All posts by Roland V.

Choices and the trouble of the unknown.

As a recovering person working the 12 steps I lean heavily on the ideas in my fellowships meetings. A popular idea, when facing a difficult situation or decision is to “invite God into it.” To invite this spirit or idea into your mind and let it guide you, and to imagine that others are being guided by it, to believe you are all somehow on the same team. It is certainly useful as a psychological device. But one that is dependent on the foundation of the God assumption, or God simulation in ones mind, if you like. So for those of us who are atheistic cannot access this tool in it’s current form. Yet the problem persists. I still need a way to get myself back on my side when fear robs me of my good sense and the present moment is lost to worry over imagined futures.

I know the value of confidence for it is the opposite of fear in it’s effect on me. In many situations fear will rob me of the creative intelligence that allows me to solve problems and see solutions that I would have access to if I felt emotionally solid. When I feel good about myself and feel a sense of stability, I am empowered.  Another might get this from believing, or choosing to believe, they are an agent of an elemental force of good. When I was a believer and used this method, I saw my mind at work on solutions and only the solution. I could do this because I was able to set aside the either-or of a positive constructive solution being possible. It was predetermined, I need only do my part to realize the specifics. I was able to participate in a constructive partnership with my life and it’s events in an intuitive way. This allowed me to set aside things mentally which I could not otherwise set aside were I fighting worry and fear.  Things which I couldn’t effect anyway!

So here I am in recovery, committed to rigorous honesty and the continued practice of staying in touch with the reality I so often sought to escape. I cannot any longer believe in ‘God’, but I still have this problem that the god idea had solved for me before. An easily available balm for the basic terror that things will not work out my way. That a thing I love or value might not come to me, or be taken away once I become accustomed to it. I know the universe as a whole does not care what happens to me, but that does not remove my concern with my own life. Worry still haunts me, fear will often grip my mind and blind me from possibilities that are plain in front of me. It is a known principle of human psychology that we will not look for what we do not believe is there.  And most of the time that is a good thing.

So, upon reflection I know that life and it’s opportunities are not what change. It is me that changes when I let fear take me. If I am busy worrying I am occupied in worry and thus cannot be thinking of a positive solution; I’m busy. I know that paying careful attention and medium-light relaxation are the best condition my mind can be in for open minded and creative problem solving. I know that fear robs me of that. But how do I get out of the fear without believing a thing I cannot know. My creed for some time has been, when emotionally compromised, to run it by the numbers or in simpler words; when I cannot do what feels right, I do what makes sense. 

If effectively finding the best solution requires me to at least assume a positive outcome is possible, then that’s what I must do. I chose to believe humanism is better than any theistic belief system, that it can have access to anything good and useful the believers have but without the contradiction and dogmas. I allow myself to believe this because I committed myself to making it so, even if it isn’t there yet. I suppose I have chosen to believe this state for humanism is possible just to allow myself to work toward making it happen.

So I do this, I say to myself “there is a positive outcome and I will find it.” I do this not because I believe I’m chosen or special or something is watching out for me. I do this because it is the best thing I can do for myself. It gives me the best chance, it gives me something to do, a constructive place to put my mental effort. In returning to a productive place, my emotions realign and I start to move away from fear. I retrieve my mind and emotions from a train of thought that might otherwise be wasted fumbling around imagined futures, letting the present moment be lost. To enforce this I recall what I know about the universe and my place in it: Cosmically, I exist for almost no time, occupying almost no space. It always makes sense to take my life a little less seriously, to enjoy myself where possible and be kind to myself. No one will stop me. This may be the sentiment a speaker I once heard was trying to convey when he said “You are the only one who can separate you from God.” I can choose to treat myself well whenever I want, I just sometimes need a reminder of that truth.

In seeking these reminders I have recently become somewhat enamored with the late speaker and popularizer Alan Watts. His forward thinking perspectives that remain mostly neutral theistically and provide some of, what I consider to be, the right kind of ideas on how we approach the unknown.

This is a video integrating a segment of his talks into a more pleasing format with image and music. I hope you enjoy, it was the inspiration for this weeks article. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7CH9cRN8Rg

 

 

Staying in the Solution

Since I had no atheist mentor or spiritual guide when I got into AA, I had to learn for myself what people meant when they talked about God and prayer. I had been a believer in my youth, not of any specific denomination, but like many I think I deeply wanted to believe there was something out there looking out for me. As I grew older and read more it became obvious to me that gods were an idea humans invented to feel like we had an explanation for the baffling and overwhelming. That even the most horrible happenings had an order to them and would be balanced later on. I credit our human ancestry highly for such an imaginative psychosocial  adaptation. The alternative was to succumb to a paralysis of existential terror and doubt. Pitfalls already precariously vast and abundant in a primate that survived by caution, wariness and ruthlessness.

As I left my adolescence, I found I needed the supernatural sense of order less. It seemed trite and lacked substance when compared to the authors I was introduced to in early adulthood. I took no strong stance on the subject of atheism until entering a program of recovery. It was then that I was forced to get off the fence. Rigorous honesty demanded I admit to myself what I had been avoiding; what did I really feel and think about this higher power idea? It was obvious to me, I thought that the interventionary god was an imagining. A mental and emotional allergic reaction to self awareness and knowledge of our imminent demise. Too much wishful thinking and self deception had been evident in those around me in my formative years. I had a nose for it, and everything I read seemed to pile up evidence for this suspicion. And what I felt, is that this thought scared me.

