Thursday, 29 December 2011

True ambition

Question: but surely it is normal to have ambition?

Aspiration is fine, as long as it is focused on the contribution we will attempt to make, not on the outcome.

As soon as the outcome is the focus, we're set up for unhappiness. If we want to be happy, we have to be indifferent to outcome.

There is also the problem of apparently noble aspirations (e.g. career success) concealing egoic desires.

Have a long-term plan. Great!
Break it down into individual actions. Great!

But then "be" in the actions.

Whenever our minds are other than here, except for necessary and fruitful planning, we have to ask "why?" The chances are, we're then in an egoic fantasy.

The Step Three requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. Step Four elaborates upon this.

It gives worked examples of what happens when you go through life with self-centred wishes and ambitions and plans and designs and demands.

The question is: are you happy?

If not, question every belief you hold and be willing to let go of any life-long conception (page 42).

The merits of any particular idea in isolation are irrelevant. It is its role in a structure, a way of living, that makes you inevitably unhappy that must be examined to form the basis of whether the idea be accepted or rejected.

The alternative?

Ask God only for direction. Be pleased at whatever the task appointed is. Chop wood. Carry water. Cook the dinner. Clean your ears. Run a corporation. Win a prize. Make the bed. All the same. All for God. Not for you.

Anything I do for me turns sour. Anything I do for others comes with a price tag. Anything I do for God is endlessly fulfilling.
The holy instant in which everyday tasks transcend their apparent insignificance is eternally available.

But only once the grip of the ego has been released. How? We see through it. That is all.

From Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:

"As to our grandiose behavior, we insisted that we had been possessed of nothing but a high and legitimate ambition to win the battle of life.
...
We have seen that we were prodded by unreasonable fears or anxieties into making a life business of winning fame, money, and what we thought was leadership. So false pride became the reverse side of that ruinous coin marked "Fear." We simply had to be number one people to cover up our deep-lying inferiorities. In fitful successes we boasted of greater feats to be done; in defeat we were bitter. If we didn't have much of any worldly success we became depressed and cowed. Then people said we were of the "inferior" type. But now we see ourselves as chips off the same old block. At heart we had all been abnormally fearful. It mattered little whether we had sat on the shore of life drinking ourselves into forgetfulness or had plunged in recklessly and willfully beyond our depth and ability. The result was the same—all of us had nearly perished in a sea of alcohol.
But today, in well-matured A.A.'s, these distorted drives have been restored to something like their true purpose and direction. We no longer strive to dominate or rule those about us in order to gain self-importance. We no longer seek fame and honor in order to be praised. When by devoted service to family, friends, business, or community we attract widespread affection and are sometimes singled out for posts of greater responsibility and trust, we try to be humbly grateful and exert ourselves the more in a spirit of love and service. True leadership, we find, depends upon able example and not upon vain displays of power or glory.
Still more wonderful is the feeling that we do not have to be specially distinguished among our fellows in order to be useful and profoundly happy. Not many of us can be leaders of prominence, nor do we wish to be. Service, gladly rendered, obligations squarely met, troubles well accepted or solved with God's help, the knowledge that at home or in the world outside we are partners in a common effort, the well-understood fact that in God's sight all human beings are important, the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return, the certainty that we are no longer isolated and alone in self-constructed prisons, the surety that we need no longer be square pegs in round holes but can fit and belong in God's scheme of things—these are the permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living for which no amount of pomp and circumstance, no heap of material possessions, could possibly be substitutes. True ambition is not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God."

Monday, 26 December 2011

Step Eleven: what is, is

"We ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives." (86, 'Alcoholics Anonymous')

These three items are broader in scope than they appear to be at first sight.

Turned into instructions, they can become:

Do not regret that anything is other than it is.
Do not imagine that anything is other than it is.
Do not wish that anything be other than it is.

Do not overlay the universe with (a) alternative, self-centered plans that have been thwarted in the past or whose fulfilment is to be sought in the future or (b) opinions, judgements, interpretations, beliefs, etc.

Or, simpler: what was, was; what is, is; what will be, will be.

Only then, say: "God, what shall we do today?"

