Richard Rohr and Twelve Steps

Like probably most of you reading this blog, I have experienced the effects of addiction and mental illness in my own family…this is more the “rule” than the exception.  As I became a therapeutic educational consultant and began to work with students and their family systems with addiction and substance abuse issues, I began a steep learning curve to understand better the work of recovery.  When I read Richard Rohr’s meditation this morning, it brought to mind a lecture I had heard once from a person in recovery….

This person told me that when he used substances for the very first time, it was as if there was a huge shift in his world view and in particular, his spirituality.  He felt at once as if he had experienced closeness and communion with the universe and a peacefulness he had never experienced before.  At the time, the feelings of comfort and peace were so strong and so intense that he wanted to stay in that “state” of communion forever.  Afterwards, when he would “use” again, he would search for that initial “high” and yet could not repeat it exactly.  The more he used, the less he felt he could re-experience the high, but the more he sought it out.

For me, this conversation was at once both very troubling and yet also illuminating, as I had been working with a young woman who had experienced some extreme trauma and her therapist at the time had related to me that her spirituality and sense of self, her trauma and her substance use were all intertwined like “spaghetti” together and that this young woman could not really create a healthy self-reference.  It was as if she felt spiritually “dead” when she was not using drugs and could not understand why everyone else could not relate to her point of view.

Having now just heard in a lecture a person who was a professional and trained therapist in recovery relate a very similar story about his personal journey through addiction and into recovery, I recalled a sermon I once heard from a preacher.  He was speaking at a church that had started a Christian recovery program.  In this sermon, the speaker made the statement that addiction is an attempt to “fill a hole in one’s soul” with substances and that the only thing that will satisfy that “soul hunger” is a relationship with God. Many people get angry at that statement and many professionals tell you that addiction is a profound disease with strong biological components and that often by bringing “spirituality” into the picture, you are creating a terrible shaming or moralization issue which makes the addict worse,  not better.  Which is right?  Probably a combination of both the spiritual point of view and the medical point of view.  I am not an addictionologist (an MD who works with patients with addictions).  

What I can tell you is I agree with Richard Rohr’s blog below!  A person who struggles with addiction is typically a person who is very sensitive and often has a great “wounding” or unresolved trauma.  They have been “looking for love in all the wrong places” or trying their best to “numb out” some psychological pain… So a minister describing it as a “hole in the soul” is not a bad metaphor.  What Alcoholics Anonymous provides is help for many people to begin to create a spiritual life and a fellowship of people who can support one in recovery and there is more good than harm in most A.A. and Alanon meetings.  The disconnect is when someone else, other than the addict, even with good intentions, tries to tell a person what and how to “believe” it can be damaging. This dynamic is why the language of A.A. of a “higher power” or God “as we understood” is so important.  We can know that a person will be more healthy and whole if they fill the “hole in their soul” with something other than substances, but one has to take this spiritual quest and figure things out for his or herself,  with the support of a community!  My late friend Larry Wilson used to say: “I have to do it myself, but I can’t do it alone.”  We all need love and supportive community and people who will help us see our blind spots and grow in our relationship with our Higher Power.  And yet, we all need to “do it ourselves”!

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2

Step Eleven
Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. [1]

In his book, Addiction and Grace, psychiatrist Gerald May—who was a personal friend of mine and a true holy man—pointed out how addictive behavior uses up good desire and drains away spiritual desire. May was convinced, and I am too after my years as jail chaplain, that many addicts in their younger years were people with spiritual insight and desire. In spiritual direction, addicts will often admit to early youthful moments of “unitive consciousness.” These were moments when it all made sense and we knew we were good, God was good, it was all good. We were in touch with our true source of power, our spiritual desire, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When this incipient spiritual yearning was frustrated; when communion, connection, and compassion didn’t happen; when we were instead met with religions’ legalism, exclusivity, and ritualism—there was a great disappointment. Some then try to maintain an experience of communion through substance abuse or a process addiction (for example, shopping or gambling). We attach to substances and processes the way we first wanted to attach to God. We want to attach to something that will never let us down, something all-powerful, all-nurturing, truly liberating.

Whatever your attachment might be, it gives you the feeling that this will always be here to control your moods. Maybe it’s a superficial meaning, but somehow buying a new thing takes away the emptiness for about ten minutes. Of course, like any addiction, you need more and more of it because each time you experience the emptiness afterward. It’s never enough to fill the God-sized hole inside of you.

Prayer and meditation allow you to reconnect with your true source of power. Bill Wilson recalled that the new experience of spiritual vitality he felt in his recovery was exactly what he felt years earlier after visiting Winchester Cathedral in England as a young soldier. He writes, “The real significance of my experience in the Cathedral burst upon me. For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God. There had been a humble willingness to have God with me—and God came. But soon the sense of divine presence had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly those within myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been.” [2]

Alcoholics Anonymous, the first Twelve-Step program, was developed before Thomas Merton reintroduced contemplation to the modern Western world. Although the “prayer and meditation” described by Bill Wilson and his friends was not exactly the type of contemplative prayer we teach today, it was indeed focused on surrendering to God, seeking God’s will, and relying on God’s power. It was amazing that Wilson used the uncommon word “meditation” in the 1930s, a time when most would have thought that was a practice from “Eastern religion.”

A contemplative practice, done over time, actually rewires our brains so that we can detach from our addictive patterns of thinking and feeling and our unworkable programs for happiness. Now many neuroscientists affirm such very real change and call it neuroplasticity: chosen neural pathways gradually grow stronger; unused pathways actually die away. Contemplative “practice” works!

Nobody describes the outcome of such contemplative practice better than Gerald May: “As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become expressions of divine love.” [3]

Gateway to Silence:
Thy will be done.

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit (Harper San Francisco: 1982), 238.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (CAC: 2007), MP3 download;
How Do We Breathe Under Water? The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), disc 1 (CD, DVD, MP3 download); and
Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (CAC: 2011), CD, DVD, MP3 download.