Though empowered with a sense of righteousness at my rigor in pursuing the truth, I was still no better off for my alcoholism. God being gone or never having been, I still needed daily help. Being wary and observant, I knew what happened to those that shut themselves away. I had seen for myself what being consumed by resentment and obsession over ones uniqueness can do to a drunk, even in sobriety. Most of the fellowship in my area had some kind of supernatural belief and the rituals that go with them; prayer, guided meditation, etc. Praying didn’t mean anything to me without belief so it was just white noise to me. It also seemed like part of the machinery of recovery. I knew only two things for certain: the program worked and god didn’t exist. So I set my restless mind into reverse engineering of what this process could be.

What slowly resulted was a system of translation. At first it was conscious and deliberate. The adaptation came slowly and with great effort but eventually it became instinctive and automatic, allowing me to hear even the most religious member speak and not only understand but benefit in some way. Later I was asked to put this method down on paper and it manifested as a list of rules or tricks to ‘surviving meetings as an atheist’.

The first of these is compassion. I remember that I am a sick person in a room full of sick people. We are all attempting something against our nature; staying sober. Their mind was as warped by the disease as mine was. They may not mean everything they say tomorrow. They may not have the capacity to manifest perfect naturalist beliefs whilst also battling addiction, depression, a failing marriage, a sick child or any other of a multitude of difficulties they are too embarrassed, or unaware of, to mention. As hard as it is to accept sometimes, that the person railing on about Jesus is doing the best they can, just like everyone else in the room.

The second is unity. It is the first tradition for a reason. If I hear someone go on about God or karma or reincarnation or something else I find meaningless, I do myself and the meeting no service by going on at equal length about why I don’t believe in that stuff. The meeting is not some university auditorium I’ve been invited to debate a believer in. It is a gathering with a single purpose, when I forget that to satisfy my ego, I defeat my own purpose in going there. That said, I will express my beliefs briefly if they qualify my sharing in a necessary way.  Also if I see a newcomer, just to let them know atheists are here too.

The third is to share my life, not my ideas. I share without mentioning God and that includes, with the above exception, mentioning that I don’t believe in it. People that are interested always ask me after the meeting anyway, I don’t need to advertise. That isn’t the important part though. My focus on unity led me to another observation. I had many friends in the program show opinions and advice I valued. Men and women of profound wisdom and gratitude whom, I noticed, barely mention God when they share. It was not that they didn’t believe, many among them did, some devoutly. The common element revealed itself; those with good recovery kept their focus on themselves. That was what they talked about: what they were dealing with and how, when they were scared, what they were doing to make sobriety and life better. They shared their lives and their struggles, not just their ideas. Their sharing had emotional content and thus was profound and intimate. Don’t be afraid to be the first to open up and share something real. In my experience most people want to, they just need someone to go first.

The fourth and perhaps most difficult is learn to translate. This really isn’t easy and I still fail to do it if I’m having an emotional or irritable day. On a good day, however, I can recall I’m capable of deeper understanding and that I am not different from these suffering humans in any emotionally important way. A member will say “God had a plan for me and I can’t screw it up.” and I’ll understand they’re scared and unsure of their life. They want comfort and to affirm that they’ll be ok, so they can stay functional. I remember that I’ve also dealt with fear of the future and uncertainty. It is affirming of my belief, that it is morally superior to admit one truly does not know what it going to happen and sitting with that can be spiritually profound. Another member may say that “God saved them for a purpose” and I’ll understand I’ve also felt unworthy of the efforts that kept me afloat when my disease took all my self-worth. If prayer is mentioned I remind myself that I think of prayer as any actions or rituals that brings me peace around circumstances I cannot control. Meditation is my mental weed pulling, not only bringing calm but clarity and mental strength as well. Should someone mention a lost friend or loved one and how they are in a better place, I remember those I knew that went back out or took their own lives in sobriety and how much it hurt to lose them. I look around the room imagine them in the empty seats, and remember my recovery is not the guaranteed gift of a supernatural being.

When I got sober there were no other atheists like me in my local fellowship. I had to learn to see the similarities and focus on them or find myself terminally different. I knew what it was to be alone with my disease and what that would lead me to. As a secular humanist I must accept that no one is coming to save me. I am not chosen and I was not saved for a purpose. Yet I was saved when I asked for help and it is up to me to make that have purpose. When I resolved to try this program no one asked me to give up what I believed in, only to keep an open mind and listen. When I got over my ego and took their advice I started to see that believers and I got sober the same way. We asked for help when we needed it, sought comfort when we were scared and when we were grateful, made sure to say so.

In a world where god never existed, all culture is human. As such, I feel no conflict in drawing inspiration from any source. I find beauty in fiction and poetry regardless of whether it was once believed to be a literal truth. It is in that spirit I sometimes read one of my favorite Christian poems, the prayer of St. Francis. It reminds me that though I have a disease that feeds on negativity and divisiveness, there is also part of me that would like to be part of the solution. A part that craves harmony. I am an alcoholic, an atheist and a humanist. I love and believe deeply in my species. I want us to thrive, perhaps even one day see the just city built. I’m not naive about it; I realise that it requires I be better than just telling someone they’re wrong. I have to show them what I’ve found: a better way and knowledge of what really matters. The common humanism that people crave and seek in the supernatural doesn’t require it at all. On a good day I can show my fellows that and leave things a little better than I found them. So I add one final rule for myself: What goes for being a member of AA, goes for being an atheist: You may be the only example that person ever meets; be a good one.

