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The Alcoholic’s Power of Choice

“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.”

Alcoholic Anonymous, p. 24

Alcoholics cannot choose to not drink.  We lack the power to decide whether or how much alcohol we’ll consume.  If we had that power, we wouldn’t be alcoholics.  We’d just be people who drink too much.

liverIf that’s all there were to it, once we recognized drinking was destroying our love, life, and liver, instead of experiencing  “a complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove,” we’d yank back our blistered, half-cooked hands and just stop drinking.  We certainly wouldn’t need a program of recovery or a spiritual connection to do so, and I wouldn’t need to write this blog.

Given our powerlessness, then, it really  makes no sense to say, “I’m an alcoholic and I choose not to drink today” – though we often hear that very  line spoken in meetings.  Some saying this may be clueless about their condition.  But others may be using shorthand for the power of choice we alcoholics do retain.  As alcoholics we have one daily, hourly, by-the-minute choice that can make or break our sobriety, and this is what it looks like: we can work toward the solution, or we can regress toward the problem.

Tiny TimWhat’s the problem, again?  We’re maladjusted to life.  Drinking was our old solution. Take it away via abstinence, and we’re up shit creek without a paddle.  Undeveloped emotionally, we’re Tiny Tim with his crutch cruelly kicked away.  We still have to cope with and navigate everything that overwhelmed us before, but now try to do so exposed and unarmed.

So the choices we make in sobriety are really about how to render the real world comfortable, livable, and even a joy – by staying in touch with a higher power.  We choose thousands of times every day, not only in our actions but in how we elect to perceive – and every choice will fall into one of those two categories: toward the solution or toward the problem.  Which wolf do you feed?

When newcomers ask me, sometimes desperately, what’s going fill that empty chasm in their gut, what’s ever going to take the place of alcohol and drugs, the solution is hard to verbalize because it resembles a sense they don’t have yet, or a feeling they haven’t experienced since they were little kids.  The solution is LOVE, for everything and everyone – and the unshakable conviction that love is everything.  Mind you, when I heard that kind of stuff in early sobriety, I felt like, “What the fuck good is that?!  I heard that crap in a Beatles song a long time ago and it doesn’t do anything!  I need help NOW!”

Don Miguel Ruiz offers this gem of a prayer at the close of The Four Agreements:

Today, Creator of the Universe, …help us to be like you are, to love life, to be life, to be love.  Help us to love the way you love, with no conditions….  Help us to love and accept ourselves without any judgement, because when we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty and we need to be punished.

That’s the destination: freedom to love ourselves and others.  The steps are a means of getting there – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  Everything we think we know from the past holds us back.  When the fabric of our existence is shot through with fear, we can love only a select few and only on the condition that they be on “our side.”  Ironically, the same guards we’ve built up to protect us from a threatening world constitute the source of our deepest pain, because they also cut us off from god’s love – love that can flow through us and invigorate our souls as we pass it on to others.

Do you know what hell is?  Hell is being cut off from god, from love, from the energy that orchestrates our internal body and connects us to all that lives.  A life of fear and resentment enshrouds us in a thick, impenetrable cell that will not admit the light of god.  We can be busy knowing what’s right and who’s wrong, we can be fighting for ourselves and resenting everyone who gets in our way, we can chase whatever seems to grant us power – and all of it will lead to loneliness and despair!  And if we die with those guards up, we’ll experience hell in the hereafter – unless love cuts through our shell and frees us to seek the light.  (Or at least, so report my fellow Near-Death survivors who did go to hell.)

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Sunlight of the spirit.

The 12 steps chip away at those countless false beliefs that made our shells seem necessary in the first place.  We replace our old axioms with new, transparent ones – that whenever we’re upset, it’s because there is something wrong with us; that acceptance grants us the freedom to live and let live; that we need to know where we end and others begin; and that, when necessary, detaching with love is our responsibility.

