Great Reality deep down within us") meaning a nature that is identical to that of all awakened ones, no matter how much we try we would never become enlightened." 
. . .  
"Recognize your mind and in the absence of any concrete thing, rest loosely. After a while we again get caught up in thoughts. but by recognizing again and again, we grow ore and more used to the natural state. It's like learning something by heart - after a while, you don't need to think about it. Through this process, our thoughts involvement grows weaker and weaker The gap between thoughts begins to last longer and longer. At a certain point, for half an hour there will be a stretch of no conceptual thought whatsoever, without having to suppress thinking."

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, "As It Is," Vol. II, pp. 48-49

* * * * *

"There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. 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."

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 98

* * * * *
"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Luke 17:20-21

Friday, April 20, 2012

We Atheists

On the night of November 11, 1989, I experienced what many alcoholic addicts describe as "a moment of clarity." Alcohol and drugs had not been working for me the way they used to. They could no longer alleviate the punishing, self-conscious thoughts in my mind, and they only added to the fear and emotional turmoil I was regularly experiencing, particularly when I was "in my cups." Thankfully, I acted upon that brief moment of quiet acceptance and I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous. I had a fixed desire to quit drinking and drugging.

From the start I had great difficulties with the program's spirituality. Raised in a scientific household and community (my father was a nuclear scientist, though my mother was a Christian Scientist), I had no belief in God or a Higher Power. For religion, or religionists, I had no time. Fortunately I quickly got myself a sponsor. I made my first and most crucial mistake in sobriety, however, on that first day we talked (the significance of which will be described below). Knowing me from the time I was out "performing" - his description, not mine - he told me point blank that I would have to take Step Two.

Having been in A.A. a number of weeks before we hooked up, and knowing that this "Power" greater than myself referred to the God of my understanding from Step Three, I asked him what his idea of God was. He told me he viewed God as "Good Orderly Direction," and I adopted this, believing that without the booze and drugs I would sure be able to able to turn around my thinking into some semblance of "Good Orderly Direction." This I tried with a vengeance. I returned to university and then law school, where I graduated at the top of my classes. Surely this was a sign of "Good Orderly Direction?"

Nonetheless, and needless to say, the material success I had in sobriety did not suffice to deepen my spiritual experience, even though I went through the Twelve Steps several times and went to many, many meetings in the first nine years of my sobriety. (I am, I know now, an alcoholic addict that needs more than a handful of meetings a week to maintain my sobriety.)

With life's success taking me to a future I could not have imagined, working long hours as a lawyer at one of Canada's oldest and most reputable law firms in order to support my family and give them the luxuries I thought they wanted and deserved, I turned my back on A.A. I could not imagine taking myself away from my family during the admittedly few family hours my professional responsibilities afforded me. Thus, I made a conscious decision not to attend A.A. in the community we had just moved to. (My second great mistake in A.A.)

For the next 4 and 1/2 years, I held it together as best I could before falling into a profound depression that cost me all that I had worked for, and which nearly cost me my life. In and out of psychiatric wards for the next eighteen months of this tortured sobriety, my life, my family and my career fell apart. All without taking a drink or drugs.

(In his Step Three essay in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. writes: "More sobriety brought about by the admission of alcoholism and attendance at a few meetings is very good indeed, but it is bound to be a far cry from permanent sobriety and a happy and contented life.") (Emphasis added.)

Fortunately, in October of 2003 the best-friend of my first sponsor (who had passed away when I was only 5 years sober) heard I was in trouble and left me a telephone message. I would not return that message until January of 2004 (after a botched suicide attempt), but when I did my sponsor's friend hit the nail on the head: I had become a dry drunk. He took me to an unforgettable A.A. meeting, and forthwith I got a new sponsor and joined a group in the community I was living in, having been separated from my wife and my role as a full-time father

I attended A.A. on a daily basis thereafter. Fourteen-and-a-half years clean and sober, but without a clue as to how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous worked though, as I mentioned, I had gone through the entire Twelve Steps several times in my early, ineffective years in the Fellowship. I had been held back by the prejudice and contempt I had for all matters religious or spiritual.

