What Do I Want From Life In Recovery?

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Stop what you are doing. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Ask yourself: “What do I want for my life?” Listen for the initial responses. You can even jot them down. Keep asking yourself, “What is beneath that? What is my heart’s deepest longing?” When you finally hear the response at the bottom of your soul, write it down. Keep it simple. Say it in one sentence: “I want….”

Then begin to meditate on the phrase that comes to you. Do not try to figure it out. Do not get caught in the mind’s resistances, the many reasons why that life is impossible. Do not waste time wondering what people will think. Do not try to figure out how that life can work practically. The soul is not practical. The soul simply wants what it wants. Life will dance with the soul to find a way.              ~ William Thiele

 

The above quote is from a blog post written by William Thiele, the founding Spiritual Director of the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  If the above resonates with you, I urge you to read William’s entire post.

Here is why the exercise William proposed resonated so much with me – When working with young adults, I encourage them to think long, hard, and broadly, about how they envision their ideal career.  We go back and forth over multiple sessions examining possibilities of how to have their deep passions meet the needs of the world.  But for myself, I have not thought that through deeply for my life beyond career.  At the age of 64, my standard response to the question posed by William “to have meaning” is not adequate.

This question applies to my addiction recovery life too.  I have blogged before how the AA Promises have certainly come true in my life.  I recollect quite clearly laying in a detox bed on August 4, 1984 and only wanting to be a normally functioning member of society.  Since that time I received so much more.

But today in retirement, I find that I can replace my freedom from all those dreaded meetings and reports of my work life with a myriad of other tasks and projects that divert and frustrate me – and I wonder how I got into this or that commitment that does not really feed what I seek in life.

Here are some cases in point:

  • This morning I overheard someone of about my age who recently spent a couple of weeks in intensive care, now in full recovery, comment how for years he kept an Atlas under his bed and would take it out and dream of places he and his wife could go.  He noted it was now time to stop dreaming but doing.
  • My wife and I have had dreams, many that we have lived into and made real.  Yet we realize the continued need to be very intentional about how we spend our most precious commodity, time, as we live into the future.
  • Today in the U.S., there is a pressing need for action on a very broad range of social, political, and economic needs.  Where can my skills and passions be best used?
  • Living into my Christian values and responsibilities of justice for all of God’s creation certainly can take me down many paths.

And the list goes on.  I commit in the coming months to follow William’s exercise, to think mindfully and meditate on the phrase or thought that arises, and be willing to live into what comes forward when asking “What do I want for my life?”

What does all this have to do with recovery? Had I not started down a recovery road over 30 years ago, I would not be asking myself these questions today.  I fully suspect I would be dead.  If still living I would be in such deep throes of my alcoholism that such life affirming questions would be the furthest thing from my mind.

Co-Creation in Recovery

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By and large, what human being want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process . . . When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power.

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 146

 

In my professional life over the last 30 years I worked in the field of cultural heritage where I published a bunch of articles and some books.  A couple of years ago I noticed that the past half-dozen or so pieces I published had the word “co-creative” in the title.  I am rather evangelical about cultural heritage professionals co-creating with a community to meet the expressed need of that community.  When I see the word “co-create” in any context, I usually take note, such as the Richard Rohr quote above.

My sobriety and recovery in general is very much a co-creative affair.  My expressed need is sobriety/abstinence that is co-created with the support of other folks, organizations, or entities who can provide their experience, strength, and hope.  As in my professional world when working with communities, if I am not willing or interested in “co-creating” that recovery, it ain’t going to happen.

That is the obvious and simple part of lesson.

The more exciting part is the end product of co-creation.  In the museum world, when the process is truly co-creative and based in the community interests, and not what I perceive to be their interests, the end results are richer and more rewarding than anything I could dream up on my own.  In a similar way in sobriety, through living in the process over the years, and co-creating with the resources provided by so many others, and not just going on my own, I am amazed at the possibilities recovery has brought.  I so distinctly remember laying in that detox ward on August 4, 1984, wanting only to somehow function on a day-to-day basis in the real world.  The years have brought me so much more.

As the title of this blog clearly states, I too have learned that recovery is a process and not an event.  I remember an experience in my first year of sobriety.  I was desperately waiting for a situation to resolve itself.  At the time, I recalled that in the past I would have just gone out and drank over the issue.  But, I also thought that if I just stuck it out sober, I would learn from the experience and the next time would be easier to get through the same thing without drinking.  That insight in year one of sobriety proved so incredibly true, particularly in three decades of hindsight.