I can’t choose not to drink.  But I can choose to do what’s necessary to connect with a god who, one day at a time, graces me with sobriety.  I can PRAY for strength and guidance.  I can PRACTICE the self-care that nurtures me.  I can PAUSE whenever I sense I’m headed down a wrong path – toward resentment, self-pity, or irresponsibility.  I can ACT by walking out the door to a meeting I don’t think I need, where I do service I don’t admit is important, or pick up sponsees I don’t have time for.  I can feel GRATITUDE for a beautiful life I threw away countless times in my drinking.  I can OFFER kindness, encouragement, and help to those in need – i.e. everyone.  And, most important, I can choose to LOVE whatever life brings me, moment by moment by moment.

It’s not about just not drinking anymore.  These choices, I find, bring me heaven on earth.

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Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

Millet- sower

The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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Trashing AA as “Irrational”

Maybe you’ve seen Gabrielle Glaser’s Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.”  Glaser, a self-proclaimed normie (i.e. non-alcoholic), attempts to illuminate the scam of Alcoholics Anonymous, which passes itself off as the sole antidote to alcoholism, and advocates instead for newly developed drug treatments as a solution more “scientific” than AA’s program of abstinence and spiritual growth.

Maybe you’re indifferent to both this article and AA.  But if you love AA for having saved your life and yet this article doesn’t anger you, you work a WAY better program than I do!  I am angered and for many reasons – the foremost being that I am fond of truth, and the article is rife with inaccuracies.  A second is that I don’t believe in increasing people’s suffering for the sake of a snappy article (or book sales).  Nothing can be gained by slamming AA, but so much can be lost!

The most glaring error, to me, is Glaser’s lumping together AA, which makes no luxury treatmentmoney for anyone, with the treatment center industry that rakes in tremendous profits from addicts and their stricken families by “selling” what one can find freely in AA. Yes, without question, some treatment centers place under-qualified counselors in positions of power and exploit the crisis of addiction to charge exorbitant fees in exchange for a Big Book and an introduction to the steps – but they are not AA!  Quite the converse, they embody every disaster that Bill, Bob, and other pioneers of AA tried to avert with the 12 Traditions.

Wrong also is holding AA responsible for the judicial practice of “sentencing” people to AA.  I can’t imagine anything further from the 11th Tradition of “attraction rather than promotion.”  As we often hear in the rooms, “AA is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”  But thanks to the courts’ total disregard of thisgavel2 policy, many people are forced to attend AA meetings.  Like the treatment industry, the U.S. punitive system exploits AA, funneling unwilling people into the program simply because it lacks the means to otherwise deal with them.  (That thousands of lives have been saved this way, however, can’t be denied.)

Glaser’s allegation that AA touts itself as the sole solution to alcoholism contradicts a clear statement in the Big Book’s forward to the second edition: “Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly.  Yet it is our hope that all those who have as yet found no answer may begin to find one in the pages of this book…” [italics mine].  In other words, if you CAN’T find any other way out, we have something to offer you here.

Glaser implies that Marty Mann and her 1940s fellows in the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism were scheming to promote AA:  “But AA supporters worked to make sure their approach remained central. Marty Mann joined prominent Americans…”  Gosh, Gabrielle, that’s right!  They were trying to hog the spotlight so they could get…uh… money?  fame?  Does it ever enter your mind that their sole intention was to help dying alcoholics who had not yet heard of any solution?  Do you ever consider that such is what AA is all about?

Perhaps most irritating to me, but indicative of a larger societal misconception, Glaser confounds AA’s higher power with religiosity: “‘Alcohol- and substance-use disorders are the realm of medicine,’ McLellan says. ‘This is not the realm of priests.’”  Excuse me, but what the hell do priests have to do with AA?  Absolutely nothing!  AA is a spiritual program, not a religious one.  Why is this distinction so difficult for so many to appreciate?  Religion tells people what to believe; spirituality calls for an inward search for meaning and truth.  The only goal dictated by spirituality is growth toward loving kindness.

