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

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

12 ways you sabotage your recovery

I wanted to share with you a small book that has big things to say about recovery. It’s Dr. Allen Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.

Berger is a psychotherapist and a recovering addict. 12 Stupid Things is a profound but very accessible book that informs us of behaviors that sabotage our sustained recovery. I have also found it to be invaluable to increasing my effectiveness as a sponsor.

What I found so helpful about the book is that Berger speaks to issues that we may not be aware of but that can certainly contribute to relapse—even for those of us who have years or even decades of recovery.

These are things that can blindside us, not because we’re engaging in behaviors that we are knowingly aware are dangerous, but behaviors that we are unaware of that are dangerous.

The book also contains amusing and poignant anecdotes from Berger’s own experience with addiction and years of counseling alcoholics and drug addicts.

Here is a breakdown of the 12 behaviors that can sabotage our recovery:

1. Believing addiction to one substance is the only problem
Berger says, “Most chemical dependency counselors warn their clients that using other drugs lowers their resistance to using their drug of choice.” Addiction changes the brain so that the person who decides to take that first drink or do that line of coke is chemically different than the person who takes the second drink or does the second line of coke.

2. Believing sobriety will fix everything
“If drinking were our only problem, then once we stopped drinking, all our problems would be solved,” Berger says. The beauty of the 12 Steps is that we come to realize that we have a living problem and a drinking solution. We drank or used to numb ourselves out to those problems. Then our drug of choice became a problem on top of the existing problems that we tried to look away from.

3. Pursuing recovery with less energy than pursuing addiction
Berger says, “Recovery is without a doubt the road less traveled. It is a difficult road to follow—impossible if we are not 110 committed to the process.” He goes on to say, “As if that isn’t challenging enough, we are also faced with the reality that we need to make this commitment without a guarantee of the outcome.”

4. Being selectively honest
“We need to lance the boil and let all the puss drain. We need to discuss all of the things that we don’t want to talk about, especially our secrets—the things what we believe we would never share with anyone,” Berger says. One of the most powerful things that my sponsor said to me is that we are only as sick as our secrets. These are the shadow elements that we have hidden—even from ourselves—that still exert a strong force on our behaviors, just as we don’t see gravity but it affects all that we do.

5. Feeling special and unique
“This kind of thinking is based on the mistaken belief…that we don’t have to do what everyone else has done to develop a solid, robust recovery,” according to Berger. He draws the analogy to surgery. When we undergo a procedure, we can only hope that we respond like the average 80 percent who recover without complications. But in the twisted logic of the addict, we don’t want to see ourselves as average in our recovery. We see ourselves as special, and that has caused the relapse of the newcomer and the seasoned veteran.

6. Not making amends
When we justify our past behaviors because of the behavior of the people in our life, we fail to take responsibility for our life, our feelings, and our actions. By deflecting personal responsibility, we imperil our lasting recovery. Berger says: “To develop a strong spiritual foundation for recovery, it is essential that we accept full responsibility for our harmful and hurtful behavior and that we attempt to repair the damage that we have caused in our relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.”

7. Using the program to try to become perfect
Berger these perfectionistic traits in himself and in the addicts he has treated. It is a misguided attempt at gaining other people’s love by doing everything “perfectly”. He says, “Most of our life has been spent trying to be perfect. This has been a spurious goal. Instead we need to learn how to be more human.” He adds that he spent years using because he believed that being human was not good enough but that being imperfect was unacceptable. “This was the ultimate in self-alienation. It’s no wonder life sucked and I needed to get high.”

8. Confusing self-concern with selfishness
“Self-concern is different from selfishness. It does not exclude others; it is inclusive. Part of our self is concerned with cooperating with and pleasing others. These desires are natural and healthy, when they are balanced with our desire to be ourselves.” We need to practice standing in the center of the boat between pleasing others and being true to who we are.

