Archive for the 'Al-Anon' Category

Letting it pass through you

June 22, 2014

Sometimes during an argument, the other person hurls an insult.  I don’t know how it is for biological parents, but adoptive parents sometimes get from their children during the heat of an argument, “You’re not even my real mother.”  And you take it for what it is, part clumsy expression of fact (that I am not their first mother), part expression of pain and frustration (maybe even powerlessness), part attempt to penetrate their opponent’s defenses.  And you let it pass through you.

The relationship, as I see it, between addiction and spiritual connection is that some people are open in some ways and not in others, and they prematurely encounter a spiritual equivalent to “You’re not even my real mother.”  It may well be that “boundaries, strong identity, impulse control, and deep God experience” were lacking (that’s from today’s Daily Meditation from Father Rohr), but I think those are secondary to the problem of encountering a difficult wave of spiritual energy while, on the one hand, not being simple and  innocent enough (to allow it to pass through naturally), and, on the other hand, not being spiritually (re-)developed enough (to allow it to pass through consciously), either.  I think the addiction comes from the dynamic of the energy encountered — it is an energy that offers a rush of pleasure but at a very high long-term cost.  Very innocent people I think never get caught up in the energy because they are oblivious to it, but people with a little less innocence may stop to take a look, to see what it is, maybe they even try to resist the energy or tussle with it, or maybe they become frightened by it.  In any case, they interact with it instead of letting it pass through them.  Without a really well developed capacity for removing the ego from that encounter, the person becomes sucked into a cycle of succumbing to short-term pleasure and long-term pain.  To get out of that dynamic, one has to remove one’s “hang-ups” and learn detachment, and those are helpful things in their own right.  That’s why in Al-Anon, the program for relatives and friends of alcoholics, one sometimes hears gratitude expressed for having gone on the journey of growth that the alcoholism of another has impelled them to go on — it can be a painful means to a very helpful result.

My point is that I think addiction may actually be the result of a spiritual encounter that went awry, not because there was anything wrong with what was encountered, but because of the person’s state of mind.  In that respect, I agree with the Daily Meditation, it’s just that I think there is no surprise that people who fall into addiction have a keen spiritual sense — it’s what got them into the situation in the first place — it was keen but not keen enough.  I also don’t think it was “aimed in the wrong direction” so much as it was unable to process safely what it encountered.  I have the impression that the strand of belief that Jesus dealt with something spiritually on the behalf of others may arise out of some notion of protecting people from this pitfall.  But I think in the end we all need to develop all the tools, including those that would allow us to extricate ourselves on our own (with spiritual help) from this particular pitfall.  Trying to deal with how people do get seriously stuck in this pitfall should not be confused conceptually with roping off the pitfall and putting up permanent detour signs.  Otherwise we end up with the bogeyman under the bed, with the part of the map labeled “There be monsters here,” when in fact there is no bogeyman or monster, only an energy difficult to process.  And then we have the very real problem of having created the idea that there is a bogeyman.



April 24, 2014

I very much appreciated Richard Rohr’s reminder this morning that “Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired.”  That’s in today’s Daily Meditation.

Gita and I have talked about this, too — couldn’t do it without “letting go” and “turning it over.”

Now, I am perfectly prepared to believe that I could do this better.  I put up resistance (like a kid pushing the spinach to the side of their plate), I fret, I get ahead of myself, I try to get other people to act in a way to prevent a future problem (like trying to get them to correct, before it is filed, a tax return that has mistakes in it).

I think I see two additional issues, in addition to “letting go” and “turning it over,” but, as I said, I am prepared to discover the issue lies with me.

One is volume.

I just end up with too many things on my plate as a result of being open to and able to do caretaking.  The inflow can feel as if it exceeds my processor’s capacity.

The second is society’s (unreasonable) demands.

The two kind of intertwine.

I once heard someone say that she thought of the nursing home in which her mother lived as being like “one big alcoholic.”  She meant that the institution could be as difficult to deal with as a human alcoholic, and with similar patterns of behavior.  I’ve felt similarly about other institutions, including schools, hospitals, social services, the justice system.  Whether it’s damaging behavior by the institution to a loved one or demands from the institution on me (as a caretaker), it can feel as if what I am called upon to do exceeds the amount of energy I can give it without too much damage to myself.

It’s no secret that patients in hospitals and nursing homes who have caretakers of their own weighing in as case managers do better, get better care, etc.

