‘The Way’ is known in all traditions and cultures. The Way stands for the journey to find truth and the dynamic manifestation of the truth in human life. What is truth? Truth is direct experience of oneness with the Eternal. The Way of the Alcoholic is a way that can lead to this experience.
The Way of the Alcoholic is a journey into addiction, certainly. But this painful and dispiriting trial can also lead to recovery, awakening a rebirth of the spirit. Alcoholics lose their way so that they might find The Way. The progression is from self-destruction to self-discovery: which is the ultimate creative act. Through expanded consciousness and spiritual transformation The Way leads home.
The Way of the Alcoholic is a spiritual calling of a “high” order – no joking matter but it’s okay to laugh. The Way of the Alcoholic is a path to higher consciousness and it holds the same spiritual truths as are found in the great traditions: The Way of the Sufi, The Way of Mystic, The Way of the Tao, The Way of Alchemy, The Way of the Kabala, The Way of Buddha, The Way of Advaita, The Way of Ultimate Reality. It is just as legitimate a way to spiritual awakening as The Way of the Saints. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita: “However men approach me even so do I welcome them for the path men take from every side is mine.”
The purpose of the fall into alcoholism and subsequent emotional displacement, rearrangement and expansion of awareness in recovery is to bring about a transformation of the psyche. We become alcoholics and then, if we turn around, we make our way along a path of spiritual discovery to self-realization.
There are false turns and deadly dangers on The Way. For example, one can deny one’s alcoholism and fail to turn around. Or, one can abstain from alcohol and still not enjoy recovery which is measured by degrees of contentment, serenity, happiness. Also, the Way of the Alcoholic is urgent and requires continuous spiritual expansion and a deepening of consciousness or the sufferer strays from the sunlight and lapses into emotional and spiritual suffocation.
The most common stumbling block for seekers on The Way is the notion of a separate selfhood: the ego-driven ‘I’. Relinquishing our preoccupation with ourselves precipitates a spiritual experience, just as spiritual awakening nurtures a shedding of the ego.
This is the real purpose of alcoholic addiction: to provide a path to higher consciousness. So that having become conscious as a result of the totality of the alcoholic experience: that is, having become an alcoholic, having hit bottom, having fully surrendered to the truth of our situation, having turned around, having gone through a process of spiritual quickening – having had a spiritual awakening – we realize that the recovery that is intended for us is the recovery of our Real Self.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung understood addiction to alcohol as the manifestation of the spiritual thirst for wholeness. The Eastern traditions also have language for this reality. There is bireh – translated as intense longing. As well, the Pāli word Tanha – fundamental in Buddhism – also appears in the Vedas. It translates as thirst, thirsting for, longing for, craving for, desiring, eager greediness, and suffering from thirst. But when the Buddha talks of Tanha he means selfish, self-centred desire, the fierce compulsive craving for personal satisfaction.
It seems alcoholics are driven most acutely by this craving. We are alcoholic because we drank too much. We drank too much because we were thirsty. But it wasn’t until we were taken down by booze and stepped into the light of recovery that we discovered the thing we were truly thirsty for: our Real Being. Seen in this light we can say that The Way of the Alcoholic is a path to At-One-Ment where we may awaken to the One that we truly are.
In his letter to AA co-founder Bill Wilson, Jung wrote: “[the] craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God” and “…‘alcohol’ in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”
Anyone familiar with Jung also will have encountered at least something he said about alchemy, the Royal Art, which Jung single-handedly restored to serious study in our time. The Magnum Opus or Great Work of the alchemist – the business of transforming lead into gold – is the essential metaphor for the transformative change occurring within the alchemist himself. It’s the same thing with alcoholism. The alcoholic is merely the vessel by which the great distillation of the spirit occurs.
Alchemy requires a complete breakdown of the substance before the transformation can occur. This is also true for the alcoholic.
“Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows,” said Heraclitus. The question that often confounds us is, why? Why must we be ‘beaten into a state of reasonableness’ before we can declare ourselves ready to turn around? This is the great gift that alcohol addiction confers upon us: our suffering is raised to such a high pitch that it becomes impossible to ignore. Many who are not addicts or alcoholics can continue in a state of low level anxiety and disease for their entire lives without ever having a clue about its cause or what might be done about it.
