Spiritual But Not Religious: Meet Me Where I Am

Growing public discussion about the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular, highlights to my mind many things that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do right.

Most poignant, perhaps, is that no one is left out.  There are no excluded or castigated groups.  Everyone is accepted as they are.  Christians may be thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like Jesus,” but serious observers of religion know that every Christian era has had its pariahs.  The Twelve Step tradition meets people where they are, no matter how despicable or lowly that place may be.  It doesn’t tell anyone what they must believe to be included.  Rather, it simply encourages openness to spiritual possibility.  It says, “Healing is possible if you’re willing to reach for it.  Here are steps that worked for us.”

The huge irony is some of those most in need of saving grace want nothing to do with God.  They’re mad.  So mad, they ignore his presence whenever possible, and failing that, they face God with seething resentment.  “I was an innocent child!  How could you unleash unspeakable abuse against an innocent?  What kind of almighty monster are you?”  The incidence of childhood trauma among substance abusers has tragic proportions.  Is it not logical that, if healing proves elusive, one might at least find an anesthetic within reach?

The Alcoholics Anonymous founders were sensitive to this spiritual hostility, namely because they were agnostic at the beginning of their journeys to recovery, and they didn’t want to discourage other alcoholics from beginning the steps.  “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.”  They knew what looks preposterous at the journey’s beginning morphs into profound truth after spiritual awakening.  The Twelve Steps don’t foist the unbelievable on the unbelieving.

For the sake of inclusion, most Twelve Step programs recognize God across many faith traditions, and many interpretations of God are respected.  The “higher power” can be understood as the consciousness of the fellowship, in that the group consciousness may offer recovery seekers some power to do what they cannot do on their own.  Others find the higher power in nature, a la Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Religious traditions coalesce around common experience and belief.  Some are rigid about belief, behavior and belonging while a precious few treasure the richness of their diversity.  It seems to me that some of the ancient religious institutions experiencing a decline (moral, cultural, financial….pick a category) could learn something from the Twelve Steps.  The steps recognize addiction as a spiritual malady at its root, and thus they invite spiritual growth and intimacy with God.  Isn’t that also the aim of religion?  Or at least, isn’t that what religion purports its aim to be?  While the Twelve Step tradition goes to great lengths to avoid dictating beliefs, it goes to equal lengths to encourage people to expose their lives to the transformational power of God, however they might experience that.

Join the conversation.  What could your house of worship learn from the Twelve Steps?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Steps to Life Change

Easter celebrations bring an end to Lent, a season many Christians observe with contemplation and disciplines designed to prepare ourselves for the newness of life that Christ’s resurrection promises to all who surrender themselves to God.  A relatively small subset of Christians practice introspection and confession in particular as powerful steps toward making needed course corrections in life.

In contrast to ancient religious practices, another influential and well-established tradition offers a more contemporary take on practices for finding life change and spiritual awakening.  The tradition is spiritual but not religious, and celebrated Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr describes it as “America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality.”  It is the Twelve Step tradition pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Every year, millions of Twelve Step recovery seekers embark on a searching and fearless moral inventory and admit their wrongs aloud to God and another human being as essential steps towards profound life change.  What do these recovery seekers know about spiritual transformation that millions of religious seekers don’t?  A lot, as it turns out.

First is that life change starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches introspection believing he had the power to make better choices (but simply chose not to) and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  Although we can find a false sense of security in our own power, it leads us towards unrealistic expectations for ourselves (and unwarranted derision).

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that life change is possible but only with God’s power.  Some religious seekers don’t really believe in the transformation that is being offered to them, or they walk away from confession unchanged but determined to make better choices in the future without genuinely depending on God’s power to make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing.

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of character.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers sometimes approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  They may want God to be almighty, but on their terms.

These three truths align to the first three steps of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining steps outline a path to healing, life change and spiritual awakening that is much more specific and instructive than much of what religious doctrine offers.

Join the conversation.  Do you think God cares or do you actually trust God’s care?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgive and Forget: Two Views

A recent post on new year’s resolutions invited contemplation regarding whether there is forgiveness you need to receive or to extend.  A wise commenter responded with thoughts on what forgiveness really is. Here, in part, is what she said:


I once read that the definition of true forgiveness is to no longer see the other person as wrong! Wow! I mean if I didn’t think that they were wrong to begin with, I wouldn’t have a need to forgive them right? But now if I have to no longer believe that they are wrong, well, that puts a whole new spin on forgiveness doesn’t it? When God forgives us, he wipes the slate clean.  The bible says it’s as if the sin had never been…yep, that pretty much says I am not wrong.  I have a completely new beginning. I think that’s the forgiveness that God want’s from us as well. To wipe the slate clean towards our brother, as if the infraction had never been…as if they had never wronged us!

