If you’re anything like I was when I first started attending 12-step groups, you spent the prayer portion of the meeting just praying for this whole prayer business to be over already. Whether we’re born skeptics, raised in the world of secular humanism, or still recoiling from the nasty aftertaste of a religious upbringing, some of us find the God thing hard to swallow. For years, being allergic to God kept me from even setting foot in the rooms that would ultimately revolutionize my life. But once I finally got into the program, I met many others who had come to recovery with the same set of reservations—and stayed clean and sober. Somehow they found a way to make the 12 steps (yes, even the God ones) work for them, and eventually I did too. From one skeptic to another, here are some strategies to make the concept of a Higher Power more accessible.
1) Use your fellowship as your Higher Power.
This is a good place to start because it’s easy to believe in something that you can actually see, hear… sometimes even smell. Maybe you’re not quite convinced that the program will work for you, but you can see it working for many of the folks sitting in those rooms with you. It’s hard to deny the power of AA or NA when you listen to people share how it kept them sober through enough tragedy to fill several seasons of Downton Abbey. Stick around the rooms, and you’ll see that the power in the fellowship itself is greater than the sum of its all-too-human parts. There’s a certain collective magic to being “part of” rather than a bunch of disconnected individuals suffering along. And since God is supposed to be loving, it fits perfectly—outside of Venice Beach, when have you ever gotten so many hugs from random strangers? So if praying at the end of meetings makes you squeamish, just pray to the loving presence of the group. At least you know they can hear you.
2) Use nature, or one aspect of it, as your Higher Power.
If you’re looking for a power greater than yourself and coming up dry, sit down and watch Cosmos. That will blow your mind and get you feeling right-sized pronto. A Higher Power doesn’t have to be supernatural. It just has to be bigger than you are. Recently I heard someone at a meeting summarize the God of her understanding this way: “It gets light in the morning and dark at night, and I don’t do that.” Getting out into the wild can put you back in touch with your own cosmic smallness faster than you can say Henry David Thoreau. But no need to pack your bags for Yosemite—I’ve had moments of profound spiritual awareness just walking around the neighborhood on a sunlit morning. People have worshiped the sun for ages. Or maybe you click better with the moon or stars. When I pray, I actually picture the ocean, which as you science buffs know is where life on Earth began. It doesn’t get more miraculous than that.
3) All you need is Love.
While “God is Love” may sound like the kind of gag-inducing phrase your elderly neighbor might have needlepointed and mounted on her wall, it can be a useful entry point into spirituality. Here’s another trick I heard at a meeting: every time you make a decision, ask yourself, “Is this coming from love, or is it coming from fear?” You can think of actions that are coming from love as “God’s will” for you, with the fear-based actions being that pesky “self-will” we’re supposed to have surrendered. A similar tactic might be thinking of God as simply “good” and God’s will as “goodwill” toward yourself and others. If throwing in an extra letter makes it seem less icky, go for it.
4) Look into Eastern spiritual philosophies.
Although a lot of people think of it as a religion, Buddhism doesn’t have a God. Neither does Taoism. But both these practices still embrace the concept of a power greater than ourselves. In fact, for Buddhists the whole idea of the “self” is an illusion. Talk about putting a dent in your ego. Though Buddhism rejects the notion of a creator deity, it embraces “the system of causal relationships underlying the universe,” or pratityasamutpada if you want to sound super intelligent. Basically, it means everything’s connected. Even though there is no Buddhist God, there are Buddhist prayers. If you have a hard time imagining that God is going to swoop down and personally make sure you get that job offer you’ve been praying for, try instead to extend love to the interconnected web of people out there in the universe whose actions have somehow all converged on this decision.
Taoism is a little different. The word “Tao” just means “way,” and the whole idea of the Tao is that it’s indefinable and up to each person to discover the Tao in their own way. Taoism is especially useful in recovery because of its emphasis on acceptance and openness rather than resistance. Famous addict-turned-fabricator James Frey found that reading the Tao Te Ching was the only spiritual element that clicked with him in rehab. Both these belief systems take some exploration and practice to get into, but for anyone looking for a less-theistic route to enlightenment, they both have a lot to offer.
5) Fake it ’til you make it.
This common recovery slogan has its fans and its detractors, but as far as spirituality is concerned, it’s on the nose. If none of the suggestions above really resonate with you, give it some time, and the right thing will come to you. But don’t wait to start practicing prayer and meditation. It sounds crazy, but you don’t actually have to believe in anything to pray; if you just suck it up and do it, eventually it will start to click. It’s kind of like playing the violin: it may take awhile to be anything but noise, but you’re never going to get any music out of that thing if you don’t practice. Even if it doesn’t feel genuine, the simple act of asking someone for help is a huge step in the right direction, even if that someone is the moon, the collective consciousness of the universe, or the Force from Star Wars.
So there you have it: a whole lot of words for just one thing. There are as many different Higher Powers as there are addicts and alcoholics. Some people spend their entire lives looking for God. If you think everyone else in that meeting room has it all figured out, talk to a few of them. Find out how they came to believe, and what worked for them. And most of all, keep coming back.
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