Science, Glaser claims, does not support this charlatan program of abstinence and spiritual growth.  In this oversight, she ignores a wealth of scientific research supporting the success of AA (see Substance Abuse: Alcoholics Anonymous Science Update), simply because no study can figure out why it works.  Spiritual growth does not show up under a microscope – so it must amount to nothing!

microscopeIf Glaser were to succeed in leading alcoholics away from AA, what great gains would be made?  If alcoholics took opioid antagonists like naltrexone or the muscle relaxant baclofen sensibly as Glaser propounds, if everyone would stop this silly business of abstinence and spirituality, from what would Glaser be rescuing people?  “The prospect of never taking another sip is daunting, to say the least. It comes with social costs and may even be worse for one’s health than moderate drinking: research has found that having a drink or two a day could reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, and diabetes.”  Oh – I see!  Abstinence is scary, so we shouldn’t attempt it.  And not drinking, based on a handful of studies in the past 2 decades, suggests there might be potential benefits for some people from drinking moderately.

For alcoholics, these potential benefits from 1-2 drinks per day do not put much on the scale against death or the misery of living with full blown alcoholism.  Sadly, I am willing to bet that Glaser’s article will, for scores of people in the difficult, early stages of sobriety, serve as excuse for relapse.  Of those, how many will die?  Will Glaser ever know?  Does she care?

There is so much more to AA than not drinking!  People in the program evolve into their best selves.  In a matter of a months, they realize a potential that could not have been brought about by years of opioid antagonist pills and therapy.  In AA I learned to seek a guiding voice other than my ego’s, to love imperfect people as I am imperfect, and to be of service – the most rewarding pursuit life has to offer.  For the first time in my life, I discovered what it is to be happy from the inside out.  I am a different person today because of AA: quitting drinking is only a small part of that.  How tragic to think that Glaser’s finger pointing may rob others of what I have found!

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What the Heck is a Spiritual Path?

A number of people dear to me in AA just can’t seem to stay sober.  Their recovery looks hopeful at times: they’ll string together a few months or even a year, but then they go out again.  At some point they drag themselves back looking haggard and beat up and often shockingly aged.  They share about being totally defeated, about knowing they can’t drink, and about their rock solid determination to stay sober this time.  Sadly, though, a few months or a year later, they’re gone again.

The Big Book tells us why: they “failed to enlarge [their] spiritual life” (35).  During my drinking, I very much wanted to be a good person so I could be happy – to be true to my partners (at least in everything they knew about), to be honest (enough), and to contribute to the world (so I’d be respected).  If I had brought that same approach to getting or staying sober – reliance on self – I’d be drunk today.

Here’s the deal: There are two ways to live in this world – by the guidance of ego, or by the guidance of something greater than ego.  Practicing alcoholics, when they look inward, consult with the authority of ego, which has one sole criterion for direction: me.  “What will make me feel good/get me what I (think I) want?”  I may desire amazing personal experiences, or to feel attractive or valued.  I may want money and a sense of importance – the recognition of achieving great things.

The active alcoholic may sincerely wish to live by higher principles because doing so might help goalsthem grab the things they link to happiness – like a career, a relationship, or esteem among peers.  But in all their navigation, the joystick always remains firmly in the grip of ego, whose sole objective is to get what it wants.  That’s why most practicing alcoholics harbor secrets.  That’s why their love is striated with selfishness.  And it’s why they’re never immune from the seduction of alcohol, because ego assures them a drink will feel awesome – or at least bring relief – and they take the bait.

What’s the alternative?  To be holier than thou?  To renounce earthly life and pursue some lofty enlightenment?

No.  It’s to admit we’re irreparably flawed, and to commit to trying every day to be a slightly better person than we were yesterday – not by the criterion of what feels good, but by the light of what, in our deepest heart, we know to BE good.  Pursuit of goodness – however we define it, however faultily we seek it, and whatever that progress may look  like –  is the essence of a spiritual path.

Let’s look at this idea in pieces.  First, admission.  The ego howls againstbroken vase the idea that we are irreparably flawed.  “I can fix myself!” it insists.  “Really!  I know best!”  To admit we’re permanently confused and lacking integrity requires the two greatest forms of ego Kryptonite on the planet: honesty and humility.  This first step is the foundation on which every alcoholic bases a new experience of living.

Next, commitment.  A spiritual path requires that we accept the futility of living by self-propulsion.  Though society at large touts “taking control,” a spiritual path requires relinquishing the claim that we’re qualified to call the shots.  In AA this means we commit to the steps, the fellowship, and service work.  For non-alcoholics, too, some form of spiritual community is often involved, whether a sangha, a church, a yoga or meditation group, or some other family of like-minded people also trying to grow spiritually.  We begin to test our own thinking – which we have admitted to be flawed – against the wisdom of this sounding board.