9. Playing futile self-improvement games
At the heart of these games are using our new-found spirituality to avoid the character defects that continued self-discovery beyond our first 4th Step reveals. Instead, we pretend that our spirituality has allowed us to transcend our defects rather than confronting them in ourselves when they are surfaced. This is called spiritual bypassing.

10. Not getting help for relationship troubles
Relationships are the greatest challenge that any human being faces but is especially true for alcoholics and addicts. This is because we denied ourselves the very means by which all human beings mature emotionally by continually engaging our addiction. And that’s pain. Because we have avoided pain, we are all emotionally immature when we enter recovery. “Dysfunctional relationships are one of the top three causes of relapse,” according to Berger.

11. Believing that life should be easy
“Life is difficult. The sooner we are initiated into this reality, the sooner we learn how to deal with life on its terms rather than waste our time looking for the easy way.” We are continually bombarded by social media that tells us life is all lollypops and rainbows and that if it isn’t we are doing something wrong.

12. Using the program to handle everything
“No one can handle every personal issue with their program. Needing help is not an indication that something is wrong with our program,” Berger says. “The truth is quite the contrary: recognizing our need for additional help is an indication that we are working a good program.” Being defiantly self-reliant is certain to jeopardize our recovery.

What I’ve provided is a just quick introduction to Dr. Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery. I encourage you to spend the 12 bucks to experience Berger’s wisdom for yourself. At just over a 100 pages, this book is a profound read. I’m confident that you will find Berger’s insights helpful and stabilizing to your recovery.

Contact me if you would like to work one-on-one on issues of addiction or issues in your recovery that are robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, confidence, and negative thoughts.

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 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 Tell Safe from Unsafe People

Relationships are one of life’s greatest challenges.   We all struggle with them.  Even  healthy relationships can be difficult at times.

This is especially true for people who are in recovery from abuse, addiction, depression, or trauma as they begin again to reach out for companionship.  Yet healthy or safe relationships are an essential element in reconnecting and participating in life.  They can provide the healing and growth necessary for a purposeful and meaningful life.

 

Regardless of where we are in our own relationship readiness and health, we need to remain alert and cautious about the people we are letting into our lives, especially if we are just getting back on our feet.

 

In their book, Safe People, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have come up with 10 ways for you to determine if the people in your life are safe or unsafe for you.

 

  1. Unsafe people think they “have it all together” instead of admitting their weaknesses.

For a period of time, you may admire the person who seems to have it all together.  But as the relationship continues, you may come to feel weaker or inferior to this person.  You may even become dependent on this person.   As you begin to see this person’s “togetherness” as a facade, you may become angry or even hostile towards this person or grow tired of being the open and vulnerable one in the relationship. Unless this person can get real, it may be best to pull away.

 

  1. Unsafe people are religious instead of spiritual.

These are the people who use religion as a means of feeling superior to others.  They seem to have all the answers. These people may also be critical of you for the mistakes and errors of judgment that are a part of being human.  Spiritual people, on the other hand, are authentic and genuine about their own shortcomings and problems.

 

  1. Unsafe people are defensive instead of open to feedback

“All close relationships hurt, because no perfect people live on the earth,” say Cloud and Townsend. But the safe people are the ones who have a genuine desire to improve themselves.  They are open to feedback and “own” their own bad behavior. Unsafe people deny, minimize, or blame others when their own issues arise.

 

  1. Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble

Unsafe people will never identify with others as fellow human beings because they see themselves as above others.  Generally, they judge and condemn those they deem less worthy.  Safe people are humbly aware of their own issues and are forgiving of other people’s.

 

  1. Unsafe people only apologize instead of changing their behavior

You know these people well.  Often, they apologize for a behavior but that behavior continues to surface time and again.  They may be quick to apologize for a mistake but over time you become aware that they do so only to get back into your good graces rather than committing themselves to the change that would make the problem go away all together.  Apologies are often stated as “I’m sorry but…” rather than “I’m sorry and…”

 

  1. Unsafe people avoid their problems instead of facing them

Problems and the pain they cause us are sure signs that there is something within us that needs to change.  When we face our issues rather than avoid them, we can make those changes that make us more emotionally mature and skillful.  Unsafe people look away from their pain and problems.  As a result, they are frequently emotionally immature. And because they lack awareness of their issues, they “act out of their unconscious hurts and hurt others,” according to Cloud and Townsend.

