A Truth Seeker in Recovery
An inconvenient truth
For many alcoholics that come to AA, a sometimes difficult truth awaits them at their first meeting. A relationship with God or a higher power is considered a central requirement to get over drinking. Moreover, newcomers soon learn that AA views alcoholism as an illness. It is regarded as progressive, incurable, and fatal. “Continue to speak of alcoholism as an illness, a fatal malady” (AA Big Book ‘Working with others’ p.104 First edition)
The plain truth is that since AA’s inception in 1935, countless atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers have been unable to benefit from the therapeutic value of AA. The heavy emphasis on God was too much for them. They come to AA with a desire to stop drinking. Upon reading the twelve steps, many walk right back out again.
The AA literature suggests that alcoholics won’t recover without the intervention of God or a higher power. One has to wonder how many end up dying because they feel unable to use the “God” word as an effective recovery tool. Are these members to be denied sobriety because they don’t believe in God?
The “God” word – An AA pamphlet
In recent years, AA itself has grown and matured. It has realized that its very survival depends on the need to reevaluate its traditional position regarding God. In 2018, AA’s General Service Office (GSO) in Great Britain published a pamphlet called The “God” word. It has now become AA conference-approved literature around the world.
This pamphlet was designed by agnostic AA members. Its purpose was to encourage newcomers that also identified as non-believers. The publication of this all-important piece of AA literature was a major turning point in the history of AA.
An agnostic reacts to Chapter 5 of the Big Book
The first time I listened to the “How it works,” reading as an agnostic, I knew I was in trouble. Bill W, the author of the Big Book, made several radical statements that made staying in AA almost impossible.
The first of these was “But there is one who has all power, – That one is God. May you find him now!” (BB Ch. 5 – “How it works” p.71 First edition)
The second quote, also made by Bill is ‘pertinent idea C’. (BB “How it works” p. 72 First edition) It reads: “God could and would if he were sought”
The reality of alcoholism
For over twenty-five years, I tried to recover in AA on a non-spiritual basis. This resulted in one relapse after another. With or without alcohol, my thinking and attitudes were so warped by years of addiction that I was heading toward self-destruction. Eventually, I had no alternative but to admit that Bill was right. Alcoholism is “a fatal malady.” (BB p.104 First edition) Could he have also been right when describing alcoholism as a “Spiritual malady”?(BB p.64)
In recovery, the compulsive pursuit of sex, power, and money didn’t work to keep me sober. Talk therapies also failed. There had to be another way. I was so full of, resentment, anxiety, and self-pity that I kept reaching for the first drink for relief.
“Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically” (BB “How it works” p. 77 First edition)
Pertinent idea C – (Big Book p. 60 4th Edition)
I stared at pertinent idea C in despair. After so many failed attempts, I began to suspect that I wasn’t going to make it in the fellowship. The implication was shocking for someone who didn’t believe in an unseen deity. Was it true that only a relationship with God could help me? If it was, then I was a lost cause. Mentally and emotionally, I was deteriorating even though I wasn’t drinking.
Reluctantly, I accepted that I was a ‘dry drunk. This is an expression you often hear at meetings. It describes untreated alcoholism. It was a dreadful way of trying to live sober without the anesthesia of alcohol! Very slowly, having tried everything else to fix myself, the truth was staring me in the face. I had failed to get well on a non-spiritual basis.
A game changer
One of the most important events in my AA journey was realizing what pertinent idea C was actually saying. It states that “God could and would if he were sought,” It does not say ‘if he were found.’ There it was in black and white on p 60 of the Big Book. I was amazed I didn’t see it sooner!
It was my first “get out of jail” card as an agnostic in AA. According to the way Bill worded pertinent idea C, as long as I was willing to seek a spiritual solution, I would be saved. Then, I had an even more powerful revelation. It occurred to me that I had been a seeker since early adolescence.
The search for a sense of wholeness and connection began on the day I started drinking. By the time I was a teenager, I had to find a way to dull the pain I was in. The deprivation of growing up in a dysfunctional family left emotional scars. Feelings of loneliness and emptiness were overwhelming. Escape from this tortured inner world became my primary purpose.