So where to draw the line between detachment and involvement?

It’s not just the wisdom of knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, it’s also putting a boundary on how much of ourselves we can deploy without too much depletion.  Inflow from prayer and meditation certainly helps, but I think outflow can exceed inflow if care is not taken.  On the other hand, there is an instinct or desire to try to prevent or ameliorate suffering of others.  Part of that is wrapped up in trying to avoid pain — something we are encouraged to do by our norms and our survival instinct.  I think there is also a part of helping others in some situations that is from pressure from social norms more directly, regardless of where we think we should be drawing lines and regardless of inner guidance about where to observe boundaries, of what’s ours to do and what’s not.

My sense is that we have with our current social organization shifted around responsibility like a hot potato or like a shell in a game in which something is being hidden beneath one of a number of inverted cups.  Some techniques we seem to me to use to do this include, for example, narrowly defining our piece of the project and expecting others to do more;  littering, on the justification that one little piece won’t hurt;  setting systems up in such a way that requires a person without authority or control to have responsibility.

I don’t know if human free will can “clog up the plumbing” of the system of human interaction and society, or whether it’s the case that any system we devise can work, so long as those who have to use it interface adequately with divine help.  But I admit that sometimes I think we have developed a system that doesn’t work, especially for the long run.

For me, the questions are relevant to the issue of how much better a situation can be expected to go — because I am often hearing from others that things could be better if I just _______.  I have run through a fair number of _______, and I am here to say they do not necessarily work as advertized.  Maybe this is why 12-step programs refrain from advice and why the most general helpful source I found after Willy died was actually Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, although Willy was not a qualifier of mine.

At any rate, I conclude for now that working on my part of the equation, so long as I do it gently, can’t hurt, but that I should also be wary of assuming that optimizing my own part will result in things going better in other ways.

Trying to help

April 7, 2014

How do we help people who feel miserable?  Many of them want us to hold their misery for them.  It’s too heavy for most of us, and it’s not a good idea for us to try to hold it;  if we receive the misery, we need to be able to pass it on to the universe for disposal.

Therapists, Reiki masters, clergy, all kinds of people know how to do something like this.

But if the miserable person still has no way of ceasing to produce feelings of misery, the situation has not been sufficiently addressed.  The person feeling misery needs to find a different way to intersect with the world, a different emotional posture.

Some people find such a posture through cognitive behavioral therapy, others through 12-step programs, others through religious creeds, and I’m sure some people pick up another attitude from other sources, even from individuals or from literature.

I think part of what happens when a person is developing an attitude in which misery is not being regenerated constantly is that the person becomes looser and more open.  This helps negative feelings, when they do arise, become diluted.  And eventually, I think, the person is able to more directly and efficiently dump their load of miserable feelings onto the universe — they figure out how to work the dump truck  so that the universe and not a human interlocutor receives the load.

I think that’s important.  Our misery should not be passed around like a hot potato or spewed out into the environment like greenhouse gases.  And people who just want to dump their loads onto me constantly, happily refilling their trucks and driving them over and over again to my place, well, to them I would try to communicate as gently as possible (and sometimes the gentleness I’m sure does not come through) that I can’t participate in that.  I wish they would also examine why they are not motivated to find an alternative to refilling their truck.

Longing for love

January 19, 2014

There’s longing for love and then there’s longing for Love — yearning for the romantic love of one’s life to walk in and desire for spiritual union with the divine within us and outside of us, respectively.

The two can get confused, or maybe they are simply the same urge experienced at different stages of development and expressed according to the vocabulary with which the person is familiar.

But, maybe because the anniversary of my father’s death is in a week, I am thinking that romantic love with another person may be a decoy for deeper love with the divine.  He seemed to come to me after he died, confused about where he needed to go, and I redirected him — “No, not my light, but that bigger light in the distance; go with those nice folks who will help you go where it serves for you to go.”

