Category Archives: Spirituality

The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen others Continue reading The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

One of our challenges today is that we are hyper-aware of all the problems and crises going on around us, which creates a heightened sense of anxiety. We are inundated by frightening and negative news stories, which serve as reminders of all the things that can go wrong.

So now young parents are so frightened by the prospect of an inattentive — or predatory — babysitter that they refuse to go out. Young people are so fearful of their relationships falling apart that they hesitate to make long term commitments. In our work or ministry involvements, we are so concerned about potential problems that we over-function, so that “all the bases are covered.” When we lay in our beds trying to get to sleep (or back to sleep when we wake up at 3AM), our minds spin with possible problems and worst case scenarios about our children, our finances, our marriage, our church, our work, and our world.

It’s hard to just relax, and trust that things are going to be okay! And yet, that’s exactly what we need to learn to do.

Without an internal sense of peace, a deep awareness that no matter what happens, we are going to be okay, our anxiety will create all kinds of problems. It will drive all kinds of bad behaviors, like trying to micromanage situations, not trusting people, refusing to take risks, and turning to addictive substances or behaviors to try to sooth ourselves.

For many addicts, it was precisely this issue — trying to soothe anxiety — that started us down the path. It’s also well-known that stress and anxiety are significant and common triggers for relapse.

This is precisely where the beliefs we profess — about a God who will care for and protect us, who will work all things together for our good — need to be internalized. Continue reading God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Continue reading The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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Gratitude: Take This Action Now to Speed Your Recovery

gratitude1“In our daily lives, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy.” – Albert Clarke

Thanksgiving Day, 2015

As light is to darkness, so gratitude is to addiction. Gratitude chases away addiction. It’s hard for addiction to thrive in the presence of gratitude. While gratitude is not a magic cure-all, it functions like a deep breath of fresh air to the soul.

Whether or not you are reading this during the Thanksgiving Holiday, my invitation/challenge is the same: some time today or tomorrow (it seems to work best in early morning or later at night), sit down with your journal and write down ten to fifteen things you are grateful for. Be specific. I have more to say about this task, but before we get to that, listen to what Alan Cohen has to say about this:

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw on its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything. This is the most powerful attitude to adopt, for there are blessings in everything.” – Alan Cohen

As you think about the ten to fifteen things you are grateful for, be sure to list one or two things that have been hard … things that you would not have considered blessings at first. I will guess that you have had a few “blessings in disguise” this year. What are they? By thinking about the unfolding of your life in these terms, new perspectives can emerge that can really help your happiness — and your recovery.

gratitude2

“If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.” – Harold Kushner

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” – Helen Keller

I love that last quote by Helen Keller! Practicing gratitude, even in the midst of the difficult things in our lives, strengthens us. It helps us to learn contentment, a state of being that addiction robs us of.

So get out your pen and paper (or computer), and make the list. Maybe set a goal for making a list like this once a week, or several times a week. There was a time I did this every night. I did this for a period of several months. It was really helpful, but I found that doing it every night diminished its power. I think it works better if we do gratitude lists once a week or every few days. If you haven’t been doing this regularly … please start! It will change your life.

“Gratitude is a form of wisdom. It is patient, loving, hopeful, and rigorously honest. It denies nothing, and it overlooks nothing. It looks reality full in the face and says, ‘This is true, this is me, this is my situation, and I have the opportunity to build from here. This is my starting point, and I will succeed.” – Phil Humbert

 

 

 

How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”

memories
Coming to terms with memories of past trauma is a core challenge for many people
— and especially for people in recovery. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more hopeful I am about the prospect of healing in this critical area of life.

Bessel Van der Kolk is medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In a really helpful interview with Krista Tippet in the On Being radio show, he makes the intriguing observation that, while most of our memories change over time (the details get fuzzy, the meanings we make of them change), for some reason, intense traumatic memories stay fixed.

By the way, if you doubt that memories change, just get together with your siblings some time, and start reminiscing about your experiences when you were kids. You will likely notice how differently your siblings remember things that happened than you do. It’s not that they have the same memory as you, but from a different vantage point … they often remember the same “event” very differently, with different details. It might even seem that there were two different events that happened, like you existed in parallel universes.

Over time their memory of that event changed, as did yours. The memories just changed in different directions. It’s likely that if you had captured the event on video camera in its entirety, you’d find that it happened differently than the “exact memory” either of you had.

Why do our memories change … and what does this mean?

Why is this? Why is it that our memories change? And why is it that traumatic memories don’t? And what can we do to “heal from” — or at least come to terms with — these traumatic memories?

This is important because unresolved early life trauma is often a key piece of the addiction puzzle. Many people develop the habit of reaching for what becomes an “addictive” substance or behavior as a way of coping with pain that stems from early trauma. As life goes on, experiences trigger that old pain, and we in turn keep reaching for that old addictive substance or behavior as a way to cope with the pain. Dealing with that unresolved trauma is essential if lasting recovery is going to happen.

Recent brain research offers some interesting insights about memory that may help us understand how healing happens. The most significant is this: Our brains are not computers that file “memories” away in a certain place on a hard drive.

Our brains do not retrieve memories …

our brains reconstruct memories.

They do this by taking fragments of data that we might think of as impressions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are located in various parts of our “brain” (note that neurons are not always located in our head) and then pulling them together to create a memory.

Continue reading How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”

Learning from your addictive thoughts

thoughtful reflectiveSome time ago, I listened to a podcast about recovery and spirituality by Krista Tippet, on what was then called “Speaking of Faith (now it’s called “On Being“). In the interview – which unfortunately is no longer available – she talked with a Native American leader and healer about his recovery from alcoholism. He talked about the importance – in his own recovery, and with others that he works with as a healer – of what he called “listening to your addiction to find out what it has to teach you.”

My colleague Mark Laaser at Faithful and True works with a similar idea when he talks about the important spiritual question of “What are you thirsty for?” as part of recovery. The way he talks about it, this question has to do with the deep needs and longings of our soul. We get pulled into addiction in its various forms, because the feeling we get from the addictive substance or activity fills a need. It soothes something that is agitated, excites something that feels dead and empty, makes us feel valued and significant, etc., etc.

Laura Chapman recently wrote me about an article she wrote with Lance Dodes about “The Surprising Value of Addictive Thoughts.” Here’s what she says about the article:

Continue reading Learning from your addictive thoughts