 

  1. Unsafe people demand trust instead of earning it

Anger is often the response of unsafe people when their trustworthiness is called into question.  Regardless how that anger is expressed, the unsafe person is essentially saying, “How dare you question my integrity!”  Safe people recognize that “none of us is above questioning, and to take offense at it is prideful,” say Cloud and Townsend. Unsafe people are generally insecure and so when a behavior or action is questioned, they become defensive or confrontational.

 

  1. Unsafe people believe they are perfect instead of admitting their faults

According to Cloud and Townsend, “Unsafe people are on a mission to prove that they are perfect.  Using their work, family, abilities, or religion, they try to project an image of perfection, and their image becomes more important than the relationships they are in.”  Love, trust, and respect are the benefits you experience when you can admit and own your faults.  Unsafe people can be hurtful because they will “fight, blame, and point fingers” to maintain their delusion of perfection.

 

  1. Unsafe people blame others instead of taking responsibility

As long as they blame other people for their problems, unsafe people do not have to do anything to change themselves.  Instead, they expect all those around them to change. Denial is favorite defense mechanism for unsafe people.  They have convinced themselves that things are not their fault. When pressed to take responsibility, they often lash out.

 

  1. Unsafe people lie instead of telling the truth

Does anything more need to be said here?

 

 

What I believe are valuable about these 10 traits of unsafe people is becoming aware of them not only in other people but also in our selves.  Certainly, we can never become too safe.  When working with my life coaching clients, I value the opportunity to help them become safer people as I also increase my own awareness of what I need to work on to become safer myself.

 

I suspect that we can identify some unsafe behaviors that Cloud and Townsend may not have been aware of when they published this book.  Let’s increase each other’s awareness by sharing these examples of unsafe behaviors.  Please add those to the comment section below so we can all benefit from your observations.

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.

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

The wonder and awe beyond addiction

I am a big fan of Alcoholics Anonymous. It literally saved my life. When I finished my 12th Step, I had achieved what Bill W. promised: a spiritual awakening. And to me that was the miracle we talk about in AA. I was transformed. My family saw it. My friends saw it. My colleagues saw it. And I saw it.

The 12 Steps brought me to a place of wonder and awe—a place that spiritual awareness opens us up to. It was a fabulous place to be. And, like many of you, I hungered for more.

So what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this sense of wonder and awe? That’s the question that powered my spiritual quest beyond the 12 Steps. It became such a passion that I spent a year and a half becoming certified as a spiritual life coach. It was an intense, amazing, and transformative journey into greater spiritual expansion.

One of my favorite parts of my life coaching practice is to guide clients to greater spiritual awakening. Though I work with clients on issues such as addiction, relationships, depression, anxiety, negative habits, and grieving, I find that all the work benefits when clients are open to adding spiritual development into our sessions together. My practice differs from other life coaches because it is not only about growing up emotionally but also waking up spiritually.

Bill W. himself realized his need for more than AA offered. Years after the publication of the Big Book and the 12 x 12, Bill W. wrote a letter for the AA Grapevine called “Emotional Sobriety.” In it, he shares his own issues with spiritual and emotional growth. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our old, repetitive, self-defeating thoughts and stories.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.

He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. To help us in this task, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction. Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth. In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages. With their encouraging presence, I turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that continued to create obstacles to my own happiness and potential.

So I created this blog called After the 12 Steps and have been writing about how all of us can integrate current psychological theory, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Behavioral Activation, into our spiritual growth. Spiritual writer Ken Wilbur speaks of “enlightened neurotics” who have experienced deep spiritual awakening but remain as children emotionally. He argues that we need to mature both emotionally AND spiritually if we are to live richer, fuller, more meaningful lives.