That is a challenging definition of forgiveness, indeed.  To contrast that with a different thought, I’ll refer to Curtis Almquist, another spiritual thinker I very much admire.  In Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Almquist examines the etymology of forgiveness and suggests it is not about forgetting.  We’re often urged to forgive and forget, but is that as powerful as forgiving and remembering?  To remember the offense in all its meanness, thoughtlessness, malice or spite, and nevertheless in the very presence of that reality, to release resentment and all claim against the offender can be a greater offering and act of love than somehow vanquishing the offense from our consciousness.  Some may be able to blot out the offense as if it never happened when releasing resentment, but for me personally it sounds like a slippery slope towards repression and denial.  I am one of those challenged by the “forget” part.

Almquist helps by pointing to the blessing in the tensions we feel with those who give us a reason to forgive or those with whom we don’t get along.  He calls them “enemies,” a strong word but the one Jesus used for all who fall outside the categories of family, friend and neighbor.

I’ve changed my mind about enemies in several ways.  For one, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because it makes for more pleasant living (although undoubtedly it does).  Rather, we’re told to love our enemies because they may also be our teachers, perhaps even our best teachers.  Our enemies can get us in touch with “our stuff” like no one else can… Our enemies expose us, and I believe that they are extraordinary agents for our own conversion.

In this new year of life, as we reflect on where we’re headed and what is in our way, perhaps we can hold up, appreciate, and even love those people who are burrs under our blankets for the insight with which they grace us on our journeys.

Join the conversation.  Who is your fellow traveler who best exposes the life change your soul craves?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Embarking on a New Year

Washington’s San Juan Islands are a spectacular boating destination and the scene of my most harrowing experience sailing. I am dating myself here, but my visit was before cell phones had GPS, and sailors relied on navigational charts. We anchored near shore at night to enjoy an island’s charms, and in the morning we made coffee and got out the charts. We pinpointed our location, decided where to sail that day, and determined the compass heading for getting there.

The last morning of our trip, we had planned a quick sail across Puget Sound to return our charter boat to its Bellingham harbor before driving 100 miles to Sea-Tac to catch our flights home. We awoke, however, to a thick fog and no wind. We couldn’t see from the bow to the stern, much less to the island protecting our anchorage. Boats swing around their anchors with changes in current and wind direction, and we couldn’t even guess where the island was without a compass. We were completely disoriented.

Morning fog was not atypical, though, so we had coffee and waited for it to lift. It didn’t. We started calculating backwards from our flight departure, allowing the minimum time for boarding, returning the rental car, driving 100 miles, checking in the boat, and so on. When our last ditch time for shoving off arrived, the fog had lifted only slightly, so we faced a tough choice. We were young and foolhardy and had nonrefundable tickets, so we weighed the anchor and motored slowly, steering by compass towards Bellingham.

Knowing your correct heading is one thing, but actually steering to it manually under power is another matter entirely. It’s easy to drift too far one way and then to overcorrect in the other direction. The helmsmen wrestled the wheel continuously, leaving a serpentine wake in the mist behind us. After meandering this way for several hours, we started feeling a little desperate. We no longer knew where we were or where we would be when we sighted land. We didn’t have time to spare cruising up or down the shore looking for Bellingham.

As anxiety mounted, I thought I heart a faint horn in the fog. All ears onboard strained to make out the sound and its direction. Several minutes later someone else heard it. It was two horns at a regular interval. I dashed below to consult the chart and found a lighthouse sounding two blasts at one minute intervals. That was it! We still didn’t know where we were, and the lighthouse was significantly south of Bellingham, but if we could steer to the foghorn until we saw shore, we would at least know the direction to head to reach our harbor. In the end, we arrived safely and made our flights.

It strikes me that navigating life is not unlike this. Sometimes we are close to shore and know exactly where we are. We don’t need a compass because the destination is in plain sight. Other times it feels like we haven’t seen land for days, like sailing across an ocean without GPS. Maybe we have forgotten where we’re going or circumstances have forced us off course. Checking our bearings periodically is essential for the long haul because if we go a long way, heading just a few degrees off course can land us hundreds of miles from our intended destination. The start of a new year invites us to ponder where we are headed and the course corrections we need.

Join the conversation. When did you last check your bearings?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Feeling Pain for the Last Time


“Who dares to suggest this pain could be felt for the last time?  What an audacious assertion.  Maybe your pain.  Not my pain.   Not with what I have been through.”

It’s a radical idea, bidding adieu to pains that have followed us through life.  Many of us learn empirically that ignoring them doesn’t really make them go away.  Some of us have grown accustomed to our pains, and perhaps, have let them seep into our identity, making them difficult to release.  How many of us have honestly tried confronting our pain, though?  Looking deep into our pains—staring down our demons—mines hope for healing.

To be successful, we must be thorough.  There are no shortcuts.  There is no advantage to wallowing, either.   If it’s a feeling you have been repressing, allow yourself to experience the feeling.  Is it as bad as you feared?  Is it worse?  Stay with the feeling and find out.  Conversely, maybe the feeling is extremely familiar, a feeling that you have slid into repeatedly through life without ever realizing its origin.  What kinds of situations lead you to this same old chestnut?  What connects these situations?  Is there an underlying belief that gives way to this feeling?  When examined intellectually, does the magnitude of pain you have experienced measure to the magnitude of its origin?  Allow yourself to be fully present with the pain until you feel a small emptiness where the pain was.  Pain will do this.  It will empty you.

Although arduous, there is something very important to remember when journeying through painful remembrances.  If you are open to change, you can feel this particular
pain for the last time.  You can be healed.

Search yourself.  Is there more pain you want to feel for the last time?  Turn over every rock and search it out.  If pain is lying under there, give it as much feeling as it is due.  Be reflective about how this pain has affected you and if you have given it more than its due.  Know that when you are healed, you will reflect on this matter as a fact, devoid of raw emotion.  The reason you are feeling it for the last time is that you are leaving this place, propelled to a new place and a new way of being.

Dutch priest and revered writer on the spiritual life Henri Nouwen offers, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. “  When we are able to recognize our expressions of despair in this broken place as a sign of hope that a healed destination awaits us, we have fuel for the journey.

Join the conversation.  Do you believe a pain long buried can be healed for all time?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Visualization Technique for Using Pain as Fuel

Everyone  experiences emotional pain, but it’s the wise ones who know how to harness it and to put it to work to drive positive changes.  We feel pain when we’re caught in particular  conditions at discrete times.  If we can conceive of different conditions, then we can put the pain to work for us.  Visualizing the change we desire, however commonplace, is a big help.

Here is a way to do it.  When you identify the patterns that have dragged you down, away from who you want to be, or away from God, make note of the other choices you might have made.  If you had known more, if you had had more self-control, if you had been free from coercion, if you had only realized… what might you have been able to choose?  Pick the best choice, and ask yourself what character traits are
required to choose them.  Construct a scenario that places you in its center with those characteristics.  That’s your destination.

Here’s an example.  Someone leaving an abusive relationship confronts fear of retribution, shame for having accepted the abuse for a time, guilt for not preventing danger to self and perhaps to children, and, poignantly, grief for the relationship that was desired but never was.  She fears independence because her abuser has told her she can’t make it on her own so many times she believes it.  For that abuse survivor, the destination might look like sitting in the living room of her own apartment where her children are relaxing comfortably regaling each other with funny stories.  They are safe, free to be themselves, and at peace with one another.  When she confronts an obstacle, she can taste the fuel and level her sights with determination on that living room.

It’s wise to maintain some curiosity and flexibility about the destination.  Abraham’s story of setting off on a journey with no clear vision of his destination speaks to recovery seekers, newlyweds, teenagers and anyone else embarking on radical life change.  You don’t know exactly how things will unfold.  It’s ok to be unsure whether you’re focused on the best possible destination.  The important thing is setting out—lech lecha, go fourth Do your best to construct a provisional destination, and revise it as mercy and truth are revealed.

Dallas Willard in Spirit of the Disciplines offers another visualization.  “The old leaf automatically falls from the branch as the new leaf emerges.”  Define the old leaf, the one that needs to fall.  Visualize the new leaf, that which is budding.  It’s hard to “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better.  When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the destination God would have for me.

Our culture conditions us to remedy pain quickly, so we must resist the impulse to avoid or to medicate it.  If we can think about how badly it hurts here and how much we
want to be there, pain becomes our rocket fuel.  Don’t avoid it and don’t waste one
ounce of it.  Use it all to reach the destination.

Join the conversation.  What visualization techniques have helped you process pain?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.