What I have learned over the years is that if I trust in the process, live into the process, not as an isolated being, but as part of a luminous web of interconnected co-creating humanity, I stay on the recovery road, with all of its blessings and responsibilities.

Giving & Receiving in Recovery

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Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The above words are commonly attributed to the 13th century Christian, Francis of Assisi though circumstantially, the attribution does not hold up.

The first half of the prayer talks about good and right things to aspire to sow.  But I have been thinking more about the “in giving that we receive” part.  And truly, without exception, when I take part in any “service” work in recovery, I am rewarded with a more meaningful existence.  I suspect this inherent desire to do service, to be a part of, to be in community with, or to share our experience, strength, and hope is something that is hard-wired into our True Selves.

Further, consider – when I deliver meals on wheels, serve food to the homeless, give money to a person in need, I always “feel better” after the fact.  My wife and I hosted a young woman from another country in our home for a couple of years while she was in graduate school.  Several of her family members attended her graduation.  They expressed very sincere and abundant thanks to us for hosting their daughter/niece/granddaughter.  I responded that I was very appreciative of their thanks, but needed to express my thanks to them for the opportunity to do the hosting and be in relationship.  I experience a similar sense of gratitude to the students I worked with over the years.

It is in giving that we receive.

I do not write this post to allege that I exude some sort of hyper level of altruism.  I don’t think that is the case.  I do believe that when we are mindful of “in giving that we receive” we recognize that basic truth.

The reciprocal situation is accepting from others so that they can experience the in “giving that we receive” as well.  My favorite Christmas card I received this year was from a man who “receives” where I go on Tuesday afternoons to help serve a meal and provide a night of shelter to homeless folks.  He handed me the card in an envelope.  Nothing was written on the card or the envelope.  When he gave me the card, he said, “This is not much but it is in the spirit of Christmas.”  I thanked him for the card.  I wondered if he was too rushed to sign the card.  I wondered if he had never received a Christmas card before and did not know that you were supposed to sign your name.  That is all pretty immaterial.  Accepting and thanking him for the card allowed him to be a part of the in “giving that we receive” equation.

The card sits on my desk today.

How do you take part on both sides of the “in giving we receive” equation?

On Success in Recovery

soberlivingIf I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this;  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards, of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.  If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.   – Thomas Merton, Love and Living, pp. 11-12

I like Thomas Merton a lot.  However, I both relate and take him with a grain of salt on the above quote.  I relate because like Merton and Augustine, I spent the first several decades of my existence living fully into practicing addictions – in my case drugs and alcohol.  By the time I hit early adulthood, I was completely fried and realized I simply would not be able to continue along that path, and opted for sobriety, as Merton and Augustine opted for a monastic environment.

For me, success then became measured by staying sober and that became rather rote after a while.  Next, I opted for education for a bunch of years to demonstrate my ability to further succeed, and escape having to deal with many life issues.  I knew how to do that.  Next, for some reason publishing a book seemed like a marker of success, but after doing that several times, that measure lost its luster.

For the past decade or so, the very concept of success has taken a back seat to my striving to live a life of meaning – with mixed success, as it were.  I find today that simply being on a path toward True Self seems to be a more worthy direction than past accolades.  The starting point for me on all of this is simply being on a recovery road.  An important piece of recovery is getting out of false self (ego/persona) and more aligned with True or Real Self that celebrates the potential of being a node on a luminous web of interconnectivity with all the world.

My resolution for the 2017 New Year is to be open to the possibilities that a True Self oriented life has to offer.  I know that resolve cannot be accomplished by making a list of measurable goals in my shiny new bullet journal, except to be following a recovery path.  As my short four months of retirement and living in a new city have shown, and abundantly so – had I made plans to measure my success this past September, I likely would have failed at what I expected to happen.  However, being open to possibilities led me on even more profound and meaningful directions than I could have predicted while on that six-hour drive south after my retirement party.  This experience is completely consistent with everything about my recovery over the years.  I can never stand in the present, look back five years into the past and say “I saw that coming.” In fact, what has always come has been far greater than what I could conjure in my head.  In this sense, success can mean just showing up and being ready.  I can’t wait to see where that leads me five years from now.  I don’t really have a clue at this point!

Literalism in Recovery

jeepcloseLiteralism is the lowest level of meaning.