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

How to deal with periods of spiritual "dryness"

Aridity is a word that Theresa of Ávila once used. Or, at any rate, the Spanish for it, but you get what I mean. If you have ever been to Ávila, you will see why this occurred to her as an image. That part of Spain has endless, desolate expanses. It is extraordinary to drive through or fly over.

She experienced periods of desolation as well as consolation. Both are natural parts of the spiritual journey.

Judging the path by the emotion it induces is what makes least sense, however. Even years in, the emotions tend to lag significantly behind the causal events or actions. That's why we detonate small nuclear devices over people's heads and have no idea why we're doing it. We're actually reacting to what Jennifer said to us in autumn 1996, and it's taken 15 years to hit us. Like the light from stars that have burned out, lighting up today's sky. Also, at any given moment, what you feel is the result of everything you have ever thought and done. Everything. All condensed down to one moment. Pretty hard to judge, therefore, exactly why we feel what we feel when we feel it.

Alcoholics are people who wonder why we're still hungry when we're still mixing the flour and butter. Or wonder why we are still in pain a day after the surgery is over.

Electricity works only if you have a circuit. Remove what interrupts the circuit, and you have a circuit. Unlike an electrical circuit, however, the flow is not always instant.

Perhaps a better image is opening up the gates in a dam. Except we're way downstream. The aridity can seem to last forever, and become more acute when we are already taking the right actions.

Spiritual laws would suggest that no prayer or prayerful action can go unanswered, just like gravity is not partial or sporadic.

Hang in there.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Tradition Four and fundamentalism in AA

Tradition Four and fundamentalism in AA

Oftentimes, I hear an argument which runs like this:

"I took the Steps a particular way. They worked. Previously I tried another way. That didn't work. Therefore, there is only one way: the way I took the Steps. If you took them differently, you're wrong. I've been sober 20 years. I should know!"

There are several logical fallacies at play here:

Excluded middle/false dichotomy: the presumption is that there are only two alternatives, the speaker's, and the other, failed method. In truth, people with very different experiences of the Steps stay permanently sober and become free and well.

A variant of this is: "I haven't done X [some element of how someone else has worked the Steps], and I'm OK, so X is superfluous." This is like saying that, because I get my carbohydrates from potatoes, I have not needed rice, so getting carbohydrates from rice is wrong.

The fallacy is that there is only one right vehicle for carbohydrates.

To apply this to the Big Book, there is no evidence that the "We" of the Book, for instance, all asked precisely the question, "wasn't it because self-reliance failed us" or took an hour's break between the end of Step Five and taking the Book down off the shelf.

The "path" that the people who wrote the Book followed thoroughly was not, in truth, one path but, at microscopic level, a multiplicity of paths all devised on a set of consistent principles.

One glance at how the Book was written reveals that there was a lot of in-fighting over precisely what it should say, because, even by 1939, experience varied hugely amongst those staying successfully sober.

This assertion, that there is more than one "right way", is usually countered by this argument:

"If anything goes, then we're all screwed ... If you open the door to any variation, we will end up in a free for all, and no one will get sober."

This is a combination of argument by adverse consequences (scare tactics) and the slippery slope fallacy.

The latter is also called the 'camel's nose' fallacy ... there is an old saying about how, if you allow a camel to poke his nose into the tent, soon the whole camel will follow.

The fallacy here is the assumption that, because something extreme (trying to get sober just by going to one meeting a week) does not work, everything between here ("what I did", which worked) and there (a) does not work and (b) will lead to the undesirable extreme.

Another fallacy is argument by generalisation: the presumption that what is true for one is true for all. For example, "I didn't need a workbook, so no one should need one."

All of this is often capped by an appeal to false authority.

I can say what I did and what worked for me. I am not right about what can and must work for someone else BECAUSE I am eighteen years sober, however, or because I have sponsored X people. All this may prove the efficacy of what I and my sponsees have done but does not extend to prove every assertion I make, particularly when I start to speak about YOUR experience.

One principle behind Tradition Four is the admission of variety of approach.

There can be a fondness for uniformity and black-and-white thinking amongst alcoholics.

One thing that these groups have taught me is that there are matters on which reasonable people of good will rightly disagree.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Self-esteem: a candyfloss castle in the rain

"My wife and I abandoned ourselves …" (Alcoholics Anonymous, 15:1)

I think I have lots of problems. I really have only one, although it has different aspects.

My problem is conscious separation. The solution is conscious contact.

