Sunday, April 8, 2012

Welcome to 4 East: On the Variety of Spiritual Experience

Towards the end of my first stay at 4 East someone gave me a copy of the AA "Big Book," the third edition, "Not the most recent," they said, "But the best."

I've been reading straight through it, in small bites, of an evening. As AA's roots are in the 1930's and most of this material is contemporaneous with the times, it's written in a formal, mannered style that's easy to digest. Their most basic tenant is, an alcoholic cannot do it alone, cannot quit by himself, on his own force of will. Check. I got that. It was made clear to me earlier this month, although I had already begun to suspect it.

Their next most basic tenant is that one must surrender themselves to a higher power -- by which they mean the God of the Bible, pure and simple And Nothing Else. There are a few wimpy cop-outs here and there where they tag on words like "your perception of a higher power" so as not to offend the different branches of the faith,

But the book's chapter on agnosticism is revealing. It is woefully inadequate and under-thought, and can be summed up crudely as "Well, you have to change your mind or this isn't going to work for you."

I haven't read nearly enough of John Muir, but in the small bits and pieces of him that I have read, I don't recall him tossing God around here and there like garlands of flowers. And yet none could deny that he was a spiritual man. When he wrote about his thoughts of Nature and Supernature, he used metaphors like "Cathedrals of the Forest." He was not, shall we say, a conventionally religious man, but found spirituality in the ground underneath us and the trees around us and the mountains cradling us.

Would he have felt at home in AA? I doubt it.

Neither the book nor the organization seem able to take into account the infinite varieties of spiritual experience that don't involve organized religion or dogma. With one exception.

Buried deep, deep within chapter two is a quote from Carl Jung. Jung was not the figure in the 1930s that he has become today, and the quote is not even directly attributed to him, nor is his name used more than once (he is otherwise referred to as "this doctor" throughout the small section that I describe).  But it has the ring of Dr. Carl!

Jung was, essentially, a conventionally religious man, but he expressed himself in such remarkable ways, not just throwing God and Jesus in your face, but really trying to get to the core of what spiritual experience was all about:

Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are
called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are
phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional
displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes
which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are
suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions
and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to
produce some such emotional rearrangement within you.

You go, Carl! I was kind of astonished to find this little nugget of reason buried in the mound of conventional Religiosity. It not only makes sense to me, but it makes me want to take my Jung books back off the shelf and re-read them -- and aside from that, I lived it and experienced it in 4 East.

I experienced it in the group sessions, listening to the stories the other patients told, choking back the tears. I experienced it in one-on-one conversations with my roommate and others on the floor. I experienced it in the eyes of other patients who were reacting just as powerfully to what I heard -- and sometimes to what I said. I experienced it in the tears that I shed every day and the tears that I watched others shed. I experienced it in the words of certain of the councilors, both individual and in the group sessions. I could feel myself being humbled, day by day, and I could feel my thinking begin to turn. It was just the short of emotional rearrangement that Dr. Carl writes about above. But it had nothing to do with God. Unless--

If you try to tell me that God is a self-determining, self-conscious Being with an Ego and an Id, a painter with a design for every living thing, a bearded old man sitting up in the clouds on a throne, a being who actually cares about all the little details like whether or not I choose to crawl into a bottle, I'm going to tell you that I think you're a pretty Gulli-Bull.

But I do believe, have always believed, that it's possible to draw a diagram of the thing that might actually be the pulse that runs through the universes, whatever you want to call it. It's not a diagram of my invention. It looks like this:

Well, actually, this is just an infinitesimally small piece of it. First, pick a triangle, any triangle. That's you. (I get the one in the lower right corner, because that's where I always squish myself in a crowded room). 

Every living thing: plant, animal, human, even Republicans, gets a triangle of their own. I don't say it's you, I'm just saying let it represent you for now.

Pretty soon you get triangles nested within triangles nested within triangles, expanding infinitely outward into the universe. When every currently living thing in the universe gets its own triangle, and everything that ever lived in the past gets its own triangle, and everything and everyone that will ever live in the future gets its own triangle, and all those triangles are nested within an even larger pattern that cannot possibly be comprehended: that, my friends, is God.

OK, my friend, my dear friend, if you are reading this, I have to give you some sort of a name. I can't keep alluding to an empty noun. I will call you Joan Arkwright, and in some ways it is a lousy name for you. because you are neither a saint nor a martyr. But you are my hero. You gave me hope, you gave me strength, and you put your faith in me. When I was speaking with you, I was speaking with just a tiny little piece of that great patchwork design, and I say the same about the group sessions and the people I shared them with. We had some great groups.

So, while I tend to agree with Jim Morrisson that you cannot petition the Lord with Prayer, I do believe that some powerful shifts of thinking and ideas can occur when a handful of these triangles collide at random under emotional circumstances.

We are all pieces of what AA likes to call the Higher Power. That's my God and I'm sticking to it.

-- Freder.

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