If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all. By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.” No, no, no! That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.
Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.
By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged. I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.
Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises! Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them. I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.
For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back. Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.
Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.
And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you. You’re an annoyance to everyone. Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.” Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in. Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.
Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year. This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.
And yet… and yet… addiction was with me. I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually. But my knee did not. One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin. “Take it!” said my addict. “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!” I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain! It’s right there – no more pain! Much-needed sleep! Just take it!”
Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by. I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016. He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.
Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith. That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.
I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!
We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.
— Alcoholics Anonymous
Saints are supposedly perfect people, whereas mystics are visibly imperfect people who have been convicted by moments of very real divine union.
— Richard Rohr
Put even more briefly, saints embody goodness while mystics embody love.
— Carl McColman
Alcoholics who merely stop drinking without drastically changing their approach to life remain ill and, consciously or unconsciously, suffer. All the emotional dysfunction that spurred them to seek relief through alcohol persists; only their fix is gone. They live “dry” rather than sober, inflicting pain on those around them as they vent pent-up frustration, some a little at a time and some in binges, just as they drank.
Pride blocks the dry alcoholic from true recovery.
A truly recovering alcoholic experiences a “psychic change.” As Carl Jung described the shift, “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.” Dude was right! Ideas, emotions, and attitudes — completely switched.
The 12 steps, worked with a good sponsor, transform all three. During steps 1-6, we let go self-centered ideas about our place in the world and how it ought to work; emotions of anger, shame, and envy; attitudes of victimhood and arrogance. In steps 7-12, a new set of conceptions begin to develop — because our vision has cleared! Somewhere in the mix will be new ideas of what god-reliance means, new emotions of gratitude and unconditional love, and new attitudes usefulness and even — on our best days — humility!
In my own sobriety, I go through dry periods when I “forget” the way of life AA has taught me. I start to imagine I have some power and the right to feel a bit prideful until, without realizing it, I’m navigating based on projections about how others perceive me. My pride is effectively running the show.
Here’s the cool thing about psychic change, though: it’s not kick or phase. It comes with its own safety-catch, because shit always hits the fan. And thank goodness it does, because when a big chunk smacks me, I don’t puff up my pride to chest-bump against reality. Rather, I fold — and fast! I surrender with a prayer like this: “I don’t know what’s going on, but I trust you. I thought I knew stuff, but it looks like I was wrong. Please guide me.”
Just one prayer lets me see that my whole arsenal of I-know-best weapons was made of sand. All slips away and I remember that I have no power in this life but to love. None.
Mysticism sounds like a remote, woo-woo concept. It ain’t. According to Merriam Webster, all it refers to is a “direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality [that] can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight).”
Historically, mysticism has acquired a shitty name from various religions. It’s easy to see why. Direct knowledge of god cuts out the middleman — the church, temple, or mosque — so many religious authorities have safeguarded their bread and butter by denouncing it as a dark, occult practice. “What?! Seek God yourself, from your own heart on your own individual path? What if it’s Satan yer talking to?”
Today, widespread mysticism is, I feel, the only thing that can save humanity — not from damnation, but from irretrievably defiling our planet. Religion has posed a stumbling block for scientifically educated people in recent centuries: distaste for religious dogma translates to distaste for god. Today, ego (god’s antithesis) rules at the societal, economic, and political levels. Results include climate change, oceans choking in plastic, and an entire countryside soaked in cancer-causing glyphosate, to name just a few. If this isn’t an apocalypse, I don’t know what is.
God itself is about only love — simple, direct, and freeing. NDErs from all walks of life encounter the same force on the other side: overwhelming love, a love so omnipresent that, like the brilliance of the divine Light, it erases petty differences, competition, all the conflicts and cross-purposes of ego. God envelops us because we ARE god. God rejoices when we are loving and is pained whenever, in even the smallest ways, we harm self or others.
Religion, by contrast, if chock full of human pride and ego. A jealous or vengeful God? A God who plays favorites? Rewards an “elect” of saved cool cats? Gross! And yet, these depictions taint the idea of god for billions of people.
