By Kimmy J
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Table of Contents
Spirituality Vs. Religion
We are thrust unwittingly into philosophy. Basic functions of a civilized person, such as hygiene, table manners, and contraception are frequently more than we can seem to handle in the beginning. Simple functionality is often our ambition when we arrive, concluding a losing battle with addiction and beginning a new way of life. God help us to remember that. But then, despite all of this, or perhaps in response to it, we find ourselves on a journey that calls upon us to question repeatedly what we fundamentally believe about life and embark upon finding a spiritual relationship with a god of our own personal understanding. However ironic, that is the reality. You cannot work the program to the best of your ability and not become a philosopher to some degree, not the way I see it. It is helpful to keep in mind our humble beginnings though. The truth itself is a subjective and fluid concept and revisions or renovations are important.
But ours is a spiritual program, not a religious one. Further, it is not a religion itself. Stories are the most powerful devices available in linguistic communication that don’t contain a melody. That’s why we share our actual experiences and hopes rather than doling out advice and preaching. Hopefully the following two stories about two people whom I had the privilege of sponsoring will illustrate the purpose of this essay.
Stan was actually a friend of my little sister’s. She is not an addicted person she is a civilian. Once I had stayed on the wagon (or off the wagon… I always confuse the wagon metaphor?) for a couple of years and had clearly established the direction of my life, my sister called and told me she had a friend who was talking about going to meetings and wanted to give this person my phone number. I always say yes to giving out my number. It’s my choice to answer or not. This is how Stan came into my life. I immediately became his sponsor, which was brand new to me at that time. The first time we worked the second step I discovered Stan had been raised Catholic. He told me he believed in the God from his childhood. He said that part was “already handled”. We progressed individually and together. He NEVER used the word “God.” By the time we arrived at the Eleventh Step something had clicked for Stan. Something fell into place. Something bloomed. He opened like a flower in the sun. This is also known as a spiritual awakening. He confessed to me that he was an atheist. He told me that God was always something that he was supposed to believe in so he just went with it. But really he did not believe in a personal interventionist God. And yet it didn’t matter. He had tapped into something. He had found that he was a part of something divine and compassion was the channel by which he connected. For the first time he was comfortable using the word “God!” It was just a word to him, shorthand, a symbol; he had discovered his own definitions of words, his own spiritual values! He did not need to pretend in the God of others anymore. His spiritual awakening lead him from a Catholic to an atheist.
At that time, I sponsored people in different states as I do again now. Stan never had the chance to meet Kevin. They were always brothers in my mind though. They shared some common characteristic which I could not put my finger on. Kevin was, and is, a highly talented musician. Making a living as a musician is something many dream about but very few people achieve. Kevin is one of the most spiritually disciplined people I’ve known personally. He started as one of the most annoying sponsees I’ve ever had. He always wanted to know “why?”. He may or may not have been a coffee snob. He is from Sweden and found many things about everyday life in America offensive to his sensibilities. Luckily, I am not the type of person easily rattled, or that takes things overly personally. He was not just an atheist. He was one of those “I KNOW MORE ABOUT YOUR RELIGION THAN YOU DO” atheists. Science-minded, well-read, and European, you couldn’t tell him anything. We began our formal declaration of a sponsorship relationship when he was on Step Four, but our discussions were ample when he was on the earlier steps and I was involved in his process. As a sponsor, you aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but Kevin was probably mine. He was the first person I got to sponsor through all twelve steps and all twelve traditions. He put thoughtful consideration into each question and assignment. Like I said, he always wanted to know “why”. One interesting thing that happened was Kevin got very into meditation on the 11th step (shocking I know!). He ordered a wonderful book called Discover Meditation by Simon McCourt. I had been regularly meditating for all of my five years of recovery. He helped me get better at meditation by turning me on to that book. I would drive to Kevin’s house in the morning and we would meditate together after he made us coffee (the good stuff, obviously). Sometime after that Kevin had a profound visual spiritual awakening, wherein Jesus Christ spoke to him directly, or so he perceived. Ever since, Kevin has had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and considers himself a Christian even though he does not attend a church regularly.
Two different addicts, one went from Catholic to atheist, one went from atheist to Christian. Both had a spiritual awakening as a direct result of working the first eleven steps. I’m not exactly sure where I picked it up along the way but my definition of love is an action that helps another human being to grow spiritually. That really simplifies my role within the rooms.
