Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

Habit Versus Disease

There are many forms of addiction. Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more acceptable. They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics. Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends. The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them. In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease. Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring. It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides. This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own. I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering. If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today. But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew. And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too. Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer. After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson. In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way. Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

• Addictions are habits.

• You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

• We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

• Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

• The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

• Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

• Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

• The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

• The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

• When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

• Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lizard brain the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lizard brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth. And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction whereas 12 Step programs emphasize its behavioral roots.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction. For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself. I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings. So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

If you would like to work with me one-on-one on an addiction issue, we can meet in person or on Zoom. Reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. Walk with me and I will provide you safe passage to a place of wonder and awe beyond your addiction.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

My Own Solitary Confinement

I have come to realize why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments that the criminal justice system can inflict on its prisoners.

It’s because I had lived it firsthand.

Embracing the truth of who we are is not for the meek. Oftentimes, it takes a personal crisis for us to do so. But can we really know what we want in life if we don’t know who we are? Can we really know what is meaningful to us when we are living in self-delusion? Can we ever feel the power of connection with others when we are disconnected from ourselves?

Eleven years ago, I lived in the dark and lonely abyss of my alcoholism. During those days, I suffered in my own self-imposed solitary confinement when I had decided to isolate myself. I existed in the hell of my own making, disconnected from myself, from others, and from life.

The truth is that I lived my 20s, 30s, and part of my 40s sleepwalking through life. I lived in a dream state. Because I blamed other people for all my problems, I never looked within myself for the source of my problems. I lived as a fugitive from myself by always running away from myself. Alcohol was my way of hiding.

As a stranger to myself, I had no idea who I was. I lived my life in disguise. And though I was a master at dressing myself up in my successes and accomplishments, I was just an actor playing my own part.

Things changed when the pain of my alcoholism became greater than the fear I had of looking within myself. I crawled through the doors of AA. There I found a sponsor, and I began working the steps.

It was the 4th Step that finally forced me to see who I was for the first time. It was the power of that searching and fearless inventory that allowed me to see the scared and frightened child under all the rumble of my life.

Since then, I have devoted my life to studying the masters of recovery, psychology, and spirituality. And that led me to undergo a rigorous certification program to become a spiritual life coach. Now, in my practice, I enjoy the camaraderie of working with addicts who I believe are the poets and sages of this world.

A few years ago, I read Be Here Now by spiritual author Ram Dass. He saw in his own life how he had been living life in disguise. And as a challenge to himself and others, he posed these two questions, “Are we always going to meet on this stage? Don’t we ever take off these costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that the power of death forced people to finally shed their costumes and to step off the stage into their true selves. That experience of being present to another’s truth and authenticity was what brought him back to the bedside of the dying time and again.

Today, I am so grateful that I didn’t die like so many have to my disease. I am so grateful to have stepped out of my costume and into myself. By the grace of my Higher Power, I woke up from my sleepwalking, from the self-delusion, from my own unconsciousness, from my own unawareness.

I must remain vigilant, though, about maintaining the rich connections I so often feel with friends, family, and life or otherwise I can easily slip back into my old patterns of isolation.

To those who have never suffered the devastation of addiction, it may seem ridiculous that we, who have found new life, would be grateful to our addiction for waking us up to the splendor of life—to the splendor of our true self.

Yet many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

These to me are the “still suffering” that the Big Book talks about. These are the people who are addicted to their roles and to their stories. These are the people addicted to the dream state.

It would also have seemed ridiculous in my early recovery to say these words: That as a recovering alcoholic, I have tremendous power to help others find their way out of the dream and off the stage. We all have this power. We have the power to save lives.

And it’s by sharing our experience, strength, and hope with others.

Kind Regards,
RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach
If you’d like to work one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at http://www.rjhandley.com. If you’d like to learn more about me, Google my name.

The Best Stress Busters from the Mayo Clinic

We all have stress in our lives. It’s a part of being human. And we all have ways of dealing with it. Oftentimes, it’s with alcohol or opioid use. But all stress is caused by five factors.

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.

Such images would cast my mind back to the early days of my alcoholic drinking when that first drink actually worked to melt away the stress of the day.

Those movie scenes became my routine as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can now see how looking within myself for the source of my stress would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living. All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted. So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work. On and on. Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood. It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it. When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it. This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components. The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power. To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.

When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level. I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad. They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stresser is fighting change.

There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.” That was me until a few years ago. Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering.

During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.” I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

The three external stressers are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

In my drinking days (and still to a lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people. Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation. Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned. I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

The second external stressor is lack of control. That was a huge one for me. I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it. The desire is understandable. Humans have an aversion to pain. Yet, control is an illusion. In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person. Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it. As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others. People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power. It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance. It is a potent antidote to stress. And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer. When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation. Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

If you are interested in working one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. We can meet in person or on Zoom.

In Kindness,
RJ Handley, Addiction and Recovery Coach

A fugitive from myself

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I bristled at the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

The Secret Power of Shame

Though Bill W. was unaware of the power of shame, he was nevertheless a victim of it. No where in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is shame mentioned, but it is a pernicious presence that research has concluded is the source of our addictions and the frequent cause of relapses.

Shame is hate turned inward.  It’s the factory of our character defects.  It drives our suffering.  Yet, very few of us know this.  It’s a secret even to ourselves.  By becoming aware of our shame, we can greatly reduce the suffering it inflicts on us.

Only recently have I discovered how shame has infected my life like a virus.  It’s the furtive voice that is forever whispering its message that I am a bad person.

I grew up in a home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  They rarely drank.  My dad was an emotional drunk.  What would trigger my dad into explosive rage was forever unpredictable.  Every day, the hum of the bomber circled overhead, and the threat of bombardment hung in the air like toxic gas.

As a child, I breathed in his hate.  And, like any child, I didn’t yet have the boundaries in place to deflect it.  His hate became my own self-hate, and it lodged deep within my soul as shame.  Rarely could I figure out the reason for his rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Unfortunately, our endless capacity to adapt often has tragic consequences.  Few of us escape unscarred from the battlefield of a dysfunctional home.  My youngest sister died as a casualty of heavy smoking and drinking.  Fragments of rage and anxiety have embedded themselves into the lives of my other two sisters. And I, 10 years in recovery, find myself surveying the devastation, hobbled by shame.

Sources of Shame

Shame is universal.  Its seeds are sown in childhood.  Whenever we are powerless to deflect another’s hate—whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse—it becomes internalized deep within as shame. “We believe we ‘should have’ been able to defend ourselves.  And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless,” according to Beverly Engle, in her article “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” published in Psychology Today.

“This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame,” Engle says.

Shame can result from any situation that causes us to feel shunned by others. It can also be the by-product of regret, especially after hurting a loved one.  If we fail to make amends to that person, regret often converts to shame.

The Secrecy of Shame

It’s mystifying to me that after years of working the program of AA, sponsoring, and pouring myself into recovery literature, that I have remained unaware of shame’s covert operations.  But I don’t think I’m alone.  Being unaware of shame is very understandable.

For many of us, our textbook for recovery has been the Big Book (BB). However, shame is not mentioned anywhere in its first 164 pages (containing the entire AA program as Bill W. first conceived it).  For the ranks of us who are traumatized by shame, this is a critical omission.

I believe the BB is a masterpiece. Yet, as acutely attuned as Bill W. was to our malady, he was not yet aware when penning the BB that shame is the father of our character defects—resentment, selfishness, and unworthiness being its children.

