Thursday, 30 December 2010

Grace and ignorance

I've heard it said, 'God's grace lasts as long as ignorance. As soon as truth starts showing up, you're going to need to peddle hard.'

I know what is meant by this: when I was new to AA, staying sober, for a while, was entirely automatic. I was safe and protected, and enjoying the Step Ten promises without having taken any of the Steps. As time passed, I realised I needed to do the work of the Steps merely to remain sober, let alone live a life I wanted to live.

The danger with this interpretation, however, is false inference that, just because you cannot see God's grace, it is no longer available.

When the cloud of ignorance dissipates and the truth of how I have been living starts to show up, it is not God who has moved, but my consciousness which has shifted. The clouds of ignorance move from covering my thoughts and behaviour to blocking my sight of God.

God's grace, I have to believe, is totally available to everyone at all times.

But it is up to me to make sure that I take the effort necessary to remove what blocks me from accessing that grace.

Ironically, I do not have the strength, myself, to remove those blocks and need to invoke the power from which I am detached by dint of those blocks . . . to remove those blocks.

It's a terrible vicious circle.

The leap of faith required is that of making the effort to approach God by performing the preliminary work for the actual removal of the blocks (Steps Four through Nine), and, mysteriously, the power becomes available. But it is not mine to wield, it is mine to be the channel for.

The faith to take action which is patently insufficient to achieve what needs to be achieved, by treating what is obviously not enough as entirely enough.

And then I realise the power was there all along. My separation from God was only ever an optical illusion.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The ducks that refuse to quack

"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 much we tried." (44:4, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')

Check. The AA programme as a code of morals plus a better philosophy of life did not work for me. I could not apply it without power.

"They often forget father was beyond human aid." (128:2)

Check. So you give me the AA programme as a code of morals plus a better philosophy of life AND you give me a hundred forms of human support, help, friendship, companionship, counselling, advice, encouragement, and general hand-holding, and I am STILL screwed. Royally. Utterly. Irredeemably. Even with all this help, I still drank periodically. And, once I was bafflingly graced with sobriety, I was still miserable and still acting out in all sorts of other ways.

"Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?" (61:1)

Check. So, you give me the AA programme as a code of morals plus a better philosophy of life AND all of the human help (see above) AND, through some cosmic fluke, I manage to manage well, and I get all my ducks in a row. Trouble is, I can get all my ducks in a row, but I cannot force them to quack. Right job, right boyfriend, right house, right holiday, right social circle, right pension scheme, right everything. Am I happy? Am I satisfied? No, siree. Still whistling in the dark. Sharing at meetings at how wonderful the programme is and how grateful I am because of all of the gifts of sobriety and wondering when I am going to stop waking up at 5.00 a.m. with panic attacks, when the acting out in other addictions is going to stop, and when my head will finally let my feet rest.

"Lack of power, that was our dilemma." (45:1)

Check. Oh, boy, check.

You cannot tell me how to live and expect me to be able to do it, any more than I can fly because I understand aerodynamics.

You give me human help, but human help does not give me a reliable source of power, and, sooner or later, I wear it out, suck it dry, and discover myself as bereft as before.

You give me the 'tools' to manage my life and, with years of painful, strenuous effort, I do a passable impression of someone manageable, yet nothing has changed inside, and I am just as uncomfortable.

Nope, I do not have a choice about how to live, how to think, or how to act, without power from somewhere.

The gifts of sobriety, without power, are ashes in my mouth.

In the past, I have felt a little bit cowed at AA meetings where other people act their way into right thinking, have the power to bring about a change in their mentality through the application of sound principles, willpower, and human help, and are filled with gratitude at their lives, merely because they are sober and things have come together.

You see, I tried to copy this approach, and I failed and failed badly.

I see things differently now: different types of folks get to come to AA. This is right and good. And the various types of help for various types of alcoholic are all here, on tap. I am glad that everyone is here. But I need to know what type of alcoholic I am and what the true nature of my problem is.

The type of alcoholic I am appears cursed with a lack of power, although it is not a curse—it is a total blessing.

Why? I have been forced to jettison a thousand attachments and dependencies. I have been forced to find God within and without and within you and without you. I have been forced, at spiritual gunpoint, to ask God to turn me outwards to my fellows, to forgive them, to stop fearing them, and to clear the decks with them.

The life I led before, in the first few years of my sobriety, was by no means a bad one.

But I would not exchange its best moments for the worst I have now.

I totally identify with Fred's story (pp. 39–43) in this regard.

What I have been given today by God is indescribably wonderful. But I shall have a go at describing it. I have been largely detached from my circumstances, and have the presence of God available to me, every day. I can be at peace, alone, for hours, without being troubled by what arises in my consciousness. I feel connection with people who are not present, and with people who have died. I am never alone, even, and especially when I am alone.

My discontentment and my powerlessness to do anything about that discontentment are the greatest gifts I have received since being separated from alcohol in 1993, and it is that for which I am truly grateful.

Whose price is it anyway?

"Simple but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all." (14:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')

For a long time, I viewed this 'price' as a trade-off, a sacrifice on my part in return for which I would be granted freedom from alcohol and freedom from misery.

Funnily enough, the Book does not indicate who pays the price. I have learned it is not me who pays the price. It is my ego. In its death throes, it attacks me, in an attempt to prevent me from choosing God over it as the source of my power—it thus convinces me it is I who is making the sacrifice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What I am being asked to sacrifice is being "confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence" (51:0), it is the resentment and fear, it is the production of confusion rather than harmony.

"The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil." (82:3)

THIS is what I am being asked to give up: heartbreak, the destruction of relationships, the uprooting of affections, the domestic turmoil.

Hardly a sacrifice in the true sense of 'sacrifice', really, is it?

The ego's gifts—the flashes of pleasure at seeming (and short-lived) victory in the battle for supremacy, control, adoration, adulation, and obedience—are not gifts at all, but the drugs of a dealer who then supplies increasingly weak doses at increasing prices.

But, oh, the ego WILL suffer as it is battered by Steps Four through Nine. Which is why a short, sharp shock is as perfectly effective a way of proceeding through these Steps as a long, drawn-out exercise, and actually less painful, overall. Firstly, a few days or weeks of nagging, tormenting, temptation, and fear-mongering on the part of my ego throughout the process of its detonation will inevitably be less painful than a year of the same. Secondly, the exhilaration of momentum can sometimes drown out the ego's complaints, and speed can mean the ego has less time to devise and implement its defence mechanisms.

So: the price I have to pay is an illusion. The only obstacle, really, is the inevitable discomfort of the process. However, given that I am uncomfortable anyway at the beginning of the process, the discomfort of the process will likely be no worse than the discomfort of stasis.

Death to the ego.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Step Seven: dandelions and lawns

"My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen." (76:2, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')


What I get from this is the idea that I am not going to be dry-cleaned by God. The change that happens is the change that is necessary for me to be more useful to other people. As a friend of mine says, "that means you get to keep any defects of character that are merely embarrassing."

I fall flat on my face on a regular basis. I am as capable of mind-bending, all-consuming resentment (usually masked as self-pity or disillusionment) as I ever was. Pride, impatience, intolerance, judgement, every defect remains entirely intact in its potential in me, and, whilst there has been improvement in terms of frequency and severity of 'relapse' into these states of mind, spiritual perfection is about as remote as the North Star. Something to navigate by but no more.

There are two additional perspectives, however, which have transformed my experience of my defects of character.

Firstly, the resurgence of character defects is no reason to believe that they have not been 'removed'. If I view the defect as the obstacle in the path, its removal from the path and the consequent enablement of my usefulness can be perfect. The fact that an identical-looking obstacle appears further down the path does not imply that the prior removal did not take place. The potential for the defect—even as the potential for drinking again—may be a single, inherent feature of being human (or, in the case of drinking, of being an alcoholic). The defect, as a manifestation in my thinking and behaviour, can be perfectly removed at a given point in space and time.

To use a simple image: if a dandelion is removed from a lawn, and another dandelion grows, this does not mean that the removal of the first dandelion was imperfect. It is not the same dandelion that has returned. It is a new dandelion. Its DNA may be the same, but it is a different flower. This simply means that dandelions tend to grow on lawns, and action is required if the lawn is not to be choked.

Secondly, apparently catastrophic flowerings of my ego (with the full gamut of character defects the flow from this flowering)—whether I am 'relearning' an old lesson or accessing long-dormant areas of dysfunction that need to have the light of healing shone on them—may not, in ultimate consequence, be as catastrophic as I believe at the time.