A dry alcoholic friend of mine who swears by evangelist Joel Osteen had me listen to some YouTube sermons that, for me, epitomized religious pride and ego. From a huge stage in his Houston megachurch, Osteen tells many thousands of followers, “What God has in store for you is going to amaze you! The people He’s going to bring across your path, the influence He’s going to give you!… You are not working to get victory, you are working from victory. When you know that you’ve already won, there’s a rest. You know the outcome…God said, he always causes you to triumph….”
Osteen’s message is clearly that if we kiss god’s ass enough, we’ll win! We’ll get a leg up over all those other bastards and one day they’ll have to eat our dust in the wake of our victory! Hey, it’s sure worked for Joel! My poor friend, by contrast, is constantly deciding God must hate him.
Nothing could be further from the god I know. And no venue could be further from the humble approach of mysticism: simply disregarding our thoughts (“be still”) and opening our hearts (“and know”) to god from the privacy of our own homes. (Yes, the bible has some good lines!) Meditation and prayer. Step 11.
Pride builds a wall around us, inside which we languish awaiting our day of “victory.” Seeking god opens the door to joy right here, right now — the simple freedom to love and be loved.
PS: In TOTALLY unrelated news (except maybe that it involves humility while livin’ large & sober 😀 ), friends & I attempted 14,410′ Mount Rainier last weekend but had to turn back just 1,200 feet from the summit due to delays and high winds. Short movie account here: https://youtu.be/g8OSqqjcoJ0
Everyone had given up on David Morris. At 45, he lived only for cocaine, and nothing was going to change that. His family once intervened and sent him to a 30-day treatment, all of them so happy and hopeful when he graduated! But then he used again, immediately hopeless as ever. When his brother opened his home to David and gave him a job with his business, David took him up on the offer and managed to stay clean for two months. Family and friends’ hopes were raised: surely this time David was on his feet! But then he used again was back to his old ways.
What ways? Living in his mom’s house and employed in a family business, David’s life had shrunk down to nothing but cocaine. “In those final months, I had to be high all the time. My only concern was to get cocaine, get back to my room, and just be high. I’d stay awake most of the night doing coke, sleep a couple hours, wake up and get high to go to work, and then buy more on my way home — over and over and over.”
This went on until David died — probably from a heart attack brought on by overdose.
“I’d brought home an 8-ball. Every time I got high, I got extremely paranoid. That evening, after I’d done not quite half, I felt sure the police were hiding in my closet. I could see the walls around my second story windows begin to crack and bulge, the cracks spreading, and I knew they were going to bust in and take my drugs.
“So I did everything I had — another two grams, which was an extreme amount. I didn’t mean to die. I just didn’t want anyone else to get my drugs! Then I felt myself fading, and I fell onto my bed.”
That should be the end of the story — but it’s not. Today David has 12 years clean and sober, lives a life filled with joy and relationships, and knows to his core that he will never use or drink again — all thanks to his experience on the other side of death.
“My spirit, my essence, rose up out of my body, and I could see my body lying on the bed. From there I moved very fast downward into a deep, total darkness. I felt shocked, frightened, confused, until I came to a place with an enormous stone slab. And lying on that slab was my lifeless body. I went into a panic; I had no idea what was going on. I, my essence, could move about, but that body was not going to move.
“I can tell you, if I had stayed there, this story would be very different. But I made a choice — a choice that I did not want this, that I hadn’t lived as I wished to. And with that, I began to hear distant voices calling to me, trying to guide me. Later on, after the experience, I recognized them as the voices of loved ones who had passed. But at the time, I just knew I wanted to get closer to them.
“They guided me up from the darkness, until away in the distance, I could see the light coming toward me — or me toward it. The light grew and grew until I was engulfed in its presence. Everything became perfect. The light, as so many have said, is beyond description, beyond words — that totality of bliss.