My new sponsor -  a man who drank at 15 years of sobriety, but had once again reached that threshold - took me through the Steps once more, getting me all the way to Step Seven before he succumbed to cancer. Little did I know that there were other old-timers watching me, and watching me continue to suffer because I did not have a God of my own understanding. (Although I wished to believe in a Higher Power, I could not find one of my own understanding, prejudiced as my thinking was by my understanding of science. I needed a Higher Power that was compatible with what I knew of both psychology and science.)

Fourteen years clean and sober, with my life in shreds and acutely feeling the demise of both my marriage and a brief fling with a very lovely woman, my best A.A. friend and I were out looking for a new apartment for me to live in. On finding and renting the perfect apartment for me, my friend and I went to celebrate by having lunch on a nearby patio. My friend is an interesting and talkative man, so I just listened to him talk as I basked in the incredible feeling of peace, ease of mind and well-being I was enjoying as a result of our morning's work.

Suddenly, however, I stopped listening to my friend and my thoughts turned I know not where, likely to my family or my recent failed relationship. It does not matter, for what I felt as soon as I turned my mind from what my buddy was saying to my own thoughts a wave of great fear washed over me from head to toe. I knew then that my problem was an inside problem, and that the solution to it must somehow also be an inside job.

Several days later, one of the old-timers who had been watching me saw that I was through suffering. (He had been urged by another friend to talk to me, but his reply was, "No. He hasn't done suffering yet.") Approaching me, he offered to lend me a book: Eric Butterworth's "Discover the Power Within You." It was the first book of a spiritual nature (including all the books A.A. had published) that I read with an entirely open mind and new perspective. It was the first book of a spiritual bent in which I did not throw away the 'baby' of those things I could understand and believe with the 'bathwater' of concepts that were beyond my understandings and belief.

A day later, this old-timer and I spent about four hours going through the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous and discussing our mutual experiences. It was not a thorough dissection of the 'Big Book.' Rather, it was an exposition of some of the principle parts of our basic text that I would need to understand if I were to progress spiritually. The main sections he discussed with me were:
  • Page 23: "(T)he main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind
  • Page 55: "We found that Great Reality (i.e., the God of our own understanding) deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that it can be found." 
  • Page 567: "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 that this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. . . . Our more religious members call it God-consciousness." (Emphasis added.)
True sobriety, I was shown, is a matter of replacing the self-conscious stream of thinking in our minds ('self' or the human 'ego') with a greater awareness and higher consciousness - one unaffected by the seeming duality and separateness of the human ego and our ego-centric thinking.

The "first and most significant mistake" I had made so long ago then became clear to me: Instead of asking my first sponsor what God is, I should have asked what "self" is. After all, it was only a Power greater than my "self" that I would need in order to restore me to sanity, not the God of some of the more perverse religious teachings. It is only once we know, understand, address and overcome the workings of the ego/self through meditation and prayer that we can understand God, Allah, Brahman Bhudda-nature, or whatever you may wish to call It. Indeed, I know that it was only then that I, a former atheist, came to believe and then to experience God's presence within and all around me.

Most helpful, was the following passage from the eminent theologian, Paul Tillich, which was included in Butterworths' "Discover the Power Within You." (Tillich was a friend and colleague of Reinhold Niebuhr, the man who wrote our Serenity Prayer.) In a book of his collected sermons, Tillich talks directly to the atheist about the "depths" of his or her being:
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth," Tillich notes. "It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what what they believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth. . . . "

"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being," he continues, "is God. That depth is what the word God means. . . . For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."

[Paul Tillich, "The Shaking of the Foundations," Scribners, pp. 56-57.]

That "depth" is an ever-increasing refinement of  consciousness, a consciousness that is inextricably entwined with all matter. In its purest form it is God. "When we became alcoholics," we read in the 'Big Book,' "crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, 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?" I faced that proposition and came to know that God is, in fact, everything - the manifest and the unmanifested, everything within and everything without all beings and even matter itself.

Having experienced the higher consciousness ( or "God-consciousness") that underlies but is obscured by the ego/self, I came not only to believe, but know, that there is a "Power greater than ourselves" that can restore us to sanity. While I may not understand that higher consciousness in all its facets, I know that it is there at every moment. It is "by self-forgetting" that it is found, and found in the last place most people would think to look for it: "deep down within every man, woman and child."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Escape From the Bondage of Self

To be trapped in the prison-house of the smaller "self" - mired in the incessant stream of involuntary thinking that is the the human "ego" - is to be prey to the full range of destructive emotions such thinking produces. It is to be powerless with seemingly no way out. Unaddressed, the alcoholic addict - "irritable, restless and discontented" unless he or she can can once again experience "the ease and comfort" once afforded by alcohol and/or drugs - is exceedingly prone to seek chemical relief from how he or she is feeling. "Many of us tried to hold onto our ideas" - along with the toxic emotions such ideas produced - "and the result was nil until we let go absolutely."

