Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Thinking

Sometimes people in AA say you shouldn't think. Sometimes they say that we're all still mad in perpetuity but at least we have someone to go and share it. I disagree with this. The Steps seem to disagree with this, as they suggest a restoration to sanity.

The Steps, in a formal sense, will do a lot to improve thinking.

A lot of people, however, have a teenie-weenie problem that the Steps will deal with only if the problem is understood clearly and if the Steps are used in a targeted way to tackle said problem.

What is this teenie-weenie problem, you ask?

Well, it's a persistent failure to apply critical faculties to one's own thinking. Pages 84 to 88 provide clear guidance on how to improve thinking, which, after all, is the central problem, as suggested on page 23, but a lot of people, I have found, even those with good programmes, find themselves beset with all sorts of emotional problems years sober, stemming directly from crappy thinking unmoderated by critical distance.

The mind is a bit like this: you're sitting at a console, and, one by one, thoughts flash up on a screen before you. Now, the way a lot of people operate is this: they read the thought off the screen, and perform one or more of a number of different functions. This might include:

  • Registering the thought as a known piece of information.
  • Activating a particular recurrent thought pattern (say a resentful or fearful mental scenario).
  • Considering how the thought integrates into some area of existing knowledge.
  • Sending the thought to a decision-making module.
Two points are clear: certain thoughts produce an emotion (e.g. 'I'm ill and will never get better') whilst others do not (e.g. 'Helsinki is the capital of Finland'); certain thought modules, for instance the various resentment, fear, and guilt modules, are completely redundant practically and produce wholly negative emotion, on balance.

So, what is a boy to do?

Well, firstly, the subject needs to develop a skill that people often develop as children, namely the ability to question a thought that flashes up on the screen and ask: is it true? If a thought is not true (which is a matter of testing the thought against experience, evidence, principle, and logic), it must be rejected. Sometimes the thought will continue to flash up. So be it. One cannot control the thoughts that flash up on the screen. One can establish once and for all, however, that the thought is untrue and then resolve to reject it whenever it presents itself. A caveat: because the thought, each time it arises, produces an emotion, you will experience the emotion hanging around like a bad smell, even after you have rejected the thought. Thoughts can be rejected with immediate effect, but the emotional residue takes a while to fade. The trap is to believe that, if the emotion is persisting, the logical basis for rejecting the thought is somehow flawed; this is untrue. The emotion is not to be believed. The persistence of fear is not a sign that a fearful event is imminent: it is a sign merely that you have been thinking fearful thoughts, and it is the fearful thoughts that must be interrogated for accuracy, to determine whether a fearful event is indeed imminent.

Secondly, certain mental modules (resentment, fear, and guilt) need to be shut down, and only you can do that. Sure, invoke God's strength to direct the mind to how you can serve Him, but this must be done on the basis of absolute commitment to ridding the mind of all irrationality and negativity.

In short, we are not victims of our minds, though we seem to be: the job is to regain control of what we do and do not think.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Round-up of the week (12 March 2016)

When anyone, anywhere ...

If you're given the details of a newcomer or someone else in trouble to call, this becomes your top priority. If you cannot discharge your duty, inform the person who delegated the duty to you immediately. Do not just let the matter drop. It happens far too often in AA that someone drops the ball and a newcomer is left in the lurch.

When all else fails ...

... work with others. Often the only way to get out of your self-obsession is to go and help other people. Once you're doing service in a couple of groups, spending at least an hour a day sponsoring others, carrying AA's message to the outside world, and doing some service in the AA structure, then we can talk again, but until then, go to it.

If you're unhappy ...

... you'd better hope you're wrong. If you're right, it's all over. I've never been unhappy without having a profound belief in my own perception. In other words, I've never been unhappy without being confident. My problem is always confidence in my own perception of doom.

Negative thinking

If you have been spiralling for days, weeks, months, or years into ever more frantic negative thinking, a quick prayer is not going to stop it or make you feel instantly better. Prayer, in any case, is not about feeling better, at least not instantly, although being aligned with God does ultimately sort the feelings out. It's about replacing terrible thinking with right thinking so that right action then flows from it. If one has decided to turn one's thinking and life over to God, the right to choose what to think and what actions flow from the thinking has been relinquished. Our thinking, action, and lives are not then our own.

There are two products due to come down the tubes from God: direction as to what to think and do and the strength to follow through. Sometimes that direction and strength does not come straight away and 'intrusive thoughts' get in the way. Fine. In that case you repeat prayers over and over to block out the negative thinking, and at the worst you are reinforcing sound ideas (like God being love or God being the source of direction) rather than reinforcing terrible ideas (basically everything you have ever thought).