We Climb to Recovery on the Rungs of Words

Words have the power of revelation.  Think of the word “resentment” as Bill W. used it, and see how much light his discussion of that word brought to the understanding of our addiction. The same can be true for the word “shame.”  Once we shine the light of awareness on it, we can identify it as the source of our character defects.  We see it for what it is, and there is great power in naming. Mark Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says labeling our emotions is key to their treatment. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

As addicts we know there is something at the root of our addictions.  In the hundreds of AA meetings I have attended over the years, the word “unworthiness” is frequently heard. What we call unworthiness, though, is really an expression of shame’s much deeper and darker domain. Other character defects—defensiveness, criticalness, anger, resentment, and emotional withdrawal—also bubble up from the depths of shame.

Amazingly, in the same day, shame has us toggling between feelings of inferiority and its paradoxical mask of superiority.  It creates a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that resides in the background of all we do.  It fuels our drinking.

Invariably, we cross the invisible threshold between heavy drinking and alcoholism.  Drinking then becomes a desperate coping strategy, cycling back on itself.  We drink to numb us to the pain of shame and then we feel shame because we find ourselves drunk again. On and on, over and over, day after day.

Shame Versus Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt. Brene Brown, a professor of research at the University of Houston, makes a critical distinction: “Guilt is I did something bad.  Shame is I am something bad.”  Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the person.  Brown’s research finds a high correlation between shame and addiction but virtually none between guilt and addiction.

Providing the first link between shame and relapse is a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  The study, conducted by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, involved 100 middle-aged men and women from the rooms of AA with less than six months sobriety.  Tracy and Randles found that “people who feel shame may blame themselves for negative events and view their ‘bad’ behavior as an unchangeable part of who they are. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt.”

The study also found that “one reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.”

The amount of shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed but also how many drinks they had if they did relapse.

Good News

We don’t have to remain shame sufferers.  Recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that the brain has a nearly endless capacity to rewire itself.  “Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion,” Engle says.

When treating shame, we must remember to be good to ourselves.  After all, shame entered us through others’ hatred.  Self-empathy and self-compassion are crucial in combatting shame.  In a 2012 TED Talk, Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

By employing the fearlessness and thoroughness that we used in our 4th Step, we can surface the pain of being hated that created our shame.  Once we become aware of the source of our shame, we can grieve the pain and suffering it has produced.  We can cry our response to the hatred, and we can cry about how unfair it is.  Finally, we come to a place of peace and give shame back to its rightful owner.

I leave you with this self-compassion exercise, courtesy of Beverly Engle, in hopes that it helps you as it helped me.

  1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience.  What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at the time?  Write this statement down.
  2. Image that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears.  Take those words into your heart.  Notice how those words make you feel.
  3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words.  How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?

You might receive a real sense of healing and peace from the words that you hear while doing this exercise.  Exploring shame can be a journey that requires courage and self-honesty, but the reward is recovery that goes beyond the mere absence of addiction—recovery that is a deep healing of your past and a life of real happiness and peace.

If you would like to work one-on-one with me regarding shame issues or issues related to addiction, relationships, negative habits, anxiety, or depression, please visit me at rjhandley.com.

The Secret Power of Shame was originally published in The Fix. 

How to become a musterbator and love it

There are many people in this world that I admire.  But there are few I admire more than musterbators.  These are the people who must be what they can be.  They’re the spiritual gangstas, the cosmic bad asses, the dis-illusionists.

Some of you have already joined the elite ranks of musterbators as a result of an epiphany or a life crisis or a 12-Step program or curiosity or just a natural drive to be your best.  Some of you may hear the call through this post.  Regardless, all are welcome.

Musterbators have been kickin’ self-delusion ass for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1943 that psychologist Abraham Maslow gave them the gift of a socially acceptable moniker.  He called them self-actualizers.

In his famous Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow put self-actualizers/musterbators right where they should be:  at the top of his needs pyramid.  That’s because they have met their need for water, food, shelter, belonging, self-esteem, and have gone on to bigger and better things.

It needn’t be all-consuming work to become a musterbator.  You can keep your day job and still climb to the top of the pyramid.  A guide and fellow musterbator that I recommend for your climb is spiritual writer Adyashanti.  His book The Way to Liberation has provided wonderful handholds for me as I continue to scale the pyramid on my way to the top.