Richard Rohr, p. 70 Immortal Diamond

In recovery, literalism is both a blessing and curse.  The blessing end comes in keeping me centered on the proven necessities for recovery.  For example, a very literal admission that I was “powerless over alcohol” and that my life had become “unmanageable” were key to beginning a recovery path.

But literalism can be a very limiting factor as well.  If I were to take the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as literal and dogma, I would binge on sugar, be opposed to having a sponsor, reject the 90 meetings in 90 days advice I received when I was discharged after 30 days of detox, and so forth – based on what the Big Book does or does not contain.  In not taking a literal and dogmatic approach, over the years I learned that contrary to the advice in the Big Book, sugar is just another alcoholic food for me, having a “sponsor” of some sort is critical to my staying on a good recovery path, and all of those post Big Book publication clichés of advice like 90 in 90 allow me a solid foundation on which to grow my recovery.

So, here is my heresy in 12-Step recovery – over the 30 plus years I have been sober from alcohol and drugs, and then later tobacco and now dealing with my eating disorder, I have at times gone at least several years, and maybe as many as 5 years without attending a 12-Step meeting.  About 10 years ago I got into a 2-3 meeting per week routine for nearly a decade.  Most recently my attendance is more sporadic.

However, since walking into a detox unit in 1984, every day I have been mindful and reflective that I am an alcoholic in recovery.  How that mindfulness is manifest has evolved considerably over the years.  For example, now in my less frantic pace of retirement, my morning practice includes a prayer to remain sober and aligned with my True Self for the day, writing my morning page reflection, posting a gratitude list, writing and mailing a thank you note to someone, reading a daily reflection, and in the evening writing a couple of paragraphs about some aspect of one of the 12 steps.

My bottom line is that today it works for me.  Tomorrow, maybe not.  I am fond of saying that I have no problem today that is not of my making.  I am grateful I accumulated a plethora of tools over the year from which I can pick and apply to a specific situation.  I am grateful too that over the past three decades I have always chosen one of those tools, or added a new one, to keep traveling down the recovery road.

Here is the interesting thing I have found – by not taking a rote and literal approach to recovery for the past three decades, my day-to-day existence aligns more closely with the 12-Steps today than in the past. For that, I am grateful.

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.

 

Asking the Why Question, Part 3

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My late buddy, Buddy.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous

When I got sober a bunch of years ago, the “God thing” was an obstacle to overcome, but I was willing and committed to addressing the issue head-on.  Over the years, I jettisoned the God of my youth for a spiritual path aligned to the basic approach of the 12 steps.  I have not opted for the secular sobriety route of God as a coffee cup, good orderly direction, or similar notions.  I strive for the conscious contact of “God as we understood Him” found in both the Third and Eleventh Steps.  While watching a video featuring Adam Hamilton, a pastor of The United Methodist Church, I was completely blown away to recognize that we each start our day in exactly the same way – simply praying to the “God as we understood” that God to direct our life toward his/her/its will for that day.

So here is where this “Why” question raises itself again for me.  I am not an intercessory prayer kind of guy and I really take this prayer business pretty seriously.  I see prayer as very much a commitment to action on my part and not simply some magical God thing.  Prayer is a commitment that I am going to do something about it and be in community with a True Self and get out of my ego-driven False Self.  I see no logic in praying to get a good grade on a test without studying for the test.  That would be just God magic.  Same thing if I prayed to remain sober but took no actions to accomplish same.

My intercessory prayers generally require action on my part.  The night I got sober, I was so wracked with spiritual, emotional, and physical chaos, I distinctly remember looking upward and saying something like “please remove the insanity in my head and the addiction in my body.” Then, as I was raised a Roman Catholic, I decided being on my knees might work better, so I dropped the tool I had in my hand – I didn’t want to be too obvious – knelt down to pick it up and repeated my prayer.  But sobriety has required me to take action and responsibility for recovery.

I don’t mean this all as some self-congratulatory reflection on my spiritual existence.  I still come back to the Why Me? and consider myself incredibly blessed in all aspects of my life.

But then . . . there was the time with intercessory prayer, I was in rural Peru, and got an email that said my favorite dog ever who had grown old was going down hill fast and had not stood up in two days.  I would not be back home for another 2 weeks.  I laid in my sleeping bag that night and asked for Buddy just to hold on until I got home.  The next day he was running around outside again, and lived for another six months.