“In the presence of this cleansing of the light, everything happened in telepathy. And the biggest gift conveyed to me by that presence was the message to just love. That’s it! The most divine intervention that could possibly have happened – for me and to me. That gift and so many others came to me in the light’s presence.
“But as beautiful and blissful as it was there, I knew I wanted to come back – and I very strongly asked to do so. I didn’t want to leave this life the way I was leaving it. And then I knew the light was going to allow me to come back.
“Meanwhile on this plane, my aunt, who lived downstairs with my mother, heard whatever commotion my body made upstairs – a seizure, I don’t know – and called 911. My first memory is of being put in an ambulance outside the house. I remember a moment or two in the ambulance, then waking up in the hospital.
“The E.R. doctors told my aunt they had no medical explanation for why I’d survived. My heart rate, blood pressure, other complications when I arrived should have killed me. But later that day, I was sent home. My sister, with whom I’d always been close, was visiting that weekend. She told me, ‘I’m done. I’ll pray for you. Goodbye.’ And she left.
“I’ve never again had the urge to get high. For so many years, I’d struggled, unable to stay clean for even a day. When I first came back, I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I knew — I knew I wasn’t a drug addict anymore.
“I didn’t know anything about Near Death Experiences. I was so eager to understand what had happened to me, I read tons of books, one after another.” The first of these was Lessons from the Light by Kenneth Ring. “These NDErs’ stories were so similar to mine, and the after-effects of ways I was seeing things – all in that book! So that started to bring some clarity. Roughly two and a half months after my NDE, on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to give my sister call, not to ask forgiveness, but to let her know, however long it took for her to heal was okay. We cried together, and our healing process began. Our bond today is as strong as ever.
“Really, though, for the first five years, it was just me and God. Nothing could touch me, I was flying. I did go to Narcotics Anonymous, not to stay clean myself, because I was done, but to help other addicts. I made a lot of friends I still have today. Since then, I’ve ventured into other areas of spirituality. In my meditations, I’ve extended my own personal adventures with God, in my own ways, just sitting in my chair.”
David eventually Googled Near Death Experiences and found the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), which is how I met him. The two of us will sit on a panel about NDEs and addiction at the next IANDS conference in Philadelphia. Our stories differ markedly in that I, at age 22 when I had my NDE, so strongly embraced atheism and was so far from hitting bottom that I chose to deny I’d crossed over. I needed a series of 14 paranormal events in conjunction with AA spirituality to finally open my heart fully to the reality of god, my guardian angel, and the other side.
Key to most NDErs is the distinction between the anthropomorphic God suggested by various religions and the pure, good, overwhelming energy of the light. The light is love, intelligence, and power beyond our capacity to understand — though it knows and loves us perfectly because we are extensions of it — light sparks embodied in matter. The key to living that the light passed to David — just love — now orients his every thought and has transformed his life into something beautiful.
“Naturally, today I have no fear of death. All the physical and material things most people place so much importance on, finances, wealth – they don’t matter much to me. I really have no needs. I have no wants. I have nothing to achieve. I’ve become as light as a feather!”
David walks this talk every day. As soon as he learned through a CC on an email to conference officials that I wanted to go to the four-day Philadelphia conference but couldn’t afford it, he called me. Knowing nothing about me, he offered space in the Air B&B he’d reserved for his family and said he’d be happy to drive me to and from the airport. So I’ve coughed up the airfare, and, thanks to David’s kindness, I’ll attend at the end of August. I also interviewed him for the Seattle IANDS newsletter.
“I’m completely free with myself,” says David. “I’ll share anything other people want to know and I don’t really care what they think of me – good or bad. I love – really LOVE – being me! I share from my heart, and they can do with it what they want. I’ve become so much about the moment – I’m not about the past or future. The most profound learning of my NDE that has stayed strongest with me, the direction that will never leave my heart, is to just love.”