"We were prepared to look at it from an entirely different angle." (66:3)

"Henry Ford once made a wise remark to the effect that experience is the thing of supreme value in life. That is true only if one is willing to turn the past to good account. We grow by our willingness to face and rectify errors and convert them into assets. The alcoholic's past thus becomes the principle asset of the family and frequently it is almost the only one!" (124:1)

"Should it will happen again, regard it in a different light. Maybe it will prove a blessing!" (116:1)


I have fallen into the trap of wandering into remorse and morbid reflection (cf. 87:1) when I look at my own mistakes. This is where I need to follow the 66:3 instruction of looking at my errors and relapses into old ways of thinking and acting from an entirely different angle.

Firstly, every time I learn an old lesson once again, I am not simply repeating the experience, I am deepening it. And, each time I deepen my experience of defeat at my own hands, I am pushed further towards God.

Secondly, the fact that I regularly fall flat on my face keeps me accessible to others. When people work on Step Four or Step Five with me, I can pull out inventory from last week or even that morning, and I do not have to stretch back ten or fifteen years to find mistakes. The experience is fresh. Any humility I have will likely come from recent humiliation. Basically, the repeated experiences of being bitch-slapped by my own ego mean that I remain part of the 'we' of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the road of happy destiny is one that I still get to trudge—I am not cycling past the trudgers; I am one of them.

Thirdly, a casual, uninvolved observer of my life might conclude that the debacles I experience in my own life are not actually about me—they are about equipping me to be useful to others. The spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it, and that means I need to live life and get it wrong to learn how to apply the principles. The mistakes are not, therefore, mistakes. They are part of the training. And how I help others is merely to show them how I was given help myself (cf. 124:2).

In general, therefore, I am no longer scared of and no longer (lastingly) ashamed of my setbacks. It can sometimes be a while before I 'cheerfully capitalise' trouble as an opportunity to demonstrate His omnipotence, but I am amazed at how transformative this mental turnaround can be—as soon as I make the decision to see trouble in this way, the tap of relief gets turned on, as the Bigger Picture looms into view.

The foolishness of values

There is a widespread belief in AA that our character defects are our main obstacle.

The impatience, intolerance, lack of compassion, judgement, obstinacy, argumentativeness, and domination, and the thousand other manifestations of self in my thought and action are indeed problematical.

But these are the branches of the problem, not the root.

The root is selfishness and self-centredness (62:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous').

What is the anatomy of the selfishness and self-centredness?

"If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values." (64:1)

This element of the inventory process—an examination of my values—has provided me with answers.

Whatever my resentment (= my disturbance at the gap between reality as I perceive it and my ideal as I have conjured it), my self-esteem is affected. I have never, in fact, resented anything or anyone without this being the case.

Page 65 suggests I consider the first three columns of the resentment inventory carefully. I do this as part of the inventory process itself. When I identify self-esteem as being affected, I ask myself these six questions:

How would I like to be?

How do I think I am doing against that ideal?

What liabilities in you remind me of my own?

What assets in you remind me of my own?

What liabilities in you reflect my assets?

What assets in you are in competition with mine?

These six questions reveal my values.

Let us say my value is this: "having a good recovery". Nothing wrong with valuing good recovery, surely? As soon as my self-esteem is attached to that, however, I am in trouble. Firstly, I have to define what good recovery is, and I have to use some metric to measure it. And, as I hear frequently in AA, the quality of my relationships, the ability to hold down a job, orderliness of my life, doing what I said I was going to do when I said I was going to do it, spiritual insight, and many other indicators are used to measure and therefore judge a person's recovery.

Let us look at how this applies to the six questions above:

How would I like to be?

Well, all of the above 'qualities' would be nice. Then I'd have 'good recovery', wouldn't I?

How do I think I am doing against that ideal?

Oh. Well, on a good day, a seven out of ten, perhaps. On a bad day, we are down into the minuses. And, on observing my falling short, I will push this observation out of sight and out of mind, because, when I snap at someone, or take ten hours to do five hours' work, or forget an appointment, or find myself thinking extremely unseemly thoughts, my stock value plummets, and I cannot stand my so-called 'low self-worth'.

Already, having these 'values' is boomeranging back at me.

And we have not even got on to examining how it affects my relationships with others.

What liabilities in you remind me of my own?

Oh, oh, oh. Now we are in trouble. So I value 'good recovery', but discover, say, my judgements and negative opinions tarnishing my image of myself as someone with said 'good recovery'. I push down that awareness, and loathe being presented with a mirror of myself in you, when you are guilty of displaying the very liabilities I am denying in myself. So I will separate myself from anyone who mirrors my dark side.

What assets in you remind me of my own?

So, let us say I value myself for sponsoring a bunch of people. My ego is not going to be happy if you are doing the same. You are competition. Trouble is with any asset—if you have it, the market value is cut in half. If everyone has it, it is worthless to the ego, which requires distinction for self-definition. If everyone in the choir harmonises, no one hears your voice. And the ego hates that.

What liabilities in you reflect my assets?

Let us say I value myself for going to a whole bunch of meetings. If you do not, my ego will look down on you (obviously, because you 'do not "value" your recovery the way I do') or secretly fear your ability (apparently) to get away with it. Whatever value I attach my self-worth to, I actually need you to display the inverse, to be afflicted with the mirror-image liability. Sight is of no value to the ego in the land of the sighted. In the land of the blind, the sighted man is king. And the ego, once more, is happy. It is quite grotesque, this—it is impossible for me to value myself for anything good without simultaneously denigrating and looking down on whoever does not display that asset, and, what is more, my ego needs you to remain in deficit to maintain its elevated position.

What assets in you reflect my liabilities?

This is the probably the easiest 'ouch' to see. If I am troubled by my own failures to live the principles of the programme, I am going to be jealous and hostile towards anyone sailing through AA without, apparently, touching the sides. What I value has become the stick to beat myself with, and a source of separation between me and anyone who embodies that value.

To sum up: whatever I value I will set as an unreachable goal—unreachable, at least, on a consistent basis and at a price I am willing to pay. And I will use this value to separate myself from you, whether or not I have that asset, and whether or not you have that asset.

There is only one answer. And that can be found on page 28: "all of us, whatever our race, creed, or colour, are the children of a living Creator". I am of intrinsic, inherent, and infinite value merely through my existence. And that goes for you, too, sunshine. Nothing I can do can detract from or elevate me above that value. And there is no measure accompanying it. It is innate and eternal.

There is no room for judgement of any kind in the programme. There is no room for guilt. There is no room for remorse. There is no room for measurement, assessment, evaluation, and the ascribing of values to anything or anyone. There is only the question of what works and what does not work.

I need concern myself only with what efforts I make to stay in conscious contact with God, and, when my behaviour demonstrates, through my failure to live up to the principle of 'performing His work well' due to the resurgence of self in some department of my life, all I need to do is renew my resolve to ask God to draw me closer to Him.

To the extent that I pull away from God, to that very extent will ego take over and drive my thinking and action. The problem is always separation from God. The answer is always drawing closer to God.

And my value—and yours—is always infinite.

Friday, 10 December 2010

When we retire: silence and secrets

"When we retire at night we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God's forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken." (87:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')


For a very long time, I took Step Ten to be nightly written inventory (plus an occasional 'spot-check' and a periodic reworking of Step Four) and Step Eleven to be prayer plus an attempt to follow Eastern practices to achieve an altered state of consciousness or to blank my mind of all thought. In other words, I had been basing my understanding on a combination of what I happened to hear at meetings and Hollywood depictions of meditation.

It struck me as odd, therefore, that the first paragraph in the Big Book that examines the subject of prayer and meditation in detail focuses on self-examination. This looked like an error, as though Step Ten had leaked into Step Eleven.

I have been granted a different understanding of this now, however.

Step Ten, when practised as set out on pages 84 and 85, is about developing consciousness of my relationship with God and the world around me as I go through the day. It is about taking the insight from Step Four—the deep understanding of the failure of self-will plus self-propulsion as a basis of living, i.e. the Step Three requirement—and applying it in the moment, asking God to bring me back to the line of His will for me whenever I spot myself straying. No analysis. No fretting. No extended introspection.

This part of Step Eleven is about retiring—standing back—from the day and examining how well I have been practising Step Ten. This self-examination paragraph falls within a 1930s definition, pre-Hollywood, non-Buddhist concept of meditation—directed, guided thought in the presence of God.

Step Ten requires no writing. It requires no analysis. It requires watching, asking, and turning. It requires amends and, sometimes, discussion.