"The problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind," we read in Alcoholics Anonymous. It is our incessant, involuntary thinking which is the true root of the alcoholic addict's problem. Alcohol and/or drug use is merely the symptom of the problem. While drinking and/or drugging once worked to alleviate "the painful inner dialogue" of the ego, for most alcoholic addicts such fleeting relief was lost long before they sobered up. Hence the need for a "spiritual awakening." It is the resurgent spirit of our higher consciousness that returns the alcoholic addict to sanity as the ego is deflated "at depth."

Self-consciousness, or ego-identification, is of course the bane of every man and woman's existence. The non-alcoholic addict may seek relief from the thoughts and emotions generated by ego-identification in any number of ways - exercise, work, watching t.v., etc. - some of which may conventionally be deemed 'constructive' or others which become obsessive and 'destructive.' For the alcoholic addict, however, the temptation (which may at times of great emotional upheaval seem an imperative) is to return to booze or drugs. After all, at some time in the near or distant past, these once worked and provided, however fleetingly, the relief from acute self-consciousness that was desired. Unlike the means the so-called "normal" person turns to for such ego-relief, however, alcohol and drugs have the power to enslave and kill the alcoholic addict.

To counter the inevitable emotional maelstrom that accompanies one's old ideas and attitudes - our habitual thoughts and way of thinking - the Twelve Steps are designed to foster a spiritual awakening. Describing the effect of the "vital spiritual experiences" that relieve alcoholic addicts of their obsessive, self-conscious thinking and its accompanying emotions, Carl Jung (at page 27 of the 'Big Book') observed: "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." Bill W., at page 107 of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, describes it as "a new state of consciousness and being."

Steps Four through Step Nine are designed to rid us of our old ideas and obsessions, Step Ten is designed to keep new obsessions from arising, while Step 11 is designed to prolong and deepen our experience of God-consciousness.

"There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer," Bill observes. "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." (Twelve and Twelve, page 98.)

* * * * * 
"We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us." 
 Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55.
* * * * *
"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you."
Luke 17:20-21 (Emphasis added.)

* * * * *
"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."
Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 567-568

Thursday, April 12, 2012

H.O.W. It Works

"We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open-mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable."
Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.), page 568
Referencing the above passage taken from the "Spiritual Experience" appendix to the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, the acronym "H.O.W." (as in "H.O.W. It Works") is often cited as representing the three qualities of mind that are necessary prerequisites for effectively working the AA program and, thus, attaining the spiritual awakening that allows the alcoholic addict to recover from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body."

Spirituality, with its ever-deepening understandings,  is by its nature a nuanced phenomenon. There are then, of necessity, both plain and more subtle aspects to all of its dimensions. There are both  conventional and extraordinary, mundane and subtle, layers to all spiritual teachings. To this end, it seems to me that there are both surface and deeper meaning to the requisite qualities of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. And, of course, even beyond these meanings there are undoubtedly evermore deeper meanings to all three qualities, for in working the Twelve Steps, as in all spiritual practices, "more will be revealed."
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
- Matthew 7:13-14
Honesty: At the conventional level, becoming honest means that we do no further harm to others by lying, covering up, taking what does not belong to us and being untruthful etc.. Often referred to as "cash register honesty," this level of truthfulness is necessary in order that we can make an admission of powerlessness over alcohol (and/or drugs) and move forward in working the Twelve Steps. It is particularly important as we undertake our moral inventory which is both a 'fact-finding' and 'fact-facing' exercise that is wholly dependent on the alcoholic addict's being honest about the facts of his or her life.

At a deeper level, however, the requisite honesty requires our facing the illusions and delusions that are at the core of our self-centeredness, or ego-centricity. (The ego, in the sense that it is used here and throughout A.A. literature does not mean 'pride, per se, but rather the false sense of 'self'' that is a construction of our ordinary, worldly consciousness.)