If you are interested in expanding your own development beyond the 12 Steps, check out my previous post titled “What is Life Coaching?” It’s a companion piece to this one that describes the differences between traditional therapy/counseling and life coaching.

Please visit my webpage at rjhandley.com if you would like to work one-on-one with me on an issue that is keeping you from living the life you would love.
My Best,
RJ Handley

Shadow work is scary stuff

I was about ready to scream.  I’d begun to work through a Ken Wilber shadow integration exercise when I could feel my frustration and anger reaching the shouting stage.   It was bizarre because I rarely get to this point.

 

Then it came to me: it wasn’t Wilber’s exercise itself that had angered me.  It was my ego-mind’s panic about what I was undertaking.  The ego does not want me to get into the shadow elements of my unconscious mind—you know, those parts you’ve hidden from yourself.   My ego likes things just as they are.   Even if the shadow is causing suffering in my life, my ego does all it can to keep me from shining a light on what it has kept in the dark.

 

I see the ego as a barrier between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind.  It’s like the floor between my living space and my basement.  My ego tells me that there is nothing I need from the basement so why go down there.

 

Over the years, I have come to respect how my ego tries to protect me and how it is key to my survival in the world.  But if I am going to thrive rather than just survive, I feel compelled to integrate all parts of myself.  This means facing the unsavory shadow parts of myself that I have locked away in the basement of my unconscious mind.

 

I was still torn though.  While my ego violently objected, Wilber’s words implored me on.  I was at a painful choice point.  Will I be a man or will I be a mouse?

 

Wilber says if you don’t own our shadow, you will be “owned by it.”  This means letting “your disowned drives and feelings shape your life outcomes, entirely apart from your conscious choices.”

 

“Dammit,” I said out loud. “I’m not going to let my shadow push me around!”

 

I continued to read Wilber’s words to steel myself:  “The energy it takes to animate and repress shadow elements and keep them out of awareness is the same energy that cannot be available for developing to the next stage of potential…we must come back into association with that quarantined aspect of the self.  In other words, we enter into relationship with that which was disowned.”

 

Like presenting an FBI profile on some crazed killer, Wilber had informed me how to recognize the shadow:  “It makes you negatively hypersensitive, easily triggered, reactive, irritated, angry, hurt, or upset.  Or it may keep coming up as an emotional tone or mood that pervades your life.”

 

“Crap! I’ve got this shadow stuff bad,” I said to myself.

 

Then I suddenly felt compelled to act.  With Wilber’s 3-2-1 Shadow Process in hand and the cry “I’m going in!” echoing in the room, I descended the “stairs” to face my shadow…And I am so glad I did.

 

Below is Wilber’s process as I have adapted it from his book Integral Life Practice.  I followed the process on my own and then took it to the men’s group I belong to where we took turns applying it.

 

The Shadow Process:

  1. Face it.

Imagine the difficult person sitting in a chair opposite you. Observe that person very closely, and describe the person using 3rd person pronouns like “he,” “him,” “she,” “her.”   This is your opportunity to explore what it is that bothers you about that person.  Don’t hold back—be raw and real as you state out loud your criticisms of this person.  Take the time to describe them fully and in as much detail as possible.

 

  1. Talk to it.

Enter into a simulated dialogue referring to this person as “you” and “your.”  Talk directly to him or her.  Bring a sense of curiosity to your questions.  You may start by asking questions like “Why do you treat people the way you do?  Why are you so defensive?  Why are you so hostile? What happened to you?”  Answer each question you asked by playing the role of that person.  Imagine what the person would say and say that out loud. Allow yourself to be surprised by what emerges in the conversation.

 

  1. Be it.

Now, using the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “mine,” become the person that is sitting in front of you.  See the world, including yourself, entirely from his or her perspective, allowing yourself to discover not only your similarities but how you really are one and the same.  Finally, make a statement of identification: “I am___________” or  “___________ is me.”  Take time to sit with that statement.  The statement will feel “wrong” because it is what you have been busy denying.  However, be willing to try it on for size since it contains at least a kernel of truth.  Find three examples of how that statement is true in your life.

