Friday, 17 February 2012

Absolute surrender

One thing that slippers seem to have in common is that they want to drink. Perhaps only 1% of them wants to drink, but that 1% is there, nonetheless.

I slipped for a while in AA, then finally got sober, in 1993. Precisely what happened in my mind over that time and what has happened since, even though it happened in my mind, really is a matter of speculation, but I am fairly confident of the following.

At some point in mid 1993 I decided that I was not very good at dying. I had repeatedly tried and failed to die, even though I felt I wanted to. I gave up trying to die.

At some point in mid 1993 I decided that I was not very good at drinking. I had repeatedly tried and failed to drink, even though I felt I wanted to. I gave up trying to drink.

Drinking still seemed quite appealing, as did death. But at some deep level I gave up wishing I could make either work. I had proved sufficiently that I could not.

I was quite doubtful about whether I would ever be functional, let alone happy, but these matters, although important to me, were no longer factors in whether or not I would live and whether or not I would drink.

I relinquished the right to make any further decision regarding these two matters. In effect, I sentenced myself to life and sentenced myself to sobriety. And, believe you me, it was indeed a sentence. I would live and be sober, come what may, whether or not I functioned, whether or not I was happy.

An odd thing then happened. First of all, I stopped relapsing. Secondly, everything AA had to offer started to actually work to produce both functionality and happiness, albeit in tiny doses, to start with.

To work, commitment to life and sobriety has to be unconditional, i.e. without any reservation in the form of, 'it is worth staying sober as long as X happens and/or Y does not happen'.

I realised that there had been reservations before: I needed AA to work and make me functional and happy before I would decide once and for all to go with life and sobriety. That demand blocked AA and left the door open to drink.

I have had moments and, on occasion, periods lasting months or years since then when I was either functioning poorly or was unhappy. Some of this was just due to growing pains (as there was and is a lot of growing to do). Some of this was due to bad information and bad guidance. A lot of this was due to my own rejection of the solution that was on offer because I knew best.

But at no point did I assume the right to question whether or not I should live and whether or not I should stay sober.

It amazes me at how badly I have 'done' AA at times, often for long periods, and yet not drink. If there is one reason, it is this: with regard to life itself and alcohol, I surrendered if not to God at least to AA's advice to not have the first drink one day at a time.

It is not the will power not to have the first drink that has kept me sober, as I do not have that will power. It is the surrender to this process. Today I see God behind the process; at the start I could not. But God was there all along.

Sobriety starts with absolute surrender. Someone describes this as putting down your weapons and defences and awaiting instructions.

What is next?

Service keeps you sober

I have been taught that living in all three sides of the triangle of sobriety, recovery, and unity will keep you sober.

I agree.

One excellent opportunity for people to do service is at meetings, which require a lot of work.

A friend of mine from the US, who recently relapsed, has had to give up all of his service assignments because he no longer has the 90-day requirement, which, in the city in which he lives, is a requirement for any service at all, at least in the groups he is aware of.

At my home group, we do not have a 90-day requirement. This means very new people get to greet, make tea, set-up chairs, wash up cups after, and set out literature. We obviously would not give the role of secretary or treasurer to someone new. But someone new can perform these tasks quite well.

Occasionally there is some unreliability with newcomers, perhaps a little more than with people who have been sober for longer, but any exposure to AA over a considerable period of time will reveal that unreliability is by no means the preserve of people with less than 90 days.

Provided that the group is well organised, a no-show causes little or no genuine disruption anyway.

If you are new in AA, it is likely that other areas of your life are very messy or non-existent. It may well be that the only place where you have an opportunity for service is in AA itself. That was true for me when I was new.

I am grateful that I was afforded the opportunity from day 1 to be of service, and I had three or four service assignments a week from the beginning. This made me feel part of AA and made me feel useful and needed for the first time in a long time. It was the beginning of real spiritual recovery: I could be there for others. The time I was doing service was sometimes the only time I was not thinking about me.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous also suggests a turning outward to service and throughout emphasizes the danger of delay and the importance of prompt action. In the Chapter A Vision For You, Bill and Bob immediately start working with others.

Where I go to AA, newcomers get into service straight away and as sponsor as soon as they are asked, provided that they are well through the Steps, regardless of how long they have been sober.

There are no 90-day requirements for service.
There are no 1-year requirements for sponsorship.

If you are a real alcoholic in real trouble, you do not have that kind of time to hang around.

