A Higher Power for Atheists and Agnostics (1989)
Posted 22 December 2005 - 12:15 AM
By Roger E. Bissell
January 23, 1989
(Revised Oct.-Nov. 1989)
Like millions of people in our society, I have seen my life become unmanageable because of alcoholism and chemical dependency. Am I an alcoholic? Or a drug addict? No, but because of the way I tried to cope with the effects of drugs and alcohol on the character and behavior of people close to me, I gradually found myself feeling less and less in control of my own life and happiness.
This growing sense of powerlessness gave me and many other “straight” folks like me a basic kinship with alcoholics and drug addicts. In time, we came to accept this kinship by realizing that a “12-Step” program was as important for our emotional and spiritual recovery as it was for the “users.” [By spiritual recovery, I mean the return to a more healthy state of one’s mental functioning and values.—REB, 12/05]
Like those in Alcoholics Anonymous, Pills Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, etc., we members of Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Co-Dependents Anonymous, etc., were persuaded to begin our recovery by admitting that we are powerless over alcohol and drugs—and, in general, over “persons, places, and things.”
As important as this was, however, it was just the first step on the road to spiritual and emotional health and “the priceless gift of serenity.” To proceed any further, we somehow had to come to terms with the need for a “Higher Power” in our lives.
A Higher Power as a Tool of Emotional Recovery
We were then encouraged to believe that “a Power greater than ourselves” could restore us to sanity. That reliance on our selves or egos and our hedonistic or willful impulses—rather than higher principles—was the main source of the emotional turmoil and chaos in our lives. That focusing on trying to change someone else’s character or behavior—rather than doing what is right for ourselves—was the cause of our continuing feelings of misery and helplessness.
We were further invited to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” as we understood Him—to admit “to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”—to be “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”—to “humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings”—and to seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God” as we understood Him, “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (Except for the phrase “persons, places and things,” the above quotes are all from the Twelve Steps of AA.)
For these purposes, many people find that the traditional Judeo-Christian God works perfectly well as a Higher Power. Indeed, some of them (especially newcomers) are more than a little nervous or upset to hear the term “Higher Power.” Why not simply call God “God”!
In time, however, most of them come to accept the fact that the 12-Step programs, while not religious per se, are very spiritual—and that in order to offer spiritual and emotional recovery for the greatest number, these programs should scrupulously avoid reference to any specific religious point of view. (These points are made in the 12 Traditions and Three Obstacles to Progress. It’s interesting to note that, if taken consistently, they would seem to rule out the common practice of closing 12-Step meetings with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.) The relative few, usually Fundamentalists, who cannot get comfortable with the unaffiliated nature of such programs, are free to gravitate toward Christian recovery programs.
What about those who have trouble relating to an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, All-Good Creator of the Universe? How are they to relate to a Higher Power?
Most of these people begin the process with something more easily grasped or believed in, such as their own conscience—or the “Group Conscience” (i.e., the collective spirit of the assembled recovery group)—or the 12-Step program itself (including the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions, slogans, Do’s and Don’ts, Serenity Prayer, etc.—or some power in Nature greater than themselves (such as the ocean)—or even a radiator or some other concrete object they can focus on in order to “transcend” or get outside of their own selves and wills. (This last technique is similar to what pregnant women train themselves to do in a La Maze childbirth class, which helps them to detach from or dissociate from the pains of labor and delivery.)
In all cases, your Higher Power is supposed to be the focus of your prayer and your requests for serenity, courage and wisdom. And in all cases, you are encouraged to think of your Higher Power as higher than your self-will, and desires, a source of wisdom and guidance superior to your own thinking and judging.
Even though it seems reasonable that you could consult your own conscience on a temporary basis—if you weren’t in too chaotic an emotional state at the time—you are usually encouraged to get in the habit of being in touch with a Higher Power outside of yourself. Even your recovery group or your personal sponsor is generally considered to be more reliable than your own inner sense of right and wrong, or your own reasoning powers, particularly in times of stress. (Presumably, your conscience and your intellect are too closely tied in to the ego or self-will and are tainted by its influence—and too easily influenced by strong emotions to remain objective.)
You might conclude from all of this that atheists and agnostics have more of a problem than others in discovering and using a suitable Higher Power. And you would be right. But it’s not because we have an especially difficult time letting go of judgmental impulses to “shoot from the hip” or pragmatic impulses to “fly by the seat of our pants” or hedonistic impulses to “do it, if it feels good.”
Our problem has to do with the fact that we, more than most, have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacks of organized religion’s big-G god. It’s all too easy to feel that you are in the midst of a religious group (rather than a spiritual recovery group), when you hear people sharing about God, their Higher Power, as if He were a person—or reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which is out-and-out trappings of Christianity. And for most of us, it does not help to suggest that we act “as if” we believed in God as our Higher Power, simply in order to get the benefits of a 12-Step program.
We agnostics and atheists question or reject the notion of a supernatural, spiritual entity per se. We are comfortable, at most, with the belief that only natural living creatures have spirits—and furthermore, that those spirits perish with the creatures when they die. [Again, note, my own personal view is that the “spirit” or “soul” is simply one’s mind and values…REB, 12/05]
Most of us have no problem with the concept of natural powers residing within various things such as persons, groups of people, elements of nature, or even sets of principles. But we find that the notion of a disembodied spirit, hovering around, waiting to be consulted on personal matters is alien and repugnant to use.
A second problem we have is that whatever natural power we might select for our Higher Power, at least some of the time it seems inappropriate and not very useful. For instance, the recovery group’s collective conscience is unavailable when one is jogging. And while the 12-Step principles themselves are OK to use while one jogs, one is not so much staying aware of them meditatively as one is tuning in to one’s body and the indications it gives of one’s physical condition while jogging. The ocean, as yet another example, would seem inappropriate for either recovery meetings or jogging—unless you’re meeting or jogging at the seashore!
But there is a solution to these dilemmas: instead of choosing just one Higher Power, we can choose many! The world is full of natural powers that are better sources of important, useful information and wisdom than our own willful, stubborn, critical selves. These natural powers all “know” better than we do just what we should do in regard to our body’s weight and metabolism and nutrition, our relationships with other people, our careers, etc.
All we have to do is pay attention to the appropriate Higher Power, do what it “wants,” what is right for us, rather than what we want or desire per se. All we have to do is progress according to the rate and in the way that is indicated by what our Higher Power “tells” us—to progress one step at a time, rather than according to some arbitrary timetable we feel (or someone else feels) we “ought” to keep.
In this completely natural way, atheists and agnostics can have a clear understanding and acceptance of what religious people mean when they say, “Not my will, but Thine,” or, “It will happen in God’s time, and not necessarily when I want it to.”
For the remainder of this essay, I will sketch out several examples of completely natural Higher Powers. I will try to describe how they operate to one’s benefit when one stops trying to make things happen and instead just lets them happen—when one stops trying to control outcomes and expectations and instead gets involved here and now in the process—when one gets away from being critical and judgmental and instead uses a process of non-judgmental awareness to guide one’s actions.
Naturally, I hope and expect that these observations will help to raise the comfort level of atheist and agnostic members of 12-Step groups. They, too, deserve to be able to take full advantage of their recovery group without feeling that they are betraying their ideas or being hypocritical.
But I certainly do not intend or expect for my words to antagonize the religious members of such groups. If they are able to accept the reality and value of some or all of the Higher Powers I discuss—as natural creations of their God—then more (Higher) power to them! If not, then as we say in the Program, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” And may the God-of-your-understanding (another 12-Step term) bless you!
Example 1: A Higher Power for Sports
In The Inner Game of Tennis (and subsequent books), Tim Gallwey discusses how Self 1—the critical, judgmental aspect of our personalities—keeps us from doing our best when we are practicing or performing some skill. Self 1, which is the same thing as AA’s and Al-Anon’s “ego” or “self-will,” is the part of us that likes to take charge, to “make things happen,” by force or unnatural means, if necessary.
When we can get Self 1 to be quiet, to still its criticism and meddling, our natural, pure, non-judgmental awareness—which he calls Self 2—can help us to learn and perform sports and other skills far better, simply by “letting it happen.” Our body-awareness or Self 2 “knows” the process, the “how” of learning, and we need to accept its “superior wisdom,” rather than allowing the process to be ruled by the ego, Self 1, which is hung up on results and insists on having everything its own way.