There is no excuse for negative thinking, and it is no good complaining of negative feelings if negative thinking has been permitted. It's like stabbing yourself repeatedly in the arm with a knife and then complaining about the pain. Praying and not feeling instantly better is actually completely normal. If you stab yourself in the arm repeatedly then stop suddenly, the pain won't go away immediately. The answer is then not to resume the stabbing on the basis that not stabbing clearly 'does not work'. Yet that is exactly what we tend to do when examining the effectiveness of prayer used to combat negative thinking: just because the feeling does not change immediately and one is not overwhelmed with a sense of God's presence does not mean it is not working. Healing is not instant or miraculous. The problem with negative thinking is that it produces chemical changes in the body. Once the negative thinking stops, it takes the body a while to return to normal.

Also, there may or may not be a feeling of the presence of God. But one thing is for sure, if you stop the negative thinking about other people and yourself; you'll start to develop a feeling of the presence of other people, and once there is a sense of being on a planet with a gazillion other people who are real and matter to you and to whom you feel benevolent, the presence or not of an actual God starts to become an academic question. What did you think God's presence was going to feel like? How do you know oneness with others is not it?

Fear

You think you have a thousand fears. Actually you have around half a dozen: physical pain, death, rejection, loneliness, poverty, failure, pointlessness. The thousand things you're scared of are connected to those core fears through a network of cause and effect ('If I do a terrible piece of work, they'll hate me, then I'll lose my job, then I won't have any money, then everyone will reject me, BOOM'). These thousand things we'll call 'trigger events'. The objects of the core fears we'll call 'BOOM events'.

First of all, feeling fear because of one of the trigger events is usually irrational and overblown because the likelihood of the BOOM event is often very low, but the fear (as a sort of trailer to the feeling associated with the BOOM event) is experienced ten thousand times over. For instance, someone who has never actually been fired may actually pre-feel the feelings associated with being fired every single time someone criticises their work or even whenever they are working, because they are anticipating criticism.

It is like having someone in the crow's nest whose job it is to look out for pirate ships. Pirate ships are almost never encountered, but the crow's nest idiot mistakes everything for pirate ships, like floating bits of wood, waves, seagulls, and the moon. The idiot is constantly shouting 'pirate ship!', and all the people on the boat are constantly running around preparing for the pirate ship that (almost) never appears.

Of course, pirate ships do exist. Physical pain, death, rejection, etc. do actually occur. However, without exception, suffering (to be distinguished from pain; 'suffering', here, is defined as 'disturbance about the pain') flows from identification with human form and ego-image (the image you have of yourself and you believe others have of you). It can take a while to get your head around this, but the pirate ship presents a threat only to your ship and the image you have of yourself.

You are not your ship. You are not the image you have of yourself. Yet these are the only things that can be attacked and are therefore the only things that can be the subject of fear.

If you are spirit who was never born and will never die, there is literally nothing to be frightened of. Add to this experience the fact that God can supply endless grace to face pain with courage, kindness, and cheer, and fear is revealed to be a phantom.

Willing and able

My friend Tom says that, for a relationship to happen, both people have to be willing and able at the same time. That is true across the relationship as a whole but is true also in relation to individual domains of the relationship, for instance talking about work, going on holiday, having sex, taking flamenco classes, doing the laundry together.

There is no cosmic register setting out which domains should be available for which types of relationship, and when. In fact the concept of different types of relationship is flawed as the boundaries of even apparently clear-cut relationships like employer/employee relationships or marriage are fuzzy, and no individual domain is a prerequisite for a successful relationship of a particular type, e.g. not all happily married couples live together or have sex (with each other).

You do not owe anyone participation in any relationship or domain and vice versa. You do get to establish which domains you are willing to engage in and with whom, however. It is your job to ensure you are spiritually and otherwise fit and equipped to engage in these domains. Timing of availability is also up to you.

The rights and responsibilities of the other person mirror this. This means that, when you discover someone is not available in a particular domain, all that has happened is that they are not willing in general, not willing right now, or not able. In turn, this means that they are exercising their rights and manifesting the level of development they have achieved.

Nothing has gone wrong; you have not been rejected or found wanting; you have not been slighted; you have not been short-changed. The negotiation of availability happens scores of times a day, mostly unseen, because one simply adjusts. On those relatively infrequent occasions when you become upset, it is not the other person who has caused the problem but your expectations about their availability.