“As we understood him”
As a chronic alcoholic, the way in which steps three and eleven are worded also saved my life. Thanks to Jim Burwell, both these steps are qualified with “As we understood him.” Jim was an early AA member and a militant atheist. After much heated debate, Jim convinced Bill to add ‘as we understood him’ to these two steps. This was another “get out of jail card.”
I could now use an AA group as a higher power (12 &12 page 27) – The acronym Group Of Drunks was highly effective as a substitute for God. I was someone who was unable to keep things simple. It took Good Orderly Direction (the counsel of an AA sponsor), to explain how simple step three actually was. “Step three,” he said, “is just a decision to work through the remaining steps.”
New Age spirituality and the holy men of India
Even before I came to AA, I had always been interested in New Age spirituality. It offered a concept of spirituality that I found attractive. This was the idea of ‘universal consciousness’ that connected all sentient life. This resonated with me much more so than any idea of a biblical Father God. Gradually, I discovered that a belief in a monotheistic God is not a requirement to recover from alcoholism.
I had always been fascinated by the mystics of India. I heard tales of holy men with supernatural powers. Truth seekers from the west reported having consciousness-expanding experiences.
A spiritual tourist
Before embarking on the journey, I read two books that blew my mind. One was “The spiritual tourist” by Mick Brown. The other was “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. Whilst reading these books, I was introduced to two new ideas that I had never encountered. These were expressions that described the very highest states of spiritual development.
The first was the word “enlightenment.” The second was “self-realization.” The idea of becoming ‘enlightened’ was most intriguing. It was the polar opposite of how I was since childhood and as a practicing drunk. Historically, my experience of reality had always been dark and negative.
The second expression, ‘self-realization’ was also attractive. When I first got sober, I had a very fragile sense of identity. The authentic self was so deeply buried under thick layers of fear and denial that I didn’t have any sense of self. I had no idea who or what I really was.
Freedom from the “bondage of self”
The longer I stayed in AA, the more apparent it became what a self-centered alcoholic I was. Perhaps becoming a truth-seeker would free from the “bondage of self”? (BB “How it works” p. 75 first edition)
Any spiritual practice that took me closer to freedom from the bondage of self had to be worth a trip to India. My imagination was fired! I wanted to do what Mick Brown had done. After reading his book, I decided that I too would become a spiritual tourist. The promise of happiness through the spirituality of the Far East deserved further investigation.
A step closer to a non-God-centered spiritual awakening
Did I find God in India? No, but I did learn something else. It was a very valuable learning curve, for someone who was chronically self-centered. It was the spiritual practice of service to others. Especially in the ashrams in India, service was seen as a tangible path to spiritual growth. I learned that service to others helped to dissolve my chronic self-obsession. It was the constant preoccupation with self that made life so unmanageable.
“Our very lives as ex-problem drinkers depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs” (BB “There is a solution” p. 20)
Despite remaining an unbeliever, service to others was a vital step in the direction of a spiritual awakening that didn’t require a belief in God. When I returned from India, I tried to continue the practice of service in the fellowship. I began to feel much happier as a result and felt a real sense of fulfillment from service commitments in AA.
Using the fellowship itself and the experience of a sponsor as powers greater than me, the twelve steps gave me the greatest gift of all. The gift of myself! The spiritual principles of service to others were more effective than years of therapy.
As a spiritual tourist, I learned what spirituality could mean to an agnostic alcoholic. What I discovered was a total paradox. To find myself, I had to lose myself in service to others.
Spiritual gems from India
I hope you like these little spiritual gems I bought back from the ashrams of India.
“Hands that serve are holier than lips that pray.”
“Service is the highest spiritual discipline. Prayer and meditation, or knowledge of scripture and Vedanta (Holy Scriptures of India), cannot help you to reach your goal as quickly as service can. Service has a double effect. It extinguishes the ego and gives bliss”
Isn’t that what the central message of AA is all about? To stay happily sober, aren’t we encouraged to offer “love and service” to the alcoholic who still suffers?
With the support of Danny D