Only when the alcoholic admits complete defeat, fully conceding to one’s innermost self that one is licked, can transformation begin. In the traditions innermost self equates to soul, or atman – the Higher Self, the Real Self, the True Self – OneSelf.
In Alchemy the principle of solve et coagula – dissolve and coagulate – is used at each stage of the process. The form the soul is caught in at the time (the old ego-driven self) must first be dissolved in order to free the soul so that it can rise (in consciousness) to experience a purer and subtler form, which can then be re-configured and experienced as the “new” self. This ego death initiates a transformation of the highest order – a spiritual re-birth. Buddhism also describes the dissolution of the old self as a death: death of the sense of self as being a separate individual. It is a complete dying of the notion that subject and object are separate.
We might say that the alcoholic feels a sense of separation from others and from One’s Essential Self more acutely than the non-alcoholic. If this is true then it can be understood that addictive behaviour intensifies this feeling of separation to the point where it is no longer tolerable – even to the addict. So, on hitting bottom, self-centred longing collapses into OneSelf and the addict surrenders their addiction. The sorrow of separation is now seen to be an illusion and the Ultimate Reality is experienced as it always was: right here right now.
So just as there is The Way of the Saint, so too there is The Way of the Alcoholic. And while the quest for union with the OneSelf, the movement toward Being, is the most difficult of human pursuits – there are signposts, crossroads, points of decision, by which a follower of The Way can realize progress. Broken open by our addiction we are brought to a place of spiritual emptiness. Here, we may find enough courage to clearly see our situation. But we must be completely empty before we can be filled. In this lonely state we start to re-connect with our higher purpose, begin our journey to self-realization and step onto the path of becoming the person we were meant to be. At this stage we are willing to do anything to put the pain of addiction behind us. We are brought here with the help of our Higher Self with Whom we always wanted to align, to Whom we are destined to connect, and from Whom, in truth, we have never been separated.
Alcoholism is a disease of the spirit. It destroys the spirit in us. And since alcoholism – distilled to its essence – is a spiritual problem it so happens that the solution also is entirely spiritual. Sometimes described as a feeling dis-ease, alcoholism springs from the most powerful spiritual longing. Our essential self longs to realize transcendence. As limited human beings we long for a state beyond ourselves that is inclusive, luminous and peaceful. Deep down, whether conscious of it or not, we are driven to break free of our small ego-centred self and to realize the being we were born to be. There are many ways that people have sought to do this throughout history and The Way of the Alcoholic is just one of them.
Readiness to initiate the journey – to step out on The Way – can’t be forced. Nor can alcoholics be faulted if the idea of turning around has not occurred in them as yet. One’s level of consciousness has to advance to a place where the intention to change holds meaning and attraction. Put simply, an alcoholic has to be sufficiently beaten by booze to become willing enough to earnestly embark on a journey of radical psychic change. Later, in recovery, this involves complete abstinence from the addictive substance, since once you make this turn on The Way – there is no going back – the Awakening must be maintained and expanded. Eventually, the practice becomes effortless.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally published by Works Publishing Inc. and titled The Way Out, describes the existential fruits of the ego-obsessed, self-centred active-phase alcoholic. “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people.”
The alcoholic path of recovery incorporates perennial spiritual principles: surrender, confession, restitution, service. These four spiritual principles are captured in the Alcoholics Anonymous literature which delineates them for each alcoholic: “Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us.”
“Abandon yourself … ” – perennial advice across the spiritual traditions. May it prove worthwhile to pause and reflect on the meaning of “Yourself” and what is being surrendered and given up in the abandonment?
Similar to the Way of the Alcoholic, in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, the spiritual call is to enquire into the Self – Who Am I? And also to go beyond mere “I” to investigate into the very source of the sense of “I” – that is, our essential beingness or primoridal awareness. AA’s Big Book contains an appendix called ‘Spiritual Awakening’ where it says: “Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it ‘God-consciousness.'”
The realization of that which we truly are can give rise to a sense of sacred wonder because it transcends ego-consciousness and our intellectual understanding. But when we bring an attitude of surrender our limits dissolve into the infinite and our energies are re-orchestrated. This question Who Am I is itself born from stillness and fed from the silence that we find reflected in the mind in quiet contemplation or meditation. The insights that blossom here arise from our True Being. Indeed, it is only because of the silence that a spontaneous inward awareness of who we are naturally appears.