I think I’ve gotten people who are actually searching for, yearning for, God, getting distracted by the kind of love I apparently can provide.  Again, “No, it’s not my love, but that bigger Love, for which you are really searching, and if you confuse what you really want, with having a relationship with me, it won’t end well, for either of us.”  I have these suspicions, I think, less because I am looking to flatter myself and more because I get so drained by those sorts of relationships;  I don’t have infinite love available on demand without pause the way God does, and when people expect that from me, I get exhausted.  That’s what gives me the heads-up that something is amiss.  Such a misplaced relationship also tends to play out as devastation in my personal life, as well as this emotional, spiritual, and physical depletion of me.  (Al-Anon talks about this pattern arising in relationships affected by the disease of alcoholism, too.)  I notice what’s going on more quickly when the love sought is not romantic, but eventually I even recognize it there — and I think it’s harder for me to resist, too, when the love is romantic, although I’m not sure why — romantic love can be quite seductive, I guess.  Maybe it’s got a quality found in substances that encourage a Pavlovian response or an addictive response.  As I said, there seems to me to be some connection here with patterns found in situations affected by the disease of alcoholism — maybe people so affected are looking in their own way for God, too, and get waylaid by a more immediate but destructive substitute.

My point is that, if people are looking for Love, could they please direct their attention to where they can find the supply they need?

For my own part, I need to recognize earlier what’s going on for what it is, and to find a way to redirect the person searching, preferably in a way that also results in a relationship with that person that works for both of us.

Hearing what is needed

September 16, 2013

Here’s another example of what I was saying is a little like coming up with different answers to a game of Charades.

People who go to support group meetings may talk about hearing what they need when they attend such a meeting, whether it is read from a text or is a bit of sharing from another member.  They may even attribute it to forces greater than themselves.   It, I think, is taken as an indication that they are open to finding the advice and tools they need to feel and function better.

Then there’s the phenomenon of people believing they are receiving special messages directed at them through television broadcasts.  That is categorized as a symptom of disease.

One difference between the two cases, I think, is the posture of the ego.  In the first case, the person is less focused on being special and more focused on finding help.  In the second, I think, from what I’ve read, it’s more about gathering feedback to further a drama in which they are in the lead role.

(Of course, there are self-help television broadcasts intended for members in the audience to, with their conscious selves, feel addressed as part of a general audience.)

So I can see the “hearing a message” motif in both contexts.  Outsiders may believe that in both cases, selective hearing and peculiar processing is going on, I don’t know.  (I’ve heard that some people think Al-Anon is a cult.)  But people in the first context actually find they feel and function better as the result of applying these “messages” to their lives.  They may say, “I heard what I needed to hear” — which maybe captures the point:  they did hear something, and regardless of why they heard it, it was helpful.  Therein may lie the grace, if one is inclined to see grace, but not see it in “messaging.”

Unfortunately, people who hear TV broadcasts directed at them personally tend to be distressed and not functioning well.  (At least that seems to be true of the ones who are written up.)  But I submit that they are in a way just “misunderstanding” a technique that is not inherently unhealthful, that they are like someone guessing incorrectly in a game of Charades.  Perhaps some damage to their ego structure is resulting in their misperception.

The dangers of teaching

April 14, 2013

I come from a family in which most people taught, either throughout their lives or for a time, myself included.  My maternal grandmother would interrupt my grandfather leading the family seder at Passover, to explain, in English, to my sister and me, what it was all about.  I enjoyed it.  I loved listening to her explanations — and to her stories, to her explanations of all the things, including from their travels, in their apartment in Brooklyn.  (If you seemed to really like something, it went home with you, unless it was already connected to someone else, like the “goody-goody gumdrop” candy dish, which, I think, was somehow connected to my uncle.)  I loved her pot roast, too.

So I feel as if I grew up in an environment in which teaching was a positive experience.  It was for me in school, too.

But in regard to some kinds of subject matter, I think there are dangers.  With regard to some kinds of knowledge, a little of it can be a dangerous thing.  The biggest danger, I believe, lies in explaining something that has to be experienced first or otherwise the experience will be influenced and distorted by the explanation, or in allowing students to substitute intellectual understanding of the concept for experience of the thing explained, and, as a further consequence of this, to make the direct experience more difficult to have.  Sometimes I think teachers can only really preach safely to the choir.

The choir may well need the teaching once it has experienced what it has experienced.  But I sometimes think that rather than have been surprised, or dismayed, by how his book Life of the Beloved found its audience with those already with faith, Henri Nouwen could have seen it as confirmation of a principle of the universe.

Do some people have faith experiences as the result of reading books or listening to lectures?  I don’t know.  I think the spark could be transmitted through such media to an already receptive student.  But I would guess it would be something attached to the teaching that would be the source of ignition — some passion born of the teacher’s own faith — not the intellectual content.