We need always remember that another person is on their own individual path and all we can do is nurture them and encourage them down the path they are on. If we don’t know the path, have never been down it ourselves, then the least we could do is stay out of their way. Perhaps if we actually believe they are on a different path than us, then our perspective is too small. Maybe we need to deeply reflect on improving our own spiritual position on our own path. Dogma is a drug. Period. We get too strung out on words and semantics and suddenly any path that does not immediately resemble our path becomes foreign and threatening. We push a lot of addicts with five or more years clean away with secret handshakes and exclusionary dogma. Words are merely symbols. Can we fathom another language that requires no words? Can we look past a person’s religion or lack of religion and see the spirit that lies at the core of all of us? When you strip away the details aren’t we all the same? Trying to figure out how to live as humans on this planet and how to love one another? Every opportunity to do service is also an opportunity to do a disservice. I’ve heard many times in meetings, “Religion is for people scared to go to hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.” It makes me cringe a little. For the record, I’m not, nor will I be in the foreseeable future, part of any organized religion. That is irrelevant. A religious person should not have to defend their position in a meeting. Besides, when it comes to recovery we are more alike than we are different. Conversely, I think there is also this opposite current of thought that you don’t have to believe in God to do the Step One but by the time you get to Step Six you should have figured it out by now, “Maybe you just aren’t there yet, I will pray for you”. This is a highly personal and creative process. It is supremely important that we respect each other’s spiritual path and seek to understand what draws the other person to their faith and how we can help them along. Once again, what happens too often is we hurl dogma indirectly. Some experience would be helpful. What is your experience with searching fearlessly deep into your soul for God’s presence? How many times a week do you pray and meditate? What is that like? Experience is a gold mine. Perhaps the twelve step community was built on holding recovery meetings then cornering confused newcomers afterwards and using logic and charisma to convince them that god exists and inviting them to worship exactly like you. That might be true. But we have come a long way in the past seventy years and at this point a sponsor’s spirituality for speaks for itself. We have expanded, we have diversified, and we have come to a place with universal room for everyone. That old hard-sell recruiting is short sighted and frankly unattractive. I challenge any member reading this essay to delve so deeply into their own passions, engulf yourself so fully into your own discipline of prayer and meditation that eventually someone approaches you and asks you how you manage to shine so brightly, giving you an opportunity to share your experience.
There are a couple things that are important as sponsors. It no longer goes without saying that a sponsor should have worked all twelve steps themselves. There are multiple reasons why this is so. First, sponsoring is a challenge in and of itself. It asks us to guide others without seeking to control and becoming emotionally attached to them. Additionally, all the steps build on each other. Specifically Step Eleven is essential to understanding Step Two. Step Eleven is the culmination of the work begun in Step Two. Let me be more specific: It is essential to encourage our sponsees (Like Stan and Kevin) to develop a practical application of Step Two. Passing through Step Two with a minimal attention to detail seems efficient at the time but we run the risk of a soggy foundation that will collapse later as we try to build higher structures. For my own personal recovery and that of my sponsees, I have found it essential to divorce the concept of “God” from Step Two altogether and focus on the step itself, as it can be applied to many different helpful sources and “powers” greater than myself. Some old timers used to point out, “God does not show up until Step Three”. Although this is a problematic statement and might not be technically true, it is exactly what I’m prescribing as a solution.
Allow me to expand the idea further. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We look at this step and mistakenly, like Stan, we see a binary survey:
Do you believe in God Yes/No
But the goal of this step is to look or help. For me, I think of sanity and I think of a commitment to reality and logical decision making. During my using, my decisions were often knee-jerk reactions, frequently stimulated by fear, and supported by a code of street behavior which I was not totally sold and never loved me back. Sanity, as I have come to seek, means that I’m able to make decisions based on the consequences of those actions. This was an alien and foreign concept when I got clean. So first, I had to meditate on sanity and decide I actually desired to stop numbing myself with escapism and finally have the courage to take responsibility for my life. Without a suitable process for making realistic decisions I need to start looking for things on planet earth that I have access to which can assist and support my decision making. These are powers greater than myself! No matter if I’m a Buddhist today, a Zen warrior poet, and next year I find myself a deacon in a Southern Baptist congregation speaking in tongues and doing “the holy ghost dance”, I need a second step that helps me practice open-mindedness and humility in a tangible way. A Second Step that is free of dogma and secularism is both practical and spiritual. Let me show some examples of coming to believe my sanity can be increased with the help of powers greater than myself such as sponsorship, prayer & meditation, and the public library.
In writing this essay, I enlisted the help of an editor. Any academic or creative writer who has produced any amount of volume has had the experience of writing a passage, re-writing, perusing it for errors, only to have a friend glance at it and point out a spelling error in the first several sentences, persevering unnoticed. It’s hard to spot small errors by yourself. Further, on a deeper level, authors sometimes progress along under certain untrue assumptions about the audience. Maybe something is assumed to e common knowledge when in fact it is esoteric jargon. This is a form of self-centeredness by the author by the way. Or maybe leaps are made from one point to the next without sufficient support. This is why a second set of eyes is essential. Sponsorship is of supreme practical value. In order to allow my sponsor to sponsor me, my responsibility is to keep him generally informed of the characters, plots, and major events in my life, in addition to participation in actual step work. That way he is in a position to naturally notice things I may be taking for granted or glossing over. Sponsorship is a power which can lead me to see the reality of my life more clearly even if I’m Buddhist and he’s Christian. He can help me to have more information and guide me to make better more loving, longsighted decisions.