This silence then, God, the Ground of our Being is variously described in AA literature as the “One Who Has All Power”, “the Spirit of the Universe”, the “Great Reality deep down within” and an “Unsuspected Inner Resource.”
All energies converge towards the One who has All Power, toward the Spiritual Heart that brings beauty, love, and freedom. This is the purpose of our being born human – although it is not the ego “You” who realizes any ‘Spiritual Awakening’. You just end up being you. And there you find the Innermost Self that was lost or forgotten. As it says in the Prayer of St. Francis … “it is by self-forgetting that one finds, it is by forgiving that one is forgiven, it is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.” What dies is attachment to the ego self, to the self identity that our mind has latched onto, the ‘I” that erroneously believes itself to be our real Self.
The path to find this, though, is an ‘inside job’ and you will find your own path. And for the alcoholic it begins with suffering: a gift that launches us on The Way.
How many problem drinkers have arrived at the point where they feel the despicability, the derangement, the finality of their drunken escapades closing in on them? Here, the arrogant ego starts to loosen its grip. Here, amid all our pain and vulnerability we understand just how far we have wandered from the truth of all that we could be. At this moment comes a great gift: a carking conscience leads to a growing sense of conscious awareness itself.
Sometimes it is the acutely painful insight that our alcoholic behaviour is harming others that brings us to our knees, making us sufficiently ready to admit complete defeat. If we were only hurting ourselves we might have carried on, unchanged. But when we can no longer endure the pain of denial – when we can no longer stand the factual and absolute truth that we are the cause of harm – our Higher Self gets the better of us and we are done.
What happens to us at the time of hitting bottom? In this emotional space we come to a special kind of understanding – we ‘stand under’ a Higher Power that manifests as Great Love. Willingness to surrender ushers forth from the taproot of this Great Lovingness that is found deep within us at the centre of OneSelf. Here, we are drawn to re-connect with our Innermost Self. And we are at peace to surrender. Indeed, there is no point in hitting bottom if it doesn’t connect the deepest part of us with the truth of our situation. Hitting bottom must produce a real result: which is surrender.
With surrender, we stop fighting. We are deflated to the point of “giving up.” And this is the meaning of surrender: it means giving up the fight, relinquishing our hold, letting go. In fact, so much of The Way of the Alcoholic involves surrendering at various steps along The Way – and letting go.
In the beginning, pain and suffering is the impetus. It forces us to begin the letting go of ego. Self-transcendence involves rising above ways of being that no longer fit the process of becoming. How do we know we did something “wrong”? To put it another way we are talking about self-insight and self-correction, re-orienting and re-arranging our consciousness.
What a relief it is to surrender to the truth of our situation! For us, transformation can only occur when we have thoroughly known what lies at the bottom and most dark places in our lives. This is the wisdom of The Way of the Alcoholic and this is why our pathway has depth and holds meaning.
Having surrendered we feel a sense of unity, the end of struggles: no more divided inner counsel. With surrender we glimpse the true meaning of inner wholeness. We know from immediate experience the feeling of being wholehearted about something. We feel peace and a special closeness to a power greater than ourselves. As we begin to shed our ego and old self there may be moments when we feel we have a glimpse of Real Being.
Here, we may ultimately be delivered to a place where the Gods are no longer an idea located in the mind: not a phantasm, not an intellectual construct. The Creator, the Ultimate Reality, Higher Consciousness, satcitananda सच्चिदानंद | Sunyata, Perfect Fullness |Perfect Emptiness – Pure Silence | The Pure Light of the Void – can be a directly experienced reality – although not by “You” (at least not the ego-driven You).
Many alcoholics say they never felt closer to a Higher Power than at that terrifying, despairing moment of hitting bottom. It is only when we are most empty, broken, and alone that we gather within ourselves the courage to change. We must be emptied before we can be filled. The good news is that this emptiness, this nothingness, emanates from the Source of All. All alone, we are All One. We are broken but we are broken open. There is the Way of the Saint and there is the Way of the Addict. And they are the same.
For the broken alcoholic, not all the kings horses nor all the kings men could put us together again – we crave something greater, much greater. And so we set out, by necessity, to find it: there is a drive to experience that great spiritual awakening that the saints and mystics of every tradition also sought: the great presence within, that which is the truth. And in the end, the place where we find this great truth is within us, in our own heart, at the crucible of our individual conscience which has been awakened.
