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: spirituality
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.
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.
In my twenties, I claimed to be more than an introvert; I was someone who just plain didn’t like people. That worked great for me as a melancholy drunk, because I needed lotsa booze to talk to people — right? Animals I always loved, since those connections called for neither conversation nor competition.
When I first quit drinking, nothing else about me changed. I still felt uncomfortable in human company, assigned people coolness levels, and silently criticized everyone, convinced I was being criticized in the same way. Almost like a counterbalance to this alienation was my over-attraction to certain people I elevated above everyone else, usually with an obsessive crush.
Sober, I understood the dynamic behind my infatuations: I could get high on dopamine and oxytocin, which provided a temporary escape from the work of being me, and my thoughts kept me immersed in a dreamy sense of hope, which also distracted from the work of being me. Oh, how amazing it felt to be with person Z!
At the same time, I did understand that infatuation was both an illusion and total waste of life. But that doesn’t mean I could quit! For us addictive types, self-knowledge can’t even begin to compete with whatever sweet fix gets us off, whether we ingest the chemicals or manufacture them in our own brains.
What? Stop gambling, over-shopping, using porn, etc. just because it’s a destructive, empty high? I don’t think so, says our addict; we can feel sooo good for just a little bit!
AA’s Step 6 tells us to become ready to have character defects removed. I used to pray, Please cure me of this crush thing! I am so done with it, god, but I can’t stop!
God heard me. God answered. I tell this story in my addiction memoir, along with scores of others.
In 2004, the man I was obsessed with agreed to get dinner with me after an AA meeting, but only at the restaurant announced for post-meeting fellowship. On our walk to this place, he reached out to a series of people from the meeting. Through my eyes, the first person was way too cool — but said he might join us. The next, something like Goldilocks’ porridge, was not cool enough, but likewise agreed. The third was pretty much at our level.
At first, as we took seats alone in a large booth, I zoomed in on charming and seducing my crush. But then, who should interrupt us but a sketchy kid on crutches and his snaggle-toothed girlfriend. The kid explained that his foot was deeply infected with some rare bacteria — probably not flesh eating disease, he added, dipping into our chips — from stepping on broken bottle during a fist fight with his dad. While I cursed their arrival, my crush listened and empathized.
Next to arrive were the invited people — cool, loser, and mid-range. I knew these folks and soon found myself in conversation with them. More people from the meeting arrived and sat in the booth adjoining ours, twisting around to joke with us. Food and sodas showed up. Laughter, noise. I relaxed.
Half an hour later, I can’t even remember who was talking to me. All I know is I was laughing so hard I made no sound, rocking in the elation of feeling totally safe with family, when I realized my crush had moved to the other booth. Here’s the kicker: I didn’t care! The love I was starving for, I saw then, was not his, but god’s love, through people around me with whom I was normally too shy to connect.
Not a night owl, I left earlier than many, walking the dark, empty streets back to my car. A glow of love filled me with for everyone — even the not-flesh-eating diseased guy and his girlfriend. I could feel that god was pleased, that god was telling me this was how to live: love should be a fountain showering on all, not a nozzle spray pummeling just one.
But I also knew myself: I would forget. I would revert.
So I pray-whispered as I walked, please guide me toward your way of life. An idea came (from god), and I pounced on it: We made a pact. I swore to god that every time I found myself criticizing someone in a meeting, I’d make a beeline for that person as soon as the Serenity Prayer circle broke. I’d shake their hand, and I’d learn three things about them. In return, I asked god to cure me of shyness and obsession. God said “deal.”
What an adventure this became! In retrospect, it was comical. I’d be in a big meeting hearing a share and think: “Man, this dude so imagined himself giving this share! What a phony!” Then I’d think, “Shit!” Okay, I’d reluctantly note where he went in the closing circle. I’d drag myself over, my shyness screaming, “No!” I’d stick out my hand: “Hi, I’m Louisa. That’s a such a cool tattoo on your arm. What does it say?” After a bit of an awkward start, I’d learn three things. To young, pretty women who were stealing all the goddamn sexy, I might say, “I like your earrings. Where’d you get them?”
Anything. God didn’t care what I said. God cared that I broke through my shyness. God saw my desire to grow and loved me for it.
And here came the miracle: At least half of these people became friends — confidants who later helped me get through cancer and a horrible break-up. I grew to love people FOR their flaws, not despite them. Everything that sparks my criticism, I do or have done in some form. My ego craves attention, hopes to impress, fears being exposed as a fraud, and uses dumb, cheap tricks to chase whatever. When I accept myself, I can love others as god loves us — just for trying.
In about two years, my pact with god became obsolete — or more aptly, fulfilled. I’d shed 90% of my criticizing, ranking, and elevating. I lost shyness. I no longer need the fix of a drink or a crush. The work of being me today is to breathe the same love for humanity that I once felt only for animals. It’s work, but I can do it!
Even as the greedy among us destroy our planet, I have hope that the goodness in our hearts will some day connect us, so that we move collectively toward a better world.
Each year as my AA birthday approaches, I like to take a look back to see how far I’ve come. I’ll be turning 24 years sober this January, and I would not trade my beautiful life for anything.
Twenty-four years ago, I believed life without drinking would be horrifically boring, like eating only brussel sprouts forever. Relaxation would be gone, so I’d feel anxious and stressed out nonstop. Socializing sober would be such an ordeal, I’d probably just isolate. How could I play without ease and comfort?
I secretly longed to drink like other people — people who bantered in fashionable hangouts, hogging all the fun and glamour. I felt I had a disability, this inability to stop drinking once I got started.
In those days, I was literally incapable of imagining how it now feels to be me. Today the space in my mind and heart is soooo cozy, I feel like at any point in my day, I could pull into it like a tortoise and maybe take a nap — just me and that warm inner sunlight of my god. I almost feel tempted sometimes when I’m riding my bike to work and waiting for a traffic light to change. There’s my outer body dressed in rain gear, there’s the incredibly complicated world going on around me, and then there’s this flawlessly inviting inner sunporch to recline in, just closing my eyes and saying, “Yo, god. Thanks for everything. I can’t tell you how much I love you.”
I don’t cause I’d get run over. I also don’t want to piss off people around me, not cause I fear them but because I want to radiate kindness in all things I do. I love strangers — even the rude ones. Life is a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle we’re all piecing together with earnest effort, frustrated at times, all wishing we had the dang puzzle box illustration to help us know what goes where.
The space for my inner sunporch was originally cleared by working AA’s 12 steps. Before that it was packed with garbage — false mental and emotional beliefs I clung to like some kind of packrat. Psychotic hoarders can’t throw away a used Kleenex; I couldn’t throw away my resentments, the countless personality variations I’d hoped would make you like me, or the dusty gilt trophies — academic, professional, and romantic — I’d won over the years that I thought comprised my worth.
“Cleaning house” by working steps with a sponsor is the closest thing I know to hiring a spiritual declutter expert: “God, what should I keep? What should I throw out?” If you have an insightful sponsor and an open heart, you’ll end up with only a few key insights.
It’s true, for instance, that most people don’t base their decisions on what would be best for you. And that is okay. What?! It is?! This was earth-shattering news when my sponsor first put it to me.
It is also true that people we’ve held in resentment were doing the best they could with the level of insight they had. If they could have shown up as a good parent, partner, or companion — that is, if they’d understood that love matters most — they would have. We can’t expect them to live by wisdom they just don’t have, just as we can’t shop at the hardware store for bread.
Space opens up when you LET OTHER PEOPLE GO: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” That whole tangle of shoulds and owes me and needs to learn gets carted off to Goodwill.
Now you can shift the focus to YOU, not as a successful manipulator or foiled victim of others, but as the only person on this planet responsible for making a beautiful thing of your life.
Not what your parents thought would be beautiful. Not what media and marketing pretend is beautiful. Beautiful to you.
Lucky you — you’ve already been assigned an amazing, ingenious collaborator, one who works for nothing, who believes in you with a love beyond anything you can imagine, and who has the power to fuel whatever you’re courageous enough to pursue: god.