Whilst I think I exist as a separate entity apart from God, I am doomed.

I have a plan for my own salvation that is other than God's. This plan does not work, which induces a sense of gross failure. And who I really am—the essence of me that is part of God—becomes the enemy to 'my will'. And I am split in two.

My problem is always that I believe in my own plan and believe it can oppose God's will.

I do not know a way of thinking about me in such a way that I transcend thinking about me. Understanding 'me' to transcend 'me' is like studying the physiology of a ghost which I have seen but which does not really exist.

The 'me' which is causing all the problems (the hurt feelings, the sensitivities, the fear, the whatever) is a story I have made up. It's an entire fabrication.

To have low self-esteem is a function of having a self. Any form of 'therapy' which aims to produce 'positive' self-esteem is really a cop-out.

'Positive self-esteem' is always at the expense of someone else. If I have positive self-esteem for X, Y, or Z (even 'I'm a good person'), what do you do with 'bad' people? They are worthless, under that system. And that worthlessness will hit me straight back in the face, because I will always suspect I am like them. If everyone is 'good', what value is there in goodness? What happens if I cannot live up to the X, Y, or Z? It is not effective to have esteem based on some subjective factor where you have to shift the goalposts every time you trip over: 'I'm worthy because I am a good person; but when I do not act well, I am still good, because I am only human'. Where does that leave the first statement? Trying to fool around with self-esteem is like trying to build a candyfloss castle in the rain. Developing positive self-esteem is like trying to turn the ghost that is not there from a devilish to a benign ghost. It is still not there.

You can try to believe in benign ghosts all you like. It does not make them real. It does not address the underlying problem of there being no 'self' to have esteem.

Does one leaf on a tree have independent value? Where does the value in a person lie? Cut off the arms, is it still there? Remove the body, is it still there? Where is it, this self that is to be esteemed?

The aim of the programme is to be dissolved into the world so you forget you exist and simply become a part of rather than apart from. The aim of the Steps is effectively to blow apart the ego and to reveal it for the bloated nothingness that it is.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Page 89 thoughts

"It works when other activities fail."

This means other activities will sometimes fail! Having working with others structurally integrated into my day and week means I am regularly saved from myself when nothing else saves me from myself. I naturally turn back in on myself, start 'wanting', and start judging myself and others for not fulfilling my wants. This happens quickly and easily.

I am so not cured. Applying the programme as a way of living is pretty automatic, these days, but it is not first nature; it is only ever second nature.

Working with others keeps me turned outwards.

"It works when other activities fail."

If I do not help, who will? This is where the moral obligation comes in.

I always wanted to know WHO I was. My real problem was not knowing where I belonged and what I was supposed to be doing with my life. This line is a starting point: if I do not help people, there will be a hole in the world where my help was supposed to go.

There is a screw for every nut in AA; everyone has been perfectly crafted by God through these Steps to be uniquely useful not just to alcoholics in general but to specific alcoholics. That is why the one-size-fits-all, Stepford Wives approach in AA I do not believe in: we are supposed to be different so we can help people who are different. The Steps are the same, but the crafting by God is individual.

"Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends—this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives."

These are the first Step Twelve promises.

The last line of this provides an instruction and a question: do I have frequent contact with newcomers and my peers?

'The' not 'a' bright spot: there is something that shines through this experience that is irreplaceable.

"Don't start out as an evangelist or reformer. Unfortunately a lot of prejudice exists. You will be handicapped if you arouse it."

This applies within AA as much as without. People sniff this a mile off. What matters is not the principle of whether evangelism or reform should or should not work; what matters is the fact that, with alcoholics, this simply does not work.

It is interesting that Step Four talks about 'grosser handicaps'. Evangelism and reformist tendencies certainly fall within this category. It is not that the carrying of the message and reform are not necessary; it is the direct effecting of change that is in question: we do not change anything by muscle. We change by removing the blocks to change: old ideas, emotions, and attitudes. And we do this in the spirit of Tradition Eleven (attraction not promotion) and Concept XII (discussion, vote, and substantial unanimity).

"So cooperate; never criticize. To be helpful is our only aim."

This is a good general approach to life, applicable with sponsorship, friendship, closer relationships, work, society as a whole. It is a distillation of the programme into a few words.