Sunday, February 7, 2010

The "Higher Power" Obstacle, part 2

As discussed in my last blog, deriving the benefits of 12-step programs (which, all other considerations aside, are by far the most available resource for those in recovery) involves finding some kind of comfort with the concept of a “higher power,” and this can be uncomfortable for those with a more secular orientation. The 12 steps might well be worded differently if the program had developed in recent years, but it dates to 1935, and to the experiences of founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, who drew their initial inspiration from a Christian movement, the Oxford Group. Just as countless people with no traditional religious belief nevertheless value the Golden Rule, it is possible to make constructive use of the 12 Steps as a psychological program without embracing theism.

Among the alternative “higher power” concepts that I have heard over the years from many of my patients in recovery is “G-O-D = Group of Drunks,” i.e., the sense that the accumulated wisdom of everyone in AA is likely to be greater than that of the individual. Indeed, as captured in the title of Kurtz’ history of AA, of crucial importance in recovery, from the AA perspective, is that the individual recognize that he or she is “Not God.” That is, it helps a lot to assume a posture of humility, recognizing that one’s own attempts to gain mastery over addiction have failed (usually case prior to coming to AA), and that grandiosity or over-confidence tends to be counter-productive.

Others may choose, in the role of higher power, a generalized notion of spirituality, which may include:

· Something akin to “The Force,” a connection with nature, or with the interconnectedness of all human beings;
· A transcendent state or awareness characterized by full and liberating acceptance of the universe as it is, and of having one’s own place in it (something related to what has in recent years been dubbed “mindfulness”);
· A commitment to compassion, and to other higher values that in many cases have slipped away over time, as the addiction has taken up more and more space in one’s mind. Author Karen Armstrong has discussed key, overarching humanitarian values that characterize virtually all religious philosophies but do not require a particular theistic belief.
· A psychological conception of the higher power as a part of the self, an internal representation. Many of us, even atheists, finds ourselves praying, or asking for help or guidance – without a belief in an external God, we must be communicating with a wiser or more intuitive part of ourselves. The part, for example, that awakens in the middle of the night with a new way to address a problem, or that sometimes seems to come up with answer we did not know we had. (When I was a songwriter, on occasion I had the sense that a song was writing itself “through” me. It flowed smoothly, and took shape as if the song already existed, and in fact I often thought I might have unconsciously ripped it off. Sometimes I had, but other times these became some of my better songs. A believer would be likely to attribute the process to God; an agnostic or atheist would have to view the experience as reflective of an internal connection to another part of onself.)

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Perhaps there are other concepts that have worked for you.