“For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue tied man a ceremony of love.”
–Andre Dubus, A Father’s Story
Asking the Right Questions
I’ve always been drawn to mystery. My earliest memories were molded in the Catholic Church, and unlike many, I am glad for this religious upbringing. As a child, my world was one where statues wept oil and paintings opened doorways to unseen worlds, where saints miraculously bent the laws of nature, where bread and wine were flesh and blood, yet not flesh and blood, but simply bread and wine. There were many beliefs I was given as a child that I’ve had to get rid of, but this religious worldview, though I no longer subscribe to it, prepared my mind to embrace the strange and unknown, to wrestle with counterintuitive ideas, and sit with that most uncomfortable feeling that arises in the face of ambiguity.
Despite my upbringing, I don’t know if I believe in God. I guess it would depend on whom you asked and how they defined belief. I’m not an atheist, but I also don’t have a firm belief in any particular idea of God. For years, I was afraid to confront this, and I’ve been especially wary of speaking about it with other people in recovery. At this point, however, I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that I just don’t know, and I suspect many people in recovery feel this way. I try not to spend too much time ruminating on the existence of God, and honestly, I’m just not that interested in arguing about it.
The problem I’ve found in arguing about the existence of a God is that the evidence used to support one side or the other is rooted primarily in personal experience and in texts that require a shared faith between the people arguing. For example, if one doesn’t believe the Bible, the evidence cited from this text to prove the existence of God is empty. The same could be true if we were arguing about Allah or the Buddha. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way suggesting that anyone’s experience is false or that any particular text is not accurate, I’m just suggesting that in order for an argument about a particular God to bear fruit, it helps to be playing ball in the same arena, we need some common ground, which can be incredibly hard to find. So, I don’t intend to offer an argument about any God here. Instead, I’d like to go in the complete opposite direction and suggest that the existence or nature of God is beside the point when it comes to growing spiritually in recovery.
What I do believe in is mystery. I know there are things about human existence that are unknown, and perhaps unknowable. I trust there is a component of human experience that exists beyond the physical, and I believe that this is the place where much of the work of recovery from addiction happens. I refer to it at times as ‘the spirit’, but another more secular term I like is ‘the psyche’. We could argue about this, too, but I am going to roll with it because I think it offers a broader playing field than the question of God’s existence, and offers more to work with when it comes to recovery.
Questions about God and the spirit are the oldest questions, and people much smarter than me have been trying to answer them since the beginning of time. All I have are questions that lead me back to mystery. Why do some people change and others don’t? Why did I become willing to do the work of recovery when others who have hit deeper bottoms than me don’t find that willingness? Why do I experience the world one-way, and you experience it another? We could boil this down to brain chemistry, but I think there is more going on here. I think when we get down to the nitty-gritty of perception and insight and subjectivity—all of those things that make up our individual experience of the world—there is more than just brain tissue and electricity and neurochemicals. I don’t think we can package all of this up into a neat little theory. I could be wrong. But even if human experience is just brain tissue and electricity and neurochemicals, like the question of God, it seems less important than the question of what really works in getting us back to life after addiction.
Addiction and the Spirit
My relationship with substances was one that existed in that grey area of perception and subjectivity; in that space we might call the psyche or the spirit. I came to addiction with a way seeing the world and my place in it, and substances allowed me a way to shift my perception in a sudden and powerful way. I have written about this in other posts (see “Out of Control, Into Reality” and “The Power of Storytelling”), but my first experience with substances was the first time I’d experienced a sudden shift on the level of the psyche. It was my first spiritual experience. Yes, I was impacted in a physical way, and my emotions changed as the result of my brain being bombarded by intoxicants, but what really drew me to the state of intoxication was the deeper sense of being stitched back together on the level of the spirit. The entire world looked and felt like a different place in my drunkenness.
The power of substances on my particular brain is one of those mysteries I mentioned earlier in this piece. Science can explain a great deal about the effect of substances on the human brain, but in all of the scientific reading I have done, nothing really speaks to the big picture psychic change I underwent when I started getting high. It’s difficult to pin down with words, but I trust some of you know what I’m talking about. The appeal of substances for me was rooted in their ability to change the way the world looked to me, and the way I experienced the world. And the interesting thing about recovery is that it has required a similar shift in perception. The difficulty is that I needed to find a real way to achieve this change without using substances to do it.
In recovery, when we talk about having a spiritual experience, we’re talking about is this kind of shift in perspective. For some, these awakenings happens suddenly, what we might call a white light or burning bush experience, for others it happens in an educational way, slowly over time as the mind clears and the world begins to come into focus. I have had it both ways. On many occasions, I’ve heard people talk about their desire for a burning bush. The thinking behind this desire seems to be centered in the idea that if they could just feel that sudden and overwhelming experience of the spiritual they would know once and for all the truth about God, and be forever inspired to stay on the spiritual path. Perhaps this happens for some people, but I’ve found that the overwhelming spiritual experience has been less powerful than the progress I’ve made in the day to day trudging into the mystery.