This Step Eleven review I sometimes write down. More often than not, today, I do not.

What is key, however, for me, is that I do not treat this as an analytical exercise. My mind is not to be in charge of this process. My mind is split. Part of my mind resides with God. Another part is in league with my ego, forming little plans and designs and on concealing these plans and designs from the part of me that resides with God. God must be in charge of this process. I do not seek to analyse myself. I ask God to show me what needs to be shown. And I wait in silence until what needs to be shown is indeed shown.

There is no great mystery to the ten questions. I try to cast the net very widely, however. With 'resentment' I ask to be shown any disturbance on my part because my perception of the world does not match my ideal for the world. With 'fear' I ask to be shown any disturbance on my part because my perception of the future does not match my ideal for the future.

Vital to this process, however, is space.

If I do not allow space into the process, I will simply use the Step Eleven review to rehash all of the things I spotted during the day. This is pointless. What is far more important is to allow enough silence for God to show me what I would otherwise be suppressing. Time and time again I have discovered that leaving ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of silence will allow a memory to float to the surface that would otherwise have sunk to the bottom of my consciousness. The junk in the upper part of my mind is not the point of this exercise. The point of this exercise is to bring out the secrets, the thoughts that frighten me so much that I want to push them out of sight. When I look back at the biggest disasters of my recovery, the behaviour that has most harmed other people, the starting point was a thought—a self-seeking desire, usually—which I pushed down and kept secret. Once a thought is labelled 'out of bounds' to the programme, once I have decided to handle a particular area of my life myself, once I allow a secondary, selfish motive to piggy-back sound, otherwise selfless activity, I'm in serious trouble.

This principle applies throughout my AA experience. The one secret I hold from my sponsor will be what kills me. The one secret I hold from myself will split me in two. And the lower self, where the secret resides, is the perfect culturing medium. One day, once the secret has multiplied and fomented, it turns into designs, plans, and actions.

As inspiration turns into intuitive thought and into decisions, secret selfish desires will do likewise.

And this is why the Step Eleven meditation requires God as my guide and the silence that draws out secrets from within my consciousness.

Once the secrets are drawn out, I ask for forgiveness, a return to wholeness, and a return to God's will for me. I am reintegrated and become one, again, because there is no corner hidden from Him.

These secrets are also what form the basis for the corrective measures and the plan for the coming day, the focus of where I am to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear in Step Ten.

The three elements—the Step Eleven plan for the day, the Step Ten monitoring, and the Step Eleven review—thus become a triangle of activities that keep me whole and sane and living fully inside the triangle of the three legacies and thus the circle of wholeness and sanity that is the aim of this programme.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Do resentments against myself go on my Step Four?

"In dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. We listed people, institutions, or principles with whom we were angry." (64:3)

I fall within the category of 'people'.

"Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way, the worse matters got. As in war, the victor only seemed to win. Our moments of triumph were short-lived." (66:0)

It is clear that the writers of the Book equate remorse—disturbance at what we see in ourselves—with resentment—disturbance at what we see in others. To examine one kind of disturbance but not another would be illogical. Thoroughness is paramount.

I have also sponsored people—and been people—who are so locked inside themselves that the resentment is largely turned inwards, not outwards—the outer world barely exists and is not receiving the blame—the awareness is only of internal conflict, and an examination only of those rare moments when the external world looms into view would not beat a path to the underlying conditions.

(I should say, at this point, that the matter of making amends to oneself in Step Nine is radically different—both because the instructions are quite different and because the aim is to repair the relationships with those around us and fit ourselves to be of maximum service to them. But that is for another posting.)

Why it is reasonable to examine resentment against oneself?

When I am resentful, it is because one of the seven areas of self is hurt or threatened:

(1) Pride (what I think you think about me)

(2) Self-esteem (what I think of myself)

(3) Personal relations (the script I give you)

(4) Sex relations (the script I give you inside the sexual arena—a subset of 'personal relations')

(5) Ambitions (what I want in order to be happy and satisfied (p. 61:1))

(6) Security (what I need to be OK)

(7) Pocketbooks (money and what it means to me).
Page 64:0 says 'we had to get down to causes and conditions'. Page 65 sets out examples of the first three columns of a resentment inventory. The 'cause' in the second column of the resentment inventory (the ostensible trigger for the resentment—resentment being understood here to be any disturbance due to a gap between my perception of reality and my ideal) leads me to the 'condition' in the third column of the resentment inventory—the area or areas of self that are affected. It is the third column that matters, not the second. It is the underlying condition, not the trigger, that counts. It is the landmine that is the problem, not who happens to step on it. Were I to look only at landmines you step on, I would never identify the landmines only I am stepping on.

Some examples:

When I was about fifteen years sober, I found myself in almost constant conflict. Sure, a fair amount of resentment was directed outwards. There were whole slews of individuals and groups of people at the mere mention of whom I would erupt into a squawking diatribe. However, my primary conflict was now internal. Largely, I was no longer blaming others. But I was certainly blaming myself.

My ego had set up a whole list of stage characters it wanted—or needed—me to play for it to be happy and satisfied. Whether I was happy and satisfied was largely secondary—it had to put a little sugar in my bowl, in the form of a little puff of pleasure when my status was somehow highlighted or elevated—but even protracted disconsolation and dejection on my part would not shake its resolve. I had to be tip-top in my profession, the ne plus ultra boyfriend, the sensational sponsor; whatever the domain of my life, I had given myself a spectacular job description. Any one job description would have been too much for one person, but my ego had given me at least a dozen. The thing to remember about the ego—it cannot actually do any of the work—all it can do is give orders, and I am the one who has to put the footwork in. Rather like with God, 'Who has no hands but yours'. It will then constantly monitor compliance with these job descriptions and punish me or others if I fall short.

Under 'pride' and 'self-esteem' I look at those job descriptions—as perceived by you and me. Under 'ambitions', 'security', and 'pocketbooks' I find out what Scoobie snacks the ego is promising me if I fulfil those job descriptions. And under 'personal relations' and 'sex relations' I look how my ego thinks the world should treat me based on these job descriptions.

When I am in trouble, my problem is that I am serving self—the ego—rather than God. The point of Step Four is to lay bare the anatomy of that relationship with my ego. In seeing it for what it is, in observing the demands it is making of me and the trouble my attempt to fulfil those demands gets me into, I become totally willing in Step Six to have God take me off ego's payroll and sign me up with Him, and the last five Steps provide the framework for enacting that change in management.

Two of the lessons I learn from Step Four are:

(1) My ego's demands can never fully be fulfilled.

(2) Even to the extent that they are fulfilled, I am never happy.
The problem, therefore, is this third column—the set of demands based on an image of myself enthroned at the centre of the universe as the superlative—Godlike—character in all regards.

When that image collides with reality, I am disturbed.

Now, what, in my perception, causes that image to collide with reality is totally irrelevant.

To take a couple of examples:

If I have two ego-based images of myself, successful businessman and fit athlete, and I pour more time into my business, the fit athlete in me is angry because I am 'letting myself go physically'. If I pour more time into sport, the successful businessman is angry because I am letting my business 'slide into mediocrity'. The reality with which my ego-based images collide is the reality that I cannot, as one person, simultaneously fulfil all of my ego's demands. The conflict is entirely within, not without. The route to this is not resentment with external factors but incrimination of and recrimination against myself.

If a sponsee I have become fond of drinks again, this will affect my false image of myself as the sponsor-as-source-of-healing. Whether I blame the sponsee for not working the Steps hard enough or myself for not carrying the message effectively enough is quite beside the point. My problem lies in the third column, not the second. The problem lies in mind-made images of self conjured by my ego, not in the perception of reality with which that image collides.

And therein lies the condition that needs to be laid bare in Step Four.

So, yes, I do appear on my resentment list.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Rats, resolutions, and decisions

"Wires are inserted directly into excitement centres in the rat's brain, then attached to a depressible pedal in its cage. After discovering the connection between the pedal and the pleasure it brings, the rat depresses the pedal with growing frequency. Gradually the animal neglects other activities. In time it even forgets to eat—and starves to death." (Charles Johnston, MD)
I identify.

True with me and alcohol. True with me and sex addiction and romance addiction (where the sex and the romance are the glass, and the booze consists in the chemicals I produce in my own brain).

It's neat being an addict—once you stop putting chemicals into your body, your body learns to make its own, all by itself. Brings a whole new dimension to what 'clean' can and should mean.

Apparently, if the pedal is disconnected from the drug or jolts of electricity, the rat keeps on pressing down the pedal. And, when it becomes clear there's no more juice coming down the tubes, eventually curls up and dies. Nothing else to live for, huh?

It does not matter where my addictions came from. It does not matter what original deficit the drug (exogenous or endogenous) 'treated'. The addiction takes on a life of its own, and, even when the hit stops being fun, the mere absence of the hit becomes the intolerable state the hit treats. And when the hit then stops treating its absence, I will continue hitting the pedal, now utterly mystified.

And that's when I start 'going on the wagon for keeps' (Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition, xxx:2).

But I have no other path—there is no other option for me than to return to hitting the pedal (whether that is drinking, acting out sexually or romantically, or thinking about acting out sexually or romantically—that, of course, will produce the same chemical rush as the actual behaviour, which makes a nonsense of bottom lines that focus solely on manifested behaviour).

"They are over-remorseful and make many resolutions but never a decision." (xxx:2)
A resolution is when I say I will never do something again. Drink. Act out. Fantasize. Stick to those damned 'bottom lines' I'm told to stick to before any of the 'real' work can begin . . .

Truth is, as an alcoholic and addict, a resolution is of no use. How can I choose not to go down a path when there is only that path available to me?

If there were a different path, to a life, of a life where I am graced with true happiness, true partnership, true intimacy, true connection, why would I not take it? What looks like the totally baffling failure of alcoholics and sex, relationship, and romance addicts ever to go down the recovery path, appearing, instead, to 'choose' a life of pitiful and incomprehensible demoralisation, is no mystery at all. That is precisely what powerlessness means. There is no choice, without a decision.

So, what is the difference between a resolution and a decision?

A decision is an active choice in favour of the recovery path. This is not an empty play on words.

"Though our decision was a vital and crucial step, it could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and to be rid of, the things in ourselves which had been blocking us." (64:0)
In other words, a resolution is a mere intention to abstain. A decision is no decision without prompt and resolute actions that clear the obstacles on the other path, the path to God, to our true selves, and to our fellows, and, once this path is opened up as the obstacles (resentment, fear, and guilt) are removed, I would have to be truly insane not to go down it—and I discover I have no more choice to stay sober and to stay abstinent from addictive sexual and romantic action and fantasy than I had not to use when I was using.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

What is unmanageability?

A game of two halves?

At Step One meetings, a distinction is often made between 'the first half of Step One' and 'the second half of Step One'.

The 'Big Book' (Alcoholics Anonymous) does not distinguish between different 'halves' of Step One. The first reference to a 'first step' is on page 30:

"We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery." (30:2)

To take this idea further, we turn to page 44, paragraph 1:

"We hope we have made clear the distinction between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic. If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic."

The definition of alcoholism, therefore boils down to two elements: I have a mind that takes me back to drink and a body that compels me to continue drinking once I start.

Lack of choice—lack of control—lack of power. These are self-evidently synonymous.

Yet, when we arrive at the summary of the Steps on page 58, we are confronted, apparently with a further, new element to Step One.

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."

Unmanageability is not mentioned in the Book before this point.

What must the writers have meant?

This leaves us with a question—what did the writers mean by 'unmanageable'. AA meetings and AA oral tradition abound with theories.

Examples we are given include the messy situations we get into drunk, the messy situations we get into sober, the obvious craziness of most newcomers, the 'bedevilments' on page 52, the 'boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits' on page 152, the alcoholic with the double life described on page 73. There is also the principle that there are elements of our lives we cannot control directly and consistently (e.g. other people's opinions of us, the fulfilment of ambitions, etc.), and from this is derived the assertion that the unmanageability meant in Step One is this innate unmanageability of external life by the individual. I have also heard the 'powerless over people, places, and things' idea cited with reference to Step One.

The trouble with all of these theories is that they provoke more questions than they answer, namely:

(1) If this unmanageability is so important, why is not mentioned specifically, defined, and discussed in the pages preceding its introduction on page 58? If 20+ pages are given over to the mental obsession, perhaps a line or so on unmanageability would not be too much to expect, surely?

(2) How can newcomer alcoholics with ostensibly very well-ordered lives and less obvious wreckage even than your average non-alcoholic take Step One? (I have sponsored people who created very little external chaos and had clockwork lives as problem drinkers—they never missed a day of work, their houses were perfectly clean, and they never caused trouble to others drunk because they always drank alone. Yet they had no choice over whether they drank or how much they drank and were dying.)

(3) Is it possible, with many years of sobriety, to take Step One with a well-ordered life and a degree of emotional and mental balance that would be the envy of many non-alcoholics?

(4) If unmanageability is the innate unmanageability of anyone's external life due the existence of factors beyond our control, does it make sense for part of Step One to be a proposition that any person on the planet could sign up to?

(5) If we are truly powerless over people, places, and things, how is it possible to harm or help another person?

. . . and there are many more questions like this.

Occam's razor and the principle of simplicity

This is where Occam's razor comes in. This principle essentially suggests that an answer that provokes more questions and requires more assumptions than are cleared away by the answer is probably wrong. In other words, the simpler the solution the better.

To take the first question above, namely the question of why there is no specific reference to unmanageability before it is presented as part of Step One:

Is it possible that, to the writers of the Big Book, the fact of unmanageability based on powerlessness was so self-evident it did not need to be explained?

What would unmanageability as a corollary of powerlessness then be?

Power is an internal attribute. If I have power, I can devise a plan for the day, and follow it through. If I have no power, whatever plan I devise, I cannot follow it through. Powerlessness over alcohol means that, even if I plan not to drink, I may drink, and that, even if I plan to have one or two, I will likely drink a whole lot more.

'To manage' means 'to be in charge of'. Being powerless over my decision to drink and then powerless over how much I drink means I am not in charge of my schedule for the day.

I have repeatedly had the experience of plan (a) (my plan for the day) being instantly swept aside and replaced with plan (b), a plan centred around getting and drinking alcohol. My other addictions have operated in precisely the same manner.

If my day can be hijacked at any time by an overwhelming compulsion to drink and an overwhelming compulsion to carry on (= powerlessness), I am not in charge of my day: my day, and therefore my life, is unmanageable.

The idea that unmanageability is a corollary of powerlessness rather than a separate disorderliness in one's circumstances or emotional turmoil appears to be supported by the examples of alcoholics given in the section of the Big Book devoted to Step One.

The 'certain American business man' (26–27) acquires 'such a profound knowledge of the inner workings of his mind and its hidden springs that relapse was unthinkable'; he is also a good church member. His 'physical and mental condition' were 'unusually good'. This man is not a mess. Yet he is an alcoholic and, at this point in the narrative, will drink again.

'Jim' (35–37) is not particular 'unmanageable' in the sense often described in meetings of having a messy life or emotional turmoil. He has a bit of a nervous disposition (but do not many people?) He has a little resentment (but does not everyone?) He is ostensibly a normal bloke. He is not suffering from any obvious, profound turmoil or abnormally difficult circumstances on the day he drinks again.

'Fred' (39–43) is an even more extreme example. He is successful, rich, happily married, stable, well balanced, and popular. He is in no way unmanageable in the sense often described in meetings. Yet he drinks again.

Unmanageability as a corollary of powerlessness

It appears that, to the writers of the Book, unmanageability denoted not external or even internal chaos or turmoil but the sheer fact that, if you cannot choose when and how much you drink, you are not in charge of your life.

It does not matter whether this happens every day or once a year—if my day (and therefore life) can be hijacked by a compulsion to drink at any time, any day of the year can be the day it happens, and on no day am I in charge. Every day is a lottery, whatever the odds.

It does not matter one jot how ordered or disordered my external and internal affairs are—either I am in charge of my actions or I am not, and, if I am not, those affairs—ordered or disordered, external or internal—are out of my hands.

It it mere coincidence, therefore, that most alcoholics are pretty screwed up?

What is the role, therefore, of the external and internal chaos that seems so universally discussed as being an intrinsic part of alcoholism?

If the first two elements of powerlessness are powerlessness over the first drink and then the amount I subsequently drink, there is a third, which is discussed in We Agnostics.

"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 much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed will power wasn't there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly." (44:4)

For reasons that the Book admits are yet obscure (24:1), there is an intrinsic link between (a) the powerlessness over the first drink and (b) the ability to quit on a non-spiritual basis:

"Whether such a person can quit upon a non-spiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not." (34:2)

Essentially, the psychic change necessary to plug the gap in the mind that allows the desire to drink to turn into a decision to drink despite the known consequences cannot be brought about by human power alone—mine or anyone else's.

The same corollary principle applies—if I have no power, myself, to bring about the psychic change required to recover, I am not in charge of whether or not I will drink, hence my life remains unmanageable.

"For most cases, there is virtually no other solution." (43:2)

The solution—to live life on a spiritual basis (44:2)—reliance on God and performing His work well (63:1)—requires contact with God (using the word as a cipher for whatever Higher Power you can conceive of). The untreated condition therefore entails disconnection from God—from the sunlight of the Spirit (66:1). This is the spiritual malady—not a sickness of spirit, but a sickness deriving from disconnection from the Spirit, and a resultant reliance on body, mind, and emotion as my guidance system. Deprived of reliance on God, I am self-reliant (68:1), and I start making decisions based on self ('I want . . . I want . . . I want . . .'), which later place me in a position to be hurt. I step on the toes of my fellows, they retaliate, I retaliate back, and soon I have open warfare (62:1). Cue bedevilments, cue the 'traditional' unmanageability described at meetings—'making heavy going of life', 'living [being] unsatisfactory', 'confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence' (50:3).

For me, therefore, the external and internal chaos that derives from self-reliance are merely symptoms of non-reliance on God, the same self-reliance/non-God-reliance that leaves the door to drinking open.

The comfort and the warning

The nature and scale of that external and internal chaos will vary considerably from person to person and over time.

There is both warning and comfort in this:

I can have external and internal chaos but be reliant on God and therefore totally safe from alcohol—the degree of chaos is merely a sign of the stage of development I am at.

I can have virtually no external or internal chaos but be self-reliant and therefore at risk of drinking—the lack of chaos, again, is merely a sign of the stage of development I am at—as we have a daily reprieve, the failure to seek God at an advanced stage of development is as fatal as such a failure when we are still in total chaos.

Summary

Powerlessness is a lack of power within me; unmanageability is the consequence in my life. There are no 'halves' of Step One—there is a single idea with two inextricably linked facets—I cannot grasp one without grasping the other—each implies the other.

A lack of petrol means the car ain't going anywhere. If the car ain't going anywhere, there's no petrol in the engine.

And this works at three levels—(1) physical (once I have had a drink), (2) mental (before I have a drink), and (3) spiritual (my inability through knowledge and will-power to bring about my own spiritual awakening to solve (2) and therefore avoid (1)).

To put it another way, Step One says this: I am royally screwed.

Pharaohs, pyramids, and the choosing people

"I have to let it go," says someone.

"Let what go? What's the it?" I ask.

"Power."

Really?

The picture my ego paints: I am Pharaoh, emperor of Egypt, grand, responsible, dignified, and all-powerful. I command, and the world obeys. I am concerned, chiefly, with the building of my temples and pyramids to, well, me. From this starting point, turning my life over to God seems unappetising. Would I not be selling myself grossly short?

The truth: I'm one of the slaves. Mocked by my ego (which is the Pharaoh in this scenario), I am made to wear a Pharaoh's headdress, and, fool that I am, I am tricked by this into believing that I am something other than a slave, that I, indeed, am in charge. All day, I have to toil to build the temples and pyramids meant to glorify not me but my ego. My ego is not my friend. "My head would kill me if it did not need me for transportation," says Sister Bea M. My ego does not care whether I suffer or what sacrifices I have to make, because its mission is what matters. It does not particularly care if it kills me, because it does not realise that, if I die, it will die with me—so dissociated is it from reality. It has no loyalty to its maker.

The most important thing to remember is that pyramids celebrate nothing but death and are mausoleums, not places to live—the devil's gifts are of no real worth.

The only thing to let go of is the illusion that I am anything but a slave. Drop the headdress. You're not fooling anyone.

We are not a chosen people. We are a choosing people. If we choose God, we can be released.

What does surrender look like?

I was having this conversation with someone yesterday.

I said, for me, it was like finally finding the courage to jump off a merry-go-round that is going too fast, even if I break every bone in the process, and, as I dizzily totter, throw up, and fall to the grass, saying, "God, I'll do anything not to have to clamber back up onto that merry-go-round again." And letting myself be led away.

He said, "it's when something snaps inside".

I'm going to go with his answer. Simple's best.

Monday, 29 November 2010

You will take the first drink, and you won't be able to go to meetings

"We are equally positive that once he takes any alcohol whatever into his system, something happens, both in the bodily and mental sense, which makes it virtually impossible for him to stop. The experience of any alcoholic will abundantly confirm this." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 22:4)
The book Alcoholics Anonymous does not then instruct the reader not to take the first drink.

Instead, the next twenty-one pages or so are concerned with two facts:

"At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail. . . We are without defence against the first drink." (24:0, 24:1)

"If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer." (44:1)
It is for these reasons I never suggest that anyone in AA 'not take the first drink'.

I, myself, have been ashamed of relapsing when I was new and seen countless people ashamed of relapsing, and have difficulty returning after a slip because of this shame, which derives from a failure to recognise powerlessness, from the belief that they have fallen short because they cannot follow the simple instruction, 'don't drink and go to meetings'.

To give someone an instruction they cannot follow, however much they want to and try to, is misleading and can set up a cycle of shame or guilt.

What I will say instead is this: I could not not take the first drink. I needed God, and I needed God quickly. I needed to ask God to come into my life and guide me, because where I would guide myself would, sooner or later, probably sooner, be straight to the off-licence or pub, regardless of the terror that gripped me when the compulsion arose.

I believe it is far more helpful to prophesy, as do Fred's sponsors on page 41, that your prospect will indeed drink again, at some unforeseeable time in the future, and then to place the Twelve-Step programme of recovery fully at his disposal, with no delay.

If alcoholics could consistently follow the instruction 'don't drink no matter what', the Big Book would stop at the top of page 23.

Going to meetings can certainly act as a channel for God's power in the short term, but, if the individual cannot not drink, actually getting to a meeting may become impossible, because, once the alcohol takes hold, the unmanageability (the inability to form and follow through sound intentions consistently) will mean that making the meeting ain't going to happen.

I believe it is much more useful to disturb alcoholics with the truth of their condition than to offer false hope by suggesting unfulfillable instructions. Yes, this has to be kept simple, but the simplicity is this:

"Buddy, if you're an alcoholic, you will drink again, unless you have a spiritual experience. If you want to have one, let me know, and I'll show you how."

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Praying for a sober day?

When I was new, I used to pray for a sober day. And that's kinda where the praying stopped. This prayer (coupled with a 'thank you' at night) I saw as simply one of many things I did during the day, e.g. calling newcomers or washing cups at a meeting, essentially to keep MYSELF sober so I could get on with the business of living MY life. Like paying my insurance premiums or brushing my teeth. Not really the focus of my day, but necessary at some low level. Or perhaps like a talisman or a superstition.

This relegates God to a box that needs to be ticked, and His role to that of 'little helper'.

I am sober ALREADY because of God. The conversation I imagine going something like this:

Me: "God, please keep me sober."

God: "Erm . . . I got you sober without your knowledge or even consent or permission, just to see if you would make a better hash of things sober than you did drunk, because I've got this amazing mission for you, and you're, like, totally missing the mark. There's a YOU-shaped hole in the world, and you need to get out there and fill it, Buddy. Listen, I've got Jennifer on the other line, and she's asking for some really specific direction. Gotta go to it. Later."

[Sadly, I'm not listening, because, now I've said my prayers, I'm back to MY little plans and designs.]

Me [several hours later]: "God, thank you for keeping me sober."

Me [next morning]: "God, please keep me sober."

God: "You're clearly not listening. Look, I "drew you out of many waters"—do you not even read Psalm 18? Jeez. I wonder why I wrote it, sometimes—and now you're lying on the beach worried about whether or not you're going to tumble back into said waters. Why don't you start asking me what do with the 24 hours a day you've been given back? The whole 'sober' thing's a total given. Got it?"

Me: "God, thank you for keeping me sober."

Me: "God, please keep me sober."

God: "This is getting embarrassing. I guess I'll just have to wait for the tide to come in . . ."

[Tide comes in, I panic, I can feel the waters lap at my ankles, and I check out the top of page 63. Change in tack:]

Me: "God, I'm totally screwed, I have no idea how to live on the beach, here; all of my old plans and designs which seemed to get me through when I was splashing around in the water just don't work now I'm on dry land. I'm going to stay close to you all day; just give me the next indicated action. Show me how I can do YOUR work, because mine is totally sucking."

God: "Now we're in business . . ."

Sunday, 21 November 2010

How To Listen to God—Oxford Group Pamphlet

God will tell you all that you need to know. He will not always tell you all that you want to know. These are a few simple suggestions for people who are willing to make an experiment. You can discover for yourself the most important and practical thing any human being can ever learn—how to be in touch with God. All that is needed is the willingness to try it honestly. Every person who has done this consistently and sincerely has found that it really works.

Before you begin, look over these fundamental points. They are true and are based on the experience of thousands of people.

1. God is alive. He always has been, and He always will be.

2. God knows everything.

3. God can do anything.

4. God can be everywhere—all at the same time. (These are the important differences between God and us human beings.)

5. God is invisible—we cannot see Him or touch Him—but God is here. He is with you now. He is beside you. He surrounds you. He fills the room or the whole place where you are right now. He is in you now. He is in your heart.

6. God cares very much for you. He is interested in you. He has a plan for your life. He has an answer for every need and problem you face.

8. God will help you do anything that He asks you to do.

9. Anyone can be in touch with God, anywhere and at any time, if conditions are obeyed.

These are the conditions:

– To be quiet and still

– To listen

– To be honest about every thought that comes

– To test the thoughts to be sure that they come from God

– To obey.

So, with these basic elements as a background, here are specific suggestions on how to listen to God:

1. Take time

Find some place and time where you can be alone, quiet, and undisturbed. Most people have found that the early morning is the best time. Have with you some paper and a pen or a pencil.

2. Relax

Sit in a comfortable position. Consciously relax all your muscles. Be loose. There is no hurry. There needs to be no strain during these minutes. God cannot get through to us if we are tense and anxious about later responsibilities.

3. Tune in

Open your heart to God. Either silently or aloud, just say to God in a natural way that you would like to find out His plan for your life—you want His answer to the problem or situation that you are facing just now. Be definite and specific in your request.

4. Listen

Just be still, quiet, relaxed, and open. Let your mind go loose. Let God do the talking. Thoughts, ideas, and impressions will begin to come into your mind and heart. Be alert and aware and open to every one.

5. Write!

Here is the important key to the whole process. Write down everything that comes into your mind. Everything. Writing is simply a means of recording so that you can remember later. Do not sort out or edit your thoughts at this point.

Do not say to yourself:

– "This thought is not important!

– This is just an ordinary thought!

– This cannot be guidance!

– This is not nice!

– This cannot be from God!

– This is just me thinking!" (etc.)

Write down everything that passes through your mind.

– Names of people

– Things to do

– Things to say

– Things that are wrong and need to be made right.

Write down everything:

– Good thoughts—bad thoughts

– Comfortable thoughts—uncomfortable thoughts

– Holy thoughts—unholy thoughts

– Sensible thoughts—crazy thoughts.

Be Honest! Write down everything—a thought comes quickly, and it escapes even more quickly unless it is captured and put down.

6. Test

When the flow of thoughts slows down, stop. Take a good look at what you have written. Not every thought we have comes from God, so we need to test our thoughts. Here is where the written record helps us to be able to look at them.

– Are these thoughts completely honest, pure, unselfish, and loving?

– Are these thoughts in line with our duties?

– Are these thoughts in line with our understanding of the teachings found in our spiritual literature?

7. Check

When you are in doubt and when it is important, what does another person who is living two-way prayer think about this thought or action? More light comes in through two windows than one. Someone else who also wants God's plan for our lives may help us to see more clearly.

Talk over together what you have written. Many people do this. They tell each other what guidance has come. This is the secret of unity. There are always three sides to every question—your side, my side, and the right side. Guidance shows us which is the right side—not who is right, but what is right.

8. Obey

Carry out the thoughts that have come. You will only be sure of guidance as you go through with it. A rudder will not guide a boat until the boat is moving. As you obey, very often the results convince you that you are on the right track.

9. Blocks?

What if I do not seem to get any definite thoughts? God's guidance is as freely available as the air we breathe. If I am not receiving thoughts when I listen, the fault is not God's.

Usually it is because there is something I will not do:

– Something wrong in my life that I will not face and make right

– A habit or indulgence I will not give up

– A person I will not forgive

– A wrong relationship in my life I will not give up

– A restitution I will not make

– Something God has already told me to do that I will not obey.

Check these points and be honest. Then try listening again.

10. Mistakes

Suppose I make a mistake and do something in the name of God that is not right? Of course we make mistakes. We are humans with many faults. However, God will always honour our sincerity.

He will work around and through every honest mistake we make. He will help us make it right. But remember this—sometimes when we do obey God, someone else may not like it or agree with it. So when there is opposition, it does not always mean you have made a mistake. It can mean that the other person does not want to know or to do what is right. Suppose I fail to do something that I have been told, and the opportunity to do it passes? There is only one thing to do. Put it right with God. Tell Him you are sorry. Ask Him to forgive you, then accept His forgiveness and begin again. God is our Father—He is not an impersonal calculator. He understands us far better than we do.

11. Results

We never know what swimming is like until we get down into the water and try. We will never know what this is like until we sincerely try it. Every person who has tried this honestly finds that a wisdom, not their own, comes into their minds and that Power greater than human power begins to operate in their lives. It is an endless adventure. There is a way of life, for everyone, everywhere. Anyone can be in touch with the living God, anywhere, anytime, if we fulfil His conditions.

When man listens, God speaks.

When man obeys, God acts.

This is the law of Prayer: God's plan for this world goes forward through the lives of ordinary people who are willing to be governed by Him.

John E. Batterson

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The supreme sacrifice

The mental obsession. The physical craving that flows from the remotest entertainment of the mental obsession, which triggers its own chemical rush, an excited anticipation so thrilling that the lights of real life temporarily dim.

Here's a good prayer: ask God to show you the truth behind the mental obsession.

I get a vision of a whirlpool, a maelstrom sucking in everything in the known universe until there is nothing left except the breathless vortex. The delusion is that I can drift near enough to the whirlpool to feel the excitement of the tug at my ankles but that, this time, as every other time so far, I will summon the strength or be given the grace to swim away once the terror threatens to overwhelm me, once the current threatens to become too strong.

Another image: peering over the edge of the cliff at the prize somewhere below, not realising that I could lose my footing at any minute.

There is a point at which any addict will give up, and make the supreme sacrifice rather than continue to fight (xxx:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous'). Any relapse, any yielding could bring about that moment of surrender to the addiction and the willing sacrifice of everything worthwhile in life, and I will not even know I have surrendered to the path to oblivion till it is way too late. If I do not surrender totally and utterly to God, I will discover myself inadvertently surrendered to the addiction, and I will be baffled as I do not understand why, this time, I am unable to stop.

The moment, itself, may be innocuous. The relapse may, to one's relief, be 'mild'. But any relapse can dissolve the glue that holds my mind together, and the sometimes slow disintegration that will then ensue could be inexorable.

"This tragic situation has already arrived in practically every case long before it is suspected." (24:0)

"Then, gathering all his forces, he attempted to stop altogether and found he could not. Every means of solving his problem . . . was at his disposal. Every attempt failed." (32:2)


How could I know which relapse would be the one that places me beyond any aid?

I am absolutely sure of very little. But I am totally sure of this: the absolute, permanent availability of a God who actually cares, personally, about me.

"But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!" (59:0)

"Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!" (181:7)


I have to choose God today, whilst I can, because I cannot be sure that I will have the hope or courage to do so tomorrow.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Where is your mission?

"A much more important demonstration of our principles lies before us in our respective homes, occupations, and affairs. All of us spend much of our spare time in the sort of effort which we are going to describe. A few are fortunate enough to be so situated that they can give nearly all their time to the work." (19:1, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')


 
I have been on both sides of this fence.

 
I have spent years, since I first came to AA, engaged primarily in my home life, occupation, and affairs, with AA as the place I would drop by to recharge my batteries. I would help people whenever they asked, but I did not get asked very often.

 
Three or four years ago, with double-digit sobriety, I found myself with a full and rich life. I had a career, with my own business, and I taught that career at postgraduate level at a local university. Partner. Home life. Friends. Hobbies galore. Active involvement in a religious community. I was pretty happy.

 
Then I took Step Three again.

 
What is remarkable about Step Three is its ability to unleash a chain of events one could not possibly predict that transform one's life from the inside, not the outside.

 
And my life has, indeed, been transformed. Many of the externals look exactly the same. But I spend vastly more time involved in AA than I did even two years ago. I do not attend a huge number of official AA meetings, typically three a week. But I have the privilege of spending a lot of my time working with other alcoholics.

 
This passage from the Big Book is fascinating, because it contains a paradox and a tension. Firstly, more important than the working of the Steps is how they (together with the Traditions and the Concepts) are applied in every area of our lives. Absolutely. And I do have an external life which functions very well and affords me a lot of happiness, thank you, due to application of the Steps. But this passage also presents those who can give nearly all their time to the work as being (by implication, particularly) fortunate.

 
Elsewhere in the Book (89:2), there is a description of frequent contact with each other and with newcomers being the bright spot of our lives. I have a number of bright spots, both in and out of AA. But the bright spot of contact with other AAs using all three sides of the triangle as the design for living that works in rough going (15:1) and with newcomers is something very special and irreplaceable to me.

 
Sometimes, AA is presented as a necessary evil, something to get through and get out of as quickly as possible, the real mark of success being arriving at a point where you drop in to help out whilst 'real life' goes on somewhere 'out there'—AA is the 'bridge to normal living', we are told.

 
Sometimes, people talk about their AA friends as though they are second-class friends, as though having friends in AA is making do with second-best, somehow, and as though people not in AA are the 'real' friends. There can be subtle condemnation of those who, after years of sobriety, still devote large chunks of their life to AA, as though they (we) are doing this because (they) we cannot make our way in or are avoiding the outside world.

 
My perspective is different.

 
I came to AA at twenty-one as a seriously screwed drunk with zero life skills and an emotional profile, character traits, and behaviour patterns that qualified me for a number of psychiatric diagnoses. God through AA kept me sober and taught me how to live. There are times that I give to AA because I am in serious spiritual trouble and AA work reconnects me to God faster than anything. I would always, I hope, give to AA in order to repay the debt I owe to those who helped me. There are, however, three other reasons.

 
Firstly, "We are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free." (133:0) AA work gives me happiness and joy. And I am entirely free. There is no sense of onerous, external compulsion.

 
Secondly, there is work to be done. Someone who was criticised for sponsoring a lot of people responded, "if you would sponsor a few more people, I would not have to sponsor so many." If we who have the solution do not pass it on freely, who will?

 
Thirdly, there is the matter of Divine guidance. "Follow the dictates of a Higher Power and you will presently live in a new and wonderful world no matter what your present circumstances." Interesting word, 'dictates'. I have sought out paths of usefulness in different directions, primarily work and through a religious community. I have prayed and meditated a lot on where my path lies. And what has come to me in prayer and meditation again and again, expressed through the conscience I am supposed to consult and the inspiration and the intuitive thought I am supposed to rely on, the God-consciousness we are told will come to us in Step Ten, is that I must serve God where I am most useful. And I am led back again and again to the Twelfth Step within AA. The obligation is not externally imposed, it is compliance with the guidance of my spirit, which I would disregard at my peril.

 
I do not choose how and where I get offered opportunities for service. I am over-subscribed: I would need several lifetimes simultaneously to fulfil all of the demands and meet all of the requests that come my way in different parts of my life. This is not a testament to any special skill or aptitude on my part. Quite the reverse. AA's promise of increasing usefulness has come abundantly true for me, and I can take no credit for it. And the usefulness, in AA, lies more in how dark a place I have been rescued from than in any achievement of mine.

 
What I cannot do is see the work that must take place in AA as second-rate or second-class, somehow separate from 'real life', as it can sometimes be regarded.

 
"We would like it understood that our alcoholic work is an avocation." (xiii:2)

 
"An avocation is an activity that a person does as a hobby outside their main occupation. There are many examples of people whose profession was the way they made a living, but whose activities outside their workplace were their true passion in life." (Wikipedia)

 
I have friends who do great service in AA but whose avocation—their true passion in life—lies outside AA. This is good, true, and right.

 
I, however, count myself as someone fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time in Twelfth Step work within AA. For now, this is a true passion. And no less valid because it lies within, not outside AA. AA is not separate from the world—every life saved, every life enabled by our collective Twelfth-Step work within AA is a massive contribution to the outside world. If we—the fellowship of AA as part of the human race—are an organic whole, all children of a living Creator, the job is not each to occupy the same role, with the same balance between the various aspects of Step Twelve replicated in each individual, but to discover our particular mission at any given point in time.

 
Clint H. would describe our mission as lying at the intersection between what I have to offer and what the world needs. If my phone stops ringing and calls from AA stop coming in, I will look elsewhere for ways to fulfil my mission, for ways to serve God. Until then, I am growing where I am planted, and perfectly happy and proud to be one of the fortunates described in the opening paragraph.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Burning barns and hugging bears: the myth of 'taking your will back'

What I sometimes notice is that (a) my behaviour is upsetting other people or running up against brick walls or (b) my mind is racing with Little Plans and Ideas—obsession about how I am going to solve a situation.

I used to say that I had 'taken my will back'.

If my will had been truly aligned with God's, totally, perfectly, permanently, I would be in light. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. No one in light can even perceive or understand darkness. To be in light is to be innocent. I can be aware that another person perceives himself to be in darkness and remember the fact of my own exile from the Kingdom, but I cannot enter into that darkness for I know it exists only in that person's perception. I cannot re-enter dreams—I can barely remember their occurrence, let alone content. In brief: when there is light, I cannot choose to enter darkness or error—I cannot enter what does not exist.

The principle is the same as with drinking. I could never choose to drink (for that would be insane) so I am not choosing to stay sober. It is the only option. There is only one pass through the mountains. (Conversely, when I was drinking, I could not choose not to drink, so I was not choosing to keep drinking. It was the only option. There was only one pass through the mountains). No one chooses to relapse. If you are a real alcoholic, the only reason to drink is an insanity of which you may be only dimly aware.

When there is a fire, horses must be tied up to stop them running into burning barns.

Does the horse run into the barn as a rational choice?

Can I 'take my will back' the way I would, say, take a nap, take a walk, or take a bath?

The mechanism is this:

I get presented with a difficult situation that requires a response of some kind. I do not, instinctively, know what to do. I could go to God, sure, I could relax, not struggle, take it easy, ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought, or a decision (86:3, 'Alcoholics Anonymous'). But in a corner of my mind, I believe this enemy is too great, this peril too powerful, this problem too complex. I am frightened.

And I do what horses do: I run into the burning barn, I grab the problem and hold it tight in my mind, hugging it close to myself the way a bear hugs its enemy to crush it to death. Soon, I'm engaged in mindless (but ostensibly rational) action, convinced I'm in 'control' of the situation and managing perfectly well. Then the enemy starts climbing over the battlements, and I realise I'm besieged on all sides and hours from utter defeat.

The problem does not start with 'taking my will back'. The problem starts with an underlying belief in the non-totality of God, in the limitation of God, in the non-omnipotence, the non-omniscience, the non-omnipresence of God in every situation.

It is only when, as my life expands like the ever-expanding universe, I am faced with a novel or great difficulty that challenges my conception of God that I become scared, and fear 'sets in motion trains of circumstances which [bring] us misfortune we [felt] we [do not] deserve' (67:3).

The truth is, the old idea—the particular limitation to my conception of God—was always there, the whole time. It is never new. It can only ever be uncovered, having been previously hidden. My ever-expanding conception of God is only ever in a particular phase of its development—this conception may, today, have expanded sufficiently to match the situation I am placed in. When, tomorrow, this conception proves inadequate, I have not 'relapsed' or backslid or taken my will back: my growing conception has, instead, failed to keep pace with my ever-growing life.

I cannot 'jump' intentionally away from God. All I can ever do is slip from God's grace—I cannot choose to slip, whether into alcohol or into other error.

In another book, a man—an actual man, not the son of God—walks on water. It is only when he fears that he 'slips' and falls into the waves. And the only reason to fear is misperception of God, the subscription to the belief that God is anything less than everything. Anything less, and, for practical purposes, right here, right now, He may as well be nothing. That is why any sitting on the fence is described in the Big Book as 'soft and mushy' (53:1). God is either everything or nothing, at any point in time and space (53:2).

The danger is trying to solve the problem at the wrong level. Self-will—in behaviour of thought—is not the source of the problem but a domino much further down the line. The problem is only ever the failure to recognise the total love and power of God and the presence of God at the centre of every situation.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Godless delusion



"The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God's universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves." (25:2, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')
The 'we' of this passage is the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. For those members, the solution to the age-old riddle of alcoholism was God. The path consisted in the Twelve Steps ('recovery'). The vessel was the fellowship of the common peril and the common solution ('unity'). And the ongoing means of maintenance and growth of that connection with God was service—the third of these Three Legacies.

At many meetings I have attended, not many attendees—if any—talk about God and the Twelve Steps. Some people tell the group how their day was, how their week was, the difficulties they have been having, and the difficult emotions plaguing them. The slogans I hear most commonly are 'keep coming back' and 'do not pick up the first drink'. Less common are references to the ideas contained within these key passages from the recovery portion of the Big Book:

"Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs." (20:0)

"If we have carefully followed directions, we have begun to sense the flow of His Spirit into us. To some extent we have become God-conscious. We have begun to develop this vital sixth sense." (85:2)

"... God has wrought miracles among us ..." (133:2)
In brief, there is a dissonance.

Today, I am alive, sober, happy, and useful. And there is one reason and one reason only: God.

I tried staying sober without God. I kept getting drunk. Some people in AA became irritated with me and told me I was not trying hard enough or did not want recovery badly enough. I was baffled. I was going to two meetings a day, sharing how I felt at every meeting, and hanging out in every spare minute with AA people—and they were staying sober and I was not.

It was only when I cried out in absolute desperation to God that I was granted a grace that separated me from alcohol. That was in 1993, and I have not drunk alcohol since then.

At around eleven to twelve years of sobriety, I knew more about alcoholism, sobriety, recovery, myself, and my problems than I had ever known. But I did not maintain the practices that keep me connected in conscious contact with God, and first my conscious contact and then my belief gradually dwindled to nothing.

I tried to remain sane on the basis of information, willpower, and fear of drinking or insanity. I gradually became cranky, apathetic, and depressed, as the dry drunk on page 127 is described. And unhealthy behaviour began to manifest.

Eventually, I sought God, once more, with all the desperation of a drowning man (28:2). I have followed and continue to follow the clear-cut directions in the Big Book, word by word, page by page. And, area by area, my life has been utterly transformed. Externally, many things look the same. Internally, however, I am inwardly reorganised, and my roots have grasped a new soil (like Ebby is described on 11:6).

Waking up to the reality that God is the only ultimate source of all knowledge and power in my life has been wonderful.

What I have also woken up to is the fact that the solution to alcoholism—conscious contact with God—is a solution that a minority in Alcoholics Anonymous talks about. In contrast to the Big Book, much of the more recent AA literature makes little or no reference to God. I have heard it shared regularly that even mentioning God in AA will drive newcomer alcoholics out of AA to their deaths. Some atheists and agnostics will grandstand their scorn and disdain for what they see as the absurdity of a belief in God. Sometimes the solution to alcoholism is presented merely as avoiding the first drink (impossible if you are powerless over alcohol) and going to meetings.

"We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action." (17:3)
At my home group, which holds Big Book study meetings, this is absolutely the case. More widely, the agreement on what the way out is appears something less than absolute.

Where does hope lie?

Argument with the pervasive agnosticism and atheism in AA I do not believe will work to effect change. When I was atheist and, later, agnostic, argument in favour of God would make me 'bristle with antagonism' (cf. 48:0).

Instead, I would follow the advice on page 99:1: "After they have seen tangible results, the family will perhaps want to go along."

One person finding God and 'concentrating on his spiritual demonstration' (cf. 98:3) can change the world. In a room full of darkness, the power of a single light cannot be denied. The very point of having access to a source of unlimited power is that God is not limited by the limitation of the channel: devoting one's life to carrying this message, one-to-one and at group level and beyond, will achieve results way beyond one what person ought to be able to achieve.

It was only when I saw and heard the change in AA members who had found the great reality of God deep within them that I developed the faith to take the actions necessary for me to have the same experience. If I want to see change in AA, I have to be that change and let God work miracles through me, just as a miracle was wrought in my life though those who, themselves, had been shown the power of God, in a never-ending chain back to Doctor Bob and Bill Wilson.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Recovery and wellness: The Coachman, The Borg, and Agatha Christie

"You can and do recover; you do not have to stay sick—you can and do get well!" (Clarence Snyder, Cleveland, 1941)
This is my experience in AA too.

Interesting questions are, 'what does "well" look like?" 'What does "recovered" look like?"

As far as alcohol is concerned, the material at the bottom of page 84 and the top of page 85 of 'Alcoholics Anonymous' pretty much covers it:

"We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically . . . We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected."

Page 57 adds a further dimension to this:

"Save for a few brief moments of temptation the thought of drink has never returned; and at such times a great revulsion has risen up in him. Seemingly he could not drink if he would. God had restored his sanity."

This reflects my experience. The mind will sometimes suggest crazy things to me. My spirit (which is connected with you and with God) pulls rank on my mind. I cannot order my spirit to do so: this is an automatic reaction, beyond my will and beyond my ego. My mind will never be a clean operating system. Sanity—soundness of mind—does not mean that my thinking is perfect. It means that the imperfections and, let's be frank, whole regions of bizarreness, error, and self-deception are encased in a membrane of spirit that holds the whole crowd of me together as a single entity. I will suffer from inner conflicts. But I am kept safe, even when the majority vote in my mind errs.

What 'well' and 'recovered' look like in other areas is not quite as straightforward. With drinking, either I drink or I do not. And, for over seventeen years, I have not drunk. Pretty clear-cut. The rest of my life cannot be judged according to the same binary criterion, however.

Much is made, at times, of the lines "we ask God to direct our thinking . . . Under these conditions we can employ our mental faculties with assurance, for after all God gave us brains to use. . . we find that our thinking will as time passes be more and more on the plane of inspiration. We come to rely on it." (86:2–87:0)

I have, on occasion, made casual reference to my scepticism with regard to my own thinking and had Big Book aficionados quote these lines back to me suggesting that there must be something wrong with my programme if I am not able to rely on my thinking.

Truth is, I usually can rely on it. In most matters, I know instinctively what to do, and my thinking, provided that I pause and regularly ask God for guidance, tends to produce good results practically. That, after all, is the acid test.

However, blind reliance on my mind, bolstered by this passage of the Big Book and justified by the knowledge that I have proceeded through the Steps a number of times and continue to apply them on a daily basis, is, in my case dangerous.

Mind separated from spirit produces arrant nonsense. I absolutely do rely on my mind: what else can I do moment to moment? Call my sponsor every two minutes? (I know that is the approach in some groups, and good luck to them.) But this reliance is predicated on connection to my spirit. So far so good.

Trouble is: my ego impersonates my spirit, and, as time passes, its impersonations are increasingly skilled and faithful. Someone says, "listen to your gut. Fine. But sometimes my head looks a lot like my gut." The ego is like the Borg in Star Trek. It constantly adapts and adjusts and learns from its defeats.

Another image: if my mind is the horse, my spirit is the coachman. When I am not paying attention, my ego creeps up onto the carriage, chloroforms my spirit, duct tapes its mouth, switches uniforms, and blithely takes up the reins of my mind. And I will not notice a thing. Before I know it, I am proceeding down a path that is damaging myself and others, with every move justified and referenced both to the Big Book and the Bible. (You see what I mean about Borg-like adaptation? My ego is smart.)

In Agatha Christie, the murderer always makes an error. The evidence may be a frayed cable, an unstamped train ticket, or a missing sock. It may be an apparently insignificant detail. But it is the key to unravelling the whole mystery and unmasking the culprit.

Being well, being recovered, does not mean I never get into trouble. It means that, when I do, I know how to listen for the sometimes muffled cries of my spirit past the reassuring, self-justifying, and exquisitely argued rationalisations of my ego.

Wellness is not about proceeding based on the majority vote in my mind. It is about the wholeness that comes from being able to listen to the single voice of truth amidst a cacophony of egregious lies, and proceed on the basis of that voice, even if the sky turns black and following this voice means jettisoning everything I think I know and understand cognitively, rationally, and synthetically about a situation.

A further point: it is only in dialogue with other people in AA—my sponsor or friends who have wholeheartedly adopted this spiritual way of life—that a space is created for the single voice of truth to gain ground, to be consolidated and reinforced, to turn all of the discs from black to white or white to black like in a game of Othello. For this spirit to flourish, it must take root in honest and open-minded fellowship.

To stay well, I must share the single doubt, the single incongruent detail, the single misgiving: as in Agatha Christie, this may be the key. Leave no stone unturned. Step Five: "Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing . . ."

This principle is enshrined in the Concepts: the 'Right of Appeal' (Concept V)—the minority opinion must be heard and the personal grievance receive careful consideration. As happens on a regular basis within the service structure, the voicing of a single minority opinion can lead to the majority decision being overturned and reversed entirely, with ultimate substantial unanimity. The restoration of sanity. The triumph of wholeness and God speaking through the inner voice and group conscience.

This is my experience of the recovery process. It does not protect me from error. It provides me with a mechanism for detecting and correcting error in an increasingly timely manner.