Below, I have summarized his three core practices that are the ropes, harnesses, and crampons for your climb.  I have added intentions to the list because they’ll nourish you on your ascent.

Now, let me help you climb.

Begin your ascent with an intention

Starting your day with a written intention is one of the most powerful ways to give your day meaning and purpose.  It is a guiding principle that steers you through the day ahead.  It is not what you’re going to do but how you’re going to do it.  It’s a goal of who you want to be as you respond to the demands of your day. I’ve done some of the work for you by providing you with a Weekday Intention that you can receive automatically.  (See the end of this post to begin receiving them.)

Use inquiry to challenge your “truth”

This is going to sound paradoxical at first. But inquiry is more about discovering who you are not than who you are. It is about fearlessly looking at the ideas, beliefs, and opinions that you have adopted, often unknowingly, into your life.   It is not about answering your questions but questioning your answers. And it requires fearlessness. Basically, it’s about challenging your own bullshit.

The question that we ask in practicing inquiry is simple. Yet, it requires willingness and great courage: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

Adyashanti’s question is about Truth. As survivors of our own addictive shipwrecks, we know the power of honesty. After all, it was the tool we used in our stepwork that revealed to us just how insane our lives had become. It is also the means by which God performed the greatest miracle in our lives—and that is saving it.

So it is with that same honesty that we ask the question: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

But when do we ask it? As I tell my clients, it’s the moment when you feel yourself tightening—when you suffer a disturbance as the BB says. It’s in that exact moment that you stop and drop the question.

By doing this, you can begin stripping away your old, repetitive, negative patterns and open yourself to what is often a new perspective. Look at your own life and see if you can identify painful experiences that happen to you again and again even when they involve a different cast of people. Then drop the question into the pain.

We can also use inquiry about statements. For example, a popular one is “The only constant is change.” So I begin by asking myself if I can be absolutely certain that idea is true.

When I challenge the statement with the question, I can see it is true as it relates to outward appearances. In nature, rivers change landscapes. In my home town, new businesses have changed its character, and in my life, time has caused my hair to gray. But is it absolutely true for me inwardly? Have I changed how I respond to life? And to that I would have to say, “Not entirely.”  Inquiry helps me identify the beliefs and behaviors that are carryovers from my drinking days that still cause me suffering. Whether I’m working with clients or with my own issues, the results of inquiry can then become the subject of another of the three core practices: contemplation.

Open yourself to inspiration through contemplation

According to Adyashanti, contemplation is the art of holding a word, phrase, idea, or belief in the silence and stillness of your awareness until “it begins to disclose deeper and deeper meanings and understandings.” Inquiry is about actively challenging things whereas contemplation is more about passively reflecting on things.

You can take the topic of change from the inquiry work above and use contemplation to reflect on an inner change that you want to make.  When first practicing contemplation, it is suggested that you begin small by focusing on words and phrases. For example, if you wanted to use the Serenity Prayer to contemplate change, you may choose to just focus on the phrase “the courage to change the things I can.” Hold that phrase in the silence and stillness of your awareness and let the wisdom flow from it like tea from a steeping teabag.  This is contemplation.

Re-energize your ascent with meditation

According to Adyashanti, meditation is the art of allowing everything to simply be in the deepest possible way” by letting go “of the effort to control and manipulate our experience.”

To me, meditation is like bathing in being. It is my spirit immersed in God’s spirit. It is about surrendering, about effortlessness, and about openness.

So we can take the wisdom that we have learned from our contemplation of the Serenity Prayer and sit with it in meditation. Adyashanti says, “In meditation, you are not trying to change your experience; you are changing your relationship to your experience.”

When meditating, it is recommended that you use a chair or cushion in a place that is free of distractions.   Relax, let go of the concerns of the day, and “just be” with the wisdom revealed to you in contemplation.

