Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween -- A Scary Time or A Time of the Spirit?

This is Halloween: a time of spookiness and scary stories, horror movies and dire safety warnings.  What we miss or forget in all this get-the-costume-get-the-candy rushing about is what we’re celebrating and where it comes from. Oh, the religious right will try to remind us: They ban Halloween because it’s pagan, devil-worship, evil etc.  But even they forget their heritage on this dark holiday.

Halloween or some version of Souls Day Eve is celebrated all over the world and came to us when the Gaelic immigrants –Irish to us –came to America. In the same way that some places in the world Christmas is still a sacred holiday, there are some where All Hallows Eve is a solemn and austere time too. 

Halloween as practiced here, is really a combination of Druid practice with a touch of other religious beliefs thrown in. This weekend as we help our kids to dress up and wear masks and we carve pumpkins and eat candy corn we’re following ancient customs.  We wink at the Druidic past that underlies Irish Catholicism. It’s a part of our history that’s so easy to forget.

When the first settlers came to the New World there was no Halloween; It was only after the Irish immigrants came bringing their old customs that the ancient Druidic and Celtic customs joined our world. Bonfires and harvest suppers –even celebrated in churches –come directly from the dark night woods and the bare harvested fields. A nod, not so slight, to our belief in the nature gods in our midst.

As with many other holidays –and almost all Christian observances—new religious rites were deliberately laid on top of ancient pagan festivals. Halloween emerged from an act in the 8th Century when the All Saints Chapel in Rome was dedicated. That new holy day suppressed one of the oldest Celtic festivals called Samhein celebrated on the last day of October. Samhein celebrated harvest.

In Druidism, the ancient Celtic religion—underlying English, Irish and Scottish culture –the new year began November 1st so our Halloween was their New Year’s Eve.

Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. I think that’s true for many of us. Hence the arrival of so many ghost and afterlife TV shows and classes on talking to the dead. It’s a demographic phenomenon as much as spiritual. We baby boomers are losing family and closing in on our own deaths, so like everything else we touch we want to manage this unmanageable part of life too. We are a generation that has always been able to stay in touch. And we still expect to even with our loved ones who have died.

That’s what this holiday is really about. There is a belief that in the days near the end of October the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those who have died. 
A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

This isn’t a very American idea of death. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process. I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Bedevilments and The Promises

Earlier this week I wrote about the Step Five Promises and the realization that we do not have to wait until the ninth step to begin to see and feel our lives changing. But another thing I learned about in the Big Book Step Study that I attended last month is The Bedevilments.

Yes, possibly archaic language but when you read them you’ll see there is nothing old about this. I could identify immediately with this list of symptoms. They are the indicators that all is not well in my thinking. The Bedevilments can be part of our lives-- whether we are drinking or not—and they can still be part of us even after many years of recovery. Don’t I know?

Here is what it says on page 52 of The Big Book:

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.

Isn’t that also a perfect definition of “unmanageability”?

What struck me is that this list of “Bedevilments” is the very opposite of The Promises. It could almost be a before and after picture of life before and after a program of spiritual development.

Reading the Bedevilments was pretty humbling and also a great incentive to keep on working on my recovery.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Step Five Promises

One of the things that I love about twelve-step recovery is that the learning never stops. There is a just layer after layer of personal growth of course, but there is also layer after layer of understanding the program and how our healing happens.

Consider this: I attended that great Big Book Step Study a few weeks ago and learned a new way to work steps six and seven. It turns out they are not passive—not the “wish and go” steps as I’d treated them before.

Then too, at that same workshop, I learned about The Step 5 Promises. Yes, I always knew—and heard read—The Promises that we can read after Step Nine –we read them at one of my regular meetings. But did you know there are changes promised to us after Step 5 as well? Well, maybe you did.

But take a look at page 75 in your Big Book. On that page, right after a description of how to do a fifth step comes this promising paragraph:

“Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall away from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have spiritual experience. The feeling that the drink problem has disappeared will often come strongly. We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.”

Those are eight more promises that we can start to experience even before we get to Step Nine. Isn’t that great incentive to work the steps. It is inspiring me. I especially want those “fears to fall away”. So I’m digging deeper.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Perfectionism and Alcoholism

Are you the perfect alcoholic? I was and I am. This article about woman, perfectionism and alcoholism hit me dead on and I felt every bell of recognition ring. I drank (and ate) to not feel and so much that I did not want to feel was my sense of not-good-enough-ism--and that of course comes from perfectionism.

It came into recovery with me and I struggle to this day. I even want my recovery to be perfect--tho I say I don't and in my heart do not--but still...take a look.

