Category Archives: Spirituality

Recovery requires the willingness to think differently … which is harder than you think

The process of recovery involves learning to think differently, which is much harder than most people realize. It’s not a matter of simply adding a few select pieces of new information onto what you already know.

That’s easy learning. Hard learning is when you’re forced to learn things that contradict what you already “know.”

It’s true that recovery involves taking in some new information that is easily assimilated, and fits into what you already believe to be true. If that were the bulk of it, recovery would be easy, and most everyone would be successful at it. But much of the learning in recovery forces us to evaluate what we’ve believed or assumed to be true … and it challenges us to re-think those ideas. It frequently challenges us to unlearn things, discarding the lies, distortions, and half-truths we’ve accepted — about ourselves, God, our past, other people, how life works, what makes us happy, etc.

We’re often told that recovery requires us to “trust the process.” This is just is another way of saying that we need to be willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were stupid, are in fact really wise and important. And we must become willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were wise and important, are, in fact actually stupid, and dangerous for our well-being.

How do we deal with new and contradictory information?

Does it make you uncomfortable to deal with information that contradicts what you previously thought was true? There are two kinds of people: (a) people who plug their ears to contradictory information, and refuse to change (b) people who are willing to accept the new information — after verifying its accuracy of course — and rethink their position. This is wisdom.

A principle I’ve gleaned from Chinese philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Zhu is that it’s healthy for living things to remain flexible and soft … like a green branch that is able to flex in the blowing wind. When things become old and hard, they become brittle … like a hardened tree branch that is liable to crack and break. That which is alive is soft and flexible, and that which is dead is rigid and brittle. Of course it’s not a perfect analogy, and it’s not the Gospel truth for all occasions, but there’s an important truth there.

There is a fine line between having firm convictions (good), and being rigid and closed to truth (bad). For people in recovery, this mental flexibility is essential. It’s really important to come to grips with the things you need to UN-learn about yourself, your beliefs, your ways of relating. For people in leadership, this mental flexibility is also essential. You have to be willing to learn, to see things in new ways, to challenge your assumptions. Otherwise, you will lose touch with the people around you, and the environment your organization exists in.

John Maynard Keynes once was challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

One of my favorite lines from Lao Tzu reads as follows (as translated by William Martin):

If we hold on to thoughts, judgments, and opinions,
our minds will be cluttered and useless.
If we hold on to possessions,
our minds will contract in fear of loss.
If we hold on to the opinions of others,
our minds will be confused and exhausted.
The only path to a satisfying life
lies in letting go.
– Lao Tzu

Not long ago, my wife and I moved from a five bedroom suburban home to a two bedroom apartment in the city of Chicago. We let go of a lot of possessions on the journey from 3000 square feet to 1200! But don’t feel sorry for us … we wanted to do this. Now empty-nesters, we felt it was time to simplify our lives.

Letting go of stuff has its challenges. It wasn’t painful to let our possessions go, but it was a lot of work. It took time and effort, but it was worth it. It was helpful and freeing.

The importance and value of “letting go” applies to more than just possessions. Lao-Tzu also suggests that it’s important to let go of “thoughts, judgments, and opinions.” I agree … but with a caveat. I think the caveat is implied in Lao-Tzu’s verse, but not stated directly: it’s important to let go of thoughts, judgments, and opinions that are no longer accurate or helpful.

Just as we don’t jettison possessions that we still use, enjoy, and need; so we don’t jettison ideas that we still see as true and important. That’s not what we’re after. What we need is to be thoughtful, reflective, and humble enough to recognize that as time goes and as we grow, our understanding deepens. And we find that some of the things we used to think were true and important are really not.

Let me put it another way: the process of growth — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — involves not only adding new insights and ideas, but letting go of old ones. It’s not only about “filling our cup” with new, clean water … it’s also about emptying our cup of the lukewarm, brackish water that is distasteful and unhealthy. Continue reading Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

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