My tips on getting the most out of 12 step meetings as an atheist.

1) Unity. I need other people even if I think they’re all sub-human dick weeds: Realize you’re all doing the same thing. You’re in a group of people that lie compulsively, to themselves and to others. Saying they’re being helped by the creator of the universe cause they’re too broken to believe they’re doing it themselves is not a stretch for most alcys.

2) Cut them and yourself some slack. Realizing it’s them plus some earthly help would make most alcoholics mind explode; They’d drink or have a nervous breakdown or both. Becoming an atheist for normies can be emotionally difficult or even damaging. Asking those big questions while trying to stay sober was brutal, I nearly killed myself a few times. So being an atheist for my first three years involved a LOT of anxiety. Anti anxiety meds made me feel dead inside so I had to find mental exercises to cope. I’m happy for where it brought me but I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. So I gave them some slack.

3) Share, Don’t mention god, Don’t not mention him/it/(w/e). I’ve found if I talk program and share without mentioning the HP but also not saying “I don’t believe in that shit”. I don’t mention prayer cause I don’t do it, but I don’t speak against it. I let people infer what they want, neither confirm nor deny, and usually people love my sharing. Cause all the bullshit is cut out and I’m just saying what happened, how I dealt with it, and where I am today. It’s pure, it’s simple and it’s the thing the program is based on, in my mind. What Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson discovered all those years ago is that there’s no substitute for two people with the same problem talking about it. It’s the basis of true loving empathy and fellowship. The thought is moving even as I type this.

4) Learn to translate. And this is the hardest one. It’s dependent on how well I’m doing in my own practice, if my bank account is up or down, or what I’ve had to eat that morning. But on the good days I started to notice I could cut through the BS and dig out the truth. I can see a person talking about prayer is talking about feeling powerless or overwhelmed. I can see a person talking about “trusting in what God has in store for them” is afraid of the future and needs comfort. I hear a person says that “God saved them for a purpose” feels guilty that they’ve not done more. Some that feels hurt and powerless over losing someone they love says “they’re in a better place now”. They’re in the fight of their lives and they’re grasping onto whatever they can to get through today. I get what I need, it’s not my place to go to a room where others are trying to get what they need and try to take it from them.

5) Where possible, lead the discussion. Be proactive, share something painful in a raw, honest and secular way. Accept that people will pick up on it or not. It’s not my place to try and dominate the meeting. People might talk about how Jesus saved them from the saloon that fateful afternoon for 20 mins, but that’s not my problem. I’m there to get what I need. I’ve found the best way is positive suggestion. Like the St Francis prayer; try to be part of the solution. Which leads me to my last part.

6) As an atheist, no one is coming to save me. If anything, truth is my HP and ‘hard truths cut both ways.’ This hard truth is the darker side of my program but I’ve realized it’s also very necessary for me to keep my program strong. Last year when I went to a meeting and there were empty chairs, I started thinking about the people that might have been in them. It frightened the shit out of me, I drove drunk and high out of my mind so many times, I had near misses but never hurt myself or someone else. I could have been one of those people and there is no reason I’m not. I talked with my sponsor and couldn’t understand why I was so fixated on this morbid practice. But somehow it felt necessary, I needed to keep doing it until I least understood why I was doing it. And then, months later, it hit me; This is my anchor on reality. What stops me from slipping into the bullshit faerie tails about how “God has a plan for me and I can’t screw it up”. That kind of thinking nearly killed me and it can’t be allowed back into my life. This is on me, I only get the help I ask for. I only make the progress I work for. I remember I’m lucky and this is probably my only chance.

Step 12

Hey guys, sorry for such a long delay. I’ve been distracted with life. The book project is not dead, just taking a nap. Here’s the first part of my chapter on step 12. And yes atheist did turn to humanist on purpose with step 12. Thanks again for all the support!

Many talk about spiritual awakenings with a kind of muted skepticism. We want to be honest with ourselves but at the same time don’t want our misgivings to dislodge or weaken a belief that may be giving our fellows some comfort from a terrifying illness. Talking about this step in meetings there is always a challenge around what language to use. I was surprised to find that the language was already in the existing literature. I need only seek it out.

As always there may be something you like better or a passage that “really speaks to your condition”. Let nothing in this book stop you from finding that. For now we’ll stick with the one that helped me the most and that was to think of my spiritual awakening as an “entire psychic change”. So simple; a hint of the mystic vocabulary for poetic flavour, yet without muddling the meaning. And in terms of pragmatism; I surely needed one.

Focus on sponsorship, the reflection of teaching and how it reinforces and repolinates ideas. It forces you to reexamine your own ways of doing things as so many become internal and you’re forced to externalize them. There are also many positive aspects to the creation of community that come from working with people and having them work with others. We go from being useless survivors of a disease that causes us to hurt those we love to members of an anonymous fellowship exclusive to those that have survived a devastating illness. And in that we’ll find we are armed with a perspective invaluable to helping others with our addiction.

Tl:DR : read it, your recovery is worth it.

Step 11

Since I’ve gotten so much positive feedback I am actually writing a book now. Now that it’s turning into something I don’t want to release it until it’s done. For now here’s a snippet of the beginning of my chapter on step 11 and thanks for all the support:

The scientific method is, at the time of this writing, the most successful and efficient tool ever devised by humanity for the understanding of the physical world. It’s stringent standards and ever reaching in-built philosophy of obtaining new information and testing that against current theories and knowledge, discarding entirely old ideas if they are proved false is, in my opinion, the apex of humility in action. I have gained a lot of ground applying its principles to my personal journey through recovery. However, for all it’s power as a tool it is only good for finding information. It cannot tell us what to do with it. Now that doesn’t mean it’s useless, it’s not. Applying honesty and clarity to any situation will often reveal an obvious choice.

