God, As You Understand Him, For the Athiest (or otherwise non-Christian)
Resolving issues with Atheism in Recovery from Addiction.
AA, NA and other spirituality-based programs for recovery will tell you that one of the first steps to recovery is to come to believe in a Power greater than yourself and make a decision to turn yourself over to the care of God, as you understood Him. Yet, in the first pages of both the Big Book and the Narcotics Anonymous book, the author admits that most addicts have lost all faith or began with no faith in any God. Part of the path of Recovery in these programs is to make the realization that there is a higher power. People may have lost faith that this power exists because of their own personal circumstance and finding that faith in a more religious meaning of God brings them the peace that the program encourages them to find. What, though, does the Athiest, have? Many people will shy away from or quickly leave these programs due to all the “God Talk.” Though it is true that many programs do directly quote or read from the Bible, and therefore impose a Christian definition of God, there is a way to resolve the God issue for the Athiest.
“As we understand Him” leaves a lot to interpretation. In my opinion, most of the persons who are responsible for creating this clause intend to respect the major differences in religions and names of Deities. Allah instead of God and that sort of thing. It seems that they’ve left no room for someone who, for whatever reason, does not accept that there is any type of power outside of them. Those who don’t even believe in simple concepts like luck or fate, much less a big man in the sky are left the ponder, “How, then, can I accept a power greater than myself?
I find the answer to be, you cannot. Does that mean you should leave the program and stop at Step 2? No. Yourself is simplified to your and self. How well do you know your self? You’re an addict, an alcoholic, compulsive, defeated, addicted. You have lost your self completely. You can admit that. That is, if you’ve made it through Step 1. A psychologically healthy person, someone who is far from where you are, doesn’t know themselves completely. Knowing your self is a practice that takes a lifetime and daily, consistent work. Daily, consistent work is another concept that is embraced by AA, NA, etc. So let’s explore your “self” as you can understand Him.
In order to do this, we have to get a little psychological. If you are scoffing at God, you’re probably scoffing at the word Psychology, too. Simply put, psychology is just the study of your “self.” You can admit that you are there, you have a mind, and you’re not always sure how it works. There’s nothing more to accept than that to accept that psychology is worth giving a little bit of an exploration. You want to know your self, you have to study your self. So don’t stop reading/listening/caring at psychological like you stopped reading/listening/caring at the word God.
God, as I understand him (or her).
First, I’d like to say that I am not an addict or alcoholic. I have lived with addicts and alcoholics. I am well read in and have come to embrace the concepts of AA and NA and the various Anons. However, at first, I stopped short at the word God, no matter how anyone understood Him. I am not exactly an Athiest, but I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in God period. I’m not expecting to at any point in my life. However, I managed to resolve this issue. I resolved it the 4th time I read Narcotics Anonymous and I resolved it on Page 45 of my copy. Here is what it said that finally sparked:
“In quiet moments of meditation, God’s will can become evident to us. Quieting the mind through meditation brings an inner peace that brings us into contact with the God within us. A basic premise of meditation is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain conscious contact unless our mind is still. The usual, never-ending succession of thoughts has to cease for progress to be made. So our preliminary practice is aimed at stilling the mind, and letting the thoughts that arise die a natural death. We leave our thoughts behind as the meditation part of the Eleventh step becomes a reality for us.”
I started furiously scribbling notes with my highlighter in the margins of the page. It occurred to me, at that moment, the book in front of me just said: “the God within us.” Within us.
Abraham Maslow said in his Theory of Human Motivation:
"What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."
Maslow gave some characteristics of self-actualized people. Some of them including that they are realistic, accept themselves, they are autonomous and individual, motivated by continual growth, lack worry, take responsibility for themselves, appreciate the world regardless of their experience, feel strengthened and renewed by their experiences, and can confirm to rules and social norms while still being open. Many different theories reflect the concept of self-actualization as a source of human behavior. Self-actualization, even if called by a different name, is a primary goal of Recovery.
So how does this relate to God, as you understand Him? Replace the word God with Self. There’s a fairly simple explanation. We, as animals, have a natural instinct. We are born with the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We cry if we are uncomfortable and are content when we are not. We seek what makes us fulfilled and avoid what causes us pain. We eat. We sleep. We shelter ourselves. We do what we have to do to survive, but we also do what we want to do to cause less pain and more pleasure. Is this not how they ended up as addicts in the first place? However, when the addict finds out that their pleasure seeking or pain avoiding ended up causing them pain, they realize that there is a flaw in their thinking. It is a chemical, biological, brain-changing flaw, but it is also a behavioral flaw. Their natural tendency for safety, shelter, and survival is disrupted and confused. Their tendency to seek pleasure is even more confused. Natural instinct brought them pain. They can no longer believe in just their self. Their self has betrayed them. This is where God, as you understand him, steps in. We put a label on a concept that is more reliable. The concept of doing what will create this pleasure.