Derived from the Latin honestas, which originally designated a plant with semi-transparent seed pods, honesty means to be "free of deceit and untruthfulness" - in this instance, self-deceit. At page 55 in the 'Big Book,' we are assured that "the fundamental idea of God" is deep down within everyone - man, woman and child - but that it is "obscured" by the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" that are characteristic of most people's ordinary thoughts - i.e., the thought patterns that are characteristic of the human ego, the thought patterns Bill W. called a "painful inner dialogue.". Thus, in this instance, to be honest is to be free from the self-deceit and inherent untruthfulness of our egoic and addictive thought patterns, the fearful thoughts and emotions which block us off from our true inner nature.

In becoming honest and recognizing the "ideas, emotions and attitudes" that habitually veil the divine or spiritual nature of our being, the curtains of "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" are at least temporarily or partially lifted and we can then see and sense the truth of what and who we are. In this sense, we can then truly become "a channel of His peace."

Indeed, in describing the nature of the "spiritual awakenings" that were known to relieve alcoholic addiction, Carl Jung (at page 27 of the 'Big Book') observed that:
"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."
 In this sense, one becomes honest with one's "self."

Open-Mindedness: There are, I have come to realize, at least two facets of being truly open-minded. In the simplest terms, to be open-minded is to be free from the prejudice and contempt we may feel for spiritual and/or religious matters. Most often arising from our skepticism towards religious doctrines or the resentments we hold towards religious institutions, such prejudices (i.e., pre-judgments) must be set aside. Indeed at page 87 in the 'Big Book' we are enjoined to "(be) quick to see where religious people are right."

(In this regard, I note that the very word 'religion' comes from the Latin phrase 're ligare,' which means "to rejoin" or "reunite." In this sense a "religious experience" - as discussed in the second paragraph of the Spiritual Experience appendix - is what reunites the suffering alcoholic addict with the totality of the world and all things, that is God.)

At a deeper level, to be open-minded is to have a clear mind that is free of compulsive thinking and old ideas. In the 'How It Works' reading (from page 55 in the 'Big Book') we are told that many of the early members of A.A. had "tried to hold onto (their) old ideas," but that "the result was nil until they let go absolutely." My experience is that "old ideas" are not only those that I held for years in respect of spiritual, religious and other matters, but they also consist of new ideas that I cannot easily get rid of - thoughts about people, circumstances, ideas and institutions - that occupy my mind unduly.

Like chewing gum, it does not take long for such 'new ideas' to grow old and lose their appeal once I have chewed and ruminated on them for any length of time. Thoughts that frighten me, anger me or provoke envy in me etc., can quickly overwhelm my consciousness, bolstering my ego and separating me from everyone and everything, thereby obscuring that "Great Reality" that exists deep down within (all of) us." Indeed, it is only through the practice of meditation and prayer that we are effectively enabled to rid ourselves of such thoughts, and so improve "our conscious contact" with the God of our own understanding, however we may understand that Being.

Willingness: The conventional meaning of 'willingness,' I believe, is merely the determination to take the steps that others have taken to attain and maintain their sobriety. To this end, the 'How It Works' reading specifically notes that "(i)f you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps." That includes admitting to one's self that you are alcoholic, to believe (or, at least, be willing to believe) that there is a Power greater than one's self which can restore you to sanity, making the decision to turn one's will and one's life over to the Power of the God of your understanding, and then proceeding with the moral inventory and amends making process laid out in the Twelve Steps. Those who are unwilling, are those who do not want what we have, and thus "are not ready" to work the Twelve Steps . . . at least yet. Their sobriety, if any, is typically tenuous, precarious and desperately uncomfortable. They are in real danger.

At a more fundamental level, an act of one's will is a decision to do something, in this instance to live life one's life on a spiritual basis. (At page 83 of the 'Big Book, we read: "The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it." Why? Because life is inherently spiritual. It was the late great spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, who observed: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.") And living one's life on a spiritual basis requires practice - a practice that starts with Step Three.

"Practicing Step Three," we read in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, "is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still locked and closed. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness." This, as above, signifies our decision to take the Twelve Steps in order to walk through that locked door and live a spiritual life.

