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.

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

Relationships and Early Sobriety

Relationships with other people are one of life’s greatest challenges, especially for those of us new to recovery.

 

This is the reason why we learn in AA to avoid romantic relationships during the first year of our recovery.  Although establishing them may be one of our greatest achievements in recovery, the challenge of an intimate relationship is too great for us in our fragile first year.

 

Many of us have returned to the dumpster of addiction because we ventured into romance before we were ready. Recovery is as much about getting healthy as it is about getting real.  By getting real I mean facing the sources of our pain and misery.  For years—even decades—we have shielded ourselves from pain through drugs and alcohol.  The beauty of pain is that it provides the catalyst for change.

 

When that pain reaches a critical threshold, non-addicts summon the courage to finally change their ways.  For the addict, however, the pain that would normally provide transformation is numbed out by alcohol and drugs.  That is why—if we are being truly honest with ourselves—we addicts are all emotionally immature.

 

Bill Wilson was acutely aware of this.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” published in a 1958 edition AA Grapevine, Bill W. confides in us about his demands for approval, prestige, and security from others.  “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually.”   It took Bill W. nearly 20 years after his last drink to face the pain and suffering these demands caused himself and others.

 

By denying our pain, we have denied our own growth.  So how can we take on the ultimate life challenge—intimate relationship—when we lack emotional maturity, the very thing that makes relationships work?   And how can we be truly intimate with another when we have never been emotionally intimate with ourselves?

 

The answer is the AA meeting.  For many of us, we walk through the doors of AA for the first time very alone in the world.  If our friends and loved ones haven’t washed their hands of us, then we have done the job for them through isolating, one of the addict’s favorite defenses against pain—and growth.  One of the greatest gifts of AA comes from meetings. They are the classrooms for emotional maturity.

 

In them, we discover the power of connection.  We come to the truth that we can’t stay sober on our own.  But this discovery is the easy part.  Then we must do the heavy lifting.  And that is clearing away all the stones we have put in the wall between us and other people—to finally be vulnerable.  Without vulnerability, people cannot connect with us. Without connection, we cannot experience deep relationship, which is ultimately the source of all our cravings.

 

Yes, vulnerability involves heavy lifting. But we get the help we need in meetings when AA veterans show us through their sharing what vulnerability looks like.  And it is a thing of absolute beauty.

 

This modeling of vulnerability gives us the confidence to do the same in meetings.  And if we can be vulnerable in meetings, we can be vulnerable in our relationships outside meetings.  But before we venture into the advanced coursework of intimate relationship, we must get the practice in connection and vulnerability we need with the friends we meet in the classrooms of AA.

 

Incentive powers personal growth.  One of the greatest incentives is relationships.  And for good reason.  They are the fastest path to personal growth.  Other people are mirrors that show us how we are playing in the world.  Those mirrors reveal to us the blind spots that have created so much division within ourselves and between ourselves and others.  These blind spots are the reason we have continually stumbled on our path to emotional maturity.  Bill W. learned this lesson in his own life.

 

So we need to heed the advice of our AA elders to chop wood and carry water during our first year of recovery.  Through the 12 Steps and the friendships we form in AA, we develop the emotional tools we need to finally become successful in the ultimate challenge of our lives.

 

And the sublime beauty of intimate relationship is the ultimate payoff for all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to embrace it.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

Ways to Socialize Soberly

I’m going to make a fool of myself.  I’ll feel out of place.  People will see how anxious I am.  If I don’t say much, people won’t know how boring I am.

 

These are the things that I would tell myself when I thought of social situations involving more than just a couple people.  If you can relate to this, then welcome to the world of social anxiety.  And, yes, it can be a huge burden and, yes, there are ways to overcome it.

 

Amazingly, it has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with my own social anxiety.  Many people shield themselves behind friends in social situations. Others become wall flowers.  Still others avoid socializing at all costs and, sadly, live a very lonely life.  For me, I discovered a cheat for social anxiety in my junior year of high school.  And that was alcohol. Unfortunately, when we continually use any coping behavior, we never address the issue—we only hide from it.  Soon I was drinking whenever I socialized…and then when I was alone as well.

 

The fact that nearly all people experience social anxiety should be an assuring thought to anyone.  But it wasn’t for me.  When I looked around at parties, I saw everyone else appearing so relaxed and so confident with others.  Why couldn’t I be like that?  Then I discovered pre-party drinking and embraced the magic of alcohol.  When I drank, I became the person I wanted to meet.  The more I relied on this social crutch, the more weight I put on it.

 

Dinner parties with guests sitting around a dining room table gave me the greatest social jitters.  In these situations, people could too easily see just how much I was drinking. I felt that I had to limit my drinking which reduced the effectiveness of my coping behavior.  Eventually, all my decisions about social situations boiled down to this:  If I couldn’t drink freely, I wouldn’t attend.

 

That crutch, however, became as heavy as a boat anchor, and it plunged me into the abyss of alcoholism. From the clarity of recovery, I clearly see that social anxiety was one of the most powerful forces that drove my drinking. I had a living problem and a drinking solution.  Now, in my tenth year of sobriety, I still push myself to more frequently attend social gatherings. It’s amazing how confronting our problems reduces their power over us.  Does social anxiety still haunt me?  For the most part, no.

 

But that old phantom returned this week.  I have a fairly big dinner party I promised my girlfriend that I would attend with her this coming weekend.  These situations are my Achilles heal.  With the invitation came a rush of anxious thoughts and a tightening in my stomach.  Yes, I have made progress with social anxiety in my recovery, but I’m still not immune to it.

 

This time I finally decided to seek out the advice of professionals.  This time I would take a different approach. This time I decided to confront my social anxiety head on, armed with new techniques rather than just ignoring the issue.