The same is true for the powers of prayer and meditation. A cold, clinical understanding of how prayer and meditation can help me to live more fully in true awareness of myself and the world around me and how they can empower me to build a more fulfilling life makes it easy to prioritize them into my day to day affairs with other essential functions, regardless of what my belief system is concerning daunting subjects such as creation of the galaxy and infinite organized intelligence.
When I pray, even if no one is listening (I don’t believe that) I’m still listening to myself. My subconscious is still listening. If I’m praying to forgive someone I resent and for that person to find good health and happiness, I am peering into my own psyche searching for the surrender to let go of the trauma and emotion of the past and live in the current moment instead. I’m searching or the forgiveness within my own mind. Affirmations are commonly recognized as tools capable of shaping belief systems and forming healthy confidence. When praying at night for what I’m thankful about I’m planting an attitude of gratitude into my consciousness. If I’m praying every single day twice a day for the courage to tell the truth, and for the Universe to care for situations however the Universe would see fit, I’m affirming that I’m safe with uncertainty and preparing myself to get what I want or not get what I want and still behave with calmness and dignity. Prayer is a power. Regular disciplined prayer has the power to prepare me to make better decisions when the situations present themselves as they do. An essential element of coming to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity is connecting the dots. Making connections between actions related to seeking help from a power greater than myself and the positive consequences of those actions. It’s like a reverse First Step. I’ve already seen that using drugs equals jails institutions and death; I’ve equated the consequences with the using. Now I’m looking at the kind of life I want and starting to equate behaviors like working hard, praying, meditating, sharing with a sponsor, seeking community resources with the empowerment and freedom of choice that these powers can provide.
An entire essay, an entire library, could be written on the power of meditation and how it can help a human being to live in reality and how meditation can provide sanity and the courage and power to choose wisely even under great pressure. In the name of brevity, I will simply say that twenty minutes of silent meditation once a day can conservatively expect to lower anxiety and blood pressure, greatly improve sexual activity, provide increased emotional stability, and make big decisions easier. When we look at the Second Step and focus on practical application, specific belief systems are almost irrelevant, not irrelevant but askew. This sort of detachment helps because there is great opportunity for new members to disqualify themselves at this point or miss the point of the step altogether.
One final example of the principles discussed in another context happening in my life right now today: The Boston Public Library is a power greater than myself. Not only is it beautiful and full of inspiring art, it has the power to teach me an in-depth history of the entire human race. It can give me internet access, a word processer, allow my voice to be heard through the magic of the internet, something I could never fathom. it could teach me a life’s worth of lessons in practically any field I wish to study so long as I’m willing to do the work. All it asks in return is its books back after thirty days. There are an infinite number of community resources which are in place just to help (At least in Boston, USA).
Examples of powers greater than myself
-books on spirituality
-A certified psycho-therapist
-A medical doctor
-Lawyers and legal advisers
That is just to name a few.
In conclusion, perhaps this essay on Spirituality Vs. Religion did not live up to the hype since the thesis of the essay is: spirituality and religion are not in conflict with one another. A very famous quote on religion comes from the great thinker Karl Marx, “Religion is the opium of the masses”. This quote is often taken out of context and hurled blindly at religious ideology as a weapon. But they complete quote reads:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
It is vital to understand that Karl Marx, according to my lay person’s undergraduate studies in political science, was not criticizing religion, not exactly. Having undergone a number of medical procedures himself, he was no stranger to opium. But it was used as a way to help him through the pain of those procedures so he could survive and get the help he needed. His quote actually means that so often people who turn to religion, do so in their darkest times when they need to be soothed and for the confusing world to make a little sense. I always thought my stepmom was a little silly because she so deeply bought into religious ideology. Despite that I saw that she was one of the most loving, pleasant, positive people in my life, an angel of sorts. I found out only years later that her faith had been cemented after the death of her brother, her closest friend. She turned to faith and found the strength and hope to carry on living and it returned her to happiness over time. Is that really so different from my experience with meetings? Food for thought.
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A companion piece to Sharing Like Shakespeare: A Grateful Recovering Sock Puppet Play AND MORE! These essays are ultimately designed for long term members of twelve step fellowships to help them be better sponsors and to help them be of service to others with out allowing it to become their whole identity. Just like the comedy Sharing Like Shakespeare: A Grateful Recovering Sock Puppet Play, some of the essays deal with topics such as evangelism, teamwork, ego, honesty, humiliation and humility. Here are the titles of the four essays.. 1. Spirituality Vs. Religion 2. Selfish Service and Evangelism 3. Newcomer Obsession 4. The Thirteenth Step 5. Sharing Like Shakespeare Expanded and Explained