"Once we have come into agreement with (the steps to be taken)," we read, "it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision," (emphasis added), "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 serenity, courage and wisdom we ask for are only truly available to us when we effect (or re-effect) a conscious contact with the God of our understanding; that is, when we are released from our ordinary ego-consciousnesss, and thus attain our higher God-consciousness. (The human ego is, by its nature, troubled, frightened and lost, the very antithesis to the serenity, courage and wisdom of higher consciousness.) Dissecting the power of this Serenity Prayer, we can observe that:
  • 'Serenity' is the nature of our Being when we shed ordinary, self-consciousness/ego-consciousness and effect a conscious contact with our higher nature - i.e., with God.
  • 'Courage' (from the Latin 'cour,' meaning heart) is to change the only thing we can in any instance - that is, to deepen the level of our consciousness. Symbolically it is to shift the center of our consciousness and thinking from the head/ego and its "painful inner dialogue," to the heart/soul (or deeper seat of consciousness) wherein there is a total acceptance of people, circumstances and the world exactly as they are in this instant of time.
  • 'Wisdom' is to know, from experience, that there are two wholly different realities within us. One is the ego - i.e., the 'self' or 'self-consciousness - which lies at the root cause of our alcoholic addiction, the reality which we sought to escape from through the use of alcohol and/or drugs. The other is our authentic Being, wherein we are wholly at one (i.e., in communion) with God.
In his last public talk, Dr. Bob pointed to the "absolute necessity" of the teachings that he and Bill W. derived from the Beatitudes, First Corinthians 13, and the Book of James. A close reading of the latter identifies the problem of not just alcoholic addicts, but of all men and women: 

"A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8)
  • So long as we respond to life and act on the basis of our egoic, rather than God-conscious, thinking. We are apt to think, say and do almost anything. Our old ego-centric thinking and ideas will always be prone to lead us back into active addiction. Thus, we must be willing to work the Twelve Steps in order to deflate the ego "at depth." Nothing changes - "the result is nil" - unless we let go of our old ideas and our habitual ego-consciousness.
 "Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Wash clean your hands ye sinners. Purify your hearts ye double-minded." (James 4:8)
  • "We found that Great Reality deep down within us," we read at Page 55 of the 'Big Book.' Indeed, we are told, "(i)n the last analysis it is only there it may be found." When we shift from the self-consciousness and egoic thinking of our separated "self" to the essence of our Being, we effect a conscious contact with our Higher Power; that is, God "draws near" to us. 
  • In Steps Four through Step Nine, and again in Step Ten, we face and face down our narrow "self" and, where possible, we right the wrongs which occurred (or occur) as a result of what is really a soul sickness. Figuratively, we 'wash our hands' and 'clean house.'
  • Through prayer and, importantly, through meditation we "purify (our) hearts," letting go of our fear-based egoic consciousness in order to effect God-consciousness. In doing so, we increasingly live a single-minded spiritual life, rather than the unpredictable and injurious life of "the double-minded."
How does it work? It works through "ego-deflation at depth." It works by awakening to the spiritual nature of our Being and the world we live in. It works by turning our will and our lives over ot the care of God as we understand Him. It works by fearlessly facing the proposition that "God is either everything, or He is nothing." God either is, or is not,

What is our choice to be?

It works by trusting God, cleaning house, and helping others . . . . Namaste!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fear and Expectations

Fear - primarily fear that we will lose something we have, or will fail to get something we desire - is "the chief activator" of all our defects of character. Yet, there is nothing objective that we need fear. It is entirely an inner, subjective phenomenon. That is, we are the manufacturers of our own anxieties, oftentimes needless worries that are fueled by the expectations we have about how we, the world, and the people that surround us will perform.

"We expect what we have known," a learned psychiatrist once told me. "And, then, we turn around and fear what we expect." In this way we forge a seemingly hostile world from the potential beauty that surrounds us.

Steps Four through Step Nine are designed to let us look objectively at what has shaped us, at the resentments, fears and sex experiences that have warped our perceptions of the world and its denizens, at the expectations we have formed about how life will necessarily unfold based upon our past experiences, and at how acute self-consciousness and unwarranted fears have crippled us. Armed with insights into what we have thought and done in response to our perceived resentments, fears and sex conduct we are enabled to walk through life on a new basis, correcting our wrongs as they arise when we inevitably fall short of our ideals.