“One of the most beautiful suggestions I can offer someone who is struggling is to sit still. I don’t mean sit still for half an hour a day. I mean to sit still in life. I spent six months after [a romantic] relationship ended just going to work and suffering, because a big piece of my soul was missing – but sitting still in that suffering. It was a beautiful experience, and it gradually eased.” David feels it’s the flight from pain, not pain itself, that drives many to seek relief through alcohol and drugs.
“Those little 12-step clichés: Surrender – a single word that is so profound, so simple, but not easy. Let Go and Let God — if you could see the simplicity of those five words, you’d see how grand life is, and you’d be free to sit and watch life… caring for life.”
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from David’s story is that the god of our understanding will relieve not only our addictions but our pain, sense of helplessness or victimhood, and whatever else ails us if we seek it earnestly. For those of us who’ve lived locked up in a prison of ego and fear for many years, learning how to just love as a way of consciousness may come slowly. But if we practice it consciously in meditation and throughout our days, it will come.
I’m going to venture out on a limb here to give you the closest description I can offer of my own experience of living in just love. When you were a child, maybe 3 to 5, you still carried a basic faith that the world was fundamentally good — which it is. When I am living in just love, I see again through those eyes. You might think of the children’s book Goodnight Moon; I live in that sort of world, one where I extend a loving relationship even toward trees and inanimate objects. I experience every person as if they, too, were a tender 3 to 5-year-old underneath their slick, thorny defenses, and I dare to love them for it.
Just love. The light will flow through you, healing all that ails.
https://www.nderf.org/index.htm – Near Death Research Foundation
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1642931594 – Tricia Barker’s new NDE book
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyIstVbBhilo1gdUmazkReQ – Tricia Barker’s Youtube interviews w NDErs
Consciousness Continues – Documentary featuring me (Louisa) sharing a bit of my NDE – rent on Amazon for $1.99
Going to work the other day, I got what I call a god-burst. I was riding my bike, coasting down my street on a sunny spring morning. The cherry trees were in bloom, big puffy dusters of sweet color, and the breeze was scattering their blossoms like confetti. For some reason, I could see god’s love in the way that every distinct petal danced through the air. Each was looping, twirling this way and that in the sunlight, and I got to glide through them.
I felt, Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I sensed a joy answering from god — god’s joy that I was joyful. I felt with god in my love of living, in my delight at the happening of each instant.
As I rode further, along the treesy waterside bike trail, I looked into the faces of each pedestrian I passed. What did I see? Scowls. Sour petulance. Shock that someone had dared smile at them and even greet them with “Good morning!” But every now and then someone would meet my eyes – their face transforming like a flower blooming. “Hey!” they might say back.
They had love to offer.
Have you ever worked hard to create a celebration for a kid you love? Made them a fancy cake? Set up a treasure hunt? Given a gift you made yourself or at least picked out with care and wrapped up with bows and ribbons? How would you feel if the child responded with scowls? With petulance? What if they unfolded the first clue of their treasure hunt and wailed, “What? I have to go look for something big and red? And then all I get is another stupid clue? I want my TREASURE!!! NOW!!”
Or what if they opened your gift and wailed, “I want a bigger one!”
That’s pretty much how god must feel, I think.
Some people are possessed by greed. I recently talked with a young man who “lived
outside” — as he described his homelessness — about his pity for billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk: “It’s never enough. They need more, more, always more — it eats away at them. You’ve gotta wonder what happened to them in childhood that they have this addiction that drives their whole life. They’re no different from the homeless friends I see wrecking their progress over and over with drug addiction or self-sabotage — just the other extreme of the spectrum.”
This young man, by contrast, seemed more content than most “homed people,” as he called us. In his small, tidy pack he carried a mini-laptop. He explained that he’d found part-time work at a local stadium that paid for his food and clothes — just not enough for rent. He was clean; he knew where to get showers and do laundry. As we talked, he was enjoying a latte at a table neighboring mine. But the main things I noticed about him were his easy laugh and his sincere compassion for those suffering from what he termed “more addiction.”
Greed stalks us all, to an extent.
