The Outer Circle: Spirituality

Like many atheists, I’ve been searching for God all my life. I was something of a spiritual alchemist searching diligently for that elusive substance that would enable me to turn lead (me as I was) into gold (me saved). Eventually my search led to the Catholic Church, which turned out to be one of the worst disasters of my life. My opinion now is that the Church fosters an environment that is highly conducive to emotional abuse and sexual misconduct; but back then, I thought I’d found the path that would facilitate my journey to God.

As you can see from the scan of my outer circle, I was a believer. But over a short period of time, I lost my religion. All that stuff you hear about how awful the Church is to those who have been abused? It’s true. At the same time I was losing my religion I was getting better physically and mentally. And still I was searching. Browsing through Barnes and Noble one day, I picked up a copy of The God Gene, by Dean H. Hamer. That book signaled the beginning of me putting down my quest for God. I do not believe that a philosopher’s stone exists, just like I don’t believe that a god exists. Life is precious and short, and I don’t want to waste any more of mine searching.

Spiritual ≠ Religioius
There is prayer at every 12-step meeting I’ve ever attended and Higher Power is often used as a PC term for God. No wonder atheists are afraid to come into the rooms! Everybody feels weird standing there in a circle silently when the rest of the group is reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not coducive to feeling a-part-of, that’s for sure! There can be a really bad Stepford feeling about recovery that has some folks wondering if there’s Kool-Aid instead of the coffee.

But I keep coming back and I keep reminding people that atheists are most emphatically welcome in recovery. You do not have to believe in a deity to practice a healthy spirituality. There’s nothing supernatural about any of my spiritual practices.

Scott Atran has a neat experiment that demonstrates the human need for “belief in hope beyond reason.” He has an African relic, a wooden box that destroys whatever a non-believer puts inside (reminds me of the Bene Gesseritt test for humans). Interestingly, most atheists are willing to put their pencils in, but not their hands. Isn’t that strange? I would think that logic and understanding would trump superstition in this case but it doesn’t. We’re just not as logical as we think we are. For me, this is part of my surrender to a Higher Power. I have an opposable thumb and upright posture. My body evolved to be really efficient at storing extra calories, and I have a need to feel a connection with something greater than myself. The key is figuring out how to deal with the reality of my evolved nature with … reality. I have a real problem with someone telling me that if I want to put my hand in the box with complete abandon, I need to believe in God. Bullshit! It’s intellectually dishonest. Also, it reminds me of the crazymaking that I suffered as a child and triggers a huge set of defensive mechanisms. Back then, I believed my mother when she said that Pap just loved me and that I was misinterpreting his intent. After all, puberty brings egocentrism and a hyper-awareness of your breasts.

How strange that one can believe such obvious untruths well beyond childhood.

Reading Strengthens Spirituality
In a practical sense, most of what I do for spirituality is reading. I read books that give me a sense of the numinous or a sense of being connected to others. Currently I’m reading The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. It’s an emotionally difficult book – I’d much rather believe that there are good people and bad people, and that I’m one of the good. The reality is that we’re all capable of great evil (and good) and our social constructs can encourage or discourage our manifestations of those tendencies.

Other books that I’ve found helpful with spirituality are:
How Psychotherapy Really Works, by Willard Gaylin.
Forgiving the Unforgivable, by Beverly Flanigan.
Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales.
Change or Die, by Alan Deutschman.

Meditation and Exercise
Exercise has it’s own section in my outer circle, but I find that the best time to meditate is when I exercise. When I just sit and meditate I tend toward the maudlin and self-pitying self talk that used to lead me right to Internet porn. Or to the fridge. It’s better if I just walk. Today I walked with the dog and listened to a book about the brave new world of databases and statistics. Stuff like that helps me feel connected and grounded in a world that makes sense. Other times I listen to music and let my mind wander. I like Richard Stolzman’s Begin Sweet World, which I played for my children before they were born, putting the earphones on my belly. Angels & Airwaves, We Don’t Have to Whisper this is really meaningful to me because I shared it with my abusive therapist (he loved it) and it reminds me of how far I’ve come. It was a deliberate choice on my part to keep this cd (a good therapist helped me decide). He tainted a lot, from my sexuality to my leather jacket and I’m grateful because there are somethings that have been too spoiled for me to be able to reclaim.

We are Special
Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I a sex addict? Ask the big questions and you cannot avoid a spiritual experience. Whether you know it or not, you are part of something wonderfully rare. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity in all this vastness there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” How can you not feel moved when you hear Carl Sagan reading The Pale Blue Dot? Life is rare. You are special.

We are Not a Glum Lot (I Fart in Your General Direction)
Feeling your feelings means feeling all of them, including joy. Laughing long and hard is most definitely a spiritual exercise. One of the most wonderful group experiences I ever had was at a community building seminar inspired by Scott Peck’s book, A Different Drum. After dinner someone pulled out a guitar and started singing some sad tunes. It had been an emotionally draining day because several people had shared some deeply painful personal experiences. One man was mourning the death of his newborn daughter who lived only a few hours after her birth. They’d had her funeral only a few weeks ago. He hadn’t wanted to come but his wife had insisted. That man and I were sitting in the room across from each other and – it’s still bizarre to me – when our eyes met, we both started laughing. I remember being SO embarrassed! I didn’t want to be insensitive but I couldn’t stop laughing. We were laughing so hard people started coming by to see what the hell was going on. They stayed and started laughing too. Eventually we had the entire group of 40 or so people there laughing. It was the single best “religious” experience I’ve ever had. Although I haven’t been able to repeat that experience, I still try to set the stage for laughter. Invite a bunch of friends over and watch Napoleon Dynamite or Monty Python. Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!

I hope I’ve given you some ideas that will enhance your spiritual practices, regardless of your belief system. Be well.


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