The 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous (at page 75) highlights the experiential change we witness in our attitudes and in our being as our existential fears subside upon completion of the Fifth Step, and as we move forward in our task of clearing away the past's wreckage and drawing nearer to the God of our own understanding:
" . . . (W)e are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall 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.)
No longer, I might add, need we be ruled by the fearful expectations we have built up over time based upon our past lives, particularly our lives in active addiction. Rather, we become inspired by the possibilities inherent in our new lives.

"The great fact," after completing the Steps, "is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God's universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves."
- Alcoholics Anonymous, page 25.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Guilty . . . With An Explanation???

In criminal law, there is no such thing as pleading guilty "with an explanation." One is either innocent or guilty. Yet how often in our thinking do we rationalize or justify past behaviours we are uncomfortable with by saying: "Yes, I did that, but I was justified in my actions"? Indeed, it is for this reason that we read in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (at page 90) that anger - even so-called "justified" anger - "ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it."

We know that our resentments (i.e.,  the built-up or sustained anger which we hold over time), quite literally, have the power to kill us. And, as it is with anger, so too it is with guilt, shame and remorse, etc. If we do not face and deal with the residual feelings of guilt, shame and remorse which we feel for our past and/or current actions, these too have the power to drive the alcoholic addict back to booze and or drugs. Unremedied guilt, like "justified anger," is thus an ego-feeding proposition, a "dubious luxury" that we can no longer afford.

Guilt is essentially an unexpressed fear that our past behaviours will be revealed for all to see, and that named or unnamed "others" will judge us by (and reject us for) such past actions - many of which (at least initially) were taken when we were in the grips of our addiction. Thankfully, in Steps Four through Step Nine we are enabled to face and address past actions that now produce such fears of discovery. And, in Step Ten, we are enabled to proactively face and make amends for any present missteps that could later develop into powerful and dangerous guilt complexes.

By admitting and making amends for our past and current misbehaviour, we rob the ego - that "punishing inner dialogue" which Bill W. so ably describes in the Twelve & Twelve - of much of the raw fuel which it consumes in order to hold sway over us.

The "spiritual awakening" which we seek in order to relieve us of our alcoholic addiction is essentially a matter of consciousness, a matter of slipping the bonds of our limited self or egoic-consciousness in order to effect an inner "God-consciousness"  - i.e., a "conscious contact" with the God of our understanding: see the "Spiritual Experience" appendix at pages 567-568 in the 4th Editions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thus, in the Third Step Prayer, set out at page 63 of the "Big Book," we pray to be relieved of the powerful and dangerous "bondage of self."

In criminal law, the defendant who elects to plead guilty must do so without reservations or explanations, no matter how powerful they may be. There is no such plea of "guilty with an explanation." It is only in the sentencing phase of the trial, after wrongdoing has been established by his or her admission of guilt, that the defendant may address such factors that may (or may not) mitigate or explain the wrong committed.

So, too, in the case of the alcoholic addict an admission of our wrong thinking and wrongdoings must precede the amends we make and the redemption we seek; for it is through the admission of our wrongs in our initial and continuing moral inventories, and in making amends for such wrongs where possible (i.e., when doing so does not harm others), that we address the root cause, rather than the symptoms, of our alcoholic addiction - the acute self-consciousness and ego-centric thinking we had seemingly escaped from by using booze and/or drugs.

We must freely admit our wrongdoings and then make amends for them, where possible, if we are to overcome the powerful grip of the human ego, a grip that is only strengthened by the feelings of guilt, shame and remorse that we continue to harbour. Like anger, such powerful feelings are best left to those "better qualified" to handle them, for unresolved they are likely to lead us back into the throes of our active addiction, or worse.

Thus, it is by facing and making amends for our wrong actions, rather than by trying to explain away (mostly to ourselves) the guilt and shame we feel in light of such actions, that we are freed from "the wreckage of our past." It is by doing so that we are cut loose from (or, at least, we loosen) the ties of our "old ideas, emotions and attitudes," the mental constructs which seemingly grip us so irrevocably in the throes of our egoic, smaller selves. And, it is by doing so, that we finally awaken to at least the possibility of our emergence into what Bill W. so aptly described as "the sunlight of the Spirit."

If we balk from examining our resentments, fears and conduct, we will inevitably remain in the sway of our own unremedied self, and it will be this smaller self (i.e., the false self of the human ego) that will continue to act as our prosecutor, judge, jury, jailer and (potentially) executor.