At bottom, everything changes. If we are honest about it, we gain some insight. We can see how our alcoholism has damaged the essential spirit in ourselves and also damaged others, and we see clearly how we have offended our own best nature. We arrive at a turning point where we can no longer postpone or avoid this truth which has come home to roost. We may cry for help. We may beg for release. But in the end, beyond the pain, by admitting the jig is finally up we feel a great calm. We understand that somehow, now, finally and at last all will be well. In the midst of tremendous sadness we encounter an overwhelming sense of peace and of arrival. We see that hitting bottom is a moment of truth – beyond all delusion and also beyond enlightenment – a clear and unclouded moment of reckoning with Reality.
Step Zero then is a state of complete and utter deflation and vulnerability where the personal ego self is dissolved and there is a glimpse of the Higher Power, the Source of All, The Absolute – or, if you like, God. Zero is a condition that precedes all. Zero shows us our nothingness. Here, in the midst of our agony, we see the truth of our Real Self which never loses its innocence. This experience is numinous. It is noetic. It is mystical. It is also addictive. Not the pain of it, but the truth of it. As addicts and alcoholics we want to hold the truth of this experience not just passingly but permanently. We are hardwired to crave the wholeness of our Real Being. The trick is to get there and remain there. The irony is that we hold on to it by letting go.
This is the entire purpose of the spiritual pathway of alcoholism. We find that despite oneself, along The Way going forward, the person who once was entirely selfish is now forced to become more conscious of the One Self that the sages identify as the Real Being, the Witness consciousness, the I of the I. We realize too that we can’t become un-addicted. Once on the path, having had a taste of expanded consciousness – we can’t change our minds. There’s no way to delete this experience from ones memory. It is impossible to replace this with anything else. The necessity to return to a deeper state of consciousness is what drives us in recovery. We drank because we were thirsty for this. It’s the same thing all the saints sought. When we experience this great state, the presence within, our Real Being, we become aware of the beauty in All. We are on the path to recognizing our real, effortless, permanent happy nature. And we come to know that the source of this is That which is sacred.
Arising out of the morass of hitting bottom we find the courage to turn around and we land at what Alcoholics Anonymous calls Step One, which contains the entire Way of the Alcoholic in a very concise form. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.” When we identify our suffering with our craving for alcohol we find both the cause, and, by extension, the solution, to our problem.
We were cracked, but cracked open. As we set out on The Way we begin to live on spiritual principles. We start to enjoy expanded capacity for love and forgiveness, we are filled with gratitude and appreciation, we see the inherent beauty in things and between things, we insist on living in peace and harmony rather than in discord and strife. We begin to experience a growing awareness of oneness with the Eternal. As Rumi, the Persian poet, mystic and contemplative said: “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.” We see little signs that we are on the right path. And we realize the source of our understanding, our freedom, arises from our innermost Self. This is a state where barriers to our Real Self have been removed. We are going to want this transcendent experience again. And again.
On The Way we may experience new states of being – serenity, bliss, various enlightenments – states of awakening where we are most happy and effective. We want to make this loving and peaceful place our home. One of the qualities of such lightness is to feel as if we have awakened into a superior form of consciousness. And while all of life’s ordinary problems that once plagued us aren’t solved – at a certain point in sobriety they have become irrelevant.
Attaining and maintaining such a state of being – spiritual awakening – is a most basic human aspiration. We’d argue it is the reason we live. And if we follow The Way of the Alcoholic we may be led to still higher awareness and further spiritual revelations.
“God is,” says Aldous Huxley in Seven Meditations. “It is in order that we may discover this fact for ourselves, by direct experience, that we exist. The final end and purpose of every human being is the unitive knowledge of God’s being.”
In admitting that we are alcoholic we begin to own the truth about ourselves to a sufficient degree that our life is returned to us. In the process of realizing this we finally take steps toward becoming the person we were meant to be and we have a chance to fulfill our destiny on earth.
Huxley noted that all the great spiritual traditions share some similar essential truths about God, the Higher Power, The Absolute, the Great Reality that he calls the Divine Ground.
First, our world of matter and individual consciousness – things, animals, men, gods – these are the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being and apart from which they would be nonexistent.
Second, human beings are capable of not just knowing the Divine Ground by inference; we can realize it by direct intuition, which is superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known. It is the way of the mystic and of the alcoholic.
