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!
Tag Archives: sobriety
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.
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.”
When I drank, my life was always dramatic — at least to me. Everything was a big deal. Drinking both fueled and helped defuse that. If someone was mad at me, if I’d behaved inappropriately, if some asshole had robbed me of a goal or privilege rightly mine, my emotions would rollercoaster up and down huge swells of anger and careen around curves of righteousness before finally winding down to the self-pity platform to which all things led: poor me.
But in those days, I had a best buddy, wine, along an array of other pals — beer, the gin & vodka twins, and all those whiskey relatives. We’d hang out and they’d fix everything. Actually, they’d fix my brain; everything else stayed exactly as it had been. But by muting my amygdala so the fear subsided and by impairing my frontal lobe so that all thoughts simply led back to me, drunkenness let me feel brokenly triumphant. Fuck them. Fuck everything.
In those days, everything I had going for me was external — or so I believed. What mattered was out there, so I was constantly keeping score: first it was grades and teachers, then published stories, then impressing my students, and eventually, as my life spiraled downward and I quit teaching to focus on drinking — I mean, writing! — it became impressing all the “cool” cats at the tiny espresso shop where I worked.
Mind you, everything that went on in that espresso shop was colossally big news! Who was getting together with whom, new policies about whether you could eat behind the counter, hirings and firings. In the end my main drama centered on the fact that my life partner had read my journal, caught me cheating emotionally, and promptly left, so now I couldn’t pay the mortgage with my joke of a job, even if my shifts hadn’t been cut for coming in stoned.
Drinking enough to make that no big deal nearly killed me.
When I got sober, my focus gradually shifted to who I was within and whatever linked that spirit to a higher power — to goodness in the world. At first, of course, I had no idea the 12 steps were effecting that change. I just went through them with a sponsor and discovered harmful patterns in my thinking and behaviors, asking my higher power to help me outgrow them. And as I began to lay aside increasingly subtle versions of these once precious “coping skills” — deception, manipulation, knowing best (pride), envy, and my favorite, self-pity — the ride of living smoothed out. A lot.
Today, I have no crises. I don’t wish I were somebody else. Sobriety’s granted me huge gifts: I’m performing in two ballet recitals this spring and climbing three glaciated mountains this summer, so my life is full. My home, health, work, son, and friendships are all good.
But smooth sailing can be frickin’ difficult for an alcoholic!! Without that clamoring, overflowing bucket of piddly-shit drama to seize my attention day after day, my gaze drifts to the horizon and I wonder, what am I doing? What’s my life for?
I’m getting older. I haven’t made any big splash lately. My son has grown up, my dog is old, I have no partner. What stands out with increasing clarity is that I will disappear from this planet in a number of years. How many is unknown, but every day I’m closer. What will my life have meant?
Here’s where near-death experience comes in. I am so blessed that the inexplicable paranormal phenomena stacking up in my life finally led me to the Seattle branch of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and that I hold a service position there of interviewing near-death experiencers and writing up their stories for our newsletter (snailmailed only at this point, sorry). Every other month, I get to Skype with someone who has, like me, died and come back with wisdom to share.
On the other side, when they are pure spirit, many know their life’s purpose. There’s a role we’re each here to play, and they’re shown theirs. Yet when they come back, they remember knowing, but they can’t remember what! This “forgetting” seems to be the price of embodiment. Enclosed in bodies, we lose 99% of our conscious connection to the expanding web of creation that is god. With little to go on but our hearts and the gossamer strands of love that link us to other hearts, we’re something of a lost boat, a tiny shard trying to work out its place in a 13.8-billion-year unfolding.
When one NDEr was given the choice to stay in the spirit realm or return to her body, she asked what would become of all her half-done life’s work if she died. “None of that matters,” she was told. “What matters is connections. If your work helps someone to strengthen their relationships with others or even to know themselves better, it has value. The important thing is the wake you leave behind you in the waters of life. Do you leave a wake of love… or of indifference?”
That’s our job — to love others and love god by generating gratitude for this spectacular pageant of life on Earth. My life is not about what accolades go up on my mental mantlepiece. It’s about the people (and other beings) I love and the ripple effect of loving them, which touches countless lives of people I will never meet.