True, if someone is perpetually unavailable or you don't have enough matches to sustain a relationship, in practical terms the relationship is over, but if you open up to the universe it will fill the gaps in your life, like cut and folded dough reintegrating into a whole.

Other tips: make no demands; so not slam your doors simply because someone else's are shut. And we will all get along much better.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Round-up of the week (1 March 2016)

Blank spots

If you're an unrecovered alcoholic, you have mental blank spots (cf. Jim's story in the book Alcoholics Anonymous) where the information 'alcohol is bad for me' should be but isn't.

If you're an unrecovered Al-Anon, you have mental blank spots where the information 'the alcoholic is bad for me' should be but isn't.

The horns in the head of the alcoholic match the holes in the head of the Al-Anon.

Mutuality vs transaction

According to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, 'giving not getting' is the guiding principle.

Through the course of recovery, I have tried through the example of others who I emulate to move from 'getting' being the guiding principle (the reptilian brain, Principle I), to 'giving to get' being the guiding principle (the mammalian brain, Principle II), to 'giving not getting' being the guiding principle (the human or mystic brain, Principle III). I'm not there but some progress has been made, fitfully I admit.

What the last of these three principles really means is that I try to give of my time and energy and keep my eye off what, if anything, I am getting back.

Human reliance is a very bad idea: I try to rely on God. This means that I do not place reliance on people individually but instead trust that God will give me everything I need through the channels He chooses (not the channels I choose). I can never assume that another person is operating on Principle III at all times; you cannot tell, necessarily, which principle is operative in a person because the learned paraphernalia of human behaviour, the mechanisms people use to operate in accordance with these three principles can look very similar; in fact, when I'm operating based on Principle I, with the reptilian bit of my brain essentially in charge, higher functions may be invoked to give people the impression I'm operating on a higher level when I am not.

It is impossible to be let down by anyone because to be let down presupposes an obligation. There are no obligations; also, to feel let down means I've in any case slipped back from Principle III to Principle II, so I'm hardly one to throw stones.

Step Eleven, pages 86-88

There are some people who are suited to taking every instruction on pages 86 to 88 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous every day. I am not. It gets stale and empty. A trick is this: in the evening: scan down the list of questions on page 86 and answer just the one that strikes you as the most pertinent, but answer that one properly; in the morning, scan through the instructions between pages 86 and 88 and other morning instructions (e.g. praying for knowledge of how to help the person who is still suffering) and concentrate on the one that is most pertinent, e.g. relief from self-will or relief from self-pity.

Self-reliance

On page 68 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, there is the suggestion that fear stems from self-reliance. There are many ways of looking at this: one of them is that, if I am scared, I essentially believe that, if a bad thing happens, I will not have the resources to deal with it with courage, grace, cheerfulness, usefulness, and kindness, because I am calculating without God.

A more radical view is this: the reason I'm frightened is because I'm relying on my own perceptions. Anything that is real cannot be destroyed; if it can be destroyed it is not real. If I'm frightened I believe that something real can be destroyed and I believe my perception, which is wrong.

Ducks and drakes

Ducks and drakes is a game of throwing flattish stones so that they skim along the surface of water. A man is walking along the beach just before dawn and finds a bag of such stones. He pays ducks and drakes till sunrise. Just as the sun is rising, he discovers that it is not stones he has been playing with but gems, and he has only three left.

There is a strange phenomenon that occurs sometimes in AA: people who are years and sometimes decades sober spin a story that low spirits, fear, and other phenomena are hard-wired into them, unavoidable facts of life, and that there is no solution, even through the Steps. The sharing will sometimes reveal that the understanding of what the Steps consist of is actually far from the full surrender to God and self-sacrifice the book Alcoholics Anonymous talks of on pages 14 to 15 and 164, but it is firmly presumed that no one could possibly have anything to teach them.

How is this to be interpreted in a context where such a person actually has before them examples of people who give the lie to this position, namely people who have found release through the Steps and through reliance on God and self-sacrifice?

I go back through my own history to periods when I have been without hope.

I became invested in it: to acquire hope after a period of hopelessness is to admit that I have been treading water, wasting my time, wasting my life, playing ducks and drakes with stones that were actually gems, letting years go by. Perversely, the ego would rather have you remain in misery than have you admit that the wrong path has been followed for too long. The investment is too great so cannot be given up, even if it kills you. You have to convince yourself it really has been stones you've been playing ducks and drakes with, not gems.

A friend asked yesterday what the solution is: I'm not sure. I do know that, when the pain got bad enough, I was willing to ditch the investment in and identification with my own unhappiness. One can only pray that others hit that threshold before it is too late.