Have you ever watched the documentary Happy? Guess who’s one of the happiest people interviewed in that film? A rickshaw driver in Calcutta whose home is mostly tarps. Sure, he doesn’t like it when passengers spit on him as he hauls them through the busy streets, but that rarely happens. Part of his joy undoubtedly stems from the fact that he’s never perused an issue of Vogue or Esquire. He’s filled with gratitude to god that he can provide for his healthy children.
Filled with gratitude.
The sour-faced people I passed on my bike that day appeared starving for gratitude. I can’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I can theorize.
Their god is either absent or an asshole. They don’t even see the countless gifts showered on them in this brief carnival of life. They’re taking for granted all the cake and presents, griping at the effort of the treasure hunt steps. To be happy requires, among other things, that we stop comparing, that we actively set aside the ridiculous and relentless marketing culture that pervades our every societal experience. From TV & movies to magazines & billboards and by practically everything we view online, we are told that we lack.
Many alcoholics, I think, drink to escape this constant more addiction, with its flip side, Not Enoughness. Though it’s been 24 years since my last drink, I remember what used to happen when I’d enter a bar. The more I drank, the more okay everything got. My barstool became a perfectly okay place to be. Wherever I was in life — whatever I’d done or not done — became okay. I could stop all the striving, comparing, and self-critiquing. I could just be.
How ironic is it that my higher power now gives me all I once tried to suck from alcohol — but as spiritual food instead of poison? When I thank god for every funky little detail of my endlessly convoluted circumstances right now, I am living as an extension, an expression of god — and in that sense I am perfect. God has slowly, slowly weaned me from a mindset of constant neediness and taught me to go in whole hog for the delight of little things.
The straight-up joy I experienced riding my bike the other day was ten times anything I ever got from booze or coke or some whoopee party. It germinates from understanding that I GET to be here on earth. Taking shit for granted is both seed and symptom of the atheist’s blindness to god. If you truly thought about the miracle of your body, of your cat’s body, of our cycling oceans or friggin’ photosynthesis, you’d be rejoicing all day long.
God is good. Good is god.
And if god could say just one thing to you right now, it would be this: Choose joy.
Hi guys –
A new-to-sobriety friend suggested I try making a vlog (video blog) – so I recorded this. Don’t worry, I won’t stop writing regular blogs! This video is intended for people who are shy of attending an AA meeting, to demystify what happens and what is spoken of there.
Let me know what you think!
The book I read from is Alcoholics Anonymous. https://www.aa.org/pages/en_us/alcoholics-anonymous
A directory of AA meetings can be found here:
Online meetings can (I think?) be accessed here – though I do believe they are a make-do substitute for (i.e. not as good as) F2F meetings.
My addiction memoir tells how I went from a bright, healthy teen (okay, with a teeny hypersexual disorder) to a lonely, depressed, obsessive, codependent, underachieving, and increasingly reckless drunk who disdained Alcoholics Anonymous as a doom just short of suicide. Why so reluctant? The God thing. The book’s second half describes my ungraceful but dogged ascent from that pit of misery toward the healthy, friend-filled sober life I get to live today.
Much as I’ve love for everyone to read the book, I can give you a major spoiler here: I didn’t do it.
The words that opened the door to faith in something that might help me were shared by a woman in large pastel stretch pants sitting against the wall at my third or so AA meeting: “If you can’t deal with the word ‘God,’ that’s fine! Just think ‘Good Orderly Direction.'”
I perked up. Certainly I could not deal with the word, “God.” That religion-based concept seemed to me a preposterous character created by humans to explain what rudimentary science couldn’t. Such a deity was not going to advise me on whether I should stuff the tip jar at work or continue stalking the guy I was obsessed with.
But Good Orderly Direction — that was something to be sensed in my inmost heart. That I could look for, because I remembered going against it when I was busy screwing up my life. For me, Step 3 was essentially a resolution to start listening for it and going with it. Who knew the source of G.O.D. would turn out to be my higher power? And who knew that following its guidance would migrate me from the self-generated heartless world that had defeated me toward the sweet experience that’s now my normal?