Drugs and alcohol bring pleasure. So does sex. So does lip balm for some people. It isn’t about the drug. It’s about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. I have no addiction; I seek pleasure and avoid pain. You are just as human as I am. The only difference between you and I is that I did not try to seek pleasure or avoid pain through drugs or alcohol. If I ever did, it didn’t work for me for whatever reason. When I realized these things didn’t work for me, I tried something else. Replacing addiction is no different from changing any harming behavior. Your addiction has just done more damage to your natural brain function. But did it do more damage to your natural tendency to want to self actualize? When the addict hit that place where they realized that their addiction was causing them pain and not pleasure, they were employing their own need to self-actualize. Whether they took action or not, they were employing this need. Their own self told them that something was wrong and prompted them to want to seek pleasure and not the pain that their addiction has caused.
Pleasure is not really pleasure if it has a negative consequence and no positive consequence. If someone has a one-night stand, for example, their immediate pleasure may result in a feeling of pain the next day and no later feeling of satisfaction. If you work out for 45 minutes and feel sore the next day, you may have pain and no pleasure, but the pleasure comes when you are stronger, healthier, or have more endurance, a lasting pleasurable consequence. A non-addict can drink for pleasure, and then feel the pain of facing their actions or having a hangover the next day. They tend to say, “I will never drink again.” Avoid the pain. Addicts think in instant gratification. They think in instant pleasure or pain and disregard whether there will be later pleasure or pain as a result. Their friends and family can see that, but they sometimes cannot.
So, again, what does this have to do with God? God is a concept for anyone. They see God as they see it. It may be a heavenly body with a son named Jesus. It may not. Any way it is perceived, it is perceived, not seen. It is a concept with no concrete manifestation. It cannot be touched. You see it as you see it. But universally it will symbolize the same type of things to people. It will symbolize morality, how you are supposed to live to be a “good” person. It will symbolize consequence, how you will be punished if you are not a “good” person. And it will symbolize hope. Hope encompasses both a possibility of being what you want to be and the possibility that someone will help you. When people feel powerless over a situation, they pray to God. When they are thankful that things have worked out, they thank God. When they feel they cannot help themselves, they ask for help from God. They use God to rely on as a concept of hope when they feel that there is nothing worldly left for them to rely on. I, who doesn’t believe in God, have gotten on my knees and prayed with everything I have for help. Why? I had nothing else. I was desperate. I needed the concept to get me through. God did not get me through, though. I just got through.
So is our self-actualizing tendency a conscious concept like God? Not necessary. It is unconscious for most people. A baby does not know why they cry when they are hungry or uncomfortable. They just do it. A person may not know why they act the way they do when they are all grown up and know why they cry when they are uncomfortable. They may just know some surface reason that they cry. They may have no concept of what the real source of their discomfort is. You know that your heart beats, but you probably cannot see it. If you do get some type of medical equipment and can prove to yourself that your heart is beating and see it with your own eyes, you don’t know why it is beating. If you are a cardiologist or a neuroscientist and can see the basic concept of the bodily function that creates the heartbeat, you still don’t know how it works exactly. This question hasn’t been answered by science. But you know it does beat. Any person can say that with confidence. You may not know that you do not want pain and that you do want pleasure, even if that pleasure is just the absence of pain. If you do know, you do not know exactly how it works. This question hasn’t been answered by science, either.
More simply, God, as I know him (or her) is your natural inborn instinct to self-actualize.
So how do you reconcile this with the steps? God is named in seven of the twelve steps. Powerlessness over your self is where you start. First, name the difference between yourself and your Self. Yourself is the person entering Recovery. Your Self is your natural self-actualizing tendency. Although this sentence may bring a lot of debate, it certainly helps you to distinguish between you and this God concept you need to reconcile.
The Twelve Steps
Step One: Admitting you’re powerless over your addiction and your life is unmanageable.
How can you go with this concept of Self instead of God if the first thing you have to do is give up that you have no power over yourself. Alright. Your body and your natural tendency are not the same thing. Your brain has changed, so your idea of pleasure and pain has changed with it. Your biological responses are not the same. Your synapses are firing all wacky. Because of this, you need help restoring your natural tendency to its infant state. You need help with the rewiring and because of this, you cannot just rely on yourself. You are no longer understanding your tendency to want to seek pleasure and avoid pain the way I do. You are, in essence, powerless to follow your natural tendency to self-actualize at this point, because your unconscious has forgotten what it means.
