"A spiritual life is one lived in that awareness and growth."

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Recovering Spirituality

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Episode 55 -- October 22, 2020

Step 10: Autumn Spirituality in Recovery

Autumn is here and we are living through unprecedented times. But let's never forget that while we've never been in this place before, others have gone before us, and they've had their own challenges and strife during their recovery. Marya Hornbacher, in this excerpt from Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power, weaves a story for us about her own experience in the world of the Spirit. She beautifully reminds us about how the times of spiritual harvest in our lives are times when we feel the richness of life in all its seasons--when we feel the effects of work we have done as well as an awareness of the work that lies ahead. We have awareness. We see where we've been. We feel it. And we continue on our journey.

Take in her experience and either look forward to your own or take a moment to relive your memories. Your recovery and your progress are yours and no pandemic can take them from you.

This excerpt is from Waiting by Marya Hornbacher and has been edited for brevity.

Autumn rushes into the city on a sharp wind, spinning whorls of just-fallen leaves down the streets. The trees are a kaleidoscope of color, an explosion of pinks and oranges and yellows and reds. In the late afternoon, I shove my hands into my pockets and walk, under an improbably blue sky, up the hill, around the lake, and through the neighborhoods to the steps of the church where I go to my Tuesday meeting. I do this weekly, have been doing it for more than a decade. But this afternoon, the air seems clearer, the smells of lake water and dry leaves are more precise, and somehow the clutter of the city falls away more quickly than usual. And I find myself thinking about that Tuesday, ten years ago, when I suddenly realized that I had--after a long time away--returned to the world.

It was not a remarkable day--autumn, as it is now, and lovely, like today. I'd bundled myself into my usual oversized hooded sweatshirt and come scuffling up the walk of the church. I'd nodded curtly to the people at the meeting who kept insisting upon saying hello to me, despite my scowl and my refusal to meet their eyes. I'd spent the bulk of the meeting staring at the floor, listening hard, as I had since the first time I'd walked in. I'd gone to the meeting for the first time in June, barely sober, and for all those months had managed to say nothing more than my name and the fact that I was an alcoholic when introductions came around to me. And still, people kept smiling at me, saying hello. I half-wondered what was wrong with them.

All summer, I'd had the strangest feeling that I was invisible. That I made no sound when I walked, wasn't really there at all. Since the moment I got sober, I felt as though I'd entered another world, where everything was clear, piercingly vivid, solid, and real, but that in this world I couldn't quite place myself. I felt fragile, maybe not totally tangible, maybe a figment of my own imagination. When the people at the meeting spoke to me, I was startled every time. I stammered out my clumsy hellos, chewed on my fingernails, and hoped they'd talk to someone else soon.

That October Tuesday, the meeting began as it usually did--everyone else visible, me invisible in my chair. And then a funny thing happened. The person who was supposed to speak hadn't shown up. So, the group leader asked, did anyone else want to take the person's spot? Anyone have anything to say on the Tenth Step?

I heard someone say, "I'll talk."

I looked around. Everyone was staring at me. I stared at them. Then I realized I was the one who'd spoken. And, in a rush, I understood that I was visible, had a presence, took up space, made a sound, was sober, was in fact alive.

A little distracted by this new information, I started to talk. I talked and talked. I talked to the ceiling, I talked to the floor--didn't meet a lot of eyes--but I talked, because it was time. I'd come this far. I might as well open the door of the world and finally step in.

"We have entered the world of the Spirit," it says in the Big Book, when we get to Step Ten (page 84). That night, as I walked home under a heavy yellow harvest moon, I realized it was true. This is the world of the spirit. This world, as it is, this crowded earthbound heaven, here and now.

The world of the spirit, the one in which we live, is the present place where we stand. Here is where we can find our spiritual nourishment, and here is where we must give back. The most salient fact of this spiritual world, the starkest difference between this world and our old world of addiction, is this: we are not the only ones here. This world of the spirit is thickly populated with people. Where we lived before in absolute isolation, now we live in context. This is none other than what we always longed for, always lacked: a community of which we can be, and must be, an integral, active part. We must live out our spiritual lives here, tangled up with and touching these infinite other lives.

What is a spiritual life? A life lived in the world of the spirit--not only brief forays into that world, not only isolated moments of spiritual awareness? How do we build our days on a foundation of spiritual awareness? How do we allow spiritual principles to guide our actions? How do we keep ourselves mindful of this spiritual world around and within us--how do we stay truly present to this place--rather than slipping back out the door into the spiritually empty world with which we're so familiar? What keeps us here and now, growing and continuously aware?

A spiritual life is one lived in that awareness and growth. It takes an infinite number of forms. The practices we choose for ourselves that keep us closely attuned to our spiritual voices will differ; some of them we will discover by accident, some we must seek out. But I know that for myself, and for the people I've seen who have the serenity I admire, this much is necessary: I must be continuously aware of my interactions with the world. I am not alone here. I am not answerable only to myself anymore. I am not, it turns out, invisible. And so at this stage in my spiritual development, I have to carefully attend to how I move in the world. I am not the only one making my way.

This is the world that I live in, and this is the world that I love--crowded, clattering, packed to the rafters with people, each of whom has a story, each of whom carries an entire history and also an ever-changing nebula of dreams, fears, hopes, and needs. I spent most of my life entirely oblivious to these other lives, and utterly unaware that I had any impact on them. I stormed through my life, blind to what or who I walked on, unwilling to admit it when I realized I'd caused harm. This is no way to live. This is no way, either, to love. And until I learn to love, I cannot have any hope of staying spiritually alive.

The spiritual work we've done--waiting through doubt and despair, unfurling into hope and discovery, coming into full flower, and now arriving at the moment where we begin to truly reap the rewards of that work--is not work we do once and then stop. These are simply points in time, moments in a spiritual life; we have only made a beginning. The ultimate reward of this work is not some white-light moment, not a conclusion of any kind. The reward of this work is a spiritual life. The reward is entrance to the "world of the Spirit," which is to say, entrance to this world, a place at this table, in this human life. I am not much concerned about the existence of a hereafter, a "next" life--this life is what I have, this is where I live, and I believe that my spiritual growth depends upon the work I do here and now. That work amounts to seeing this world clearly, moving through it gently, and learning to love it well.

The times of spiritual harvest in our lives are times when we feel the richness of life in all its seasons--when we feel the effects of work we have done as well as an awareness of the work that lies ahead. This is when spiritual practice becomes possible. We are no longer in a moment of desolation, wrung dry, spiritually bereft; we have new riches of spiritual growth within us and can put those stores of spiritual wealth to use. This is the time when we can take what we have found out into the world, and we do it in a very simple way: we watch where we step.

This seems a tiny way of loving the world, but it is where we begin. The spiritual practice of taking responsibility for our actions puts us in a position of constantly seeing, and appreciating, the world in which we live and the people who live in it with us. As I do my daily work of walking carefully among others, I am able to finally see who they are, what they may need, what I may have to offer them. This deepens my gratitude for them, and allows me all the awe at their beauty and respect for their humanity that I need to really love them well. Until this time in my life--until I'd done the spiritual work that brought me here--I never knew how to love.

I am only learning now.

For more insight into the Twelve Steps, read Waiting by Marya Hornbacher.

About the Author:
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books including the New York Times bestseller Madness: A Bipolar Life, and two books with Hazelden Publishing, Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power and Sane: Mental Illness and the Twelve Steps.

Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power
By Marya Hornbacher
© 2011 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved