Archive for May, 2014

A ONCE AND FUTURE DRUNK: Or, why going to meetings is a long term spiritual practice

Note: I was surprised a while ago when a spiritual teacher whom I respect made a sideways swipe at AA.  Her remark reminded me just how little most people understand about Twelve Step programs.  This article is mostly to make clear to myself why I do what I do.  If it’s helpful to you, please feel free to pass it on.

From the beginning of my sobriety twenty-seven years ago, I noticed that AA can evoke a good deal of discomfort in some religious and mental health circles.  There were the folks for whom AA isn’t religious enough: they’re the ones who re-wrote the program so that it conforms to one particular notion of G*d.  Then there were the folks who believe that talking about a Higher Power or admitting powerlessness constitutes an abdication of adult responsibility.  They liked to re-write the program without a higher power, or advocate a program of “harm reduction” rather than help us drunks aim for sobriety.

As far as I could discern, most of these people didn’t actually understand how AA works.   This was not their fault.  Outsiders often learn about AA primarily through interactions with an AA member, and we all know how crazy some AA members can be.  Some “normies” might have taken a course about AA, or attended several meetings; they might even have read a summary of the Twelve Steps or part of the Big Book.  However it happens, outsiders learn a partial—therefore necessarily flawed—version of AA.  Of course, we alcoholics learn a partial and flawed version too.  Because Alcoholics Anonymous is a lived program, not simply the literal interpretation of a book, few people understand the program unless they have practiced it. I probably speak for many alcoholics when I say that I didn’t understand the program before I had lived it for many years.  My great luck was that people told to me to keep coming back.  When you keep coming back, and back, and back, the picture gets bigger, freer, more complete.

So I try not to judge people who seem intolerant of the program; I just figure they don’t really know it.

But I’ve recently become aware of the most troubling misinterpretation of AA yet, coming from some of the spiritual movements aiming to help folks reach enlightenment or evolutionary spirituality or some version of this.  Don’t get me wrong: enlightenment is a great goal.  But when someone implies that AA is a crutch or that it’s a “lower” form of spiritual practice which should be discarded in order to do real spiritual practice, they are exhibiting a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be an alcoholic as well as a profound misconception of recovery.

Alcoholism is a disease of spirit and body.   These are facts: demonstrated by science and psychology, generally accepted by thoughtful religious folks, and known as indisputable truth by any sober alcoholic.  These facts are the basis of the AA program.  Science tells us that an alcoholic’s body processes alcoholic differently than a non-alcoholic’s body: there is a cellular preference for alcohol-derived sugars.  At an experiential level, this was the feeling where every cell in my body was jonesing for me to pick up a drink.  But as Bill Wilson and millions of alcoholics have observed, alcoholism is also an obsession of the mind, a sickness of the spirit.  Psychology and religion have both observed that alcoholism is marked by a deep desire to avoid the quotidian suffering that is simply part of every human life.  This denial warps our souls; it deforms our psyches.  At the experiential level, this is the feeling that I simply don’t want to experience what I am experiencing, which leads again to the aforementioned jonesing of my cells.  This is where the Twelve Steps come into play.  Rather than drink, I sit through it and do the work required for the reformation of my soul, easing the ego out of the driver’s seat: a process which marries discipline to profound surrender.

Recovery is way more than not drinking.  The initial healing for most of us begins with surrender, with the acceptance of our impossible dilemma.  At this point, many of us experience giddy relief—the notorious pink cloud—when our obsession was suddenly lifted.  There is liberation from craving, or at least a capacity to live with the craving just for today and to trust that it would get better.

But we need more, we alcoholics.  Because alcoholism isn’t just physical, we need something that leads us beyond our tiny mental cage to a place where we live in harmony with the world around us.  This harmony is not a withdrawal from the world, but an embracing of our self and others as simultaneously fucked-up and deeply loved.  We stay in the game of life rather than exiting it for a higher plane.  The Steps help us stay in real time, real life.  They are a profound and gentle spiritual discipline and, like the best of monastic traditions, firmly grounded in the reality of daily life.

Once we start working through the Steps, the program tells us to go get a spiritual practice.  This doesn’t imply that we now abandon the program—it simply recognizes that we’re finally mature enough to go seeking the deep Love that powers the universe.  Most of us alcoholics need to keep on working the steps, because it’s the very daily-ness of that practice that shapes us so tenderly and repeatedly that we become a suitable container for Love to shine in and through us.