What we know to BE good is the thing we commit to.  The Big Book tells us, “deep down in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God.”  Unfortunately, many people assume this idea should equate to the God of religion, which may or may not be found anywhere in them – let alone deep down!  My own god has nothing to do the God of any religion – that’s why I forgo the capital ‘G.’

My god is the tremendous power of unconditional love in which all blue-and-white-orchidlife is swimming.  Not everyone needs to go to AA to find and tap this source, but we all need it to get and stay sober.  This power is available to anyone by any name or in any form – as innate goodness or a religious deity or the frickin’ Force from Star Wars: how you conceive of it does not matter.  What changes your life is that you trust its goodness and ask it for guidance in all actions, at each juncture.

Of course ego still elbows its way in countless times, because we’re still flawed.  But our intention remains to shift our point of reference away from ME! to a deeper sense of what is right and good.  We try to pause before we act – especially when we don’t want to – in an effort to discern the two courses.  That is the path – intention and effort.  We hang onto a faith that if we keep earnestly seeking one day at a time, we will be guided.

Ironically, this course usually brings us a richer life than we could ever have imagined. At my home group last night, the chair took issue with the saying, “My worst day sober is better than my best day drunk.”  He pointed out that he’d had some “fuckin’ awesome times” in his early drinking.  But when I was called on, I cross-talked a tad: I recalled that all my “awesome” drunken times boiled down to feeling awesome about ME! Even if I said, “I fuckin’ love you, man!” I really meant, “Wow! – I don’t feel alienated and alone!”  The spiritual path opened by AA has nurtured in me the gift of genuinely loving others – of living for something larger than myself.  That’s what we’re here to do.  And really, it’s a high no glory days can touch.

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Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, drank a lot.  Drinking was a staple of his sanga, where he threw big parties among his students, and he was known to carry vodka in a water bottle.  Trungpa explained in one of his spiritual books why his drinking differed from that of an ordinary alcoholic:

“Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism…

“For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…”*

Sadly, it appears that Trungpa’s liver failed to read the book and appreciate his “transcendental style” of yogi drinking.  Despite diagnoses of cirrhosis and doctors’ warnings that more drinking would kill him, Trungpa continued to drink heavily until it did indeed kill him in April of 1986, when he was just 48 years old.

Trungpa~

Philosopher Alan Watts was considered a sage throughout the ’60s after he rose to prominence with the 1951 publication of The Wisdom of Insecurity – a pivotal text  introducing Eastern concepts to Western society.  The book considers the ego’s dis-ease with the unstable nature of reality and its efforts to create security via constructs of memory and projection coalescing in a story of “I,” which Watts dismisses as unreal: only awareness divorced from self can access reality.  Watts, like Trungpa, was well aware of the futility of escapist drinking:

“One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic.  In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk… And yet he drinks.  For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse… for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.”

Unfortunately, identifying this vicious circle did not grant Watts the power to exit it.  Like Trungpa, he often gave lectures while sloppy drunk. He, too, developed end-stage alcoholism that deeply concerned his ex-wife and friends, and died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy – e.g. heart failure – at 58.

Watts~

Both of these men were masters of self-knowledge and the meditative disciplines that yield inner peace.  Both could speak brilliantly on the ills of ego and treasures of honesty.  Yet neither could stop drinking.  And they’re just two examples out of jillions.  Why did they fail?  Why would people so insightful not quit what was clearly killing them?  The Big Book explains:

“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.  But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried.  We… could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, …failed utterly.” (p. 44)

In Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa makes very clear that no god enters into his vision.  “Over the past seven years, I have been a presenting series of ‘Shambala Teachings’ [on]… secular enlightenment, that is, the possibility of uplifting our personal existence and that of others without the help of any religious outlook.”

Good for him!  I agree wholeheartedly that self-knowledge is great stuff.  But it will not cure alcoholism.