The nature of step 11 was difficult for me as it was not only a step containing two very murky terms; prayer and meditation. Meditation has been popularized by atheistic and even naturalist practitioners of buddhist meditation. Or at least meditation with it’s roots in buddhism. Indeed there are many valuable method of emotional control, conditioning and mental organization in those gatherings. Sadly in my local community the taint of dogma and supernatural nonsense continue to corrupt the discourse. As such, I had to devise a new strategy and set of translations for dealing with the “natives”.

Prayer was equally troublesome. How does one ask for guidance or favor from something they are certain is not there. What process is being invoked mentally or emotionally when one participates in this part of their theistic or dogmatic simulations? One thing is almost certain that belief in a specific being or power is not necessary. As evidenced by the droves of vaguely “spiritual” members of 12-step fellowships. Many of them reporting accounts roughly in the shape of “I don’t know what I’m praying to, I just pray and it works.” That these people were engaging in positive self talk was soon so overwhelmingly obvious that an idea formed. They were making a mental patch or bridge over something they had no control over, once I had heard enough sharing it clicked and I began to develop a strategy.

I saw a few common themes come out of the sharing. Praying over things we’re certain of is pointless. Few or none prayed about a bus they were on making it to the next stop or if they’d be able to go to work tomorrow when nothing was stopping them. So praying for stuff in our control is a rare thing. When people have shared with me what they pray about, it’s mostly about things beyond their control, or where the importance is high and their control is limited. I watched a bit longer and took mental note of where and when people tended to pray. Soon a common thread revealed itself; praying seemed to be about about fear of the unknown. Much like people believe in karma to offset the fear of the unlikely car crash. Or the more malicious form that includes wishing bad things on someone that has wronged us or someone we value. But not at our hand. A sort of informal ordering that takes place out of sight. A rather brilliant human software adaptation to the anxiety that full knowledge of an indifferent universe would give many people. But without a thea or faith in some interventionary power, that kind of prayer wouldn’t work for me. I’d have to find another method to deal with the same need.

As I journeyed along my path to both broaden and deepen my own understanding of the universe I lived in I had to say I couldn’t blame them. After my final acceptance of an indifferent universe I fell into a long period of depression. Letting go of the last piece of my faith in the supernatural was painful. I had to grow up and let go of that source of comfort because it was not compatible with my recovery. I was going to live a life grounded in reality or none at all. Logically I was pleased with the state of things, my emotions were less placid after this acceptance. Eventually that too passed and I was able to start moving forward once more.

It became clear to me I was on to something, that though it wasn’t comfortable at first, was definitely right for me. So I resolved to accept the truth and get used to it. Why the hell not? I had already accepted the most unpalatable thing I could imagine, I had become the demon of my childhood. I was an alcoholic! Being raised in an alcoholic home, I had strong resolutions to be beat alcoholism. Accepting that and joining a program of recovery was devastating. Another blow to an already weary mind. If I had gotten through that, why not this. I didn’t know what was on the other side emotionally or if bitterness and nihilism at the willful ignorance of my fellows would consume me. What I knew for certain is that I could not go back. I didn’t have the mental power to subvert my beliefs that much. Not without using, and using meant the death over everything I’d worked for. The adage I came up with in my first year of 12 step work has held true “When it comes to personal growth; there is no way around, there is only through”. So I went forward, with the only faith I really have anymore; that eventually if I stick with it and ask for help, I’ll find a way. Prayer was kicking my ass so I just ignored it and focused on meditation.

Without the spoilers of my twelfth step awakening I’ll say that I found meditation to be useful for calming my mind and especially my emotions. So much of my emotional self is unknowable to me, I find I can only affect it through action. I can’t just think I care for myself, I have to go sit in a room and let myself relax. Or go to the pool. Something overt. This kind of action sends a message and gets me out of my emotional struggle. Just zoning out in front of the TV or sleeping 14 hours doesn’t affect the same result. Not to say it won’t for someone else, these are just my examples. And there was a period of heavy emotional work that I just needed a ton of sleep. Every time I return to these practices after a period of neglect I always feel better.

Step 10

Well due to the prompting of one kind member of this sub and shopping it around to counsellors and members of my local fellowship. I am writing a book. The basis of which will be these posts. It’s a terrifying proposition but my fellows believe it’s a book that needs to be written, maybe even overdue. So thank you for your support in making this from my venting into something that might be of use to others.

I’ll finish the posts for 10, 11 and 12 for the series on this sub, then I’ll start writing the manuscript. Without further delay:

Step 10

The very nature of continuing revision is the nature of the scientific method. Let us continue to improve and correct our own method of living as we move forward through this experience of our lives.

Although that was the first and best, fanciest sounding summary for this chapter I could come up with, something about it didn’t sit right with me. I found as I continued writing this and the next step, I felt there was a hole in my psyche, a sort of weak spot or tear. That sort of emotional gut feeling is something I now keep an eye out for. This one I couldn’t quite figure out until something knocked it lose.