A quiet plea to those parts of AA where artificial rules are imposed: do not keep the solution from the people who need it the most.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The binary distinction between religion and spirituality

'AA is spiritual, not religious' (Anonymous)

The trouble with bandying around the terms 'religious' and 'spiritual' in some kind of binary opposition is that people rarely preface the discussion with any robust definitions of the two terms, which, it turns out are complex and overlap considerably.

Setting aside some of the less relevant definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (pertaining, for example, to religious orders or specific denominations), here are some extracts from the entry on 'religion':

'(a) Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.
(b) A particular system of faith and worship.
(c) Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.'

Do these three reflect what the AA programme teaches? Self-evidently. This, ladies and gentlemen, is religion. AA is 'lite' on worship and rites (though it does have both), but the programme does indeed encourage a system of faith (loose as that system is) and certainly sets out a code of living based on a superhuman power.

To assert that AA is not religious is a half-truth. AA's theology is extremely loose, it lacks the institutional power structures of major world religions, and it allows significantly more freedom than is typical for such religions, but 'trust God, clean house, help others', in accordance with the plain meanings of the word, is a religious instruction.

So, what does 'spiritual' mean?

Well, the OED is helpful on this matter too. Again, the many less relevant or irrelevant meanings are omitted:

'(a) Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect.
(b) Of, belonging or relating to, concerned with, sacred or ecclesiastical things or matters, as distinguished from secular affairs; relating to the church or the clergy; ecclesiastical.'

In plain English, 'spiritual' points in two directions: firstly, religion, secondly, spirit:

'The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life. (OED)'

This is the essence of the AA programme:

'And does not science demonstrate that visual proof is the weakest proof? It is being constantly revealed, as mankind studies the material world, that outward appearances are not inward reality at all. To illustrate:
The prosaic steel girder is a mass of electrons whirling around each other at incredible speed. These tiny bodies are governed by precise laws, and these laws hold true throughout the material world, Science tells us so. We have no reason to doubt it. When, however, the perfectly logical assumption is suggested that underneath the material world and life as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence, right there our perverse streak comes to the surface and we laboriously set out to convince ourselves it isn’t so.' (Alcoholics Anonymous, 48:3)

In truth, religion is concerned with the same matters as AA.

'Love consumes us only in the measure of our self-surrender.' (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a Catholic)
'The cause of the weakness of your … life is that you want to work it out partly, and to let God help you. And that cannot be. You must come to be utterly helpless, to let God work, and God will work gloriously.' (Andrew Murray, a protestant)
'What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being. To feed the hungry. To help the afflicted. To lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful. To remove the wrongs of the injured. That person is the most beloved of God who does the most good to God's creatures.'  (Mohammed)

I could go on but have made the point I wanted to make. Religion appears widely to be seeking precisely what we are seeking in AA.

What is really meant by this binary distinction between religion and spirituality?

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I believe what people are meaning to convey when they distinguish these two is to define AA's spirituality by what it is not:

It is non-denominational—you do not have to believe any particular creed (but good luck if, when you find yourself powerless in Step One, you are unwilling to try to find a power greater than yourself).

It does not impose rules or insist on adherence to them (as alcohol is ultimately our disciplinarian).

It has no ecclesiastical power structures or hierarchies in the traditional sense.

Essentially, it is not 'the Church' (whichever church that may be).

Why is this discussion necessary?

Newcomers will often have had bad 'religious' experiences and are put off by the initial observation that AA appears to cover much of the same ground as religions. 'AA is spiritual not religious' attempts to provide comfort. Typically, the bad 'religious' experiences are bad experiences of religionists, not of religion itself. If people have had experiences that are not loving, they have not had experiences of religion but of people failing to live up to their religion.

One summing up of this is in Romans Chapter 13: 'Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.'

This is not to excuse the often extreme treatment AA members have suffered but to indicate this: religion was never the problem—the true problem was invariably lack of true religion.

Why not leave this discussion be?

An extremely common experience amongst AA members is to have a spiritual experience as a result of the Steps but then, over time, to fall into spiritual decay and eventually to collapse back down to the starting point. Many then conclude that the spiritual path has failed.

A spiritual experience must be ongoing to remain vital, and I have needed a huge amount of guidance on how to achieve this. To dismiss everything religions have to offer is to hamstring yourself from the outset. I have tried to subsist on a thin gruel of AA dictums and failed. I need the experience of women and men of religions throughout the world and throughout the ages. It was, in fact, only once I grasped the nettle and started to investigate that I discovered this missing piece in my programme.

'There are many helpful books also. Suggestions about these may be obtained from one’s priest, minister, or rabbi. Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer.' (Alcoholics Anonymous, 87:2)