Humility is also key. In 1995, when I was about 100 days sober, I visited the site of the first Olympic Games — alone. Wandering from the ruins, which date from 776 BC, I took a nap under a gnarled tree. And when I woke, looking out at the meadow where a sign indicated the Greek athletes’ housing had once stood (6), used centuries later as Roman soldiers’ quarters before god knows what in the Dark Ages, I had a sort of vision. I saw with time-elapse speed hundreds of trees germinating, growing large, and dying; buildings going up and falling to ruin; people slaughtering each other and making love — all in this very same meadow while its grass sprouted green and then dried to yellow over and over, 2,771 times.
The years, I saw, cycled through just like waves on a beach. So did human lives. I was no less transient than a blade of grass — but one with a plentitude of choices.
Ultimately, the purpose of my life has to be turned over to god every day as a part of Step Three. In my own version of the famous Merton prayer, I tell god, “I can’t see what I’m doing, but I love you. Please lead me wherever I can do your will, and lend me the courage and grace to do my best there.”
Life is no more and no less that that. And that is enough!
In my drinking days, before I was tight with god, I imagined god’s voice as an echoey Morgan Freeman cadence conveying various profundities. Today I believe more that god is all over the place, not only animating every living organism but also circulating among us in spirit forms, and it speaks to us constantly — although we’re largely deaf.
If I were to say, “God has spoken to me, and His word is blah-de-blah!” I’d have my head up my ass, no doubt. But I have received something. My conception of what that is comes mainly from my own NDE* and ensuing paranormal experiences, with gaps filled in by what I’ve heard from fellow NDErs.
By paranormal, I mean stuff like this: In 1999 or so, I was spacing out at the end of a freeway offramp in downtown Seattle late at night, waiting for the light to turn green. It did so. At the same instant, a “voice” spoke in my mind with a strong message, Don’t go.
Our brains are amazingly quick. In a millisecond, I thought, “That’s dumb! I’ll ignore it.” But in the next millisecond, the message came again, underscored, sort of like, DON’T GO; IT’S IMPORTANT. So… I, well… checked my rearview mirror. No car was behind me. What harm could it do to just sit there? So I just sat there… at the green light… which looked exceedingly green and all about GO. Quite shortly, I felt foolish. I asked the voice, “How long don’t go?”
WHOOSH!!! Like a bullet fired from behind a building that blocked my view shot an off-white sedan going at least 100 mph. It streaked through the intersection exactly where I’d have been. I remember, first, being amazed that a car could fly by so fast with so little sound, and second, realizing that my life had just been saved.
I thought, “Thank you!” Still I didn’t go. I couldn’t. I was too scared some car in pursuit might be next, or who knows what! Then I began to hear sirens, first one then several, a ways off. Shaken, I drove toward home.
Experiences like this aren’t so unusual for NDErs. According to an NDERF survey, 45% of us return with “psychic” aftereffects,** which amounts to many thousands of people. Leaving and reentering the body alters in some way the energy barrier surrounding each of us, so it’s more easily penetrated. At least, that’s my best guess.
“How can I tell the difference between god’s will and my will?” That’s a question we hear in countless AA meetings. I’m gonna offer some pointers.
Each of us has the ability to sense god’s guidance and, as we continue to work our program, increasingly distinguish it from our ego’s. The most important prereq is that we want to. We have to be listening for god and willing to hear what we often don’t care to. Another is that we have to cherish the goodness within ourselves and be awake to its resonance as a compass. Beyond this, in my experience, what comes from god bears a few telling hallmarks:
- It’s the opposite of what I was thinking. If I’m cruising down some avenue of thought that feels awesome in a self-righteous kind of way, and something intercedes and proposes the opposite with a striking ring of truth, it’s probably god. Far and away the most common input I get from god is “Bullshit, honey: you can go deeper.” By deeper, it means thinking more from my heart. Sigh! It’s always true!
- It’s about love, kindness, and service. The short explanation here is that god is love, as the ultimate power of the universe. And we are here to god. (Yep, that’s a verb!) Whenever we feel compassion and act on it, we are growing god. Recently, I found myself exiting a non-AA meeting near a fellow alcoholic with whom I’d just strongly and publicly disagreed on a policy. I so much wanted to jet, clean and easy! But as I looked at his back, something said, “Talk to him; make peace.” I told him the conflict was nothing personal, that I knew his intentions were good, as were mine. He looked relieved, I accidentally cried, and we hugged, disagreeing.
- While you’re actually doing it, it feels right, almost like déjà- vu. Sometimes when you make an important choice that aligns with god, it feels — and this is hard to describe — like everything has somehow clicked into place. There’s a “yes” in every second. When I heard that my former sponsee was pissed at me for never visiting now that she lived far away, I called and headed down there for dinner. So intensely during that drive, I sensed that I was fulfilling something significant. We shared dinner on Saturday. Thursday morning, she was struck dead at her construction job. Our last words had been, “I love you.”