Dass right! That same energy in the growing grass, the pounding waves, and the mating chipmunks. That force behind your heart going live, live, live and the busyness in your every cell to make it happen. God is living you; god is wanting you to generate more you-ness, more love, more good. Your smile is beautiful. Your sincerity is a jewel. Your kindness is a spark of the divine.
Sober, I feel my feelings instead of numbing them. I remember the last time (of many) when life pulled the rug out from under me so I fell flat on my face. Three and a half years ago, my heart was broken by an intimate betrayal — a betrayal so outrageous I felt like an idiot for having been suckered. Hurt and ashamed, I felt too stupid to ever trust my heart again. About halfway through a 70-mile hike in the mountains, somehow the full pain of it hit me; I set up my tent at noon, lay down in it, and just cried for three hours. Three more hours I alternated between semi-comatosely watching the foiled skeeters on my tent’s netting and spurts of crying. Then I wrote in my journal.
By the next morning, I’d founded a new enterprise with god. We called it “Louisa’s Little Life” because alliteration rocks. We — that is, god and I — had the basics nailed down. We’d go for nothing grandiose. The plan was to notice and love; notice and love — just that and put one foot in front of the other. I promised to listen, and god promised to lead. I promised to trust and try, and god promised to help me grow. In fact, god promised me peace and joy and a deeper knowledge of who I am — all the flowers that now brighten my inviting secret sunporch, because god and I grew them.
If any of these ideas help you, by all means steal them, but remember: thinking about the steps is not the same thing as working them! It’s an inside job, but we can’t do it alone.
If you were to accomplish nothing more in life than treating everyone (including yourself) with GENUINE KINDNESS, you’d have fulfilled your ultimate purpose on earth — at least as far as god is concerned.
As a teen and a young alcoholic, I poo-pooed kindness as a prissy bow that conformists like June Cleaver pinned on their words. In the atheist home where I grew up, I got the idea that achievement was all that mattered — getting to the top, impressing the right people.
But I was never smart enough. Never fast enough, never funny enough, never liked enough. I felt empty and alone. So I needed to tap-dance harder, always harder. And I needed that warm haven alcohol granted me to shut down the show every night.
“Thank you, it’s good to see you, I’m so sorry for your pain, is there something I can do to help?” — fluffy phrases like those, they were useless. James Dean and Emma Peel sure AF didn’t waste time on shit like that, and I wasn’t going to, either. I was going for badassery, not nice girl.
Flash forward through hitting bottom, getting sober, and staying sober 23 years; toss in a Near Death Experience (NDE) and 15 paranormal after-effects that have happily married to my every thought an awareness of the afterlife and omnipresent spirit world, and you have a grateful woman who views life quite differently.
Kindness is everything. It’s why we’re here.
Writing for the Seattle IANDS newsletter this past year, I’ve interviewed six people who, like me, have died and come back with memories from the other side. All bring back the same message of kindness; so did all the NDE speakers I heard at the IANDS conference this past summer.
These people, who told me their stories over Skype, had died in various ways: in car accidents, from severe illness, drug overdose, hyponatremia and other causes.
After recognizing their own lifeless bodies below them, several encountered spirits who showed them “life reviews” — more or less movies covering their lives from birth to the present, except that now they could feel the experience of everyone their actions touched.
For every person who has reviewed their life with loving spirit guides, the focus has centered on one issue only: did they help or harm? Were they loving or selfish? In most life reviews, NDErs were shown how the kindness or cruelty they passed to others, even in the most casual interactions, rippled out throughout the world to endless effect.
For example, Howard Storm, an atheist prior to his NDE, an ordained pastor since, told me this:
“They showed me episodes starting when I was born. Watching each scene, I could feel not just my feelings but the other people’s…. Events I thought of as the entire goal and purpose of my life got passed right over — first art exhibit, big promotion, zzzip!
