"Just as we know that winter will become spring, though we see no evidence of this around us, we can know that our spiritual self will emerge. We only have to wait."

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Episode 12 -- May 28, 2020

Returning to Step One: Harnessing Our Periods of Descent

For many of us, realities such as physical distancing requirements have stirred up feelings of isolation and even darkness. In the words of author Marya Hornbacher, this is a period of descent. We had plenty of these moments before our recovery, and we will continue to have them, no matter how strong our recovery has become. The difference is, we now have tools, and a spiritual program, to help us find our way back to the surface. As Hornbacher explains in this excerpt from Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power, if we return to Step One, the root of the Twelve Step program, we can find the meaning and value in even our lowest moments.

We make a descent more than once in our lives. We reach a point where we have become spiritually drained, where we have blocked out our spiritual voice or become cut off from our spiritual source. At these moments, again, we descend.

These are the moments of winter in our lives. And in these winters, during which it seems that all is dark or even dead, we have the opportunity to go within; to study our own capacity for a faith that can endure pain or emptiness or doubt; to reach deeper for our spiritual center, listen harder for our spiritual voice, than we ever had before.

We have flickers of doubt, and we have flashes of uncertainty, and at times we fall headfirst into despair. Crisis, loss, death, tragedy, whether in our personal lives or in the larger world, cast long shadows across the sunlit path we'd like to walk.

We may doubt, during these periods, that there is meaning in human existence or that there is purpose in our individual lives. We begin to wonder whether there is anything spiritual within us or in the larger world. This sense that we may be spinning aimlessly on a rock through an indifferent universe defined by impersonal laws is lonely and frightening, and at these times it is easy to get lost in a forest of our own fear.

Many religious people would say that their faith is being tested by God at these times. And it is possible that these periods of descent, these times when our faith in meaning and purpose is called into question, are periods when our own internal selves are calling on us to strengthen our spiritual lives. Perhaps our spirits are well aware of when they need to be strengthened and tested by fire.

During these times, we have the chance to develop trust in ourselves, in our internal spiritual compass. We have the chance to learn to rely on the people we love and to more deeply experience the necessity of love and connection in our lives; we can give up the isolating notion that we are going through this life alone.

These dark moments are another chance to work Step One: to recognize areas where we are powerless and ways in which our lives have become unmanageable. Working this Step again and again will, as it did the first time we worked it, renew our acquaintance with the sound of our spiritual voice coming through the layers of our doubt, our fear, our ennui.

Whether working this Step for the first time or returning to it later in our sobriety, we are at a point of development where we are beginning or renewing a search for what has spiritual meaning for us--what we believe in, what lights our hearts on fire, what gives us strength, where we connect with other people and the world. We are looking for what is spiritually significant to us, both within and without. This is what fills our lives with meaning, what gives us purpose--our spirits, and what feeds them, and what they love.

These periods of descent allow us to again face our own smallness, our own fears, our own sense of emptiness, our own despair. These feelings are part of the human condition. And they are spiritual hungers crying out to be fed. In order to know what our spirits need, what we need as whole, spiritual people, we must listen. These are times when we are able to learn from the emptiness itself. We are able, when we listen and discover what we truly need, to find and make meaning for ourselves; we are able to find what may be a new direction in our lives.

Practicing Step One as we walk away from our addiction is that movement in a new direction, and it requires listening to the spiritual self. This may be the first time that we have done this in many years; some of us may never have had the opportunity or felt the need to develop our spiritual lives at all. But now it is a clear necessity if we are to move away from addiction, if we are to practice the Twelve Step program, and if we are to continue to grow.

That growth depends upon recognizing that spiritually we move outward from the center of ourselves. We find our connection with others by being aware of our spiritual core, and we are able to build meaningful relationships with them based on spiritual integrity. These inward times are a natural and necessary period in the life cycle of the soul: we are building the people we want to become, the people we want to be in the world. During these periods of darkness, we are actually developing from spiritual isolation to connection with others. Our process of finding meaning and direction for ourselves is a process of finding out how we want to contribute and what we want to give.

And so we find that by stepping into this place of darkness and by navigating its unfamiliar terrain, we come unexpectedly to a place of hope. Having recognized the insanity and spiritual brokenness of our addiction, having taken the journey to face that sense of emptiness and loss, and having come face-to-face with our own limited human nature, we come out on the other side of Step One with a deeper knowledge of ourselves as spiritual beings.

Step One is, paradoxically, both a crushing end and a beginning. The fact that we have come to recognize our powerlessness and spiritual emptiness means that we have reached a moment of spiritual awareness as well. We would not be able to face this moment or take this Step if we did not contain a source of spiritual strength. We may not know the nature of that strength or of that spiritual self at all. But we can sense that it is there.

Having worked Step One spiritually, we arrive at Step Two with the knowledge--however tentative, however new--that we are not, in fact, spiritually empty after all. We begin to sense that there are spiritual sources that can feed us, and that there may be hope for our restoration to sanity. We can begin to believe that we will be relieved of our addiction.

Just as we know that winter will become spring, though we see no evidence of this around us, we can know that our spiritual self will emerge. We only have to wait. We wait with consciousness, attention, and awareness of what is changing within us as we still our minds and hearts long enough to listen.

We may not hear a God. But we will hear a spiritual self, an inner voice. That spiritual self is what has led us to Step One. That voice is what told us we had reached an end and needed to begin again. Even as we sit in the dark, even in this heart of winter, we find that we have already planted the seeds of faith.

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.

© 2015 by Marya Hornbacher
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