Third, humans have a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an Eternal Self, which is the inner being, the spirit, that essential spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for us, if we want, to identify ourselves with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Finally, our life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify ourselves with this Eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground. We are here ultimately to know the Truth: to have that direct experience of oneness with the Eternal.
Mystics from different traditions express this identically but in different ways: The final question for Adi Shankara is: How can I get endless bliss? The emphasis is on the self and the ultimate opposition is between the fleeting and changeless. The final question for Meister Eckhart is: How can I achieve God’s idea for me?
Our experience tells us that there is a purpose to addiction, and that this purpose is akin to The Way of the Warrior, The Way of the Healer, The Way of the Sage, The Way of the Mystics of all traditions and ages. To realize the Way of the Alcoholic – to make it real – involves shipwreck, surrender, deflation of the ego at depth, reconciliation with the Source of All, followed by a willing and continuous self-sacrifice. Endless bliss may follow you home on this journey where in the end you will realize God’s own idea for you.
The beauty of the Way of the Alcoholic is that each traveller finds their own way home, embodying their own unique encounter with Ultimate Reality. This involves surrender, acceptance and humility – letting go of the things that chain us to our Ego and our many attachments. But we should also be wary of those who are filled with certainty about their particular God. Nothing in life is certain. And real faith requires honest doubt. The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening. The smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.
Arrived here, the Great Reality isn’t a concept, it is an experience – and once you have had the experience you can’t forget it. Remember that sense of oneness with the world you had as a child? Have you caught yourself feeling happy for no particular reason at all? This is the best kind of happiness because it is not contingent on anything.
The Way in all traditions is characterized by the urge to transcend one’s own small world and to quench our thirst for deeper meaning and purpose in life. In this sense the Way of the Alcoholic and the Way of Tao are similar. The goal is to embrace, in and through the diversity of phenomena, the hidden unity that binds all things together. Seekers on The Way will find themselves engaged in a series of conscious acts of surrender to The Power’s spontaneous manifestations. In the case of Tao this involves seeing the Yin and Yang of it all: the ceaseless play of opposites and the perfect round enclosing them. On The Way of the Alcoholic we hope that we remain open enough as sober people to see the many small and miraculous ways the Higher Power works in our lives. With gratitude in our hearts we then begin to experience them.
Many of us have trouble with this notion of a Higher Power because we think we need the most exquisite definition of God or the perfect notion of God to guide us in sobriety. Ironically, it is only when we stop trying to think our way to the Higher Power and surrender to spontaneous experience that a shift in consciousness or breakthrough appears – and most profoundly keeps re-appearing! There’s a wonderful aphorism in Buddhism around the notion of Samsara – wandering or lostness: “Nirvana that is grasped is Samsara. And Samsara that is not grasped is Nirvana.” Along The Way, we find letting go is the easiest thing in the world. We just open our hand and let go of the thing we are holding. So there is only this: If you want something so badly (Higher Consciousness for example) that you grasp it – then you only succeed in turning it into Samsara – that is to say something heavy that you have to carry around with you. And if you don’t grasp it – you’re free.
As we progress in the Way of the Alcoholic we are encouraged to go further by making a decision to surrender again and again by turning our will and our lives over to The Power. What this means is that we turn over our thinking and our actions to our better intuitions, our Higher Selfhood. We surrender them, and allow ourselves to be guided by a higher sense of purpose. Our “will” in this sense, equates to our thinking. And our “life” is our actions. In fact our entire life from the early inklings of self-awareness to our last breath can be seen in one sense as the sum total of our actions. You want to know who you are? You are what you do and have done via your actions. That is it. And so when we decide to turn our will and our lives over, we surrender them. This means we give up our selfish, self-centred way of living and re-arrange our intentions. The word “decide” from Old French decidere, literally means “to cut off.” At this stage of The Way we are cutting off an old way of life and an old way of thinking and being.
Sometimes we ask: “How can I know God’s will?” What is Gods will for us? Gods will for you is to be completely, inwardly, wholeheartedly happy. Nothing else. What else could God possibly want, if, as it were, God wanted anything? That is the end of it and the beginning. Each glorious day we come to connect with The Power at the level of our conscience.
The 12-Steps of AA suggest that on The Way of recovery, aware of spiritual experiences, having a conscience, we will know intuitively how to handle situations that once baffled us. And as we spontaneously experience more of The Power around and within us as sober people we come to rely on this intuition as a guide to commit to the next right act. At this juncture on The Way and from here on, we are governed by just two imperatives: don’t be selfish and don’t hurt anyone. Simply, we always take the high road, unselfishly. If we can look ourselves in the mirror and see that we have acted unselfishly we can be happy. This is the Way of the Alcoholic.