But maybe I’m just generalizing from my own spot in the universe.  What I do know, is that just as advising others on their romances is a dangerous business, so, too, is teaching spirituality.  It’s not that the teachings are wrong, though sometimes they are or are slightly off, it’s more about how they will be understood or used by the audience — that, too, has to be taken into account.  To my mind, the name of the game is to get everybody to participate, to see for themselves, not to get everybody to see our own souvenirs from our experience and be able to describe them back.

How do I think we get others to participate?  “Attraction rather than promotion.”  (I’m quoting from Al-Anon’s 11th Tradition.)  And then, I think, we share as equals, regardless of how many merit badges we may have.  That’s the humility that keeps us open and receptive to hearing clearly, I think.

I get a lot out of hearing what spiritual teachers teach.  But it is confirmation and/or clarification of what I already know through some other means.  How I came to know was by following the bread crumbs in my life.

“Our primary spiritual aim”

February 24, 2013

There’s a tradition in twelve-step work about not introducing other causes into the work, “lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim”  (that’s from the way it’s expressed in Al-Anon’s traditions, Al-Anon being the organization for the family and friends of alcoholics).

And that’s how I see human beings in general — being diverted from our primary spiritual aim, by problems of money, property, and prestige.  When the two are in conflict, our spiritual lives and our appetitive wants, we should at least take notice before we assume we know how to resolve the conflict.

There’s a huge tradition of giving it all away to pursue spiritual concerns.  There are examples of doing this in part, such as Father Henri Nouwen’s turn to pastoral care at communities caring for disabled persons.  He left activities like teaching at Harvard and Yale to do something at least outwardly less prestigious.

I think there must be a real difficulty in abandoning a pulpit, including a bully pulpit or media pulpit.  “I can reach a lot of people from here and teach them, influence them, affect them,” I’m imagining people are thinking.

Two problems:  what are you teaching and how ready is your audience to hear?

That work requires both speaker and people to make their own individual progress.  And, mirabile dictu, when they do, the public teaching for money, property, and prestige becomes much less critical.

I woke up this morning thinking about a song by Ralph McTell called “Tous les animaux sont tristes.”  I’m not sure it’s on YouTube or I would link to it.  But it’s what led me to the thoughts above:  no one wants to hear that repetitive plain bird’s chant.

In the song, the man shoots the bird through her heart.  She hadn’t flown away because he had fed her.  I don’t know whether the bird needed to have faith that she could find food elsewhere.  Maybe she was supposed to stay.  But when I feel tempted to stay when I am being fed but it’s not in my best interests, the lesson for me is often not capitulating to enabling the other person not to do something difficult by taking up the slack in the situation myself.  Growing up I was groomed to pick up the slack for other people, and it’s a habit I’m trying to put aside.  The hardest version of this for me is when I think the other person will feel abandoned if I go.  That probably comes from having felt (and been) abandoned myself.

The chant, for me, is self-awareness.  If the teaching is not rooted in self-awareness, I don’t think it will suffice.  And you can’t teach self-awareness without having enough yourself.

Post script:  I write with multiple audiences in mind.  Please “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say.


September 30, 2012

Richard removed two clogs from the left downspout on the front porch, one in each of the two elbows, yesterday morning.  (This Richard is the guy who cleans out the gutters and oils the wooden one in front.)

He tried to explain the difference between a gooseneck and an elbow — the downspout configuration has both — but I’m not sure I understood it.  We’re talking about the curved pieces, in the downspout configuration, that my carpenters used to track the porch architecture closely, in any event.

Clogs in a drainage system resonates for me strongly, and needing someone to remove one and then, it turns out, two, resonates, too.

I think we have drainage systems for dispelling our emotional burdens.  I think we try not to just pass them off to someone else who can’t handle them either.  When we can’t process them ourselves, sometimes it’s as if there’s a clog.  Bitterness can be a clog, I think.  So also can be self-pity and those mutations of hurt feelings that some of us wrap around ourselves like a cozy blanket.

Somebody recommended Al-Anon to me years ago.  It’s for families and friends of alcoholics.  The first meeting I attended — two blocks away from my house the next morning — brought such relief.  It lifted both my sense of responsibility for the alcoholic’s behavior (and not being able to control or cure it as society seemed to be telling me I should be able to) and a sense of self-pity that was getting in my way.

Clogs can re-form.  I have to work at not closing up, at letting things go, at keeping on moving, at not spinning a web of self-pity or bitterness or blame.  The hardest thing for me at this point is dealing with more loss, with trajectories that don’t seem to change.  Sometimes I can’t make a situation or someone better, and I can make things worse by trying, and my first reaction is “I can’t stand this.”