Our progress will be disappointing and less than it could be, until we get the ego to turn over the outcome of our learning process to our body-awareness and let it do the learning. It is clear that our body-awareness is a Higher Power than our self-will or ego.
For example, by letting go of the goal of making ourselves have a sizzling tennis serve, we are free to be aware of the ball, the racket, and our body in minute detail, letting our body make alternations in posture, serving angle, velocity of swing, etc. By feeding pure, non-judgmental awareness to the body, we find that it will do the rest.
If, on the other hand, we allow our ego to dominate the learning or playing process, we will lose the fine-tuning that pure awareness can give us. We will tend to try to hard, to “make it happen” rather than “letting it happen.” We will do things like over-tighten our muscles, playing with less clear concentration and relaxation than is possible, and with more effort and fatigue than is necessary. Clearly, the Higher Power of non-judgmental body-awareness is preferable to the ego or self-will.
Example 2: A Higher Power for Dieting
I recently set a personal goal to lost 50 pounds. [I have subsequently met this goal twice and am working on my third time! <sigh> …REB, 12/05] The specific method I used was the Herbalife nutrition plan—but it could have been any one of a number of similar systems. The “hook” that sold Herbalife to me (and to most of its customers, I imagine) is the promise of weight loss, but the actual foundation of the plan is the superb nutrition it provides.
If you put the right things in your body, your body will respond by “taking your weight to where the nutrition dictates” for your present level of metabolism. Metabolism is an important factor here. The weight level you achieve will be different, depending upon whether you are sedentary or mildly active or vigorously active.
In all cases, the weight loss you do obtain is a natural consequence of the improved nutrition, as opposed to being the forced consequence of “crash dieting.” You are “letting it happen,” rather than “making it happen,” in Tim Gallwey’s words.
If you “let go” of the weight-loss goal—i.e., don’t become obsessed with it or fixated on it—you can then let your body’s internal awareness and regulating powers take you to the weight that your nutrition and metabolism dictate. If you exercise, too, your body will probably take you to a lower weight than if you remain sedentary. But in either case, your body will take you to the weight you need to be for that level of nutrition and activity.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Better nutrition will improve your mood and help eliminate cravings, both of which can cause problems with appetite and weight control. Experiment! And pay attention to your body. If you hit a plateau and are stuck 20 pounds above your desired goal, there is a reason for it, and your body “knows” the reason better than you. Often there is a need for the body to adjust to the changes produced by a certain amount of fat burn-off—to stabilize for a while before seeking a new, lower weight level.
Again, the internal awareness of your body is a Higher Power than your own self-will. Allowing self-will to rule your nutrition is the same issue, with the same disastrous kind of outcome, as trying for minute, deliberate control over every muscle while bike-riding—as opposed to simply riding the bike. (My favorite example is the centipede who focuses in minute detail on what each of its legs is doing, instead of simply walking!)
Example 3: A Higher Power for Joggers
In a similar manner, one’s bodily awareness can serve as a Higher Power in the activites of walking, jogging, or working toward fitness in general. It is a common tendency for beginners to go “whole hog” on exercise, to be impatient and overdo it the first time out, trying to “make it happen” right from the start.
A much more sensible approach is to begin by walking a moderate amount, and only gradually introducing bits of jogging and running. This allows one to “listen to” or feel one’s body, to pay attention to what it “wants”—and to be able to back off if you start feeling pain. (On this subject, I recommend Walk, Don’t Die by Fred Stutman.)
Instead of “No pain, no gain,” it’s much more sensible to follow the maxim: “Stretching without strain—pushing without pain.” Your body, not you, is the best authority on how hard you should push yourself at any given time.
Progress at your own pace—not at what you think it should be, but at what seems right for you as a result of staying in touch with your body’s inner signals during exercise. Don’t force progress prematurely merely in order to meet arbitrary goals.