 

In his wonderful article “7 Techniques for Overcoming Social Phobia,” therapist Mark Tyrrell provides easy to implement ways of relieving social anxiety.

Here are his suggestions:

  1. Prepare to relax

Tyrrell says worrying is self-programming.  When we worry about an upcoming social situation, we are projecting ourselves into that situation and seeing ourselves failing once again.  Little wonder we experience anxiety when we are actually in that social setting.  Instead, he recommends that we take a warm bath or sit in a comfortable chair and visualize ourselves in that situation looking relaxed and confident.  Repeatedly doing this will create positive associations with socializing.

 

  1. Seek out social situations

The more we avoid something the more we send the message to the unconscious mind that it is dangerous and should be avoided.  This is true of socializing.  The solution is to actively put ourselves in social situations both in our imaginations (visualizations) and in person.   Soon, Tyrrell says, our conscious minds will begin to see socializing as safe and normal for us—even something to look forward to.

  1. Look at your surroundings

Oftentimes, when we are socializing, it is like we are walking around with a mirror in front of us, continually viewing how anxious we imagine ourselves looking and telling ourselves negative messages like “I’m boring.”  Tyrrell recommends moving our focus outward to the people in the room and to the room itself.  Notice the color of the walls, the room décor, and what other people are wearing.  After all, social situations are about focusing our attention away from ourselves.

 

  1. Ask questions

Tyrrell says that social phobia is all about worrying what other people think of us.  So shift the focus to other people by asking them questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” answers.  Google “Forty Fun Icebreakers.”

 

  1. Switch off your imagination

Imagination is one of our greatest assets but not when it comes to imagining what people are thinking of us.  When we find ourselves trying to mind read, we need to shut it down.  Yes, we can influence what others think of us, but we can’t control it, so why try, Tyrrell says.

 

  1. What do you want?

Our minds need positive instructions.  Tyrrell suggests asking ourselves, “How do I want to feel in these situations?”  He recommends closing our eyes and feeling how we feel when we were in the company of our loved ones.  Now, in social situations, bring those warm feelings with you and make a habit of sending them out to everyone.

 

  1. On being yourself

When we try to present ourselves as perfect, we come off cold and stilted. People who are willing to allow themselves to be a bit of a fool, Tyrrell says, are more socially confident.  People actually connect with us better when we are willing to show ourselves as flawed.  We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t.

 

 

And here is one of my own.  I have a habit of looking away immediately after someone asks me a question.  People can associate that with lying.  So lately I have been standing in front of a mirror and asking myself common questions I would be asked at a party.  I work on keeping eye contact with myself while answering.

 

All people suffer some degree of social anxiety. For alcoholics, we have relied on alcohol to provide us with the social “grease” to help us relax in social situations.  Other people become addicted to their own coping behaviors.  After the 12 Steps, we face the challenge of socializing cleanly. But if we take on this challenge with the same courage as we did our 4th Steps, and we apply these seven techniques, we can overcome our social anxieties.  We then look forward to socializing rather than dreading it. And what a feeling of accomplishment that will be!

The Transformational Power of Relationships

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In the previous blog I mentioned that painful experiences will repeat themselves until we drill down to the root of the problem.  Even after our 12-Step work, one of the common categories of pain that we alcoholics and addicts still experience is relationships.  Jacquelyn Small, author of Becoming Naturally Therapeutic, says, “The alcoholic is terribly deficient in the area of intimate relationships—a deficiency that is both a cause and an effect of his drinking” (63).

Both the Big Book and the 12 x 12 say that relationships bring us continuous and recurring trouble.   Why is this?  As alcoholics and addicts, we became masters at avoiding life’s essential pain.  Pain is the greatest catalyst for change. Yet, when we continually used alcohol or drugs to numb us from pain, we cheated ourselves of the spiritual and emotional power of pain to spur our growth.  Maturity is the product of facing pain, not avoiding it.

Relationship experts like Guy Finley say that our interactions with life and with others cannot be any deeper or satisfying than the understanding we have of ourselves.  I remember a fellow AA asking a sponsee who said he wanted to kill himself, “Why would you want to kill someone you don’t even know?” We laughed at this, but the truth stung each of us.  Remember all the times we used isolation to keep us feeling safe?  Unfortunately, it isolated us from understanding who we are. And if we don’t understand ourselves, how are we to understand others? It’s little wonder we are ill-equipped to sustain long-lasting relationships.

It may seem paradoxical that the very thing that creates pain—relationships—is the doorway out of our pain.   Finley says that relationships are literally a mirror.  In them we can see how we are playing in the world.  Relationships can rid us of the blind spots that have sabotaged all of our relationships. “Until we are conscious of [our issues],” Finley says, “they control our actions and reactions.” So self-awareness through relationships provides the best chance we have to grow and develop.

I encourage all of us to seek out relationships with others.  Let us use that same transformational desperation that brought us to the rooms of AA to decommission the defenses that we have employed to build walls between ourselves and others.  Let us be intrepid in our desire to connect with others on a deeper level.  And let us dare to remain vulnerable to ourselves and others even when it comes at a terrible cost to our pride.

In the next blog, I will provide more wisdom from relationship experts

 

Recovery Step 13

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As you know from My Story, I owe my life to AA.  Its fellowship was like a loving hand that lifted me out of the deep trench I had dug with my blackout drinking.  Because of AA, I now have 10 years of sobriety.

To me, the Big Book is an inspired masterpiece.  Yet, Bill W. never intended it to be the last word on spirituality and personal growth.  Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, Bill W. wrote the letter “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine.  In it he says, “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 malady.

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. In response, 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 have turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that created seeming insurmountable obstacles to my own happiness and potential.  Through this blog, I will be honored to share some of the insights and lessons I have learned that will help you to experience more moments of bliss on this earth.