At the time of this writing one of my favorite actors has just died of an overdose. I didn’t even know he was a sober guy. He was just a great actor. I would have been even more of a fan had I known he had the same issues I had. The thing that freaked me out is he had over three times the clean time I do. He had money, he had a career, respect of his fellows and in short, everything I thought would keep me sober once I got it. When I completed the journey from the misery of early recovery ( for me it really was awful) to the success and prosperity I’m working towards, surely the compulsion to drink and use will be entirely erradicated. But that’s not what the programs of the 12 steps say. The combined expereince and gathered wisdom of those groups has shown that we can be freed from the compulsion but we’re never free of the desire. If I ever get to a place where picking up our addiction seems like a good idea again and I don’t talk about it, I’m in real trouble.

The other day I found myself battling with depression as I often do. I’m winning the war but battles are sometimes lost. I wake up in the morning, earlier than I feel like but well rested. I try to think of a reason to get up and think about what I might do with the day. Unless it’s something I’m really into or can’t back out of, I’ll resolve to stay in bed on days like this. And it’s on these days I can start my cycle of depression. It begins with oversleeping which gives me a sense of lethargy and general “downness” out of that comes a complete lack of desire to cook anything healthy for myself. Once I’m there I always grab some kind of quickly available caffiene, usually and energy drink or pop. Even operating the coffee machine seems like too much. The caffience suppresses my appetite enough that I cruise into the afternoon feeling like a zombie. I sit myself in front of my computer and watch bad movies and play video games. Anything to be anywhere but in my head and I wait for the storm to settle. This usually lasts about three days.Lately I’ve gotten it down to as little as one day. Sometimes I can even short circuit it before it begins.

A lot of alcoholics and addicts have a lifelong battle with depression. I’m happy that after only a decade I’ve been able to improve mine so much. The common thread is that no matter how short or mild in intensity my depression is, I’ll never truly be free of it. And my addiction is much the same. I will always have to take measures to arrest it. Much like depression it has a wide variety of tools available to keep it supressed and managable. Many of them are the same actually. Exercise and a healthy diet spring to mind.

As the elements of this maintence are varied. Sometimes using those tools feels like fighting a war on multiple fronts, such is working step 10. The overall strategy of the process outlined by the 12 steps is to so change your mental landscape as to eliminate the triggers and circumstances that lead to acting out ones addiction. Being a human invention implemented by humans on imperfect human minds formed by human lives, it is fallible. The transformation is never total. This s not a flaw in the process it’s simply a reality of the topology of human minds. We can stop our old actions, eventually we can change our old thinking, even heal our emotional damage with all that change, and perhaps because of it, we are still us. Our sickness never leaves as it’s part of what we are. That’s why step 10 is necessary. We must continue to repeat the process of the steps until they become habit and eventually, instinct.

The only way that I know of to fortify my new way of life is to continue to practise it. My goals will move forward or sideways. Sometimes back when I’ve gotten too bold and my mind let’s me know I’m taking on too much. With enough practise I get to a place of it being wonderfully self regulating. If I don’t do enough I start to feel bad or worse, bored. Boredom causes me to take rash or destructive action just to “spice things up”. Its easy to critisize but as non-believer with no ultimate consequences, my real oblivion a certainty at the end of my life I’m occasionally seduced by boredom because I “Want something to happen.” Usually I’ve been taking it too easy and not challenging myself. It’s a consequence of feeling and being better. I’m capable of more now. If I don’t run this dog it’ll start eating the furniture.

If I strive too far beyond my capability I become overwhelmed, become frozen and take a shot to my self-worth. I’ll shutdown until I recover enough to regroup and try again. This is another thing that happens less often and I recover from more quickly now. Time was, any failure would result in weeks of depression and morbid contemplation. Eventually I shared about this and got help. Trusted friends and sponsors in recovery taught me, very patiently, how to make managable goals and acheive them. Finishing the things I start, no matter how small, was how I learned to think of myself as worthwhile. Nothing is more damaging to my self-worth than continued patterns of failure. This, now that I’ve wrote it, I realise, is an example of working step 10. I worked the first 9 steps on a problem in my life. I realised I was wrong, I had been using an old pattern, admitted it was kicking my ass, asked for help from those I knew could help me, inventoried and got something new that would allow me to work toward fixing it.

Now some people find it useful to analyze their actions on a daily basis. Taking the step somewhat literally they take an inventory daily and review it. I myself did that for a time and found it a sound practise. Much like having and using a gym membership or taking 45 minutes every day to enguage in mindfulness meditation I find I only do it when I feel I need to.

One of my favorite circuit speakers once commented in a talk he gave that most recovering addicts he knew would only work the next step when it had become one of only three choices left to them: Use, Blow your brains out or, Work the next step. The kind of black humor that as one of those who face an impossible killing ailment, I really apprecaite.

That is the nature of many addicts and alcoholics. We want a medal for running out of a burning building. We will be presented with a wonderful program of recovery and a vast fellowship of people to support us in the working of it. What awas our reaction to being presented with this oppurtuntiy. Well I can share my reaction: Grow suspicious. Argue with it. Focus on how I’m different. Find loopholes to avoid looking at the stuff I don’t want to look at. Resist.

Isn’t it wonderful that even with all this reluctance a person like me can still benefit from the fellowships based on the 12 steps. Now matter how I railed against the people in my fellowship that had different ideas or, faught my sponsor on how I was to work a certain step, I was always welcomed back. It is this spirit I think that is embodied in the 10th step and that those who practise it, realise their own fallibility. They understand what it is to strive for an ideal and fall short of it. And to after years of recovery have those days we all have, where the best thing you do that day is not use.

Thanks for reading.

Steps 8 and 9

I’ll start by a thank you, to all those who have been waiting for me to finish these, for your patience. As with many recovering people I tend to get swept up in the events of life from time to time. That’s probably true of everyone actually. I’m happy to report the reason I’ve been away from this writing has been positive. Growth, new people, service in other areas and even the ever elusive economic security. So with that said, on to the other big inventory step.

(standard disclaimer: read the literature before you read this, while I like what I’ve written it’s an add-on for people with atheistic questions and concerns. It is not a replacement for meetings or program literature. I also assume a lot of knowledge from AA ‘big book’ and the 12 and 12. So, ya know, go read them first. If you’re reading this you have an internet connection and can access the free copies on AAs website.)

Step 8

The chapter five blurb “how it works”, often read to start meetings, addresses honesty as a key element several times. I noticed that it puts a particular emphasis with honesty with ones self. I think the primary function of completing step 8 and it’s companion step, 9, is to further unify the warring thoughts and feelings of the psyche. For those of us that have created a lot of overt wreckage, read; slept with best friends wife, drove their car through a police station, lost jobs, ex wives and the like, this step has a more obvious effect. It lets people know you’re sorry and are willing to make amends. People appreciate this on some level even if they do initially respond by regretting you are still alive, much less happy you’re in a program of recovery.

But let’s back track to step 8 for a moment and focus only on it. I can say very little about it from a purly atheist perspective. Do it with ‘god in your corner’ or with your sponsor, or your group or the flying spaghetti monster, the step itself operates the same. You make a list of the people you had harmed. I’ve hear that making three columns really helps break the ice on this step. It can be pretty intimidating. So I’ve been told and heard from others, that making a “for sure”, “maybe” and “Fuck them, I’m never apologizing” column and dividing your potential amendees into them can help get you going. Once this list is begun, the internal process of healing begins. I believe that, in me, a process of wanting to wipe the slate clean and feel free crept in. Those people I had camped in ‘maybe’ started migrating over to ‘yes(for sure)’ and that a couple names I’d buried in the tomb of wishing them dead made it over to ‘maybe’. Some even made the Lord of the Rings-Epic trek all the way over to ‘For sure’.

As I look back on it now, I realise the process of cleaning house I started by looking at myself in step 4 had gained momentum. I was starting to feel better, and that health and lightness became more important to me than anything; even my long held grudges. As I continued making my list, and simultaneously doing some amends, I realized I was putting my health first for the first time in my life. And that was one of the first moments I was able to feel real gratitude. Now, the wild west of….

Step 9

My history with addiction came after several years in a program that helps people who grew up in alcoholic homes. So I had actually been regularly attending 12 step meetings for awhile before I ever got clean and sober. (I know, it’s weird to me too, but it happened.) I mention this because that, combined with being a more depressive drunk that stayed home alone and was overall pretty timid, I didn’t piss a lot of people off through my actions. Most of my amends were for inactions and not showing up to stuff people wanted me at, rather than showing up at things people rather I didn’t. So most of my amends went well, people were happy I was still around and getting healthy. I know this isn’t going to be everyones experience.

Even with my supposed ‘difference’ I took this oppurtunity to farm the experience of other members. As a side practise, I saw this as an oppurtunity to ask the advice of people I didn’t share beliefs with. It was great, their experience was as valid as mine and ‘God’ never came up. Well once or twice at the end where they offered me a bit of a prayer when they’d run out of real info. But that was okay. I laughed at the funny parts and thanked them, I got some great information on how their amends had gone and I felt more at ease going out to do the ones that scared me. Eventually I got them all done, and as ever, I leaned on the fellowship to help me through something I was too scared and overwhelmed to do myself. As a bonus I got to flex my tolerance muscles by drawing on everyone instead of the non-theists I tended to favor for advice.

I’ll throw this in because it’s something that I think comes up for those of us with atheist beliefs. Strictly you could be an atheist and still believe in karma (or something else like it that ends up with you thinking stuff you got away with will come back to bite you). As such you may be tempted or even encouraged by others to turn yourself in, sell your house and give them all the money or something of the like. I will step entirely out of the realm of 12-step literature and offer my own opinion and some advice here. There is only one thing I needed to do with the things I had done: make them right with me. I had one amend that was quite severe in my mind and had no way to make direct amends. Even if I had, the process of doing so would have been catastrophic to my well being. If you have such an amend to make, I would encourage you to look at the big picture and realistically evaluate if your recovery is best served by going to prison, being vilified by your friends and family or whatever else, making that kind of amend will require. This is one of the dark corners of morality that theists are all too quick to say ‘God will take care of’. My personal belief is that you are more use out in the world, earning money for a charity associated with your crime, than in prison trying to wait out your guilty conscience. Above all I encourage a recovering person to do what they feel they must but never without thought.

The various stories I’ve heard throughout the years boil down to this. If you can’t make amends without hurting yourself, make indirect amends. “Injuring them or others” includes you! Give money to the family or loved ones of the person you owe amends to. Make donations in their name to a charity they would have supported, anonymously if necessary. If none of that presents itself, I’ve heard over and over that helping the newcomer and continuing to recover from the disease that caused you to act selfishly can be amends enough.

Whatever you do, this is a step and thus it’s primary function is to serve in healing YOU. Even the seemingly selfless step 9 is all about removing the guilt and shame that might later serve as an excuse to drink or use.

And finally a quote from Starship Troopers: “Figuring things out for yourself is the only real freedom anyone really has. Use that freedom.”

Thank you for reading.

Steps 6 and 7

As ever I’ll start with my disclaimer that this is a supplement and not a replacement for any program literature. I’ll rely heavily on the assumption that you’ve read AAs 12 x 12 on step 6 or an equivalent study.

Step 6 is worded as it is very much on purpose. It is about motivation and desire. Just as taking the second step ensures we have the necessary confidence in our program or process of recovery; Step 6 also ensures we are in the right place emotionally and morally to continue the process. This time the preparedness is concerning our recently inventoried defects.

As I was confronted with my defects I was made aware of a troubling reality; Some of my defects were not distinct and independently correctable actions. Instead they were woven into the fabric of my personality and some were even tied to my core motivations and values.

And this is where my humanism really had to start ramping up. The group was not enough to handle all this stuff I had to broaden my spiritual horizon. The first step of this, for me, was getting comfortable with something humans don’t like and is perhaps even why every human culture has some version of religion. I had to get used to not knowing.

This is one of those things that sounds simple but I found putting it into practise to be highly difficult. I found I was fighting my own emotions constantly. I soon learned I was fighting a primary need humans share. We like to feel like we have a handle on things. Knowing “God is going to take care of us” is a good method in that it is effective. It achieves the freedom from busying oneself with chaotic thoughts about things we can’t control anyway and provides the soothing balm of emotional peace that comes from “knowing” you’re being taken care of.

This was not an option for me. I had to come to terms with the fact that this process of changing myself was not going to go the way I usually choose. Namely it would be; 1. Slow 2. Imperfect 3. Unpredictable 4. I would have to depend on others or help.

And this has been largely true as my life has gone. Work on these steps has included giving up on a failing career even though I didn’t want to. It was so familiar and comfortable that it took me years to get over it. Even though the lifestyle it had me in was killing me in sobriety. I knew it was the right decision but my identity was also wrapped up in that job. My low self worth made it difficult for me to exist without doing that particular job.

So I had to start noticing what did and did not feel right. If I continued to do things that didn’t feel right there was a cost. I’d either act out in secondary addictions, unhealthy coping strategies, feeling exhausted or good old fashioned neurotic behaviour.

Now my choice in this would be to just stop and move on to being a whole, unafflicted person that always does the right thing. For me this was not possible. I would require a lot of acceptance of myself and the reality that this was a process. The 12 steps as I understand them are not a trip for instant wellness. The word ‘trudge’ was not chosen by accident.

Step 7

Here’s a weird one for us without theistic higher powers. The temptation can be to skip it or ignore it as it seems trifling even to a believer. How can simply asking do anything? I believe in the mind of a believer this can trigger the simulation to switch to a state that convinces the unconscious mind that they are already healed. Once again we see the belief dragging the alcoholic mind forward from the shadows of the subconscious.

As non-believers we have our work cut out for us. I certainly did. I had to go to work unwrapping this box and again, for quite some time. I had to keep moving forward fighting a lot of depression and afflictive thoughts because I was again required to gain comfort and acceptance with a big blank space. Not some far off distant, “who created the universe” question that doesn’t really affect my life in any real way. A pressing immediate question about my life that cannot be ignored. Among other things I was changing careers on this step. I as going into a job that seemed a lot less luxurious, had far less esteem. Yet things were changing for the better and I wasn’t sure why at the time. I was going home and not feeling depressed as often. I certainly wasn’t feeling drained. I wasn’t spending as much money I didn’t have on retail therapy. With the stress of trying to be something I deep down didn’t really care to be I freed up some space and energy to start being me.

The central theme of step 7 and what it means to an atheist is that I simply have to trust that I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to work all these things out. Even the ones that seem insurmountable by me, or any future version of me. I need to find a good footing where I can take what comes and change what I can with what my life events unfold as.

For me (and maybe only for me) it’s important to keep the idea central in my mind that I am not special. I am not guaranteed my life, my health (mental or otherwise) or my livelihood. I must learn my limitations without succumbing to false humility or demoralization. And learn my capabilities and potential without ego or pride bringing me to ruin.

Above all I must accept that this will take time.

Steps 4 and 5

I’m putting steps 4 and 5 together as step 4 is pretty secular to start with. As I’ll show, so is step 5 but not entirely. As I’ve been writing these out my goal has been to translate the ‘god stuff’ into spiritual material that we, as atheists, can deal with and utilize.

I consider step 4 to be the first of the steps that directly affect the psyche in the ‘behavioural therapy’-ish way that the steps work according to me. In terms of interpretation, I’ll offer very little on step 4. I’ll suggest anyone doing the steps and having trouble with not knowing enough. read the 12 and 12. It covers more than I thought it did around my concerns and questions. It even has some good material on atheism in the first three steps.

My step 4 in AA wasn’t my first. I had been in OA and Al-anon as well and done step work in those programs as a sort of mystic theist. I found doing step 4 as an atheist to be easier as I didn’t have the heavy burden of my gods judgement on me. I was just making a list so I could figure out what went wrong.

The process of step 4 is well documented so I’ll just mention the part that stuck out for me. We now know that writing something down and looking it forces it out through the language centers of our brains and back in again. In a very real way, it changes our perception. This alone started the process of healing for me no matter what I was inventorying on. When it was written down it seemed like I could work on it and felt less overwhelming. The process also allowed stuff to the surface that just thinking about it a lot couldn’t access.

Step 5 seems obvious. Just cut ‘God’ out right? To my mind this is short sited. It’s a trick to start with because God would already know. Why admit to him? Once again this is a spiritual tactic. I had to read the 12 and 12 on step 5to start to understand what they were stabbing at. I’d encourage anyone who’s reading this to read that as well.

I think the god part of this step is about being willing to face that we have had problems. And to be real about that with the people we know. Not to disclose our entire inventory to everyone we meet, or even anyone beyond our sponsor. This is where being an atheist wasn’t enough for me, and my humanism had to begin. I started to see myself as one among many and I was doing my step 4 and 5 to try to be a useful part of my human community again. To fix and repair my warpped psyche. Now at the time I did it I did it for entirely selfish reasons. But, as with many actions taken in AA, the right action was what was important, attitudes were to come later.

So, other than being honest with myself and disclosing to another my inventory on how and why I had drank, it was important to integrate my inventory into my belief system. For me this meant accepting that I was taking a painful and emotionally difficult step to do something that was healthy and healing rather than numbing and escapist. And looking back, that was a huge change in and of itself.

Step 3 from original reddit posts.

With my step 2 in the bag coming to believe that:

There is a way I can live sober without constant emotional pain.

I found that the third step flowed quite naturally. ‘God, as I understood Him’ was an ideal. A possible future I could work towards. I wish I could tell you there was more too it, but resolving to continue working with people in the program was my step 3. My way of life had landed me into a pile of emotional pain. Also some mental damage that, I’m rather happy, mostly reversed itself after 6 months.

I was grateful for some parts of my subconscious that were still running and offering me raw data on what I needed. It had always been there as sort of a little voice or intuition and mostly presents as impulses like thirst, loneliness, exhaustion and urges to resolves conditions like that. So, in that way, I knew I needed to heal for a while. Whether I liked it or not I had brought myself to a place where I could no longer handle the fast paced life i had built for myself. I moved back to my home town and into my parents house (Humility bordering on humiliation for the self-made engineer with plans of being a millionaire by 25.)

The best way I could see to turn my will and my life over was to offer my time and work. So, I threw myself into the young people meetings and committees and adapted as best I could to find a place for myself there. Web design still seems to be a rare and arcane skill in AA in my area so I did a lot of that kind of stuff. Hanging out at sober dances, helping organize events, and generally “doing what these people do” was how I did it. I had no god to guide or comfort me so I doubled up on people. Little did I know what a big favor I was doing myself. At the time I thought I was making up for a lack in myself, what I now know is I that I was doubling up on the most important part.

I’m lucky in that I’ve had a lot of experience in working with people I didn’t agree with on all things. I had practice on cutting out what we didn’t agree on and focusing on the work. I really got to work those muscles in my first year and had a lot of great conversations as a result. One thing I should mention is I wasn’t confident about what I was doing while I was doing it. I went insane every time I thought about an interventionist god and as far as I knew I was missing an essential part of the program. So I was very cautious about how I proceeded and never adopted a belief until I had tested it under criticism of people whose opinions I valued. One thing I agree with an acknowledge as true is that alcoholics in general don’t seem to do well alone with their thoughts, at least not with practice. I’ve seen fellow members isolate and skip meetings for weeks, then come back with some real hair-brained crap. This includes and maybe especially is true among professionals with higher IQs. I saw this pattern in others and was resolved to not let my new system of living contain the same flaws. ( I was QA engineer for a while. I think it’s helped my recovery. I know it’s irritated a few members in the process. Bringing up things like my recoveries ‘fault tolerance’ in meetings can bring a few odd looks, but fortunately a few smiles too. )

So while building this new system, I was experiencing a lot of depression. I tried some medication but found that it only shifted my emotional difficulties rather than solving them. So I decided to fix my original problem rather than the ones brought on by my medications. I was more familiar with them and felt closer to a lifestyle solution through that path. So, I essentially participated in distracting myself from the emotional pain and mental phenomenon with service work for a couple years. There were long period of times where I thought that being distracted for the rest of my life was the only way to survive sobriety. I felt better than I did before and I was being appreciated for my work which was a familiar and validating experience that I enjoyed.

I had many conversations that I’m happy now to be sharing some of the fruits of, about the nature of God as others understood it and how it was working for them. I occasionally found myself falling back into religious arguments, trying to disprove dogmas or show their inherent stupidity, but more and more I found these arguments were useless for me and for my fellows. I was seeing the beginnings of what would become my compassionate humanism. We were both running simulations based on insufficient evidence, a natural human reaction to realities our conscious minds are incapable of handling. Mental coherence is a real human need, without it we are very irritable in the short term or risk mental collapse in the long term. In short; we all need an idea of the world around us that we can live with.

I heard something in a meeting only yesterday that really stuck with me and seemed topical. I’m fond of metaphors and am surprised I’ve used so few thus far.

This person described journeying north through a forest at night by following the north star, Polaris. He follows that star because he knows it will lead him where he needs to go, but he has no delusions he’ll ever reach the star.

I was immediately overcome by an idea, of travelling through that same forest but in a group of people. Some of these people knew what I knew, some believed they would reach the star some day. Others didn’t care about the star or what it was, only that it would get them where they needed to go. And still others believed the star moved every night, leading them to where it will. Knowing what I know I was able to recognize the real importance; We are all walking through the woods together, trying to find our way home.