Goals are best used for reference, for orienting your efforts in a specific, measurable direction—not for achievement of an ego-victory. And not for heaping abuse upon yourself in striving toward them. Nor for heaping condemnation upon yourself when not achieving them.
Not being able to reach a goal is not losing. Reaching a goal by means of an unnatural, unhealthy, abuse course of action is losing. And so is putting yourself down for not reaching the goal.
Whatever you can do in a given day, week, year, or lifetime is OK—not as an opportunity for “triumph” or “victory,” but simply fro the enjoyment of where you are, the fulfillment of having allowed your body to take you where you need to be. Again, goal-setting and standards of value are fine, even necessary, but only as means to the end of having a happy, fulfilling life—not as means for punishing yourself for not achieving or living up to them.
Now, if you follow this recipe for a good life, you may not get to where you want to go or “should” go. But you will get to where you need to be, if only you are willing to supply non-judgmental awareness and energy and let your body do the rest. Trust the Higher Power inside of you!
Example 4: A Higher Power for 12-Steppers
The AA or Al-Anon program itself can be your Higher Power in a way that is perfectly in keeping with the spirit and letter of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. It also allows 12-Steppers to avoid the contradiction, seldom noticed, in using God or some other spiritual personality as one’s Higher Power.
Clearly, the 12th Tradition tells us to always place “principles over personalities.” Note that it doesn’t just say earthly or moral personalities, but personalities in general. If one is to apply this Tradition in a consistent and unbiased manner, it seems to urge that we turn our lives over to the guidance of the power in principles, rather than turning it over to any personalities. It does not say “except for an external Supreme Being or one’s own personal Savior,” or whatever. It says “principles over personalities,” period.
Now, an atheist or agnostic can wholeheartedly embrace the 12th Tradition and turn his life over to the Higher Power that resides in the principles of the 12-Step program. The reason is that the principles of the 12-Step programs are based on the facts of reality and human nature, on the factual requirements of human spiritual and emotional health—rather than on anyone’s say-so, supernatural or otherwise.
It might be thought that those facts themselves, or Reality itself, can be one’s Higher Power. And in truth, they do operate, to one’s advantage or disadvantage, depending on whether one acts in accordance with them or against them. But as a point of reference for a 12-Step recovery program, it is not the facts themselves that serve as one’s Higher Power, but the facts as acknowledged or recognized in the form of principles. To have a “conscious contact” with the facts of reality as one’s Higher Power—and not merely being constrained by those facts—one must deal with them in the form of principles.
Agnostics and atheists can do everything that their program brothers and sisters do—things like staying in touch with their Higher Power, “letting go and letting God,” being willing to have their Higher Power remove their character defects, etc.—but they do it in relation to the Higher Power in the principles of the program, a fully natural Higher Power, rather than a Higher Power residing in some other dimension.
Before going any further, I want to make one thing very clear to my religious friends: I am not arguing that Christians, Jews, etc. should abandon their faith in God. Their faith is none of my business. But the integrity and effectiveness of 12-Step programs is my business—and it should be the concern of everyone who wants to make sure that religion never becomes one of the Three Obstacles to Progress in Al-Anon, as one of our pieces of program literature refers to it.
The issue is: is it proper to set up a personality—albeit, a supernatural one—as one’s Higher Power in a 12-Step program? Is it proper to turn one’s life over to someone else, even if that Someone is All-Knowing, All-Powerful, and All-Good?
I believe that there is much danger in setting up God as one’s Higher Power as there is in allowing one’s sponsor or some other 12-Step program friend to serve in that way. The human weakness this plays into is the natural tendency for people who are emotionally and spiritually unhealthy to turn over responsibility for their lives to someone else. This is a very harmful policy. It encourages passivity, the attitude that you don’t have to do anything; someone else (in this case, your Higher Power) will take care of it for you.
In response to this, Christians and others in the Program point out that when you turn your life over to your Higher Power, you still have to provide the energy, the “footwork,” as it were. This is true, but they don’t follow it to its logical conclusion: what they really mean is that you are turning your life over to the guidance of “God’s will”—i.e., becoming willing to act according to (God’s) principles as expressed in the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions, etc.
