The Spirit and Mind in Recovery

A few days ago I came across the documentary Heal.  The film is about the nontraditional treatments of chronic illnesses such as cancer.  I have written before about my disinterest in the latest “miracle” cure opting instead for my oncologist’s recommendations coupled with my lessons in recovery from alcoholism and life in general over the past three decades.  But the documentary description caused me to give it a shot.

Here is what got my attention in the film.  Kelly Turner talked about her dissertation research of 1500 case studies of cancer patients who had gone into remission both with and without traditional medical treatment.  She recorded 75 different practices the 1500 individuals carried out.  She noted nine practices that all 1500 individuals held in common, as follows:

  • Radical change in diet
  • Take control of own health
  • Follow intuition
  • Use herbs and supplements
  • Release suppressed emotions
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Embrace social support
  • Deepen spiritual connection
  • Have a strong reason for living

This list got my attention.  All nine items I have either practiced for many years or began in the past year.  Examples of the latter are radical diet change and taking control of health.  The other seven items flow directly from my past three decades of 12 Step Recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another reason the list got my attention is because my oncologist and other medical folks remain amazed that I am still so active despite a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  But when I follow my intuition in what foods are good for me to eat, when I am in community with my family and friends, when I take part in services and activities at my church and the School for Contemplative Living, when I am active in various projects, when I listen to positive affirmations and guided imagery related to cancer, to name but a few practices, I simply feel better, have more energy, less pain, and experience the peace that passes all understanding.

I know that without these practices, I will go deep into my addictions and be filled with misery and self-loathing – and I suspect that my original cancer prognosis (dead by last Christmas) would have come to pass.

Where do I go from here?  I will certainly continue the current treatments prescribed by my oncologist.  My monthly x-geva injections are working wonders.

But I also have a responsibility to act.  I often comment that a mystical truth for me comes from the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8):

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Those steps all require action.  Over my past three decades of recovery from alcohol and drugs, without exception, when I have carried my part of the load, I have received, found, and the doors opened.    Will I be in remission one year from now? dead? or in the same condition as today?  I don’t know.  I have continued hope based in faith as discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

. . . hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable . . .  p. 122, The Book of Joy

This mystical truth is as valid to me and as well-tested as the latest chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs.  The spirit and the mind are integrally linked to my being alive today and tomorrow.

 

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!

Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.

Hope or Optimism in Recovery

 

We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic.  Now, hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. . . To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass . . . Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving . . . Despair turns us inwards.  Hope sends us into the arms of others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, p. 122, The Book of Joy

We are reading The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in my weekly School for Contemplative Living meeting.   The above quote resonated with me in my recovery from alcoholism and recent cancer diagnosis.

In recovery, I consider myself a “glass is half-full” person who aspires to live into the solution and not the problem.  For the most part, that is true since I walked into a detox center a bunch of years ago.  But I realize that my outlook has evolved over the years.  Perhaps some 20 years ago, the concept of hope entered more into my daily life.  In my gratitude lists, hope is always included.  In liturgical worship, when the congregation is invited to speak their gratitudes my list is “life, my spouse, and hope” and quite consistently.

The Archbishop’s quote solidifies in my mind what hope is in my sobriety.  After a time in recovery, I came to know and have faith that with the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I could remain sober.  I know that today to the marrow of my bones.  I have had no desire to use alcohol or drugs in over three decades.  Today, not drinking or drugging is the easy part of recovery.

Hope comes through living life on life’s terms or “practicing these principles in all our affairs” as noted in the 12th Step.  For me, that road in sobriety has never been a linear path, but I do hope that my overall direction will continue forward.

My recent cancer diagnosis brings another dimension to the understanding of hope.  Although I certainly do hope that my cancer will not progress, my faith is that if I do the next indicated step, use the many tools at my disposal, I will continue to live fully and take advantage of the opportunity to make choices every day in how I choose to live.  That is my hope today.  My time as a recovering alcoholic has shown me that in community I can have that faith and not wallow alone in despair.

I am blessed and life is good.