In a 1968 talk, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, described the initial amazement of the psychiatric community at the unprecedented breakthroughs of AA.  Many alcoholism specialists attended meetings and saw their own alcoholic patients, with whom years of psychiatric work had failed, achieve abstinence and mental health in a matter of weeks.  One suggested that Bill assemble a group of such psychiatrists to testify before the Academy of Medicine about AA’s success. So Bill asked them.

“And not a one would do it! …In effect, each said, ‘Look, Bill. You folks have added up in one column more of the resources which have been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else… [But] the sum of them won’t add up to the speed of these transformations in these very grim cases… So for us, there is an unknown factor at work in AA.  [B]eing scientists, we… call it the X factor.  We believe you people call it the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy and explain the grace of God?  No one can.'”

questionSorry, folks!  But the X factor, and that alone, is what saves an alcoholic: Connection with a higher power, to god as we understand it.  We ask god to help us, and we’re relieved of a compulsion that no amount of self-knowledge can touch.

Humility is the key ingredient to receiving grace.  We have to ask for it, accepting that we’ve been defeated.  By contrast, Trungpa, for all his wisdom, exhibited a strong tendency toward hubris.  The true warrior, he explains in Shambala, is both Outrageous and Inscrutable.  “…[H]aving overcome hope and fear, the warrior… fathoms the whole of space.  You go beyond any possibilities of holding back at all…. Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback.” In other words, I got this!  Screw what anyone else thinks!

Watts, meanwhile, purported to embrace God, but his abstractions reduced it to a mere abandonment of I, which enabled connection with the eternal now and rendered us one with God.  For Watts, there could be no “Hey, god (you) please help (me)!” because the you / I division negated the fact that we are god: “[W]e cannot lay ourselves open to grace, for all such split-mindedness is the denial… of our freedom.”

Reluctance to seek god’s help almost killed AA co-founder Bill Wilson, too.  Relatively unknown in AA culture is the fact that Bill was so deeply repulsed by the God element in his friend Ebby’s solution that he went on drinking for three weeks after Ebby’s visit and landed yet again in a sanitarium.  There, after Ebby had visited him again to recap the spiritual solution, he had this experience:

“And again the despair deepened until the last of this prideful obstinacy was momentarily crushed out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said, ‘If there is a God, will he show himself?’ And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind’s eye, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, ‘I am a free man! So THIS is the God of the preachers!'”

Light
In my Near-Death Experiences group, I’ve heard several people describe similar experiences, when the “white light” of love brilliantly illuminated the room around them; but, naturally, many of Bill’s contemporaries considered him daft for insisting it had happened.  In his talk, he attributes this phenomenon not to his own specialness, but to the role it enabled him to play in AA, explaining that the powerful faith most AAs develop over months or years was for him simply crammed into a few minutes: “It did give me an instant conviction of the presence of God which has never left me… And I feel that that extra dividend may have made the difference in whether I would have persisted with AA in the early years or not.”

In other words, Bill was given what he needed not only to overcome a lifetime of harrowing addiction, but to co-create AA and persist in carrying its message into the dark world of his fellow alcoholics.  Why?  Because he asked… and frickin’ meant it.

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PS: I have tremendous respect for both these sages as well as for Buddhism.  By no means am I critical of their legacy or beliefs.  Reading both authors did contribute to my self-knowledge, for which I am grateful, because such insight aids in a lifetime quest for serenity.  My point is merely that self-knowledge, no matter how deep or how keen, cannot arrest this disease, as these two tragically premature deaths testify.  See comments below. 

– Louisa

  • (Heart of the Buddha, p. 153)

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Step 3: A Decision

What if I trusted god?

Doesn’t trust by definition mean not knowing?  Isn’t god by definition something I can’t know?

But what if I truly trusted trust?  Could I place mine in this unknowable god?  What if I surrendered this constant fight to fend off invisible threats and beat every dark fear to the punch?  Maybe I could give it up this constant need to choreograph the people and events around me if I decided it wasn’t necessary.  What might that feel like?  Why is it so difficult?

I could try thinking about how I got here.  embryosHow much say did I have about what I thought ought to happen in my mom’s womb?  Innumerable complexities aligned with inconceivable precision to bring about the organism that is me.  My mom herself had no clue what was happening.  All life originates from a process far beyond anything humans could ever comprehend or rig.  To give that process a name or classify it as “biology” doesn’t make it any less dumbfounding.

At birth our consciousness consists of trust and little more.  What is crying but half a bridge-?  As a survival strategy, it’s founded on the blind, helpless trust that someone will respond, someone will care.  That impulse – a precursor to prayer – is the only power given a human infant, but it’s the only one we need.

All that for what?  So I could grow up to earn money and buy groceries?  So it seems.  What if god has no extravagant “plan” for my life but loves me overwhelmingly regardless, simply for being me?  What if all the love I’ve ever felt and absorbed, every embrace from intimates and each kindness from strangers, every affection to ever move my heart – what if all of that energy pooled together were just the tiniest smidge of god?  What if an ocean of love is what generates every leaf and imbues every living thing with the urge to venture and delight and to rest and heal?

I might decide that, in ways far beyond my understanding, this intelligence orchestrates the outer world as much as inner, shapes every circumstance as much as every cell.  What if I could see that there is even more beauty, grace, and agility in the spirit of the gazelle in that moment when the cheetah’s jaws close on its throat than there was in its spirited flight, as it escapes the bonds of muscles and neurons to rejoin its brilliant source?  What if my perspective let me understand that from the beginning those two have been one, because the cheetah (in its mother’s womb) and the gazelle (in its mother’s womb) are two notes of the same symphony, one wave overtaking another with the same momentum?

earthMaybe then, in the same way, I could be okay with whatever happens.  Maybe I’d get it that my life is just a life, a storyline beaded with random incidents but beautifully embedded in some enterprise both gargantuan and exquisite, more vast than I can ever conceive.  It could be that the universe is indeed unfolding as it should, with me in it, so that I am still, in a sense, within a global womb.

Maybe I should think about the clear-eyed toddler I saw today outside Fred Meyer whose mom had just put her astride a fiberglass horse (without even feeding it quarters), who squealed with the uncontainable delight of now: something AMAZING was happening!  The mom’s love showed in her eyes, but my love for the two of them flooded inward from my smile – just some lady walking by – with intensity neither could guess.  Why?  Because they were me with my son ten years ago, and my mom with me half a century ago.  With them were the echoes of children long since aged and dead from centuries past, their horses of ceramic or wood now crumbled to dust.

That child will die.  My friends and family and pets have died.  And, yes, sometimes shit happens that is not of god.  There’s suffering and loss and disease and unfairness, so that my eyes teared at the child’s tender vulnerability, like mine and like yours.  God can’t guard us from pain and mishap.  But always, always there is love and more love – growing back, surviving, passed down – and the chance it gives us to cast its brightness on the now, to delight in our sheer being, to know joy.  The avalanche takes down trees centuries old, but amid the rubble, with the season, springs a tiny seedling.  These are the ways of god.

 

Fir Seedling

What if I put my trust in that ongoing love – mine, yours, god’s – as a tremendous net I can fall into?  What if all of it is good – not just striving but failing, not just birth but death?  Then I can fill in the dark unknown future with a flickering faith that god’s goodness is the ultimate power underlying all life, that it has always supported me whether I’ve known it or not, and that it always will.

That way I’m freed to seek out my own fiberglass horse in whatever form it takes.  I can rejoice right now just because I’m alive.  I’m here solely to be me and love you, not to stress and plot and worry about stuff I’m powerless over anyway.  I seek god’s guidance, try my best, end of story.  My ideas of how everything should come about or end up are just that – ideas.  As for reality, God’s got it.

I’ll roll with that.

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Schmucks

Today, Thursday the 29th, I have 20 years clean and sober. Woot!

Here’s a journal entry I wrote 20 years ago after my first AA meeting:

1/29/1995:  “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place, and felt I will never, never stop drinking so why want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a drink – a glass of wine, a beer – better than I know anyone in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop. I wish I could drink in the morning, at eleven, at lunch, at three, and on after five ‘til the night is gone.”