So, here we are once again, back to the need to live according to principles, rather than self-will, hedonism, etc. Back to: “Principles over personalities.”
Can Christians and others accept the need to leave God at the doorstep, so to speak? Can they let go of the religious elements which now compromise the effectiveness of 12-Step programs? (Giving up the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the close of 12-Step meetings would be a good start.)
Even if they can’t go this far, surely they can agree with agnostics and atheists that the principles of the 12-Step recovery programs are a Higher Power than their own self-will. If promoting such a mutual understanding is all I am able to accomplish with this essay, I will have been very successful indeed. Let’s talk.
Example 5: Another Higher Power for 12-Steppers
Some people say the “God-of-your-understanding” can be the collective conscience of the recovery group, the group-as-a-relationship. The premise here is that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” that a principle of “synergy” operates that produces more healing and growth for everyone than they could have had apart form the group.
It is a common temptation for some group members, when seeing a group going “off course” in some way, to want to take over the group and try to make it better. But the group doesn’t need us to focus on it and try to cure its shortcomings or control it in some way, any more than any of its members need us to do this. You are not anyone else’s or anything else’s Higher Power. The only one you need to control and fix—the only one you really can control and fix—is yourself.
It’s true that a group conscience is a more complex Higher Power than any of the other examples presented so far. It depends upon the interaction of a number of individual people’s awareness, rather than the simple operation of one’s own internal awareness. Also, the general grasp of the 12-Step principles may be better or worse than your own individual grasp of them. Nevertheless, the overall pattern of relating to the group as one’s Higher Power is the same as in the other examples.
If you do what’s right for you, the group-as-a-relationship will carry you to where you need to be. If, of course, the group doesn’t have enough healthy parts—i.e., enough people who are actively fixing themselves or keeping themselves healthy—that fact will eventually become apparent to you. But in such a case, rather than trying to take over and fix the ailing group, acting as its Higher Power, so to speak, you are far better off simply to find another, healthier group.
Example 6: A Higher Power for Marriages and Families
The same is true for family or marital units. The family, or marriage, as a relationship, is your Higher Power in that context.
Don’t dwell on how to fix your spouse, children, siblings, parents, or lover—or any of the relationships involved. “Working on the relationship” is code for shifting attention away from doing what you need to do and toward fixing someone else. Fix yourself, and all of the relationships will adjust accordingly.
Whatever happens, whether or not it fits your desires or plans, will be for the best. Do what’s right for you, and the family or marriage will carry you as far as it can. Try to fix the family or marriage in any other way, and I guarantee you that you will raise your level of anxiety and helplessness. It may feel uncomfortable at first to take your focus off other people’s shortcomings, but you won’t have much serenity until you do.
And if at some point, it becomes clear that the family or marriage is keeping you from doing what is right for your own happiness and serenity, from being what you need to be, you are free to change that situation, too. It may be less convenient or simple than shopping for a new AA or Al-Anon meeting, but the pattern is the same.
Example 7: A Higher Power for Your Career
In regard to one’s career, the Higher Power involved is one’s talent or ability. If you do what is right in regard to your talent—i.e., if you practice, take care of your health, learn how to market your skills or creations effectively, etc.—your talent will carry you as far as it can.
Don’t be passive. Don’t turn the responsibility over to your talent. Don’t assume that people will beat a path to your door because of how wonderful you are in your mind.
Have the courage to change what you can—your knowledge and skills (including communication and marketing skills), be serene about things you can’t change (such as, your age, your past, other people’s attitudes toward you). And be wise enough to know the difference between what you can and can’t do anything about.
A Higher Power as a “Vehicle”
To summarize the above seven examples: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The great thinker, Francis Bacon, said this several hundred years ago, and it’s just as true today.
There are many vehicles with which we can travel on our journey through life—cars and bicycles being but two examples. Less obvious ones include: our bodies, our minds, an Al-Anon group, a marital or family unit, a career, a hobby. Just to name a few.
Each of these vehicles can take us where we need to be, if we are willing to obey the nature of the vehicle we are using and concentrate on doing what is right. The vehicle “knows” better than we do where we need to be and what we need to do to get there.
If we open ourselves up and become aware of the vehicle’s nature and accept what that requires, then all we have to do is what’s right. If we supply the decision and the awareness and the energy—the willingness, in other words—the vehicle will take care of the rest. If we become willing instead of willful, our Higher Power will take us where we need to be.
What’s more, if the vehicle is broken or malfunctioning, the only way we can help it get fixed is by concentrating on doing what is right. Then, if at all possible, the vehicle can fix itself. We can’t make it fix itself. We will only get in the way, if we try. We must “let go and let God”—i.e., let the Higher Power in the vehicle take us where it “wants” us to go.
A Higher Power as a Teacher of (Sometimes) Painful Lessons
Religious people, trusting in the All-Goodness of their God, believe that He would not deliberately torment us by putting misfortune in our lives, unless there were something important He wanted us to learn from the experience. In recovery programs, you often will hear veteran group members speak of their Higher Power in the same way.
Sometimes a distraught or puzzled member will tell the group of how, again and again, they end up in a relationship with an alcoholic or drug user. “Why me?” they ask. “Why do I always pick this kind of person?”
A standard answer from experienced Program people is: “Your Higher Power sees to it that you are drawn to that kind of person and relationship, until you become emotionally and spiritually strong enough not to need it any more.”
The newcomer may then reply: “I didn’t need it in the first place! I could have gotten along very well and been very happy without it, thank you.”
The old-timer (if he or she is wise and “has lots of Program”) may come back with something like the following: “You may not have wanted it, but you apparently weren’t willing to learn in any less painful way how to be emotionally and spiritually healthy. That’s why your Higher Power directed you toward these people and relationships, so that you would learn this very important lesson about dealing with life.”
As we have seen, much talk about a Higher Power is really about an authority figure or a ruling personality to whom one submits. I believe, however, that it is much more conducive to one’s taking responsibility for one’s life if one conceives of that power not as a thing or personality, but as a capacity or potential to bring about some kind of change.
Then, following the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, we can see that there is a Higher Power in each of us that is more subtle than our bodily awareness or our conscience. That Higher Power, for each of us, is our proper form of being, each of us as he or she can and ought to be, our highest potential for living a healthy and happy life, the human potential for each of us: “the best within us.” (See Rand’s The Fountainhead, 25th anniv. ed., p. x.)
Like all living organisms, we human beings are wonderfully complex self-regulating creatures. Unlike other animals, we are capable of willfully turning away from the things we need the most. We are just as capable of choosing to put things into our stomachs, our lungs, and our lives that we know are bad for us, as we are the things that are good. And we often do.
Still, there is a place in the center of each of us (don’t ask me where!) that in some sense “knows” what is best for us, even if we try to turn away from it. It never gives up trhying to orient us toward the good, even if we choose otherwise, even if the way it tries to align us with the good seems to be the opposite of what it should be.
A good example is found in the area of nutrition. If we fail to provide our bodies with adequate amounts of certain nutrients, we experience cravings for things which are objectively harmful to us, things such as sugar or greasy fried foods (two of my favorites!). Bad as it is to indulge these cravings, however, they represent an attempt of a Higher Power within our organisms to help us to avoid the even worse harm that would result by not having these substances.
They serve, much like alcohol and drugs, as medications that temporarily offset the harm we have already done to ourselves. The problem is the same, too: the benefits are only temporary and the long-term effects are a gradual deterioration of our physical well-being (in forms such as obesity, heart disease, etc.).
Eventually, of course, we may hit some kind of “bottom”—such as a heart attack, severe depression or humiliation—that leads us to examine our lives (in this case, our nutrition) and decide to make a change in our attitude, our thinking, and our behavior. And once we make and act on such a decision, each step forward on the new path will be just as reinforcing of growth and health as our old course was of stagnation and disease.
Until then, we will have no compelling reason to make a major change in our lives. We will continue lurching toward greater and greater physical discomfort and illness, not fully knowing (or caring to know) why. But it is important to realize that our physical bodies and their regulating mechanisms and the cravings they generate are not, therefore, some kind of lower power or enemy of our well-being. They help us, like a Higher Power, in the only way they can: by taking us to the point where we finally become willing to turn our lives around and head back toward health.
We can see how this principle operating in a very clear fashion in how we feed our children. If we allow them to have a mediocre (or worse) diet of junk food and fast food, we will find that the kind of treats they prefer tend to be laden with sugar: candy bars, ice cream, pastries, cookies, etc. If, on the other hand, we take care to give them a balanced, nourishing diet—full of vegetables, fruits, grains, and non-red meats—we will find that their sugar cravings largely (perhaps even entirely) disappear. (Of course, any self-respecting kid is going to resent to high heaven his or her parents imposing themselves as a Higher Power in an attempt to change the child’s nutritional habits. If you doubt this, just try to be consistent about the changes you want without getting major amounts of flak from your child!)
This, in pattern, is exactly what happens in the spiritual-emotional area of our lives, too. As they say in the computer industry: “Garbage in, garbage out.” And just as importantly: healthfulness in, healthiness out. Our souls (i.e., our minds and their values) work in exactly the same general way as the digestive-nutritional part of our beings.
Our only choice is whether we will listen to the Higher Power within each of us and take the steps we need to take in order to be happy and healthy—or ignore that Higher Power and suffer the more painful pathways it leads us onto, over and over if necessary, in order to finally get our attention. And, as in nutrition, we may well have to have some sort of breakdown or major comeuppance before we will be willing to listen and do what’s right for ourselves.
This is the basic alternative facing all of us—religious and non-believers alike. And that is the reason our emotional and spiritual recovery can only proceed by means of a “self-conscious contact with a Higher Power”—so that we can deliberately set ourselves to (and keep ourselves on) the course of healthy living and healthy values. Not living by whim and desire, but by principles. Not choosing whatever we want, but choosing what is good for us.
I have not spelled out exactly what I think is the good for us as human beings. That issue is not appropriate to the present discussion of why we need a Higher Power in our lives, even if we are not religious in the conventional sense. The basic choices, however, seem to boil down to some form of collectivist-altruist ethics (on which Marxism is based), some form of mystic-altruist ethics (such as that of Judaism or Christianity, for instance), or something like Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics or Aristotle’s eudaimonism.
Based on my passing remarks in this essay, it is probably not too difficult to tell where I stand on the issue. What’s most important to me, however, is not that you agree with me, but that you honestly and vigorously explore the issue, if it is of interest and concern to you.
The proper attitude that goes with the healthy choice is not willfulness—which is the root of so much of our problems and unhappiness—but willingness.
Willingness to live by principles.
Willingness to do what is right for ourselves.
Willingness to respect the nature of our spirits and our bodies—and of the world we live in—and to act accordingly.
Willingness to get in touch with our Higher Power, to understand what it requires of us for well-being, and to way (in essence, if not in literal form): “Not my will, but Thine.”
Posted 22 December 2005 - 12:23 AM
April 3, 1992
Dear Dr. Branden...Knowing that you have recently hooked into the Recovery movement, I have also enclosed a copy of the "Higher Power" paper I wrote recently. It is an attempt on my part to put the concept of a Higher Power in a more naturalistic context. (I used to attend Al-Anon and had some problem with the covert religiosity of it.) Eventually I will revise it to include the "sage self" you discussed in How to Raise Your Self-Esteem. Please feel free to send me any comments and suggestions, if you are so moved...Sincerely, Roger Bissell
April 20, 1992
Dear Roger...With regard to your other paper and the "higher power" issue, what you say is very interesting, and yet I doubt if it really adequately addresses the misgivings of those who like me have with the notion of "surrender to a higher power" or the A.A. doctrine of their individual powerlessness. I wonder if you are aware of the highly effective alternative approaches that exist. Since this subject is obviously high on your priorities, I urge you to read a book I read recetnly that impressed me very much. The book is called The Truth About Addiction and Recovery, and one of the authors is Stanton Peale. The book is available in trade paperback. I think it would mean a lot to you. Best, Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D.
[Note: I did read the Peale book, but I have not yet incorporated any of its ideas nor Dr. Branden's "sage self" into my essay. We did not correspond further on this issue, but we did get together in person shortly after our correspondence and discussed a number of issues.]
Best to all,
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