Goodness as True North
As an active alcoholic, the only compass I ever consulted was ego. I was a popularity materialist — never enough! — as are many in our “individualistic” culture (thanks to marketing). I longed to be seen as cool (see also Coolness) and liked by designated cool people. I was convinced that the more I could make that happen, the better I’d feel about myself. And even though this model had failed to bring me anything but discontent for 34 years, I kept thinking the problem lay in my performance, not the model itself.
Good Orderly Direction, however, does not hinge on what others think. It’s a compass deep within, with Goodness as its true north. The first half is sensing it — what is the good and right thing to do here? The second is acting on it without hesitation.
I remember a conversation I had a few years back with my relapsed alcoholic boyfriend. As a rationale for getting drunk, he asked me, “Don’tcha sometimes just wanna say ‘fuck it’?” As it turned out, he had indeed been saying “fuck it” for some while, carrying on a second relationship behind my back. Sober, he’d been a man with integrity and compassion.
By contrast, my father drank alcoholically while retaining integrity and compassion — toward everyone but himself. Alcoholism wheedled him into deferring day after day the ultimate reckoning: “Why do I drink so much every night?” He resisted looking inward to all the clamors he muted with booze, saying, in his own academic way, “fuck it.”
But Good Orderly Direction is more than the antithesis of fuck it; it’s the antithesis of ego. It is a form of caring, of knowing that your choices matter and seeking those that will feel right in the long run. You may have trouble at first distinguishing Goodness from ego’s “best for me”; you may also mistake it for what other people tell you to do, whether they’re in your family or your AA group. But gradually, as you become more attuned to seeking, the voice gets louder, so you gain a clearer sense of whether you’re tuned into it.
As the choices people make based on the north star of Good Orderly Direction begin to alter the course of their lives, as even cynical or bottomed-out addicts begin to heal and build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts, a lot of us begin to realize — “Hey, this isn’t coming from me!”
God Ain’t Religion
As people who follow this blog know, I got to cheat. The spirit world operates all around us all the time, but we’re as deaf to it as the barriers we maintain against love are thick. For me, having had a Near Death Experience followed by paranormal after-effects even as I fought to maintain my atheism, the presence that had spoken to me on the other side began interceding in my thoughts as soon as I started seeking Good, until I had no choice but to fold and acknowledge, not religion’s God, but my god.
Religion is a bit like agriculture, while the spirit world is nature itself. Religion quantifies something omnipresent yet inexplicable — the power of the life force — by reducing it to the equivalent of rows and crops and acreage. To be atheist because we reject religion is like saying because there is no Great Farmer, nothing grows — all the while discounting the fact that we and all living things around us are exquisite expression of nature, of the life force.
No one can give you god-awareness. You have to develop your own, based on your own experiences both inner and external. The most direct route to get there is by seeking Good Orderly Direction. Eventually, seeking will become part of you, as it has for me: No one at Fred Meyer saw me miss self-checking a bag of avocados yesterday, but when I discovered them in my reusable shopping bag, I handed them to the attendant on my way out simply because I had not paid for them — end of story. I know not only that Karma is a real phenomenon, but that guilt is a real feeling, even when we pretend not to feel it. Both carry a price tag far exceeding that of four avocados.
Ask for guidance. Look deeper. Listen harder. Within you, something magnificent will sprout.
When I was new to AA, some of the 12 steps struck me as filler to make an even dozen. Being smarter than anyone else in the world, I could see that just 6 steps would’ve done the trick: 3, 5, 7, 9, 10 & 12. These steps all tell us to do something. The others deal with internal shifts that, it seemed to me, could be made instantaneously.
As usual, I was totally wrong.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous who, in 1938, created the 12 steps understood that spiritual change is no overnight matter, and that actions carried out with no internal change are meaningless. Rather, the steps are about collaborating with a higher power to gradually transform who we are, how we perceive our place in the world, and how we treat others. It’s a metamorphosis that lasts all our lives.
For example, Step 9 involves action: we make amends to those we have harmed, but without an internal Step 8, we can inadvertently inflict more harm. Someone recently asked me to look over a draft of a 9th step amends letter that — I found — was actually a more-about-me letter. It opened, not with well wishes for the recipient or acknowledgement that hearing from one who hurt them years ago might come as a surprise, but what was up with the writer: “I’ve been thinking about….” After a quick note that “I am not proud of the way I…,” the writer summarized what she was doing to heal herself. The next paragraph explained the family of origin stuff from which she needed to heal. In closing, she urged the recipient to celebrate family events together with her for the sake of their adult children.
Now for you reading this, it’s probably not rocket science to see that the letter was self-centered. The goal of the 9th step is to repair harms we did to others. The first part of doing so is to speak the truth about what happened. But what if we still can’t see the truth because we’re still trapped in our self-centered view of the world?
To the writer of this letter, the fact that she was even daring to contact this person and acknowledge that she struggled with emotional issues seemed an amends. I know because 24 years ago, just a few months into sobriety, I sent an identically selfish letter to someone I’d hurt in much the same way.
Neither of us had taken time to work through Step 8 — the inner process of “became willing to make amends.” We assumed that “willing” meant only mustering the gumption to dive in. But part of willing is becoming able. If I claim, for example, that I am willing to recite the Gettysburg address from memory, and I jump right in saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” but then run out of steam after a few lines, was I ever really willing to recite it? Doesn’t that willingness entail respect for the content, for the work involved in learning it fully?
By the same token, Step 8 means we become willing to re-see our past behavior through the new lens god has helped us craft via Steps 1 through 7. We put ourselves in the place of the person we harmed, and we break down exactly what we did wrong. Years after sending that half-baked “amends” letter, when I actually reached Step 8, my kickbutt sponsor had me write the words selfish, dishonest, and thoughtless as three headings under which to categorize my actions with a given person. If and only if the person knew of these harms, when I met with them or wrote them a letter, I said, “I was selfish when I chose to…. I was dishonest when I…,” etc. At the end, I had to ask them what, if anything, I’d omitted and what, if anything, I could do to set things right. Last week, I tried to steer the letter writer in that same direction.
God is not stoked for us to beat up on ourselves. God doesn’t want us to grovel. But god is huge on honesty — HUGE! — because god is all about the truth. To be more precise, god is the truth, the foundation of all that is. But honesty with ourselves is no easy matter! It’s a frontier, a journey of removing delusion after delusion, because we’re born self-centered and, experiencing life subjectively, grow up with a foundational conviction that “it’s all about me.”
To reprogram that operating system even a little requires god’s help. As the Big Book says, “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help” (p. 62).
When my son was little, I used to try to teach him about self-centeredness by having our dog say (he talks like Patrick from SpongeBob), “It’s such a waste of food when you guys eat, because things only taste good when I eat them!” My son would get so upset arguing with Cosmo (well, me), trying to explain that he, too, tasted things! “No you don’t,” Cosmo’s voice would counter. “It never tastes when you eat. Not even a little!”
In some ways, my old “amends letter” and this new one were coming from Cosmo’s mindset: “Dear person: All these things were going on (for me) when I deceived you for as long as possible before jettisoning you for someone else. You should figure out how it felt to be me, and have compassion, and that will change your perspective of how it was to be you, so I’ll be helping you.”
No. God’s truth is far more simple: “There is a right way to treat people, and there’s a wrong way — and I did wrong. I deeply regret those selfish choices, but I no longer live that way. I am here in a new spirit to ask what reparations I can make.”
Boom! Powered by god’s love, we can step out of Cosmo’s me-world. All the internal steps are essential to right action. How can we admit or ask god to remove character defects that we can’t see or are still practicing? The most powerful prayers are always requests for guidance: “Help me see where I am bullshitting myself. Help me see more as you see.”