2015-01-29 08.01.00

journal page

Writing that was a scared, deeply confused and unhappy semi-suicidal woman who thought her mind ought to be able to get her out of any jam. The last thing she suspected was that those people among whom she felt “so uncomfortable and out of place” would not only save her from slow death, they would teach her to transform living into something beautiful and joy-filled. I remember judging every person in that room by the standards my family had ingrained in me. Anyone lacking at least a BA, anyone with a working class job who wasn’t slumming ironically for the sake of some art form, was ignorant. As for the 12 Steps, it took me about 40 seconds to read them off the wall. How could such vague ideas accomplish anything?  Sure, these ordinary schmucks believed in them, but I was way smarter and more special.

Wisdom, however, is neither academic nor cultural. It’s about living – how we respond to the passions of being human, like our desires for love, fulfillment, and specialness.  It concerns how we deal with fear, anger, and the impulse to defend what we love.  And it’s far more a matter of what we let go as false than what we cling to as true.  The ordinary schmucks in AA taught me how to cast off the hoary crust of fear that had blocked me from the truths of god and my fellows, freeing me to be myself and to love you intrinsically because you are, at heart, just like me.

The first things the schmucks taught me were wisdom bytes passed down in AA, which made such an impression that I remember to this day where I sat relative to the person speaking.  “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” said a guy at the next table with unruly hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. “That’s why I need the help of something greater than me.”  Whoa! I thought, no wonder I can’t get better!  Too bad I reject everything to do with God!  But then a few days later an overweight woman in polyester pants sitting to my left against the wall said, “If you can’t think God, if that’s objectionable to you, just think Good Orderly Direction.  You can seek that – something deeper than your own thinking.”

There light_bulbare countless other key moments when light bulbs went on for me. “My ego tells me I’m the shit, and my self-loathing insists I’m a piece of shit.  But God grants me the humility to be right-sized – to be a worker among workers, a driver among drivers, a sober drunk among sober drunks.”

But even more important, what the schmucks have shared with me is their experience of living life. The first story I ever identified with was told by a guy (sitting near the door to my right) who ordered Chinese take-out that arrived without chopsticks.  He knew he had a pair in the house, some nice bamboo ones, but couldn’t find them. He went bananas searching for them.  He kept looking in the silverware drawer again and again, lifting out the tray and shoving stuff around. Furious, he checked all kinds of illogical places – the junk drawer, his desk, the broken dishwasher – while his take-out got cold. It seemed to be about a principle.

This was in maybe my second week sober, but I still hear that guy’s words every time I go bonkers trying to find something.  “It’s just my ego refusing to accept what is” echoes in my mind.  “It’s just me being human and flawed.”  I’ve since heard countless stories of ways to be human and flawed, issues I once thought were mine alone.  Incrementally, they push me toward acceptance of things I cannot change.  But what about that courage to change the things I can?

The 12 steps grew from empty suggestions to a revolution in life perspective once I worked them with a hard-ass sponsor who pushed me to see beyond my story.  They changed me, dredging up insights from the depths of my inner knowledge and compelling me to face them.  When I didn’t like what I saw, I was willing to ask my god for help, much as I’d asked in theoak-tree beginning to be relieved of the compulsion to drink.  I was willing to work with god to become what it (i.e. love/Good Orderly Direction) would have me be.  I write this now when I have almost no time in my week because of my commitment to follow through on that direction.

Telling the truth – the human truth. That’s what I heard the schmucks doing over and over once I’d awoken through the steps.  They taught me with their shares that there’s almost always a deeper, more honest revelation underneath whatever story we’ve cooked up about ourselves and others.  Pretty much any problem boils down to “I’m afraid” of not getting what I think I need or losing what I have.  And any happiness boils down to “I love.”

I’m no longer the woman who wrote of clinging to her glass, to her liquid freedom and happiness that had, unfortunately, quit working.  Some wisdom comes simply with age.  We begin to see the old in the young and vice versa, see the broke in the rich, and to have compassion for people living though pains we have known.  Whether one is in AA or not, pain can be the greatest teacher if it moves us to replace our defunct illusions with love and tolerance rather than tout them with righteous judgement.  Gradually, we come to see the trajectory of birth to death resembles a meteor’s streak through the night sky: the small and insignificant burn bright, casting light where there was none, and then go out.  We can’t begrudge anyone the color or angle of their flare.  We are all miraculous and unique ordinary schmucks.

Thanks for 20 years, guys!

20 year coin

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Recovery, Twelve Steps