Putting it all together

In your daily schedule, try setting aside time for these core practices.  A half-hour is all you need.  I recommend starting your day with the Weekday Intention.  Then use the intention as the focus of one of the other practices.  On Monday, you may choose to pair the intention with inquiry.  On Tuesday, pair the Weekday Intention for that day with contemplation, and on Wednesday pair that day’s intention with meditation.  Then decide which core practices to pair with the intention on Thursday and Friday.  Rinse and repeat.

Regardless of how you implement these practices, they are powerful tools in stripping away your old patterns and social conditioning and guiding your ascent to the top of the pyramid where you will be greeted by other enthusiastic musterbators.

To begin receiving your Weekday Intentions automatically, go to blog.rjhandley.com and click the follow button and enter your email address. For more about the power of intentions, go to https://wordpress.com/post/blog.rjhandley.com/518

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Venture Boldly,

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

How to become more spiritually awake

We have busy lives. This is a blessing of our recovery.  And many of us have experienced the spiritual awakening promised in Step 12.  But what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this awakening so it brings greater meaning and joy to our busy lives?

This question is so important to me—and maybe to you too—that I decided 10 months ago to launch my blogging website with the title After the 12 Steps. In my blog posts, I address ways we can awaken more and more from our initial spiritual awakening.

I have a passion for spirituality and psychology.  And it drove me to undergo an intense 18-month certification process to become a spiritual life coach. As a spiritual life coach, I get to share with my clients—some of whom are in recovery—many of the insights I have learned over the past decade reading widely the work of awakened masters.

I particularly admire the work of the author Adyashanti. He has a deep and profound understanding of both Christianity and Zen. His approach to awakening can be applied to your own life regardless of your spiritual leanings. And applying the three core practices that he presents in his book The Way of Liberation have worked in profound ways to further awaken me—and my clients.

These core practices are inquiry, contemplation, and meditation. As with anything you practice, these practices become more and more intuitive as you use them. Let’s take a look at each.

Inquiry
This is going to sound paradoxical at first. But inquiry is more about discovering who you are not than who you are. It is about fearlessly looking at the ideas, beliefs, and opinions that you have adopted, often unknowingly, into your life.   It is not about answering your questions but questioning your answers. And it requires the same fearlessness that you used in your courageous 4th Step work. Basically, it’s about challenging your own bullshit.

The question that we ask in practicing inquiry is simple. Yet, it requires willingness and great courage: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

Adyashanti’s question is about Truth. As survivors of our own addictive shipwrecks, we know the power of honesty. After all, it was the tool we used in our stepwork that revealed to us just how insane our lives had become. It is also the means by which God performed the greatest miracle in our lives—and that is saving it.

So it is with that same honesty that we ask the question: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

But when do we ask it? As I tell my clients, it’s the moment when you feel yourself tightening—when you suffer a disturbance as the BB says. It’s in that exact moment that you stop and drop the question.

By doing this, you can begin stripping away your old, repetitive, negative patterns and open yourself to what is often a new perspective. Look at your own life and see if you can identify painful experiences that happen to you again and again even when they involve a different cast of people. Then drop the question into the pain.

We can also use inquiry about statements. For example, a popular one is “The only constant is change.” So I begin by asking myself if I can be absolutely certain that idea is true.

When I challenge the statement with the question, I can see it is true as it relates to outward appearances. In nature, rivers change landscapes. In my home town, new businesses have changed its character, and in my life, time has caused my hair to gray. But is it absolutely true for me inwardly? Have I changed how I respond to life? And to that I would have to say, “Not entirely.”  Inquiry helps me identify the beliefs and behaviors that are carryovers from my drinking days that still cause me suffering.

Whether I’m working with clients or with my own issues, the results of inquiry can then become the subject of another of the three core practices: contemplation.

Contemplation
According to Adyashanti, contemplation is the art of holding a word, phrase, idea, or belief in the silence and stillness of your awareness until “it begins to disclose deeper and deeper meanings and understandings.”

Inquiry is about actively challenging things whereas contemplation is more about passively reflecting on things.

