Sunday, 17 January 2010

Ego & humility

The Baal Shem Tov [a great spiritual master] instructed a certain group of chassidim [pious Jews] that after his passing they should appoint for themselves as rebbe [spiritual leader] only such a tzaddik [holy, wise man] who, when asked how one could rid oneself of conceit, would answer that he did not know the answer to their question. If anyone were to offer them an answer, this would indicate that he had not yet plumbed the innermost depths of his heart, and for that reason was not aware of the crumbs of conceit still lingering there. ... the pretensions and conceit that stem from impurity are ... infinite.
After the Baal Shem Tov had passed on to the World of Truth, that group of chassidim went about from one tzaddik to the next, asking each one in turn how they could rid themselves of conceit. Each one offered them sage council, which they heard out, and then went their way, saying: "This is not the rebbe for us." At length they came to visit Reb Pinchas of Korets, and posed their question. "But I stand in fear of the same danger," he confessed, "and I know no way out." And him the chassidim installed as their rebbe.

This I find interesting because of the growing awareness I have of the indestructibility, wiliness, deceitfulness, and resilience of my own ego. It frightens me, frankly.
How does it manifest? Oh, well, every gift I get given by the Higher Power through AA my ego will want to take credit for, as though I specially merited it or even created it myself.
Take, for example, the gift of being able to help others. I am a tap; the power to help others is the water that flows through the tap provided that there is no blockage, that I am a hollow vessel.
The ego says, "look how marvellously helpful I am! Now, how could I be even more helpful? Who should be helped? How should they be helped?" It does not take long before plans are hatched, including the elimination of any obstacle or person who stands in the way of the plan being realised, in order for any subsequent achievement to reflect not on AA and God but on it, the magnificent, omnipotent, omniscient ego. And all in the name of AA and God.
Page 164 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous tells me that the answers will come regarding what I can do each day for the man who is still sick, conditional on my own house being in order. Telling whether one's house is or is not in order is not always entirely straightforward, however.
What is tricky about the ego is that it does not wear bells or announce its coming. It hides its tracks. It must not, at any cost, be detected in its stealth operations. It learns to equip itself with a Romulan cloaking device of kindness, consideration, patience, generosity, and graciousness (pp. 61:0 and 61:1).
And, before you know it:
Like the cat with nine lives, the Ego has a marvellous capacity to scramble back to safety—a little ruffled, perhaps, but soon operating with all its former aplomb, convinced once more that now it, the Ego, can master all events and push on ahead.

The capacity of the Ego to bypass experience is astounding and would be humorous were it not so tragic in its consequences. Cutting the individual down to size and making the results last is a task never completely accomplished. The possibility of a return of his Ego must be faced by every alcoholic. If it does return, he may refrain from drinking, but he will surely go on a "dry drunk," with all the old feelings and attitudes once more asserting themselves and making sobriety a shambles of discontent and restlessness. Not until the ego is decisively retired can peace and quiet again prevail. As one sees this struggle in process, the need for the helping hand of a Deity becomes clearer. Mere man alone all too often seems powerless to stay the force of his Ego. He needs assistance and needs it urgently.
[Harry M. Tiebout]
I have spent the last few months since last completing a set of Step Nine amends living as fully as I can in Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve and have found, to my horror, that the resurgence of the ego, whilst hampered by this process, is certainly not prevented.
The huge benefit of having channeled my energies into these three Steps is not so much the permanent destruction of my ego as the ability to recognise its resurgence and the awareness that periodical spiritual surgery is necessary (Steps One to Nine) in addition to general, day-to-day hygiene measures (Steps Ten to Twelve).
P. 62 tells me that "there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid." This is entirely consistent with my experience. Conversely, with His aid, the temporary ridding of the ego is entirely possible, resulting in an ability to be of great use to those around us, in the gap created by the ego's 'retirement'.
Also, p. 85 tells me "it is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism."
It is these twin statements that make clear, for me, the necessity to treat the Steps as a cycle rather than a one-off sequence.
A friend says, "the ego is almost as powerful and mysterious as God himself."
Key word: almost.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Rocking the raft

Tradition One—"Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity"

"Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age" is a very helpful volume.

Tradition Five is indeed important; groups should, ideally, know what their message is, or they cannot, in a group inventory, examine clearly whether that message is being carried.

In a recent attempt of mine to wangle a very disparate group (whose strength, I see now, lies in our disparate nature) into defining its message (naturally in accordance with my beliefs—that the message is the first 164 pages of the Big Book, as the Third Edition stated), I upset a number of people, created confusion rather than harmony, and threatened the unity of the group.

P. 97 of the above book (with regard to Tradition One): "But some of our sick and careless members did rock the raft, and that scared us to death." Could I have foreseen that calling a group conscience to discuss the above would have been seen to be a threatening, disrespectful move? I would not have admitted it at the time, but I did know, because I worded and reworded the simple announcement about 100 times in my mind.

God's truth does not need finessing. If I'm worrying about how to word something, my spirit is troubled, and I need to listen to my spirit before speaking.

P. 98 of the same book: "... desires for power, for domination, for glory, and for money. They were all the more dangerous because they were invariably powered by self-righteousness, self-justification, and the destructive power of anger, usually masquerading as righteous indignation. Pride and fear and anger—these are the prime enemies of our common welfare. True brotherhood, harmony, and love, fortified by clear insights and right practices, are the only answers."

Clearly, the founders of a group can establish a common message between themselves and embody this, through Tradition Four, in how the group is structured, what the format is, what the various scripts are, and who gets to share what.

But trying to impose this on a group with a much larger remit is an act of spiritual violence.

There is place in AA for narrow groups focusing solely on the Big Book. There is place in AA for groups that operate in very different ways.

When I look at the Big Book group I attend, almost no one started out in a Big Book group, and most of us were not attracted to very hard-line and/or narrow groups when we first came to AA.
How dare I criticise the very groups of a type that were the channel for God's grace until I found the Big Book? Until I was ready to listen to the people who could help me understand my alcoholic experience through the Big Book and show me how to work the Twelve Steps of recovery through its clear-cut directions?
Unity—between groups and within groups—is vital, and, if I had been fully honest with myself at the beginning of this exercise in domination, I would not have fallen into the trap I did.

However: I generally have to overstep the boundary between my will and God's will before I notice it is there, so this is all to the good.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

What to do when the heebie-jeebies strike

Being the typically dramatic alcoholic that I am, a few knocks to my ego and I fall off my perch completely. A little bit of criticism here, a little bit of negative feedback there, and, boom, I'm crying out de profundis.

In such states, a good, old-fashioned fear inventory is helpful.

Page 68 of the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' is where we start. "We reviewed our fears thoroughly."

So I do a stream of consciousness of what I'm scared of.

In this case, it's my own character defects. "Angry, critical, offensive, self-deluded, incorrigible." Then comes the question: "We asked ourselves why we had them." (The fears, not the defects).

You see, the thing that the fear focuses on is rarely what it's really about. It's the network of consequences, conclusions, and inferences that light up every time the fear is touched off, like forked lightning visible for a moment and then gone but burned onto the retina or a nervous system that jangles from tip to toe from an electrical shock and continues to smart for hours afterwards.

This is where the damage is done.

In this case, the fear is that my defects will impact on and influence those around me, with, naturally, devastating effect (I'm that powerful, my ego thinks). That I will bring unhappiness, discord, resentment, and disunity, on a global scale. Ha! And then what?

Find the fleeting thoughts that flash for a moment then rest in darkness, evil and corrosive (cf. p. 67:3).

  • that something inside me has irrevocably broken;
  • that recovery was only ever a dream;
  • that I will cease functioning and cease being useful;
  • that beyond the medieval map of the Steps lie dragons, and I'm gonna be chomped;
  • that there is no hope;
  • that there is no God—or only a cruel, laughing, humiliating God;
  • that God is nothing (cf. p. 53:2).
... and thence to the last question:
"Wasn't it because self-reliance failed us?"
I have certainly been off-beam, consumed with my own opinions and judgements, about what I want from AA, about what I want AA to be or become (how grand is that?)
This is pure pride, the putting of self in the place of God as the centre and main objective of my life. And from this flows self-reliance, and listening to my own noisy authorities rather than the quiet voice of God.
And the fear that this ultimately engenders when the ego bubble bursts—that God is nothing—is precisely where this all started.
My agnosticism, when it returns, is ultimately self-created: it is the active denial of God that ultimately brings about the terror of Godlessness.
As usual, the fear inventory leads me back to the only solution available to me: that God is everything. And this really is a choice. Because living as though God is nothing is not only possible but temporarily inviting and exhilarating.
My friend Tom says, 'when you fall off your horse, get right back on it.'
Back on the horse: how can I carry the vision of God's will into all my activities? How can I best serve him? His will be done! (P. 85:1)
In communicating this and setting my plan for the rest of the day, my fears have fallen from me (p. 75:2); at once, I have commenced to outgrow fear (p. 68:3).

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A new and wonderful world

Follow the dictates of a Higher Power and you will presently live in a new and wonderful world, whatever your present circumstances! (P. 100, § 1, Alcoholics Anonymous)

Dictates?! They're just suggestions, aren't they?!

Bill W., in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, tends to use what is termed 'elegant variation', i.e. he employs different words to introduce the same idea. The people we take through the work are not called 'sponsees' in the Book; your chap is referred to as your 'protégé', your 'man', your 'prospect', your 'candidate', and your 'friend'. The Steps are referred to as a set of 'proposals', 'clear-cut directions', 'simple rules', 'simple requirements', and, lastly, 'a suggested programme'. The Book is also referred to as being 'suggestive only'. P. 94 also refers to 'suggestions'.

No one can force me to take on board the proposals, to follow the clear-cut directions, to follow the rules, to adhere to the requirements; that's why the programme is suggested. If I reject the programme, anyone following the directions in the chapter 'WORKING WITH OTHERS' will not put me under pressure, will not be offended, will not push or prod me, and will remain a friend (cf. pp. 94–95).

My experience, however, once I set out on the suggested path, is that, if I want the results set out in the Book, I have to treat what has been suggested as 'directions', 'rules', and 'requirements'. When you're flying a jet, you follow precisely what the instruction manual says; when you're baking a cake, you follow the recipe to the letter; when you are navigating a ship through waters with hidden reefs and shoals, you trust the navigational chart 100%. Deviate at your peril.
To sum up: we suggest you learn to fly your jet to the fourth dimension; we suggest you navigate through these dangerous waters to safe haven; you are quite at liberty to stay precisely where you are, however. We're not pushing you or prodding you. If you actually want to get to the fourth dimension or to safe haven, however, on what basis would you disregard or take a piecemeal approach to the flight manual or navigational chart?
There is another reason why this passage refers to 'dictates'. I am beyond a set of amends; there is no one I owe amends to whom I have not made amends to where such amends are possible. For whole stretches of time in a given day, I am freed of concern with myself, of concern with my self-image, my self-esteem, my wants, my needs, how I'm treated by the world, and my money. What comes through to me 'quiet and clear' (God never shouts) once the 'noisy authorities' of my hydra-headed ego are temporarily decapitated is what must be done.
Dictates. When people approach me looking for help in AA, the choice of what to do is really no choice: this is about life and death, for them, and for me. That doesn't mean I get to take everyone who approaches me through the Steps; quite the contrary: when I can, I do, when I can't, I'll help the person find someone who will take them through the Book. The choice—follow the dictates of the quiet voice within or slope off into the darkness of self-centeredness—is no choice, once you have been given a taste of true freedom.
A big circuit speaker from the largest group in LA says in many of his talks 'nothing stays wonderful for ever'. He speaks well about how every wonderful feeling eventually becomes jaded and dulled over time, how familiarity breeds contempt, and how we simply have to get over our idealism and yearning in order to stay sober.
I understand the point, and I can see the phenomenon in my own life.
However: following the dictates of a Higher Power has resulted, for me, in seeing the world constantly afresh. Freed from the past, freed from the future, freed from myself—in those moments and for those stretches of time when this freedom is mine—there is nothing but the infinitely varying, infinitely captivating, infinitely enthralling universe. There is a religious tradition in which it is held that the world is recreated from nothing, afresh, every instant.
Every morning, from the seat in which I pray and meditate, I look at the same tree. I am never, but never bored by it. I could watch it forever. Try that with people; try looking past what the person represents, the promise or the threat to you they hold out, the prejudices, the preconceived ideas, the judgements, the beliefs, the habits, the categorisations, the memories of what they were like in the past, and see what Mary Oliver would call 'the soft animal' in front of you. And, for a moment, you are in the present, you are presently living in a new and wonderful world, whatever your present circumstances, because those circumstances become the new and wonderful world, ever instant, instant after instant.
The only other thing that allowed me to live so utterly in the moment was alcohol.
Which is why I need a substitute far greater than 'don't drink and go to meetings'.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The real New Year's Day

New Year's Day is supposed to be the beginning of a cycle. Perhaps recalling some original beginning which we lap once a year, like the starting line on an athletics track. Or the start of a path up a mountain.

My New Year's Day is 24 July, recalling 24 July 1993, which was when I was last separated from alcohol. I was done: I had just been released from a police cell in which I had been locked up for being drunk and disorderly; alcohol no longer conjured for me the dream that I was adorable, invincible, and bullet-proof, it merely deepened the terror and bewilderment; I was unable to live life sober, and terrified of dying drunk.

That was the beginning of the cycle, of the lapping round the track, of the path up the mountain.

But it is the last of these three images that best reflects recovery.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are presented in vertical form on the page or scroll; they're 'worked' in a sequence; we think of time as linear.

This is a mistake.

I sat in a cheap cafe yesterday evening with someone who has four days of sobriety. We talked about the spiritual disconnection of the unrecovered alcoholic, the inability to feel one's own humanity, the barriers erected between oneself and everyone around, the loneliness and unattainability of the alcoholic in the cage of his or her own ego. And about how alcohol once treated that.

Every time I do the work, which is to take someone else through the considerations and actions set out in the book Alcoholics Anonymous up to page 164, to enable him or her to make conscious contact with the power that is already keeping him or her sober, I am placed back at Step One.

What looks back at me across the table is my own powerlessness over alcohol, and the dark, cold, dank space at the base of the mountain that I myself came from. And the hope, which is the last, cool light left flickering.

Every time I return to the dark side of the mountain on my path to the summit, every time I find myself back at Step One, I am further up the mountain.

My experience of spiritual growth is that it takes the form of a spiral, continually revisiting the same places but from a higher point each time. The landscape below is just as familiar, the dark side of the mountain is just as cold, but progress has been and is being made, and the knowledge of what lies on the other side and above now sustains me, whereas, in the beginning, all I knew was the darkness.

Today, of all days, I should be dead, drunk, mad, or medicated. That, after all, is where real alcoholics end up, sooner or later.

But I'm not.

And I get to start another year.