There’s fear in that reaction, I know that’s part of a clog in there.  I was asking for help on that the other day while I was praying, and I heard help from somewhere or someone about treading more lightly and in the moment, trying to float and not press down so hard on things (the way I do when I write with a pencil or ballpoint pen — I get rough patterns like Braille on the reverse side of the paper) and wait and see.  I don’t like to focus on the concept of “patience” — it helps me to re-frame that as this floating lightly in the moment and keeping in sync with the pace.

Richard said he’d just add the work to the bill he’ll send after he or one of his crew does the gutter cleaning and oiling later next month.  When I reflect on that, while it’s not remarkable, I enjoy his trust that if he does the work first and even forgoes immediate payment after he’s done, I’ll be good for the full amount later.  I’ve been stiffed myself in that situation, and finding an alternative to fulfillment of the promise has proved difficult and challenging, although not without benefits.  I guess, to go back to the theme of this post, I need to experience that pattern without reforming clogs in my emotional drainage system.

I’m going to end with what I see as the humor in the universe.  One of the people I’ve helped spiritually I associate with wearing clogs.  He was Dutch by birth, I don’t actually know if he wore clogs, but I associate him with them at least as a symbol.  (This had led me to thinking about magic shoes, witches’ shoes, red shoes, papal shoes, antique Chinese clogs, etc. as possible points through which I might find conceptual insight into the problem.)  The representation of a concept — difficulty with a drainage system — through the situation with my downspouts makes me want to say, “It was that kind of clog, not something about footwear, that was the problem.”   At some point, the image and focus apparently shifted from the shoe to the downspout, through which the problem could be addressed, and the problem became resolved.

When intuition is unhelpful

October 9, 2011

I was prompted by something I heard recently to think about when my intuition, and apparently countless other people’s, has failed to be helpful to me, and has been downright misleading.  And that is in the context of alcoholism.  There, what seems counter-intuitive, at least to me, has helped me deal with the chaos that can swirl around another person’s drinking — just a small shift in perspective and some clarity of what’s my life and what is the other person’s life, for instance, has been so helpful — like turning the kaleidoscope a little and reconfiguring the mosaic.

But I don’t really want to talk about alcoholism and stray too near other people’s privacy.  What I did want to discuss, because it seems to me a position different from what I usually emphasize, is how we learn about what may be for us counter-intuitive.  For me it came through a program already worked out, written down, systematized, maybe even reduced to a sort of code.  Although this system doesn’t dictate particular behavior, but rather provides a perspective and a process for an individual to discern for themselves what to do, I did come to it through something pretty tangible and specific and external to me.  I doubt I would have ever figured the stuff out on my own, whatever my own personal spiritual understandings.  I’m not sure why this is, or how the two sets of understandings relate to each (very compatibly, in my experience).  But it occurs to me, since I usually am pretty frustrated by other people’s rigid endorsements of using codes and such to navigate human relations, that I have benefited from something similar.

Irrational aggressiveness and aggressive irrationality

July 29, 2011

Paul Krugman’s column today got me thinking about behavior that is irrational and aggressive.

I suspect that such behavior is generated by fear.  In terms of effective responses to such behavior, the only one I know of that seems to have any “success” is detachment, not engaging with the fear and its emotional sequelae that are lodging in the person.  Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean not interacting with the person, and certainly it doesn’t mean not loving the person.  I think it means some kind of “boundaries,” in today’s parlance, and maintaining our own focus on what we each as an individual should be doing ourselves, regardless of what is going on around us.

Now, how this applies to interactions among elected government officials I am not sure.  The United States government certainly isn’t structured the way, say, the Al-Anon World Service organization (and I’m referring to Al-Anon, for family and friends of alcoholics, not to AA, for alcoholics themselves) is, or guided by its principles (those embodied in its steps, traditions, and concepts of services, for example).  But I don’t see that our values in our founding documents or legislation preclude or are at odds with those principles, either.  I also don’t see those principles as sufficient, because a government must be concerned with service to its constituents, not just to service to its own organization (one of my puzzlements about how Al-Anon works).

So, I don’t see Al-Anon as some kind of Answer, including to our current woes in Washington, but I do think it has something to teach us about how to interact with people acting aggressively and irrationally.