And take a look at this powerful article and share it with women you know--in and out of recovery:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Spiritual Pilates from the Twelve Steps

I have been in twelve-step recovery for thirty years. While I know my life is transformed there are those days—and weeks—when I think, “God, am I ever gong to get this?” And yes, it is about God, and my complaint is a kind of prayer.

But yesterday I had an insight into this work that we do. I have been doing yoga and Pilates for several years now and most days in a Pilate’s class I think, “This is as hard as ever.” And “When am I going to get this scoop or this lift or this inverted pose?” But then later I look at my body or I feel myself moving or running or dancing and I think, “My God, my body really is different.”

I think it’s like that with the steps of recovery. Recently I participated in a Big Book Step Study and I did steps six and seven with a group and learned a new process of daily prayer to remove each defect—quite specifically—and praying for the very specific opposite characteristic.

For example, I now pray “Please remove my resentment toward X and replace it with forgiveness and compassion for X today. And then I invite myself to behave –this day—as if that is true. And I go thru a pretty long list of people and defects naming specific names and most importantly—naming the specific behavior I’ll practice this day—that represents the opposite of that defect. It’s a lot of work. But the repetition and the specificity seem to be what makes a difference.

Doing steps six and seven in this highly specific—and out loud—way keeps it very real and very active. This is not the old “pray for your defects to be removed” and move on method that I embraced for years. This is work. And it’s uncomfortable.

In that way it’s like a daily practice of yoga or Pilates. Small muscles, small movements, tiny, tiny incremental changes and the sense of, “This is no easier”…except that very slowly something is changing.

In the same way that my body slowly changes, almost without notice, my thinking and my heart are slowly changing too. Our Twelve Steps are spiritual Pilates and I am a grateful student.

Monday, October 14, 2013

As Kingfishers Catch Fire....God in Us....We are God's Will

Here is a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, cartainly a Christian poet, whose work is all about the inwardness of our lives. When I read this poem in class the other night I was reminded of our familiar question, "What is God's will for me?" And how so many of us in recovery--even in later recovery --struggle to know what to be when we grow up. And too, I and maybe you, seem to always feel the need to be  better than I am today. This sonnet quiets those questions, and I feel peace each time I read it. Hopkins tells us--in such sensuous language--that how we glorify God is by being exactly who we are. If I could just hold this---such sweet relief.

Sonnet 34--As Kingfishers catch fire:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came. 
Í say móre: the just man justices; 
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Big Debate About Books in AA

For years we were admonished to not talk about “non Conference-approved literature” in meetings. We were cautioned to not quote from our self-help books or psychology texts and certainly never from the sacred text of any organized religion.

And so, being the contrary and mostly irreverent recovering people that we are, we do mention those books we are fond of but with a caveat or preface that goes like this, “I know we’re not supposed to talk about non-conference approved literature but…” and then we quote from our favorite self-help books, psychology texts or The Bible.

I’ve done that too, sometimes apologetically and sometimes boldly and often just to give credit where credit is due. My intervention, the resource that saved my life was Robin Norwood’s book, “Women Who Love Too Much”---that book directed me to AA and OA and Alanon and ACOA. I owe her and, I think, we owe all the other writers of self-help and spiritual literature that help people to find recovery.

But there is another reason why we need to keep the bookshelves open and our discussion of literature a bit more user friendly and that is because the people we quote most often—the founders of AA and the early members who created our organization—all depended on “non-conference approved” literature. Think about it—there was no conference, and there was no “recovery literature” for most of their years.

Go back and take a look at what kinds of things those early members were reading. Most of it would be pretty cringe-worthy today. They read the Christian Bible, a lot of William James psychology texts; especially his, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and they read a lot of motivational literature—what today we call “self-help.”  And perhaps the most important book that early AA’s read was written by a rabbi.

“Peace of Mind” written by Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman was the book that Bill Wilson and Bob Smith leaned on in their early years of creating AA. Bill and Bob gave copies of Rabbi Liebman’s book to their AA members, buying 20 copies at a time and handing them out at the “house meetings” where AA’s worked the steps.

For many years, “Peace of Mind” was America’s best-selling nonfiction book. You can still purchase  “Peace of Mind”. Try your local used book store or Amazon. If you love the Big Book you’ll be fascinated by the ideas and the familiar suggestions in Liebman’s bestseller.

An example is Chapter Five, which is titled, “Fear Wears Many Masks” where we are cautioned about “economic insecurity” and the neurotic “fear of people”. You will also feel the echo of that period’s cultural climate –post-Depression and the rise of the industrial in the Liebman’s language, and you’ll recognize the rhythms and tones that we know today in our Big Book and the step book, “The Twelve & Twelve”.

It is a luxury and a pleasure in later recovery to open our minds to many and all sources of help—those of current medicine, psychology and addiction studies, and also to the resources from years ago that led to the programs of recovery that we cherish today.