You can take the subject of change from the inquiry work above and use contemplation to reflect on an inner change that you want to make.  When first practicing contemplation, it is suggested that you begin small by focusing on words and phrases. For example, if you wanted to use the Serenity Prayer to contemplate change, you may choose to just focus on the phrase “the courage to change the things I can.” Hold that phrase in the silence and stillness of your awareness and let the wisdom flow from it like tea from a steeping teabag.  This is contemplation.

Meditation
According to Adyashanti, meditation is the art of allowing everything to simply be in the deepest possible way” by letting go “of the effort to control and manipulate our experience.”

To me, meditation is like bathing in being. It is my spirit immersed in God’s spirit. It is about surrendering, about effortlessness, and about openness.

So we can take the wisdom that we have learned from our contemplation of the Serenity Prayer and sit with it in meditation. Adyashanti says, “In meditation, you are not trying to change your experience; you are changing your relationship to your experience.”

When meditating, it is recommended that you use a chair or cushion in a place that is free of distractions.   Relax, let go of the concerns of the day, and “just be” with the wisdom revealed to you in contemplation.

In your daily schedule, try setting aside time for these core practices.  All three could be done in one sitting or spread over three days.  Regardless of how you implement them, they are powerful tools in stripping away your old patterns and social conditioning and opening yourself to Truth.

Soon you will discover that the spiritual awakening that you began with your 12-Step work has expanded into more and more facets of your life. And with that expansion comes a new level of joy, peace, and understanding.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Be Bold,
RJ Handley
Spiritual Life Coach

My Fugitive Ways

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I was taken aback by the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

 

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

 

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

 

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

 

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

 

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

 

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our Selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our Selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

The Letter that Revealed Bill W’s Dependencies

One of the most influential reads in my early recovery was Bill W’s “Emotional Sobriety.”  Published in a 1958 edition of the AA Grapevine, Bill writes about his battles with dependency. This time it is not about dependency on alcohol but dependency on approval, security, and prestige.

These dependencies, as Bill reveals in this letter, created much suffering in his life. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually,” Bill admits in this powerful letter.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, “Emotional Sobriety” allows us again to spend time with the man who Time magazine recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.

And little wonder.  Empowered by his own wounds, this is a man who led from the front and walked the talk that would save countless millions from the debilitating despair of addiction.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” Bill W. lives the values that he preached in the Big Book: honesty, humility, faith, and service.

In this letter, Bill speaks of the impossible expectations he held for himself and others that led to his severe bouts with depression. Torn between his unconscious “fears, compulsions and phony aspirations” and the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps, Bill agonized over why the program didn’t work to release him from his own depression.

Finally, according to this letter, his answer came to him one day as he stared at a line from the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It’s better to comfort than to be the comforted.” Suddenly, in an epiphany, Bill realized the problem.

“My basic flaw had always been dependence—almost absolute dependence—on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like.  Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression,” as he says in the letter.

From his spiritual development and the “Grace I could secure in prayer,” Bill found that he would experience little joy unless he could cut away these “fatal dependencies.”

“Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I was able to offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me.”  As long as false dependencies gripped him, Bill understood that the glimmer of emotional maturity and adult love would elude him.

In the light of this truth, Bill recognized that emotional stability came from offering love to the drunk stranger on his doorstep while demanding nothing in return.  Expectations, he discovered, are premeditated resentments.

“If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands.”

Only then, he says, can we be set free to live and love.  Only then are we able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.

As Bill confronted his dependencies, his letter encourages us to do the same.  “Emotional Sobriety” is really about clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of our emotional health, our conscious connection to God, and our service to the still suffering addict.

So you can experience the entirety of this two and a half page letter, I encourage you to locate a copy of “Emotional Sobriety” online.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I will be forever grateful to God for choosing Bill W. as spokesman for addiction issues.  To me, the Big Book is a masterpiece, not only because it provided the first published pathway for recovery but also provided us with a truly exemplary guide who we meet again in this letter.

May you also find emotional sobriety.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach