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Choosing Your God

You can’t solve a problem with the very mind that created it.”   Albert Einstein

Often I find myself being told, “Don, I would like to get sober but doesn’t AA involve God, and I don’t know about that God stuff?”  Or, “I would like to come to the depression support group, but is it okay if I am not interested in that 12-Step Higher Power stuff?”

I have come to find that I am encouraged by these questions.  For the person struggling with chronic diseases like addiction or depression, or for that matter just life, it is a subliminal recognition that they are tired of their god, don’t trust their god, and are ready to divest themselves of the god they have been relying on that is not working.

We all have one. We have operating emotional beliefs about what is important, that run our life.    I am not referring to a set of intellectual beliefs separate from how we actually function; but those emotional beliefs that determine our behavior.  There is no dualism in the way this works.  Whether we are religious, anti-religious, agnostic or atheist, we have a god, a core emotional operating/belief control system (EOCS) that relates us to everything outside of ourselves, that runs our life.

Over the centuries, systems have evolved that try to articulate the nature of a particular EOCS,  these definitions, when they refer only to the internal workings of the psyche become psychological theory; when they refer to a touchstone in the psyche that points to something outside of the person, what is pointed to becomes religious doctrine.  Many people find a meshing of their EOCS, their existential god, with their understanding of an articulated view of God in a traditional religion.  They are able to learn from the experiences of others who came before, and to graft onto the history of a particular idea of God, their own experience of this idea and become members of a particular religion or church.  But when I am talking about a person’s god, I am not talking about his/her mental ideas about a Supreme Being, rather I am talking about their core emotional operating/belief control system (EOCS).

So while your EOCS may mesh with the ideas of a particular religion, it may not.  And even if you identify yourself as a member of a particular religion, your EOCS may or may not reflect the values of that religion, since the former is in the realm of ideas, the latter, more basic, at the level of thought and feeling.

We all learn our particular EOCS.  Most important to how the EOCS becomes defined is how its operating beliefs are learned.    We learn things at three different levels.  The level of learning determines the way knowledge is laid down in the brain’s neuronal pathways.  At the lowest level is intellectual, or school learning, taking information in.  This type of learning has the least impact on our EOCS.  Thus while the Chapel Hill freshman students may read about the Koran, this information is unlikely to affect their EOCS.  An attempt to understand intellectually one’s EOCS is always going to fall short.  You can’t understand an experience just by thinking, any more than an artist can paint a great painting just relying on technique.  Seeing a great painting is an experience.  It always conveys an emotional content that transcends the purely linear ideas of form, space and color.

The second level of learning is ordinary experience.  It combines our intellectual and emotional functions.  It is the major shaper of our EOCS.  We study multiplication tables for weeks as a kid to learn them, but we go out in the woods gathering acorns one time with our grandfather, and it is an occasion that shapes our EOCS, which we never forget.

Some scholars and thinkers actually experience their own thinking.  They have a second level learning of first level information.  Similarly, many scientists and inventors get their inspiration from their emotional experiences with ideas.

The third level is heightened state learning experiences.  Heightened state learning combines intellectual and emotional learning at a deep, profound level.  Take the time as a boy I was fishing and got the hook on a silver spoon caught in the meaty flesh of my palm and my father had to push the hook through to cut the barb, or the experience of coming down the stairs at seven on Christmas morning; or the experience at thirteen of seeing one’s father passed out drunk on the floor.  Initiatory experiences occur at a heightened learning state.  The job of tribal elders was to conduct an initiatory experience for the tribes’ young men that would guide them for the rest of their lives.  Marine Corp boot camp is a vestige of this idea.  Spiritual experiences described by mystics throughout history also fall into this category of learning.

Those lessons that occur in heightened states are the realities that most fundamentally shape our EOCS; and, to the extent their impact is negative, most likely shape the contours of an EOCS that later manifests problems with addiction or depression.

Thus there are three different interacting levels at which our EOCS is formed.  From these different levels of learning, there are several general types of ego-based EOCS’ that result:

1)      god as security: For these people there is a learned experience somewhere that drives them to acquire.  For people with this EOCS, enough is never enough, good is not okay because something better is always there to be chased.  This EOCS is not the normal feeling of wanting to be adequately clothed, fed, and housed, but for people with this EOCS, they always need something else to make them feel okay.  When they get it, there is the momentary euphoria of getting what one wants, but shortly this passes and there is the need to get something else to fill the hole again.

2)      god as sensation: These folks fall into one of two categories, or both.  Either they use external sensation for the type of internal brain chemistry it causes or they take drugs to alter the brain’s normal processing of sensation so the experience of ordinary life is heightened.  Either way, the experience of intense sensation makes them feel, for a moment, or a short while, that they are whole; then it is over and they need to start the process again.  These folks may need to jump out of planes, hike treacherous peaks, drink alcohol excessively or take other drugs.

3)      god as dependence: Humans are social creatures. Our interactions with each other either sustain us or make us sick.  For dependents, the normal needed social interdependence has become maladapted.  The classic example is the child growing up in the alcoholic family.  Because the alcohol takes the place of meaningful normal social interchange for the parent, the child adapts to try to get what is missing.  He/she may be a rebel, a caretaker, a pleaser, a hero etc. but regardless of the role, his/her EOCS operates to produce behavior calculated to affect another person, and it is only by having an affect on the other person that the dependent person feels okay.  But again, the satisfaction is short lived.  Something always changes, the need the dependent has met is now filled and the dependent person must begin manipulation again to feel okay.

4)      god as control: The person with this EOCS often grew up in an alcoholic home or in a home with mental illness.  In such homes, there is always a level of emotional chaos.  When will Dad come home drunk again?  Feelings of fear and embarrassment because Mom is not right.  To compensate, these people need to control.  With the need to control comes a need to judge and criticize, because if everything must always be a certain way, then I must constantly, internally criticize others, events, etc., to determine if they are acting right. The controller needs power to control.  He/she may seek it aggressively,  and we have all seen the lawyer who seeks it so aggressively there is no doubt he would run over his/her grandmother to win the case; or, passive aggressively where the person manipulates behind a screen.  Whether the controller seeks power actively or passively, the result is always the same.  Something else pops up that is not being controlled.  The goal of controlling amongst all the variables of life is constantly fleeting.

5)      god as suffering: Often the passive aggressive person will also bow to this god.  But the god of suffering is broadly and unconsciously worshipped.  It is a part of any negative habit.  We do things because we are accustomed to them even when they pinch.  The prototypical worshiper of this god does something over and over expecting a different result.  The sufferer has also never really grown up.  They see their choices constrained because they are not really willing to take responsibility for their actions.  They want to do what they want to do and then “suffer” because it brought them what it always has; or because they are waiting on someone to rescue them or fix it.  The saying: “life brings pain, but suffering is optional,” makes no sense to the sufferer.  He/she is unable to see he/she has other choices, or to make them.

Of course there are other ego-based EOCS that arise out of the need to feel okay or avoid emotional pain, but these are the chief ones.  Many of those sick with addiction or depression have some combination of these gods.  Their uniting characteristic is they are all ego defenses.  They are all defenses at work to make the ego feel intact under pressure.  They usually all start out as survival skills so the ego can feel it has done its job of assuring the organism’s survival.  But if we as humans are going to enjoy life, if we are going to live lives that are happy, joyous and free, then these EOCS’s are woefully inadequate.

Fortunately there is another general category of EOCS which has infinite variations.  That is god as other.  You see this god reflected in all religions.  But my purpose is not to define this god as other, that is each person’s individual choice and the task of theologians; but rather to illustrate how god as other operates as a healing agent in our physical and emotional lives.  This EOCS is in the realm of what we think of as spiritual, it is something inside that somehow gives us as humans the capacity to connect with something outside ourselves.

A spiritual EOCS offers a wonderful healing opportunity because it offers a way to drop our ego-based EOCS.  All of the lesser gods of security, sensation, dependence, control and suffering are a part of the ego.  Like the pain of a decayed tooth, the only way to really get rid of the pain is to pull the tooth.  The only way to get rid of the maladaptive ego defenses is to push the ego out of the driver’s seat as the EOCS.  But nature abhors a vacuum.  To get rid of the inadequate ego defenses, they must be replaced by something else.

There are classic stories that describe this process of the ego by metaphor, (e.g.) where the knight goes into the underworld to slay the dragon.  Religious texts also describe this process, as in St. John of the Cross,  “Dark Night of the Soul.”

For those of us who grew up in the 20th century, we are indeed fortunate that there evolved, out of the efforts of two men seeking to deal with a chronic disease, a modern short-hand method of dethroning the ego and all its baggage.  While it can be tough working the 12-steps, it is a relatively gentle process compared to those of history (e.g. 40 days fasting in the wilderness).  Its slogans and literature seem simplistic if not trite when considered just on the first level of intellectual learning.  But the 12-steps are designed to teach only at the second and third levels, where the roots of an ego based EOCS are sunk deep.

The 12-steps give those who have nearly given up hope a new experience, the steps allow them to trust enough that they can have hope, that they can feel they have the gift of membership in the human race no matter how broken they may be.  (Ironically, one has to have a strong enough ego structure to be able to let go of it.  But usually the problem is not an underdeveloped ego but the reverse, an ego that is way over inflated, everything is about poor me or wonderful me.)

The subtle genius of AA’s development of the 12-steps was not to define what this other might be.  The awkward term used is Higher Power.  This very lack of definition allows each individual to define his/her own external based EOCS.  Often it ends up being in the form of traditional religious ideas that he/she thought had long ago been rejected.  But many times it is something different, that works for that person and has no religious connection.

Regardless then of how one defines an EOCS that is centered on other, what is indeed dramatic is the psychic shift that occurs as the ego based gods drop away or as one of my friends says, the ego is right sized in relation to God and one’s fellow man.

What happens is something like this. There is not the ego separation between what you want to do and what you think you ought to do.  There is just doing what your other based EOCS says is the next right thing.  Life becomes not about obligation but about opportunity.  Life is not about shoulds or shouldnots but about freedom and choice.  Life is not about wanting to avoid the results of your actions, but being happily and responsibly committed to each action.

Your life becomes relaxed and flows; it is no longer about teeth-gritting willpower.  There is a sense of inner peace even in troubled times, as opposed to only feeling peaceful when things are going as expected.  There is an inner sense of rightness; self-doubt and second guessing leave.  There is a healthy detachment from other’s opinions as opposed to a need for assurance and approval.  Energy seems to return promptly upon rest after a hard task; rather than feeling life is an uphill, exhausting process.  One is able to enjoy being fully absorbed in a task, as opposed to living in a hurry-up-get-it-over on to the next task mentality.  There is a sense of purpose to life and the feeling of rightness comes as a quiet and inner knowing as opposed to the ego’s momentary rush of excitement.  And, as the lesser gods of manipulation and control drop away, life seems to have all kinds of wonderful serendipity.

Well, this has been a first level, using the mind approach, to answer a question I know can only be answered at the level of experience.  So I know in this form it is unsatisfactory.  If you would like the rewards of an other based EOCS, experiencing a satisfactory answer is up to you.

– by Don Carroll

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