"Ultimately, the question of meaning is a spiritual one."

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Episode 135 -- July 29, 2021

Help from All Sides: Finding Meaning in the Journey

One of the difficulties of recovery is that we no longer numb our feelings. Now we have to face some of the nightmares from our past and try to find some meaning in what we suffered—as well as the suffering we caused others. Those of us in recovery have a unique lens when it comes to pain and trauma. We have a sense that we can learn from our suffering, but how do we actually do that?

In his classic book A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps, Dr. Patrick Carnes points to our need for help when it comes to the question of what gives our lives meaning, and suggests we seek out guides to help us with this spiritual and practical work. Carnes sees this as the essence of Step Two ("Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity") and Step Three ("Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him").

Each of us knows how our struggles make us vulnerable. Carnes shows us how learning from pain, together with others, can help us find meaning as we heal our hurting brains, find our spiritual power, and discover our life's purpose.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The First Step asks you to admit that you have an illness. Steps Two and Three ask you to confront the question of what gives your life meaning. Without meaning in your life, your addiction and coaddiction can grow and thrive. Without meaning, you cannot establish the priorities that help you restore the balance, focus, and self-responsibility you seek.

Ultimately, the question of meaning is a spiritual one. Steps Two and Three ask, Whom do you trust? In whom or what do you have faith? How much you trust others often parallels your trust in a Higher Power. If you have trouble accepting help from others and insist on handling things alone, chances are you will resist the help of a Higher Power in your life. Many addicts who have worked the program realize that if they refuse help after admitting that they are powerless and damaged, they will remain stuck in their insanity.

Find Spiritual Guides
In our obsessions, we are fiercely committed to handling things on our own. If we consult others, the temptation is to give them only part of the story or share after the crisis is over. To allow someone to see the full extent of our despair when it is happening in all of its untidy, ugly, and searing reality is a tremendous leap of faith. We resist it, since to acknowledge the wound is to experience the pain. We are not expected to do this alone. Absolutely essential to a spiritual path is allowing ourselves the gift of help.

Spiritual guides come mainly in three ways. First, we find trusted persons who can teach us from their own wounding experiences. We tell them how it is for us. Their perspective and support ease the pain. They give us concrete ways to connect with our Higher Power. Sponsors, clergy, therapists, mentors, teachers, elders—all come in this category.

Second, we seek spiritual community. We find spiritual guidance in groups of people—Twelve Step fellowships, religious communities, men's and women's groups—also committed to walking a spiritual path. We will connect with spiritual guides wherever we find that we are not alone, and there are celebrations and symbols of our progress together.

Finally, we are open to guidance from others around us every day. The answers to our struggles are surrounding us if we listen to the possibilities. An offhand comment by someone may have been exactly what we needed to hear.

Accept Pain as a Teacher
All of us have suffered. For some, it is caused by the trauma of betrayal, neglect, or exploitation. Sometimes the source is a cataclysm that seems to have no purpose beyond destruction. All of us experience change. So we have the grief of that which is no more. A Buddhist definition of suffering is "clinging to that which changes." Twelve Step programs basically teach us to adopt an existential view of change and suffering. It is best summarized in the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

For many of us in recovery, the Serenity Prayer begins as a way to let go and process our grief about life. Over time, however, as we work the Steps and let them work on us, the Serenity Prayer becomes a way of living. The Serenity Prayer is a recipe, not a formula. It does not have hard and fast boundaries, and its applications are ever-changing. We must continually adapt it to our circumstances. In the process, it teaches us how to steadily adapt to the challenges of life.

Viktor Frankl, in his study of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, noticed that those who survived had a common quality: the ability to transform suffering into meaning. Spirituality is about meaning and asking questions like Why do bad things happen? and Who is in charge of it all? We tend to war against difficult issues when they surface in our lives. We talk of "my fight against cancer." Part of a spiritual path involves learning to "see my illness as a teacher."

Suffering simply is. It's not fair, right, or wrong. It simply is. However, how I respond is critical. How I take action, how I grow, and how I become a more spiritual person is the most important thing. Remember the fundamental lesson the Greeks taught in their tragedies. The hero typically suffered from a tragic flaw—hubris, or the sin of pride. Oedipus and the other great heroes refused to accept their human limitations and made themselves into gods. Whenever they ignored their own limitations and wounds, however, they met a tragic fate. Our wounds help us to accept our humanness and be open to the lessons provided for us.

Frankl wrote eloquently about how our suffering can be transformed into meaning. He observed that there are three ways of finding meaning in life: (1) giving or contributing something to the world through our work, (2) experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) choosing a courageous attitude toward unavoidable suffering.

This third source of meaning is particularly valuable for addicts, because it teaches us that suffering is not what it seems. As we work the Twelve Steps, we learn that every painful experience can become a source of meaning or wisdom.

The Second and Third Steps are fundamentally about finding what gives your life meaning and passion. This includes the meaning found in the acceptance of unavoidable suffering. This insight mirrors what neuroscience teaches us: that our brain functions at its best when it is engaged in a healthy activity that it is passionate about or that gives it meaning.

Addicts are passionate about their addictions, of course. When we're in the throes of our addictions, drugs or alcohol or sex or gambling or codependence feel—very temporarily—like they satisfy our brain and make our life meaningful. But, like suffering, this momentary satisfaction is not what it seems. The simple truth is that addictions tear apart the brain.

The Second and Third Steps ask us to look at what really gives meaning to our life. Part of this involves learning how to create wisdom and resilience from painful experience, and recognizing that the struggles of recovery are worthwhile. These activities serve and satisfy the brain in ways that addiction never can.

About the Author:
Patrick J. Carnes, PhD, is an internationally known authority on addiction and recovery issues. He has authored over twenty books, including the bestselling titles Out of the Shadows: Understanding Addiction Recovery, Betrayal Bond, Don't Call It Love, and the first edition of A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps. Dr. Carnes's research provides the architecture for the "task model" of treating addictions that is used by thousands of therapists worldwide and many well-known treatment centers, residential facilities, and hospitals. He is the executive director of the Gentle Path Program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which specializes in dedicated treatment for sexual addiction.

© 1993; 2012 by Patrick J. Carnes, PhD
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