“The god part” is, without question, the biggest hurdle of the AA program for countless sick and dying alcoholics and addicts. For me it certainly was, because when I read that word “God” coupled with “He” in the 12 steps, I immediately thought of religion, of versions of God as a humanoid king or judge. And that image made me barf. It seemed extremely inconvenient that the only thing AA could offer to save my life was something so hokey as a higher power.
At the time when I was hitting bottom and, thanks to countless contingencies I now see as guidance, finding myself in my first AA meeting, I was an atheist. An avid, even rabid one. However, I was also trying to bracket some extremely weird shit that had been happening to me — inexplicable experiences our culture would label delusional or make-believe.
What sort of weird shit do I mean?
During an early morning rain storm, I saw an old man on an ocean beach in Gloucester, MA, dressed in what appeared to be antique rain gear and walking from the dunes on my left toward the waves on my right, perpendicular to my solo progress. I made up my mind to ask, as soon as I got close enough to communicate over the strong wind and thundering waves, where he’d found such authentic-looking yellow Mackintosh garb. But as I got closer I saw he was staring toward the horizon as if in some intense emotional pain. I tried to look for what he might be seeing, but the clouds hung so low over the water, there was nothing to see. So, when he crossed directly in front of me, close enough that I saw the fine wrinkles and red capillaries on his face, I said only “How’s it going?” He did not reply, and when I had walked a ways further, I looked back, angered by his rudeness, only to see — no one. An empty beach. I tried to figure out where the old guy could have got to so fast. But when I went back to look for his tracks, I could find none but my own. This happened five years after my Near-Death Experience.
A few years later, I knew my unborn nephew was destined to die, and that my brother was going to plunge into profound sea of grief at his loss. Then exactly that happened.
Weeks before I hit bottom, I’d driven home absolutely hammered, speeding along winding woodland roads, threading the needle amid a blur of reflectors on a narrow bridge. When I reached my house and stood congratulating myself, hanging onto the door for support, a voice shot through me like a bolt of knowing: This is the last time I can help you.
A few weeks later when my dog got hit by a truck and foiled my plans to attend a “vodka-slamming party” and just not drink, that same voice addressed me again: Look! My eyes at the moment were on the blood trickling over the asphalt from under my dog’s body, and the message was that my future would involve something similar if I didn’t cut the shit.
So that’s some weird shit, right?
Then I walked into an AA meeting (actually, the dog incident happened after my first half-assed prayer when I was 2 weeks sober) and I read “Came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity.” I made absolutely no connection between those words and the voice that had, so to speak, hacked my consciousness.
If you’re an alcoholic or any type of addict in recovery, then you know firsthand the isolating effect of relying on ego to navigate life. Ego tells us we are different. It sometimes tells us we’re special and better than others, but it can also tell us we’re worse than others, and that our various struggles are unique. In fact, living in ego’s lonely “I” rather than the heart’s “we” is what generates the pain we drink to escape.
But of course I did not know that.
I classified all my paranormal experiences as something I should keep to myself just as I did my obsessive infatuations or harshly manipulative thoughts of using mildly cool people to connect with their hella cool friends. The inner workings of my mind were a source of shame, and so these woo-woos, I felt, were shameful. They might point to a fried brain or neurosis, but certainly not to an active spirit world that could free me from addiction.
My own journey to arrive at working model of god has been long. Weird woo-woos continued to befall me until I broke down in about 2004 and accepted the spirit world as real. That acknowledgement eventually led me to seek out fellow NDErs in the Seattle chapter of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS).
What goes on in an NDE is that the spirit leaves the body; consciousness exits the brain. I recently heard a fascinating interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson*,a psychologist who’s been researching NDEs for about 40 years. Greyson theorizes that the brain acts as not only an interpreter of sensory input but also a filter against cosmic and spiritual input. Its primary function, he reasons, is our physical survival, so anything extraneous to that gets filtered out. We see and hear only those ranges of light and sound that are useful for filling our terrestrial needs. Input from an alternate plane of reality, Greyson theorizes, would distract us from those needs and thus detract from our chances of survival, so we evolved means to exclude it. The brain’s filtering capacity can, however, be suppressed by psychedelic drugs or even damaged by NDEs so that it ceases to work effectively, thus allowing spiritual energies to enter.
Greyson’s theory both differs from and aligns with my own. I believe that conscious beings are encapsulated in what I call a “god-phobic energetic membrane” analogous to the hydrophobic fatty membranes that encapsulate living cells. In other words, to function individually as a water-based mechanism in a water-based environment, each cell requires a membrane that repels water. Similarly, as we are bits of god swimming in god-energy, we need a god-repelling membrane in order to function independently. If we leave the body during an NDE, we somehow rupture the membrane, which closes faultily after our return so that other spirit energies can seep in. A medium is basically someone with a leaky energetic membrane.
My first IANDS meetings in 2012 felt very much like my first AA meetings. Just as in AA I marveled every time a fellow alcoholic articulated experiences I’d assumed to be mine alone, so at every IANDS meeting, I heard bits of “my story” told by others and came to realize I’m just a garden variety NDEr. Many, many NDErs had experienced a “voice” like the one I “hear” — which by that time had saved my life on multiple occasions — and referred to it simply as their guardian angel. One NDEr, upon reviving from death, had been able for a short while to see beings behind the people helping him — beings who were “helping them help me.” For lack of a better word, he said, he calls them angels.
Once I started to think of the voice randomly hacking my thoughts as my guardian angel rather than god itself, a lot of stuff began to make sense. I began to see that my angel greeted me on the other side, sent me back to Earth to accomplish something, and stays with me constantly. Sometimes my mind seems to hit the right “frequency” to pick up messages my angel conveys — often a variant of c’mon, you can be more honest! Rarely does my angel bust through apropos of no request, unless I’m in mortal danger or he has a life lesson to tell me in the moment.
I wish I could pass on to fellow alcoholics and others my certainty that the spirit world is real — but I can’t. Each life must ask directly, I’ve been told. Seek a god of your understanding. What weird things have happened to you? What synchronicities, what surprisingly accurate intuitions? Do not let the cultural construct of religion “deter you from honestly asking yourself what [spiritual terms] mean to you.” [p. 47]. You wouldn’t have read this far if you did not sense, at some level, leaks in your own filter or membrane allowing in wisps of the spirit world.
*Dr. Bruce Greyson starts at 23:10 in THIS VIDEO
Resources: NDE video channels:
Tricia Barker’s Healed by the Light: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyIstVbBhilo1gdUmazkReQ/videos
Peter Panagore’s Facebook NDE video page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NearDeathExperienceVideo/