My personal white light came about a year into my recovery, after sharing my entire story with another person. When I say ‘entire’, I mean it. I spoke out loud all of my darkest secrets, all of my traumas, all of the things I’d done that I was ashamed of, all of the places where I was afraid. As I walked home, my legs stopped working right. I had to stop and sit down on the lawn of a nursing home. It literally knocked me off my feet. At this point, time seemed to stop. I felt something leave my body through my chest, a very physical experience, and something was different. That’s about all I can say about it.
It’s quite all right with me if you balk at this experience. Balking is exactly what I was touching on earlier when I spoke about the trouble with arguing about God or the spirit. These kinds of experiences are weak evidence. They are intensely personal, and I share it not to persuade you into any kind of belief, but to suggest that these experiences might actually be less useful than we think they are. The trouble for me has been two-fold. First off, after this experience, I thought I’d arrived, that I’d forever be inspired to stay clean and live a righteous life. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. I rode that experience for a year, maybe a little bit longer, but then the second trouble entered the picture. As time went on, I got so involved in trying to figure out what had happened to me that beauty and mystery faded away. In the ensuing years, I whittled that experience down to nothing.
This is the problem with intellectualizing and arguing about God and the spiritual. When I spend my time trying to figure out the nature of these things, they lose their power. I don’t know if it was God that created that experience, or if my brain shot off a bunch of chemicals that changed the way I felt, or if the catharsis of sharing my darkest stuff freed me of something. Maybe it was all three. Maybe it was something completely different. Ultimately, what I’ve finally come to terms with is that the mechanics of what happened don’t really matter. The important thing is that whatever happened that day changed me for the better.
Ritual and the Spirit
I have spent the last eight years trying to create another experience like the one I had that day after sharing my story, and all I have found is a long period of radio silence. At times this has been intensely frustrating, but this silence has shown me that the overwhelming white light spiritual experience is not necessary for spiritual growth or sustained recovery. In fact, the white light may not even be as valuable as we make it out to be. By relying on this single experience, I got a bit rusty when it came daily practices. Furthermore, an understanding of the nature of God is not necessary for growth. I have continued to grow, despite the fact that I often doubt the existence of God. Honestly, I’m not convinced we must believe in anything at all in order to make progress.
While I have never completely denied the existence of God, there have been periods in my recovery where I’ve leaned more toward disbelief. These moments have come when a strong belief has been challenged by an experience that forces me to confront the mistakes in my understanding. For me, it’s important that my beliefs align with my experience, and I’m willing to get rid of beliefs when they no longer reflect what is true. I’m always open to proving myself wrong, and I can say with confidence that I have been wrong about God at almost every turn. Despite my misunderstandings and periods of doubt, however, I have stayed clean and sober, and I believe this this boils down to one thing: whether or not my belief in God is strong, I continue to engage in daily rituals that allow me to participate in the spiritual.
My experience has shown me that when I meditate, cultivate compassionate thoughts, read a variety of religious and spiritual texts, listen to the wisdom of others, try to be of service, write, or wander through the outdoors, my perception of the world and myself changes and grows. These are a few of my personal rituals. I call them ‘rituals’ because I do them consistently, and I approach them with the belief that they allow me to tap into and engage with mystery. The thing I have discovered, which I am so grateful for, is that these things work for me whether I’m feeling a strong belief in God or none at all. What’s important is the action I take, and my willingness to be open to the idea that maybe there are things I don’t know and may never know. That’s all. The nature of God or the spirit, the mechanics of how any of this works, whether or not God or the spirit even exists is beside the point. I grow despite my lack of knowledge and understanding.
A lot of people are alienated from our recovery communities because we insist on impressing our beliefs upon them. It’s happened to me, and I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing to other people. I think there is a better approach. Instead of trying to explain my understanding of God, the nature of spirituality, or the mechanisms of spiritual growth, I try to encourage people to embrace mystery, and cultivate rituals that bring them toward it. I try to talk about what I do, rather than what I believe or why it works (most of the time I have no idea). I encourage people to do whatever bears them fruit. I don’t care if it’s going to church, reading tea leaves, burning sage, doing yoga, studying science or psychology, or anything else, as long as it helps their perspectives grow. If there is one requirement in recovery, I think this is it. Our perspectives must grow.
Embracing mystery is not an easy thing to do. It’s always more comfortable to have answers, even if those answers don’t truly encapsulate our entire experience. I have plenty of practice wrestling my world into clear answers, and the problem I have discovered is that it requires me to sacrifice the complexity of being alive in the world. For me, recovery has been a journey in the opposite direction. To truly engage with the spiritual, I need to learn to sit with mystery and ambiguity. I need to let go of clear answers. I need to learn to move toward the unknown, and to relax my grip whenever I think I’ve finally pinned something down.