“They’d say, ‘Let’s get to something really important!’ and show me interacting with my kid or talking with a student. There I’d be sitting in my office with a student coming to me with a personal problem, and I’d be looking compassionate, but on the inside bored out of my head, you know, checking the ole’ watch under the desk and thinking, ‘I don’t have time to listen to this drivel all day!’ I could feel that my lack of compassion and kindliness for others caused [my guardian angels] great sadness. They never said ‘That’s good, that’s bad,’ but I could feel it – almost as if I were gut-punching them.”
True kindness is the flower of love. Love is what animates our bodies and, in fact, what powers the totality of the universe. Notice that Howard faked caring toward the student who opened his heart to him. The student couldn’t read Howard’s selfishly impatient mind, but god and the guardian angels could! What gut-punched them was Howard’s indifference — his missed opportunity to share the flowers of Love.
Another NDEr, Barbara Ireland, told me this:
“I said, ‘If I choose go with you, what happens to all my half-done screenplays, to all the music I want to put out?’ And the voice answered, ‘Oh, Barbara, those things don’t really matter!’ And I was like, ‘—Really?!’ It said, ‘What matters are relationships. If your work opens someone’s heart or connects you to them, then, yes, it’s valuable. But the main thing is what you leave behind you in everyday life, like the wake of a boat on the water. Do you leave behind happiness, do you lift people up? Or do you judge them, bring them down, compete, compare yourself with them?”
Recovering alcoholics, life reviews should ring a bell with you. Of what could this possibly remind us, this looking back at one’s life to see where we’ve shown up in a spirit of compassion, kindness, and usefulness to others, versus where we acted with selfish indifference? Hmm…
Could it be Steps 4 & 5 — seeing how our self-centeredness, our resentments, our fears kept us from offering love and tolerance? When we read a thorough Step 5 with a wise sponsor, we’re getting the benefit of a Life Review without having to die.
For me, working Steps 4 through 9 brought amazing freedom. Recognizing the fear-driven blinders my ego kept putting on me, then extending human decency to those I had harmed — these actions sprang me out of the guilt and shame of knowing I’d left a trail of garbage behind me. They cleared away burden I’d been drinking to ease time and time again.
Kindness brings self worth. When we grant every person who crosses our path dignity and respect, whether we silently wish them well, offer a smile, or go so far as seeking to be of service, we’re becoming that “channel of thy peace” that opens the Saint Francis prayer. As god flows through us, the light we convey to others heals us as well. AA’s “one alcoholic helping another” is founded on this very freebie.
Sometimes others aren’t ready to receive the goodwill we offer. Oh well. Flowers emanate beautiful scents and colors regardless of whether any bees are around. It’s just what they’re here to do.
Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it. How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape? That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.
The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens. Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.
Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of. I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.
The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains. As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike). This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 26,000 feet of elevation. It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT). I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day. I’m 58, BTW.
But I did it.
Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek. How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?
My short answer, again, is faith. But it’s also love. I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.
True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god. The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it. To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens. I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”
But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things. I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it! I meant it. I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill. Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.
A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.
I could not walk. I stopped. I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon. I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.
Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.
In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine. At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain neighboring seedlings, exhibiting far more “consciousness” than humans have understood.
So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible, I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to her silently, “Are you there?”
Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.
I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.
Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”
The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:
Every life must ask directly.
I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament. The tree “heard” none of this. It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly. Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.
I thanked her. I tried to walk on, oh so carefully. I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”
I didn’t take off my pack. I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes. I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.” That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”
Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me. Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?
At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source. I got so excited! I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!
None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh. “No I haven’t!” came from my brain. “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!” God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love! I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.
To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet. I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot. No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside. I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.
There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it. This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it. Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway. At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”
THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love. Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.
My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!” Duh! I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain. What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!
But my spirit was told, You will be healed. The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.
My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust. You will be healed. You will be healed. The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.
My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half. No pain. Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′. I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.
Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again. Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail. Not once.
My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once. The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens. At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted: “Faith is nothing but pretend! The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo! I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”
And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told. We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds). We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage). The miracle will happen.
We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed. Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.
Video telling the story. Also available at https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY
Photos from my trip: