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.