Fear is at the heart of our character defects and so travellers on The Way require an honest self-appraisal so that we may root out fear. “Selfishness, self-centredness, that we think is the root of our troubles.” The Way in all the traditions tells us that our obsession with our individual ego, which is essentially an illusion, is the source of our suffering. There is one basic saying in Zen that one can rely on completely: Walk through all fear no matter what, commit to the spiritual truth, no matter what.
Honestly assessing ourselves and our shortcomings we may find that we are just another garden variety alcoholic, not the triple axe murderer we might have imagined ourselves to be. But in truth we are only as sick as our innermost secrets. And those secrets we must root out, acknowledge, and face without fear. The people we have harmed, who inhabit our conscience, are blocking us from spiritual expansion. There may be those who have harmed us. Complex trauma can separate us from the truest part of our being. We must nevertheless focus on our own shortcomings, not those of others. So we begin to take ownership of our behaviour, our selfishness, self-centredness, every aspect of our self. “We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past.” Doing this well can bring cathartic change.
After an honest personal reckoning and after confessing some crucial facts we thought we’d never tell anyone, AA’s Big Book – the one they were going to call The Way Out – predicts, simply, that: “We are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience.”
We are reconnecting to the sense of Higher Self, some would call it the Witness Consciousness, the Real “I” from which we have been separated. There is absolutely nothing in ordinary human experience to compare with the joy of the presence Absolute Reality that flows into the empty vessel that once was filled with ego. We felt something stir when we hit that emotional and spiritual bottom, when we were emptied and spirit filled the void. We long to feel close to that great mysterium again as sober people who are now awake. No sacrifice is too great nor effort too much in order to realize this Abiding Presence. We long for the experience that brings us bliss and serenity. Those who venture out on The Way go after this state of bliss most addictively. It is the most addictive feeling of all. Once you’ve experienced this you’ll never be the same again.
As we begin to discover our Real Self on The Way, going forward with heightened conscious awareness, we must tunnel down to the bedrock. “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear — primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded,” our 12-Step friends tell us. “Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration.” So we are afraid we aren’t going to get what we want, or that we’re going to get something we don’t want.
The state of want implies dissatisfaction. The fact that we “want” at all is the problem. Advaita Vedanta and the Madhyamaka Philosophy are emphatic about this: it’s better to not want. Indeed, the root of all our suffering lies in our seemingly unending but essentially selfish wants and desires.
The fact of suffering is a central teaching of Buddhism. Suffering arises from the self-centred ego: craving, desire, want. In the Buddha’s first sermon after his awakening he spoke about suffering, its origin and its ending. The first two of the Four Noble Truths are particularly pertinent: “This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering; aging is suffering; death is suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering. Association with what you dislike is suffering; separation from what you like is suffering. Not getting what you want is suffering. “
Selfish, self-interested desire is the barrier that must be overcome on The Way to happiness. This self-absorbed desire is what separates us from our Higher Self, from life and from others, says Eknath Easwaran in his introduction to the Bhagavad Gita. There’s an obvious parallel between the Buddhist-Vedic sense of “Kama” (selfish desire) and the teachings of the 12 Step Path of AA: “The whole idea of desire in Hindu and Buddhist psychology – is frequently misunderstood,” says Easwaran. “These religions, it is sometimes held, teach an ideal of desireless action, a nirvana equated with the extinction of all desires. This drab view is far from the truth. Desire is the fuel of life; without desire nothing can be achieved, let alone so stupendous a feat as Self-realization. Kama is not desire; it is selfish desire. The Buddha calls it tanha, “thirst”: the fierce, compulsive craving for personal satisfaction that demands to be slaked at any cost, whether to oneself or to others. Thus the concept also includes what Western mystics call self-will – the naked ego insisting on getting what it wants for its own gratification. The Gita teaches simply that this selfish craving is what makes a person feel separate from the rest of life. When it is extinguished – the literal meaning of nirvana – the mask of the transient, petty empirical ego falls, revealing our real Self. Work hard in the world without any selfish attachment, the Gita counsels, and you will purify your consciousness of self-will. In this way any man or woman can gradually attain freedom from the bondage of selfish conditioning.”
