A Gentle Path Through The Twelve Steps
As our awareness grows, we also begin noticing some wonderful and unsettling things about life.
Life is not random or meaningless.
We observe that events often come together in a helpful or meaningful—but often unpredictable and unexpected—way. Carl Jung called this process synchronicity. Events appear to have a purpose, even when they involve disappointment, struggle, or even disaster. The right people show up in our lives just when we need them. We see a Power greater than ourselves at work. We realize that we are not alone.
None of us knows what is going to happen.
Even as we recognize patterns and synchronicity, we also notice that the next moment is always uncertain and unpredictable. We are always in free fall, not knowing what the next day or moment will bring. We also realize, perhaps for the first time, that life has always been this way. The Twelve Steps and Twelve Principles support us in accepting this ever-present uncertainty, but they do not protect us from it.
We feel a call.
We see that our life matters, that everyone’s life matters, and that there is purpose behind it all—though not necessarily a purpose that can be summed up in words. We also feel a personal call, direction, or responsibility—one that demands concrete action from us. At the time, in early recovery, this may simply be a call to recover from our addiction. Later in recovery as we begin to apply the Principles behind the Steps, it involves something more, such as a renewed commitment to our family, our work, or our life mission. Often this call appears in an entirely unexpected context, in what we might call a MacGuffin moment. The term MacGuffin was coined by film director Alfred Hitchcock. It originally referred to an event or situation that generated the central narrative of a film.
In recovery, especially after we’ve established our sobriety and freedom from the obsession with addictions, many of us experience our own spiritual MacGuffin moments. Suddenly we know what we need to do. We intuitively feel the importance of this call and the ways in which it connects us to others. We begin to feel that our life has a larger arc.
MacGuffin moments are rarely moments of delight. Usually when we feel a call, it is not something we would ever choose; often it’s precisely what we’ve tried to avoid. Yet when we hear a call, we must say yes to it. It will not give us peace until we do.
Moses did not want to lead the Israelites; he wanted his brother Aaron to take on that job. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo reluctantly leaves the Shire with the mysterious ring, and soon wishes he were back home. But the wizard Gandalf tells him, “We cannot choose the time we live in. We can only choose what we do with the time we are given.”
Whatever form our particular call takes, it usually requires us to struggle and face difficulties. We may have to give up a cherished possession, belief, or relationship. These are all signals that the classic heroic journey has begun. For most of us, this journey won’t involve thousand-mile ocean voyages, the rescuing of kidnapped princesses, or a search for immortality. More likely, it will be a call to get (or stay) married, or take a new job, or move, or begin volunteering for an important cause. But that does not make the journey any less heroic or less challenging.
As we mature in recovery, we often experience uncertainty, meaning, and a call all at once. This creates a spiritual paradox: we see that our life is following a meaningful arc, but we don’t know what this arc is. Still, day by day, our life slowly starts to make sense.
The universe is not malevolent.
Albert Einstein observed that “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” For many of us in recovery, this presents another paradox. Many of us have suffered at the hands of hostile or abusive people. We must not deny our past or try to sugarcoat or ignore life’s dark side. As we work the Steps and Principles, however, we come to see that life calls us to grow rather than to simply suffer. Even in our struggles— sometimes especially in our struggles—we find wisdom and meaning.
The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah contains an unusual creation story. God is lonely, so He creates human beings in the hope that, over time, they will develop enough awareness to keep company with Him. But the only way for humans to become this aware is to struggle with difficult challenges.
Buddhism offers a less poetic but similar observation. The Buddhist word for challenges and struggles is dukkha, which literally means “a wheel out of kilter.” Buddhism doesn’t propose that we try to get rid of challenges and struggles. Instead, it urges us to get comfortable with facing them, because they will always be a part of our life.
Awareness leads to sanity.
As our awareness grows, the focus of our life gradually shifts. We pay less attention to our own fantasies and magical thinking, and more to what is real. We stay alert for people who could become our guides, allies, and mentors. We spend less time in self-pity and more in gratitude. We expend less effort in trying to get things for ourselves and more in serving others. We recognize that what we want to avoid may be precisely what we need to embrace. We learn to face our fears, and the truth. In the process, our inner observer becomes wiser and more stable. It creates new mental pathways that enable it to think its way down into our feelings, and that enables feelings to rise up into our brain.
We also learn to pay attention to what matters, and to be less distracted by what doesn’t. As a result, we find ourselves able to get more done, and do it better. We become more creative. We are able to generate more new ideas, approaches, and options for dealing with our challenges.
Dr. Carnes is the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) and Gentle Path Press. His extensive background in the field of addiction therapy led Dr. Carnes to develop multiple cutting-edge recovery programs aimed at treating addictive disorders. He serves as executive director of the Gentle Path Program, a residential treatment program for sexual addiction in Hattiesburg, Miss.
With more than 30 years in the sexual addiction treatment field, Dr. Carnes continues to spread his extensive knowledge as a speaker, presenter and interview subject. His assessment tools and related materials deliver an unprecedented approach to addiction recovery for practitioners of addiction treatment and sexual addicts.