- Serendipities reinforce it. These are the “coincidences” we hear about so often in meetings. “I decided to kill myself, and three guys from the meeting walked in and sat down at my diner booth.” “On my way to relapse, my car quit on me, and the guy that pulls over is my sponsor.” I, too have many such stories of statistically infinitesimal likelihood. Chances are, if you’ve been working the program a while, you’ve had a few of your own.
- It’s constructive. God is not big on wallowing. God is growth and unfolding, so for a recovering wallow-holic like myself, it’s been a tad disappointing that god won’t cosign my misery. Once, hiking alone in major emotional pain, I noticed a lone yellow wildflower on which a large branch had fallen. Smooshed but not broken, the flower had grown around the wood and bloomed anyway. God as good as told me, “Child, you’re smooshed but not broken: Bloom!”
One final note. For the reason listed directly above, god mourns the waste of life that is addiction. Yet god is never into shame or martyrdom. “Oh, I’m such a piece of shit!” or “Gee, I’m such a saint!” both stem from ego, from preoccupation with self. God wants us only to do our best, share our gifts, love freely. Beating ourselves up or codependently pouring energy into toxic people to wheedle self-worth — these ain’t about blooming.
I honestly try to live by this stuff. For instance, I’m aware that posting this exposes me to ridicule from both atheists (especially in my family) and religious folks. But the AA saying nails the truth: What you think of me (or my writing) is none of my business. My job is simply to click “publish” and then, as a bird lets the air keep its song or a wolf sends its howl to the moon, move on to whatever’s next.
Thanks for reading, open-minded alcoholics!
*NDE: Near Death Experience. This refers to a vivid experience that takes place while a person is clinically dead or close to death. IANDS definition here.
** See Jeffrey Long, Evidence of the Afterlife, p. 189.
PS: I’ll be presenting at the IANDS conference this summer. I’ll post details when I get them.
For years and years I’ve put off writing this post. Why? Because I frequently suck at self-love.
Originally I meant to write only after I had self-love down. Self-loving me I pictured as an endearingly geriatric version of myself, her grizzled hair drawn up in a loose bun and her slightly pouchy face lit with a warm smile of knowing. When I get there, I thought, and I’ve got all this chit figured out, then I’ll crank out a self-love post like, BAM!
Never gonna happen.
My future blogging self will actually be a view of this laptop (or a newer one). And every day I live, I will wrestle with weird, difficult feelings. So my question will ALWAYS be the same as yours: without using booze or whatever to shut them down, how do we deal with those inner voices of self-loathing, not enoughness, anxiety, awkwardness, shame, envy, self-pity, vulnerability, and drama addiction?
My inner voices get meaner during Seattle winters, when twilight sets in before 4:00 p.m. and the gray rain can drag on for days. They’ve been up lately — super critical of my appearance, abilities, personality, and what little I have to show for the many years I’ve lived — but all mooshed together in a generic “fail” static that hums as a backdrop for my thoughts.
So. Because I well know, at almost 23 years sober, that such voices are “fake news” (haha), I resolved last month to launch a self-love campaign. I found a self-love prayer and, er, trimmed it down on my phone (see bottom of this post), and I bookmarked two self-love meditations from Sarah Blondin on Insight Timer (a wonderful free meditation app). Whenever I’d first wake up, I’d find the onslaught of “fail” static SO LOUD that I’d start blindly fumbling for my phone the way Bill and Bob describe grabbing for a bedside bottle of gin.
“I need help! I need help!” This was my constant prayer.
Eventually, the campaign worked — though not in the way I’d intended. I gained, not any falling in love with myself, but enough gumption to turn and face those inner voices and ask them, “Why are you here? What, exactly, am I doing so wrong? Can you guys explain?”
Man, do they hate that!! Because I saw those assholes for what they were.
Vanity and Ego are the soil in which self-criticism thrives. Both of them craftily impersonate self-esteem or self-love. Maybe vanity’s more about narcissism and ego self-importance, but they both tell us, “You’re okay because you have this!” And THIS is things, material wealth, cool shit. THIS is intellect, degrees, a fat paycheck. THIS is looking hot or well dressed. It’s the social finesse to be interesting and witty. Being right. Being wronged. Lots of tattoos. A hot partner. Class. Whatever vanity/ego can hock to grant us status.
But if you listen closely, what vanity and ego are actually saying is, “Without THIS, you’d be worthlesssssss.”
In truth, criticizing ourselves for insufficient THIS is a tactic we learned to protect ourselves from the stings of criticism we suffered growing up in dysfunctional families. If our THIS supplies aren’t constantly rising, our worthlessness-hazard gauge is. But in our hearts we know, THIS is never us. No matter how persistently we try to amass THIS, we feel no inner worth — no love for self. That pain is one reason we drank.
“The soul grows not by addition but by subtraction.”
— Meister Eckhart, 1260 – 1327
Eckhart’s subtraction principle, I am discovering, applies to self-love. Love’s roots thrive in humility, not in awesomeness. Do vanity and ego claim that, compared to other people or where I ought to be, I’m mediocre, boring, and unimportant?
Okay, fine. You win, mean voices. Mediocre is my middle name.
Once I stop fighting, I topple from ego’s tightrope, down and down until I land on the solid ground of being stuck with me. But it feels pretty good! What a relief! Once I subtract the work of defending myself (which isn’t easy), once I chuck any fickle THIS gauge in favor of not caring where I stand, I can focus on being just plain old me — to the fullest. Sure, the arena where my duels with self-criticism took place will still call to me. But unconditional surrender, giving up again and again, means I relinquish much emotional busywork and free up that much more bandwidth for what matters: using the gifts I’ve been granted to contribute something positive to this messy, lovable world.
God’s love and self-love are one
I think of a friend with Parkinson-like symptoms caused by an inoperable brain tumor, who tells of waking in the night consumed with terror and praying his guts out in the dark. He got an answer of two words: Trust me.
I think of an NDE survivor, a father who once dozed while driving 80 mph, lost his adored wife and baby in the same crash that took his leg, and who, struggling to make a home for his surviving boy, sobbed his guts out to god. He, too, got a two-word response: Choose joy.
And I think of my own NDE, how the instant I found myself on the other side, I’d simply shed all negative emotions. I had zero self-criticism, zero self-consciousness, zero interest in self-assessment — all the concerns of being human. I cared only about how cool and amazing my surroundings were, how cool and amazing it felt to get to experience stuff.
Those three elements together, I’ve been thinking, make up a recipe self-love: trust god, choose joy, forget myself.
Here you may notice a major overlap with the basic recipe for sobriety: trust god, clean house, help others. They’re the same. Because I can’t choose joy if I carry resentment or guilt, and the best self-forgetting comes from helping others. So, sort of like Dorothy, I guess I’ve had the way home all along.
Self-love, I’m learning imperfectly and will doubtless forget again, flows from a source that can never be depleted, only obscured by ego’s relentless fear of lack. I am love. We are sparks of god, you and I — shards of the light sculpted into cherished artworks by the ultimate love. To realize my home, which glows with the warmth of self-love, I need only to drop all those thorny false treasures I’ve been trying so desperately to clutch.
Today, Creator of the Universe, I ask that you help me to accept myself just the way I am, without judgment. Help me to accept my mind the way it is, with all my emotions, hopes and dreams, my personality, and my unique way of being. Help me to accept my body just as it is. Let the love I have for myself be so strong that I never again reject myself or sabotage my happiness, freedom, and love.
From now on, let my every thought be based on love. Help me, Creator, to increase my self-love until the entire dream of my life is transformed from fear and drama to love and joy. Let the self-love I feel be strong enough to break all the lies that tell me I am not good enough, so strong that I no longer need to live my life according to other people’s opinions. Let me trust myself completely to make choices and take responsibility.
Starting today, help me to love myself so much that I never set up circumstances that go against me. I will live being myself and not pretending to be someone else in an effort to be accepted by others. I no longer need other people to accept me or tell me how good I am because I know what I am.
Let loving myself be the power that changes the dreams of my life. Let me transform every relationship I have, beginning with my relationship with myself. Help me to love myself so much that I forgive anyone who, I feel, has hurt me in the past, and strengthen my will to forgive myself, as well.
Give me the courage to love my family and friends unconditionally. Let these relationships be based on respect and joy so that I no longer seek to tell anyone how to think or be. Help me to accept others because when I reject them, I reject myself. And when I reject myself, I reject you.
Help me to start my life over beginning today with the power of self-love. Help me to enjoy my life, to take risks, and to no longer live in fear of love. Help me to become a Master of Gratitude, Generosity, and Love so that I can enjoy all of your creations forever and ever. Amen.