 

The last step of integrating your shadow is to fully re-own it.  Don’t just see the world from the perspective of your shadow for a brief moment; deeply feel the reality of this new awareness for however long it takes to resonate clearly as your own.  Then engage it and integrate it until it becomes you.

 

Wilber says, “You’ll know that the process has worked because you’ll actually feel lighter, freer, more peaceful and open, and sometimes even high or giddy. It makes a new kind of participation in life possible.”

 

Those words rang true for me. I can say with confidence that this is a powerful process.  I really did feel a sense of peace and wholeness when I was finished with it.  Those in my men’s group found it very effective, too.

 

If you’d like to engage this life-altering process, go to my Facebook page where I have posted an example session that also includes my recommendations for the process.   Go to https://www.facebook.com/RJHandleyLifeCoaching.

 

I would love to hear your feedback about the Shadow Process, if you have a moment, so I can make it better!

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 Way to Better Living

I was first formally introduced to the concept of Self-mastery when I began my coursework to become a certified spiritual life coach.  There was nothing that I wanted more than to become Self-mastered.   Ah, to be like Jesus or Buddha. Ah, to have such command of myself.  How fabulous to…

Then the dream collapsed with a thud under the weight of these insane expectations of myself.   I nearly gave up before even starting.  Then I learned that Self-mastery is actually attainable in this life.  Yay! Re-start the music!

In his book, Self-mastery: A Journey Home to Your Inner Self, Hu Dalconzo states that those of us who live just 51 percent of our days from the spirit rather than from the ego can consider themselves Self-mastered.  This gave me great hope.

Quick Psych Tidbits

The term ego-mind or just ego refers to that part of our selves that is devoted to creating a sense of safety, security, and control.   The term spirit is that part of our selves that is divine or eternal.  Some call it the soul.

The Issue

The ego is an exquisite instrument.  It developed in response to a prehistoric environment that was fraught with threats from predators and warring tribes.  And it worked.  We evolved into the world’s dominant species.  But the ego is a fear-based operating system.  In our desire to feel safe, secure, and in control 24/7, we have empowered it to steer and command our lives.

Spiritual psychologists say that the ego makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master.  That’s because it puts our consciousness into hyper-arousal, relentlessly scanning for perceived threats and often misreading situations that really pose no threat at all.

This is why consciousness is so often focused on disturbance rather than on what is pleasant.  As a result, the ego engages the mind to “endlessly reprocess the past and endlessly worry about the future,” according to Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul.

Spirit, on the other hand, is a love-based operating system.  Where the ego is about separation, the spirit is about unity.  These are diametrically opposed operating systems.  And psychologists are recognizing that humans operate out of just two modes:  love or fear.  When we are experiencing fear, we are in the grips of ego.  When we are experiencing love, we are in the domain of Spirit.  We can’t feel fear and feel love at the same time and vice versa.

So the task of Self-mastery is to force the ego to the back seat and place the spirit at the wheel.  My job as a spiritual life coach is to help people through this process.   It involves training the mind to anchor in the present moment rather than forever drifting between past and present.  No small task.  But Self-mastery is about progress, not perfection.

When I teach my clients about Self-mastery, I don’t require them to continually monitor their thinking, being vigilant to replace every negative thought with a positive one.  I don’t even ask them to devote long hours to meditation.  Instead, I teach them two Zen-like concepts: the narrative mind and the experiencing mind.

The narrative mind is the one that is committed to maintaining and contributing to the storyline that we have created from past experiences. What doesn’t comply with that story, it dismisses.  The narrative mind is the fortress of the ego and is fixated on either the past or the future.  Little wonder our thoughts are so often negative, producing feelings of regret and anxiety.

The experiencing mind, on the other hand, is committed to experiencing the present moment.  This is where life happens.  This is the domain of spirit.  And if we pay attention to the here and now, we are often rewarded with positive thoughts and frequently a sense of joy.

Self-mastery, then, is really a practice of living life through the experiencing mind.   By intentionally training our minds to focus on what is happening in the here and now, we can experience the true art of living.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, “Life is this simple:  We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a nice story or a fable; it is true.”

When we make it our goal to see the divine in all things and to feel it within ourselves, we are really experiencing what Self-mastery is all about.  It takes some practice, but the results will transform your life. Join me in pursing this goal of Self-mastery and experience a state of intimate awareness of life that opens us up to all its splendor.  It’s a great ride.

 

 

 

 

We Make Our Own Misery

Sometimes a simple question can change you.   In answering it, my life was transformed.  It was like seeing my world with a new pair of glasses.

For me the most radical changes that occurred in my stepwork was the 4th Step: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

It forced me to stare unblinkingly at the suffering my own diseased thinking had caused me and all those involved in my life.

With that insight, I was able to rebuild my life, not from my own blueprint but from the one my Higher Power drafted for my life.  This rebuilt engine has powered me through the best years of my life.  Just recently I celebrated 10 years of sobriety thanks to God and AA.

As I cast my mind back to the first few months of my sobriety, images appear that are as clear as yesterday.  One of those images involved the step work my sponsor guided me through.

My 4th Step was fraught with illusion, but I still see clearly my sponsor and me sitting in his apartment going over my 4th Step Inventory sheet.  I had no problem coming up with people I resented.  I came up with six people and many situations that had caused me resentment.

Sponsor:  You did a good job filling out all the columns of the sheet.   It’s real thorough.  All except for the last column.  There’s nothing written for any of these people.

RJ:   You mean the column about “Where Was I to Blame”?

Sponsor: That’s it.

RJ:  A stock form doesn’t work for everybody.  That column doesn’t apply for me.

Sponsor: Why?

RJ:  Because these are the people who pissed ME off.   Why should I blame myself for their bad behavior?

Sponsor:  You have here that you resent your boss because you think she is incompetent?

RJ: Yes

Sponsor:  Did you talk to her about it?

RJ:  No, I didn’t think I should have to.  I did talk about her to my colleagues who I trusted.

Sponsor:  So you bad-mouthed her behind her back?

RJ:  Well, I guess. Yeah.

Sponsor:  Could it be that one or two of them told her what you said?

RJ:  Maybe.  That’s possible.

Sponsor:   If you didn’t like the way she led, why didn’t you just find another job?

RJ: What?

Sponsor:  Yeah, maybe you would have found a job with a boss you could get along with.

I was struck silent.  New light dawned.

Bill W. talks about the insanity of our thinking when we were in our cups.

I sat dumbfounded in my chair.   I had been miserable for three years working under that woman.  Why the hell didn’t I think of that solution?  I could have just applied for another job!  It would have been that easy.  Instead, I remained in that job suffering and causing my colleagues to suffer because of my own issues with my boss.

Although this would seem to be a minor revelation to non-addicts, it was like the heavens opened and God spoke to me a colossal truth.

Aware of the magnitude of the moment, my sponsor turned to page 133 of the BB and read: “We made our own misery.”

New light was cast into the corners of my life.  I thanked my sponsor for this revelation and set off determined to re-examine my 4th Step Inventory and to find the part I played in my own misery for each resentment.

That moment changed my life.  In fact, it is one of the most important shifts I have made in my 10 years of sobriety.  It rewired my brain and changed the way I respond to life.

It is incredibly liberating to take responsibility, even if my part is only 1 percent, for the people and events in my life that have caused me to feel resentment.  As long as I blame others for the wrongs I perceive they have done to me, I do not have to change.  But to grow, I must change.  The snake that cannot shed its skin will die.  And I will die if I do not follow this Big Book truth:  that any disturbance I feel is because there is something wrong with me—something that needs to change.

Thank God for this lesson!

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.

Kindly,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach