Sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves…
I remember when I was about three weeks sober, a short time after I’d realized the call of the ideal party was a pied piper of vanity that would lead me to my death, I came home snubbed and pissed at someone, opened a near-beer, swigged it, and slammed the bottle down on my kitchen counter, muttering curses as I squinted to light up a smoke. At that moment, either I or something within me realized: I was drinking. Or at least, as good as drinking – and would be soon if I didn’t wake up to it. Some part of me was able to step back and see my posturing: I was cool, he was a bastard, so I would puff up and strut in my own company to feel vindicated. I could see how incredibly dumb the whole deal was.
And yet I felt lost without it. How could I navigate reality without my old scripts?
Just a few nights ago I went to my old homegroup for the first time in almost two years and witnessed something of the same thing. The crowd there is young and hip, and many of the shares anticipate a too-cool mindset: “If you’re sittin’ there thinkin’ I’m a pussy for believing this shit, then maybe you should go drink, dude. When it kicks your ass, maybe you’ll wanna listen.” Now, this is a fine message straight out of the big book (p. 31-32). But my reaction to the meeting told me something had changed in me. I’d woken up to recognize as affectation what used to seem natural and neutral. Recovery was present at that meeting, yes, but in the same way balletic grace and agility are present in pro football: you have to look past all the the thuggish aggression to see them.
What is AA’s “vital spiritual experience” that lets us recover from drinking? Connection to a higher power. And what part of us connects to that higher power? Is it our social self, the part of us that negotiates a constant interchange of signals with others? Is it our thinking self, the part that figures out where we stand relative to the ideas of the world? Is it our will, the part that tries to manipulate circumstances to achieve whatever we’ve labelled optimal? No, no, no! – clearly none of the above. Then what is it?
We touch god with the inmost kernel of our being: spirit, soul, our true self. When I first got sober and tried to seek god, it seemed there was practically nothing there to reach for. “Flimsy reed” described it perfectly – as if I were trying to grasp something too insubstantial to even feel. What I understand today is that god wasn’t the thing under-developed; it was my barely-there true self trying to connect with it! I had no familiarity with my own soul. I’d lived 99% of my life in the realm of ego, constructing myself around comparisons of what I thought you thought of me versus what I thought of you. Was there anything genuine in me, besides fear? I couldn’t find it. But as it turns out, pursuing sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves that is inextricably connected to god.
How do you recognize true self? Here are some handy hallmarks. Only the true self feels unmitigated compassion. It loves without neediness or score-keeping. My true self senses the sacred in every tree, bird, and human being it encounters, feeling connected to the goodness not only of living things but even in the inanimate world of matter. My ego’s world, by contrast, runs a gamut of competitors, threats, means, and so what? It’s a barren perspective of need.
I had an experience of a quick turn-around with from ego to true self the other day. I was browsing on friggin’ Facebook, feeling inferior, convinced everyone was having a more rollicking summer than I was – all of them constantly water skiing, laughing, and carpe-dieming away. In other words, I was caged in ego. I came across a friend’s page and was busy envying his social life without even knowing it when I gathered from friends’ posts that he was in prison. He’d relapsed. He’d been caught doing something bad and sentenced to four years.
Half of me died and another half came awake. If you want to say I had an emotion of feeling sorry for my friend, you’ll be missing the entire point, which is that I remembered love – an almost as physical sensation pouring from my heart. My friend’s voice came to me, his energy, and his sweet shyness at my “18 years sober/get to keep my boob” party soon after my cancer diagnosis, where he was wet-behind-the-ears sober again. He’d told me my example of constant kindness helped him, and he vied with others to drive me to my surgery. I knew his goodness, and no one who has not lived as a puppet of addiction, doing things against your higher self, can understand the compassion I felt learning of his fuck up. The tears his past photos brought to my eyes weren’t just for him – they were for all of us grappling with this disease. Suddenly, all the brag posts on Facebook transformed. Now they struck me as courageous: I understood we would all live, suffer, grow old and die alone, and that our show-offy flourishes on Facebook were no different from the exclamations of toddlers: “Look at me!” “I did it!” We’re all just doing our best. We’re all trying to shine, do well, risk falling to grab the gold ring.
In that moment, my authentic self could see as god does – through the eyes of love.
What the Catholics refer to as “Holy Spirit” and Quakers as the “still small voice” does guide us more as we learn, over years of working our programs, to cut the crap and access our spiritual core. Some of my NDE friends have encountered this voice on the other side as as their guardian angel, a loving spirit to whom ego makes us deaf. Or maybe it’s the candle of god-energy in us. Whatever you want to call it, this is the power that nudges us toward goodness, and it seems to me it’s what keeps us sober. Only something beyond our own brains can guard us from the “curious mental blank spot,” but to connect with it, we have to sometimes let go our thoughts, emotions, and posturing and become, to the extent we can, simply our own aliveness, the bit of god inside. More and more, I think living from that place is the sole path not only to sobriety, but to a meaningful life.