Everyday discipline is a really important concomitant to spiritual seeking.   We need a strong and well-balanced self to deal with the depths, and few alcoholics come into the program with anything resembling a well-balanced self.  If you toss an electrifying dose of spiritual insight on top of general alcoholic instability, you’re asking for trouble: any psychiatrist or contemplative knows people who have fried their circuits or descended into megalomania by trying to go way too deep way too fast.  So there are strong reasons to keep on working the steps when we get into spiritual seeking.

I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t lived it, I’m sorry to say.  I’m one of those who have had profound experiences, but I can still find myself lost in blame or screaming at my partner.  Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but I find it easy to get confused and mistake the bells and whistles of a spiritual practice—by which I mean insights, precognition, spiritual charisma, etc.—for spiritual maturity.  They’re not.  Spiritual maturity is about how we behave in everyday life.  The steps are necessary because they ground us and help us see ourselves clearly: not the self we want to be but the self we really are. It takes a profound humility to keep on acknowledging my self as simply (and beautifully, and awfully) human.  In the end, humility and service are the only real marks of the bodhisattva, the saint, and the sage: and they are the doorway to joy, happiness, and freedom.

Most folks with long-time recovery exhibit this kind of humility.  Of course there are exceptions to this.  But as the Big Book says, We are not saints.  We are simply willing to grow along spiritual lines.  We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.  The long-timers whom I love generally don’t act like they know a lot more than other people; they’re more likely to ask a question than to give a lecture.  They come to meetings because they recognize that no matter how long they’ve been sober, life continues to serve up challenges.  If you look closely, you will see that they exercise a kind of easy vigilance about their lives.  They notice where they screw up and they clean it up without too much drama.

It’s not fear that keeps them coming to meetings; but it’s not simply humility, either.  It’s this thing called service.  I got sober because there was a group of women in Portland, Oregon, who showed up at 6:45 am every Wednesday to be AA.  They went to that meeting for their own sobriety; but they also held open a space so that when others were ready, sobriety was there for us to enter.  Those women held me, heard me, loved me, and helped me understand that I was an alcoholic.  They exuded a life-giving sense of possibility.  They showed up in a kind of faithfulness that their HP would use them to serve someone else who was in need.

Service is not just an AA concept.  All of the major religious traditions recognize that spiritual practice is a two-part path.  One part is acting on our inward longing for the experience of G*d, the Holy, the Love at the Centre of the Universe, or whatever you want to call it.  The other part of the path faces us squarely outward toward others, in service—the ethical dimension of spirituality.  If we choose one side only, we’ve missed the boat.  We’re either sunk in spiritual materialism—collecting peak experiences like trophies—or wallowing in rampant codependence—thinking that we are capable of caring for the world through our own power.

Now, back to the remark that inspired this article.  I do understand that people have found sobriety through paths other than Alcoholics Anonymous. After all, even the Big Book says it’s possible.  But if I hear a spiritual guru say that an alcoholic who got sober in AA no longer needs to go to meetings, I really wonder.  Would they suggest a person suffering from diabetes quit taking their insulin?  Would they suggest that we humans have no ethical obligations to each other?  Do they understand alcoholism and the program of AA sufficiently to make this judgment, or is this an example of the … principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation. (Herbert Spencer)

I admit it.  When I hear people say things like this, it doesn’t just bother me that they don’t understand the program.  It makes me anxious.  It makes me anxious because I automatically start to wonder whether my body chemistry has changed in twenty-seven years.  It then occurs to me that maybe I’ve gotten so holy that I can drink again.  But when I try this idea on seriously—something that showing up at meetings helps me remember to do—I realize that my desire to be healed is really just so I can drink again.  That is the nature of alcoholic craving, folks: I wanna get so holy that I didn’t have to be sober.

But as every serious path of human liberation tells us, when suffering and constriction is willingly accepted—whether that be a monastic cell, our current circumstances, or the path of sobriety—that suffering and constriction leads to liberation.  Not liberation so that I can drink, but liberation so that my life without alcohol will be free and joyful and useful.  So that’s why I still go to meetings: not because I’m terrified or stuck, but because I accept that this is an essential part of my path.