This requires a short explanation of how the brain functions as related to this:
Reward and Memory
Think of your brain as a system of dirt roads. Daily tasks like getting dressed or eating are their own independent roads. You travel these roads every day. These roads are beaten down, familiar and have no overgrowth. Traveling these roads is easy. Then there are other roads that aren’t traveled so much. For example, you may have gone on vacation to the beach when you were young. Occasionally, you catch a scent or taste that reminds you of this vacation. You travel that road, but the less you think about that vacation, the less you remember about it. The road isn’t so easy to travel anymore. The road is overgrown from non-use. Eventually, you may not be able to travel this road anymore and your childhood vacation may be forgotten forever. The road, though, is still in your brain even if it not used or accessible. This is how memory works in the brain. This is why you remember some things and forget others. Your memory is made up of billions of little dirt roads that are all in different phases of use and overgrowth.
Dope. Why do you call it that? Because drugs, simply put, break into the bank vault of the brain’s reward system and give you the easy money of dopamine (the brain’s natural reward system, a pleasure maker) without the hard work of a job. Your brain then makes a dirt road straight from drugs to pleasure. The more you use this road, the more easily traveled it is. Eventually you’re taking the easiest road to get where you’re going.
Doing this, you are changing the natural structure of your brain. You’re taking the easy road you created instead of the road that non-addicted people are taking because they haven’t created the easy road you have. Eventually, though, you travel that road so much that it starts to get ruts, warp and shut down. You’ve overwhelmed your brain because this road is not supposed to be here. Your pleasure system then shuts down. Now you’re traveling this road, but when you get to the reward end of your brain, there is a big “ROAD CLOSED” sign right before the happy ending. The road, though, stays there and it might get overgrown, but it will always be there. That’s why they call addiction a disease that cannot be cured. You made the road, you have to chose to let it get overgrown. It will always be there. This also explains why your natural tendency for pleasure is no longer reliable. You have broken your brain.
Step Two: Came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Ourselves, not our Selves. Remember, you’ve rewired your brain, but those old roads that you were born with are still there. You don’t need to label the concept God to understand that you need help to clear the brush of your natural reward system and get your pleasure-track working again. Look, if you’ve believed the things I’ve written so far and taken them as something you can believe, you have then already came to believe in a power greater then yourself. You believe that you can be restored to sanity. You’re open to trying to change your brain back to a more natural state.
Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him
Replace this with: I am making a decision to understand that I cannot trust myself as I exist and I am willing to turn my life back over to my Self as it originally was. I am open to understanding that I can’t do this in my current state and I need help from my unconscious Self. I have it inside of me, but I cannot access its power without assistance. I will not trust myself, but will trust that I have a more trusted Self inside of me.
Skip to Step Six: I am entirely ready to have God removal all these defects of character.
Repeat step Three, only this time, truly believe that you are able and ready. This is different to being open to the understanding of it and accepting it. This is where you really believe it and prepare to do the hard work of reconfiguring your highway system.
Step Seven: We humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings
Replace with: I will ask for help and start exercising my natural reward system in my brain. In this step, you are not utilizing God or your own Self. You, instead, are becoming content with the fact that you need help and that you will have to learn from others how you will restore your natural roads. I disagree with the text of this step because it implies some easy way out for God to remove something. First, you remove nothing. Your brain will have everything in there that has always been. Second, your only shortcoming at this point is that you have rewired your brain and suppressed your natural self-actualization. That shortcoming, though, is flooded with a million other perceived shortcomings. Those perceived shortcomings are worked out in other steps. No one or concept can remove what has happened to your brain or remove your addiction.
Step Eleven: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Jackpot! This step is the part where you finally start to slow down and clean the crap that has been clogging your gutters. If you don’t like the word prayer, remove it and replace it with some word you like better. Prayer, though, can be defined as a petition, or an entreaty. A simple asking. Meditation can be replaced with a word you like better like relaxing or sitting or just chillin’. The words don’t matter. The concept does. Slow down, sit down, clear your mind of all the debris floating at the top and start to listen to the old natural, inborn part of you that naturally steers you from pain and creates pleasure. A child knows, without thinking, that touching something hot burns. Your subconscious also knows, without your thinking, what hurts and what feels good. You just have to listen to it a little more closely and bring it to the surface.
Step Twelve: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principals in all our affairs.
Continue to self-actualize. Period.