So the aim we try to maintain on The Way is to live in a fairly rarefied spiritual place, where the constant tug of want and desire is extinguished. Here’s something that’s not often said: the experience of sobriety, of having spiritual experiences and having little awakenings is in itself highly addictive. Non-alcoholics might get the ‘hit’ by virtue of spiritual practice, consciousness techniques, near death experiences, mindfulness meditation or by their own karma that brings them to a state of higher awareness. At such times the questing soul experiences serenity, bliss, some would say Samadhi, Moksha or Nirvana. To experience that state, that truth, the direct experience of oneness with the Eternal, is the most addicting of all experiences. Really, we seek this above all else. Seekers on The Way who have experienced this will often spend the rest of their life perfecting it so that they can experience it permanently. At first we just get glimpses of it on The Way. But eventually we move in. Because it is recognition, a homecoming.
For those who set out on The Way, having had a spiritual awakening, there is great joy in the realization that one does not actually need anything at all to be happy. We see that the best kind of happiness, the richest, fullest kind, is when we catch ourselves being happy for no good reason at all. We are on The Way and this is boundless happiness.
The price of admission to this rarefied state is high. As alcoholics we go through hell to get there. We were destined for this, but we get distracted on our way. It’s like the story of the two birds who sit in the same tree, one at the top, the other below. Both have beautiful plumage. The lower bird eats fruit from the tree while the other, higher up, stays calm and majestic, and concentrated in its own glory. The lower bird is bouncing around – sometimes hitting on a sweet and lovely fruit but other times it hits on a very bitter fruit. When this happens, the lower bird looks up at the higher bird and sees it sitting there calmly and majestically, not caring for sweet or bitter fruit, just being there sufficient to itself, immersed in its own fullness, happy and content. In the sad moments of tasting the bitter fruit the lower bird imagines what it would be like and is inspired to join the higher bird. It hops up a couple of branches to go a bit higher. But then it gets distracted and notices some really nice looking fruit and forgets about the higher bird. Eventually after being constantly buffeted between the good and bitter fruit, tired, lonely, beaten to a pulp, the lower bird struggles nearer and nearer to the top. As the lower bird approaches the light from the plumage of the higher bird is reflected down. Suddenly its own plumage melts away and when it is very close to the higher bird, the whole vision changes. The lower bird sees that it was always One and the Same as the upper bird, and what it mistook for a lower bird was only a little bit of a reflection. There is only One Self – The Higher Self.
The addict knows better than anyone how to lose the OneSelf in temporal enjoyments, how to dive into the vanities of the world; how to seek pleasure in the senses, and how to live in momentary and passing titillation. The “I” that we think we are, our “self” our “selfishness” this is the root of the problem. Our self-centredness sets us up for a smackdown: the head reels, and with alcohol – the great remover – everything begins to vanish. Just like the lower bird we find that our world is filled with bitter fruit. With enough of these experiences we cascade down to hit an emotional bottom. And here the soul then finds the One thing that is true in everything – that which is in every atom, everywhere present, the essence of all things: it finds the Absolute.
For our entire journey along The Way we are honing our lives to attune our essential self with the Higher Self, and for the final surrender of the ego in death. Recovery from alcoholism arises out of Lovingness, from the Truth of that which you are. Everything in the past was necessary for you, including the moment of winnowing, at bottom, the dissolution, Step Zero. This is because you can’t really love yourself until you’ve to some extent despised yourself. For the addicted person it is absolutely essential in this lifetime to experience this, and to face the truth about yourself. Just as in Alchemy, it is in the face of death itself – absolute dissolution and annihilation – that the substance is transformed. The spiritual path, The Way of the Alcoholic, the extinguishing of ego, the surrender, all is practice for the final surrender of oneself in death.
Those who have previously journeyed on this consciousness movement – The Way – say that it is self-centred fear that interferes with spiritual growth. Just like the lower bird we become distracted on this inward journey. We attach to ego and fall into self-forgetting. But ultimately we know: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there.” Here we see the accoutrements of the ego cloud the “fundamental idea” of God. For the alcoholic, the fundamental idea can’t be some postmodern intellectual construct – it has to be something meaningful that holds depth and weight, something closer to the Greek ennoia – the kind of “knowing” that arises from the most truthful intentions of the heart. This is the location where we can best contemplate the fundamental idea of God.
It’s said that if those on The Way are painstaking about reconciling with others who were harmed at earlier points on the path, such spiritual seekers will be amazed before they are even half way through making amends. They will know a new and even greater happiness (if that even seemed possible) which is yet another station on The Way to higher consciousness and atonement with The Absolute. When we create our lives from a centre of humility, we arrive contentedly in the present moment.
Much can be said of the exquisite practices of prayer and meditation as we come to know the Higher Power more deeply, and as we move toward fulfilling our true purpose as human beings.
The 12-Step groups will never tell you what kind of God you should have in order to realize a spiritual awakening. The mystics and sages all tell us the same thing: we should not define God, since definition limits God to certain attributes. Indeed, all logical, ethical and aesthetic principles: truth, goodness and beauty, are incapable of representing the true greatness of the Ultimate Reality anyway. Nothing can be said of this essential Pure Consciousness. What we can give at most is a negative description. The One True Reality is beyond being and non-being, beyond all concepts, notions and perceptions – above thinking, feeling and willing, above subject and object, above all conceivable principles and categories. This Pure Consciousness cannot even be called a Self-conscious Being, for this implies duality. This Pure Consciousness is both the thinker and the thought, and also what is beyond thought: pure, spontaneous and unsurpassed.
You can be assured that the spiritual awakening we gain on The Way of The Alcoholic is greater than whatever alcohol or drugs gave us. Coincidentally, AA’s Twelfth Step explains the whole process of alcoholism: Having become conscious as a result of the total alcoholic experience – having become addicted, having hit bottom, having surrendered, having turned around, having gone through a process of spiritual purification – having had a spiritual awakening – we realize recovery. And what we recover is a glimpse of Pure Consciousness, our Real Self.
This is a movement of consciousness and it is a one way street. Once our consciousness has chosen addiction as the path to becoming conscious, spiritually aware, there is no backing up or going back. There’s no other path for us. There is just the absolute necessity of becoming more conscious as a way to live. That is the whole purpose of The Way of the Alcoholic – to become more conscious. Either we become more and more and more spiritually conscious – or we die.
Once re-connected with the Divine, what do we find? We find ourselves on a path to realize The Way. Plotinus describes this as a living state in which we put aside our ego self, encounter the mystery of Being and our mystical unity and oneness with the Eternal: “There,” he says, “everything is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, all is all, and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great: the sun, there, is all the stars, and every star again is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other. In this Intelligible World, everything is transparent. No shadow limits vision. All the essences see each other and interpenetrate each other in the most intimate depth of their nature. Light everywhere meets light. Every being contains within itself the entire Intelligible World, and also beholds it entirely in every particular being … There abides pure movement; for He who produces movement, not being foreign to it, does not disturb it in its production. Rest is perfect, because it is not mingled with any principle of disturbance. The Beautiful is completely beautiful there, because it does not dwell in that which is not beautiful.
“To have seen this vision is reason no longer. It is more than reason, before reason, and after reason, as also is the vision which is seen. And perhaps we should not here speak of sight; for that which is seen if we must needs speak of seer and seen as two and not one is not discerned by the seer, nor perceived by him as a second thing. Therefore this vision is hard to tell of; for how can a man describe as other than himself that which, when he discerned it, seemed not other, but one with himself indeed?”
Postscript: Many years have passed since we first were introduced to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. We still keep a daily meditation practice though, sitting twice daily for an hour in silence. Sri Ramana Maharshi calls it dhyāna giving way to samadhi. Thomas Merton would call it contemplation. Whatever you wish to call it, it involves genuinely turning 100% within. One will benefit by surrender of any attachments to the pretensions of the everyday illusory body-mind, its accoutrements and hardware. Here, the AA Big Book says, is where grace might reveal The Innermost Self.
This is the same spot where the unreal ego shrivels to nothing from lack of attention. This is the place where we abandon ourselves to The One Who Has All Power, the One Without A Second. If you are patient in your practice, engaging no effort, you may taste a rarefied state: the fully awake yet restful consciousness Krishnamurti describes as choiceless awareness.
Here, when you turn to ask “Who Am I?” you find there is no “I” – the self has fallen away, there never was an alcoholic and there never was a path. It has surrendered to the sublime – satcitananda सच्चिदानंद – a state of pure awareness for which there are no words, though Plotinus seems to have assembled a rough roadmap of the territory.
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