In early January, 2015, I was at a low point spiritually. As an experiment, I started writing a daily letter to God. Things got better. Life got better. I got better. God got nearer. I have kept up a daily letter every morning ever since. Monday will be my letter number 1,500.
There is nothing remarkable about any one of these letters. Each is just a simple entry in a notebook. Think of it as journaling. But taken together, they add up. They are a practice. This practice, done consistently, has improved my spiritual life in revolutionary ways. This is not an understatement.
Over the past few months, my relationship to my God has deepened and grown. The letters have become love-poems. (I post each one here every morning: https://letters-to-god.com/)
I share all this not to seem special. The opposite: Anyone can do it. All it takes is a start. One step, another step, another step. Pretty soon you’re walking. Pretty soon, you’ve traveled a fair distance.
If you are curious to follow a similar path, I would be interested to learn what you find.
Today (June 10, 2015) marks the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. In popular culture and even among those who are a part of “the program,” AA is seen as a useful oganization, or as a set of support groups for people who are trying to follow the directions of a particularly enduring self-help book. Of course, to some it is seen as a cult. But all of these views miss the important genesis of this spiritual movement.
I use the term “spiritual movement” with care, for I believe that is what it is. It is spiritual in nature and it is a movement in the strictest sense of the word: a polycentric, wide ranging, collective sense of direction marked by complementary actions toward a common goal and with no central director but instead many smaller coordinating entities and individuals.
Nowadays, when someone has a good idea about how to do something, they may write a book that sets forth their principles. It will often be structured in ways similar to a workbook or a textbook. It may have boxes sprinkled liberally throughout, questions to ask oneself after each chapter, even spaces for notes. Then the person or group who published it will set out to develop some kind of organizational structure based on that. Even when gently and empathetically directed, this is a prescriptive organizational enterprise and it has at its core the model of school: We know something that we are going to teach you, and your job is to learn it.
AA came about differently.
Beginnings: An Insight
AA started with an insight that one of the co-founders (Bill W.) had while in a New York alcoholic asylum after literally losing all. He had had what he saw as a spiritual awakening and felt that this may well help keep him away from a drink when all else had failed. (He had been visited by a friend who had joined the now-defunct Oxford Group, which was an evangelical Christian movement started in 1908. This started him thinking spiritually.) But Bill’s further insight was that only by trying to help other alcoholics would he himself be able to stay sober. So he started looking for drunks to try to help. He had no real success in terms of helping people, but his insight held: he himself stayed sober.
On a business trip to Akron in 1935 that fell apart catastrophically, Bill was at loose ends in his hotel. A big talker, he had been trying to corner the market on rubber and his deal was in shambles. He had no money to pay his hotel bill. He could use a drink. He hovered in the lobby, looking into the hotel bar on one side, and at a church directory on the other. For some reason he chose the church directory and started dialing. Not looking for a sermon — he thought churches would be good places to find alcoholics he could help. When the chips were down, his original insight held: he’d better go help someone, or he might drink.
Eventually, after much dialing, he got put in touch with a local doctor who had also pretty much lost all (Dr. Bob, the other co-founder). Dr. Bob had been trying to stay sober to no avail, and had almost lost his practice completely. They met. Bill told Bob what he knew about alcoholism: that it was like a disease over which he had no control, that one had to figure out a way to seek power greater than oneself, and that in order to keep any kind of sobriety one had to try to help others. Because Bill was a fellow alcoholic and had been through the same wringer Dr. Bob had, he listened. Bill knew what he was talking about where (it seemed) all the previous moralizers did not. Bill was not forcing anything on Dr. Bob, just telling him his experience and what worked for him.
Dr. Bob felt his problem was behind him and the two began to help others. Bill stayed in Akron. They sought out drunks and tried to help them. Bob eventually took a business trip during this time, and got drunk. He came back with his tail between his legs and a renewed sense of purpose. He had to work harder at this thing, which didn’t even have a name.
AA’s “birthday” is seen as that day, the day of Dr. Bob’s last drink. June 10, 1935.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous was not even an idea at that time. It would not be written until 1939.
What Bill and Dr. Bob did was to continue to try to find and help alcoholics. A small group grew up around them, and they spent almost all their time together, like people in a lifeboat. They started to meet together at night, drinking coffee and smoking, and sharing with each other so they could collectively stay sober. At first they met in local Oxford Groups, but eventually split off and met on their own. As each person achieved sobriety, they began to try to help others. There was nothing written down, no organization, no rules to speak of. Just hard, practical work. Dr. Bob was sneaking patients into hospitals so they could sober up, and the administrators of such facilities were looking the other way because it seemed to work. (Bill eventually went back to New York and this same kind of growth happened there, too.)
Eventually, when it seemed clear they were onto something, Bill wanted to create a huge (and moneymaking) organization complete with treatment centers. Others were skeptical and thought this might ruin what they had. They had a vote. The group was not interested — but they would be willing for a book to be written that would set forth what they had been doing thus far in order to stay sober. (This idea passed by just one vote.) The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” came from this decision — collectively written, a literal effort to capture what they had been doing for the last four years that seemed to be working.
A Movement Today
Since publication of that book, AA has grown remarkably. But it has maintained its practical roots and remains a movement. It has, by design, as little organization as is possible, only such that is necessary. Its functions are governed by a simple set of traditions that keep all power (what little there is) in the hands of local groups and places the central office in a service role, answerable to the collective conscience of AA groups and members. Anyone who has run or worked in organizations knows this is no way to run an enterprise, as it makes decision-making enormously difficult. But it is how a movement can retain its essential character as a group endeavor run by no one person and democratically aimed.
I find this history remarkable both for how amazingly that small 1935 meeting has grown into a global phenomenon that has literally saved millions of lives, but also for how unlike other organizational stories it is. AA is not the story of a centrally directed organization coming to power. It is the story of a social movement.
I used to know someone who was the “town drunk” (his words) in a port town on a remote island nation. A merchant marine vessel docked there. On that ship was a recovering alcoholic. He had with him a pamphlet he had gotten from the central office (one of its duties is to publish such pamphlets). My friend came into contact with the seaman (who, as a good AA member, was seeking people he could help get sober). The ship left port. My friend was left behind. He and his friends started meeting together and talking, basing their interactions on that one pamphlet. AA now thrives on that island nation. Not because they wrote to New York to get permission, but because they started working together, and it seemed to work.
Today marks the 150th consecutive day that I have, without fail, engaged in a set spiritual practice. I started around the new year (2015), checked in after four weeks and again 100 days in. It started from a feeling of dissolution, a need to reconnect to a path toward a higher self. My real self.
This practice is entirely about steady, slow progress. Sometimes I feel inspired and connected. Sometimes my practice is at best perfunctory. But I do it. I have done it enough, now, that I feel a bit superstitious about it.
What will befall me if I skip? says a small, fearful voice. Nothing, certainly. Just as this practice does not make me saintly, neither will skipping make me less a person. But I don’t ever want to feel as low as I began. I feel continuing to do this allows me to in general keep moving away from that place. I worry if I stop that I will start to drift back there.
The “letters to God” that I write are for the most part the same set of ideas over and over. I mostly pray for knowledge of the next right thing, and for the willingness to carry that out. I merely write that letter in order to have tangible proof that I did my practice today. It’s something I can see.
So, 150 days of something so simple is no great accomplishment. But for someone as distracted, willful, and self absorbed as I am . . . it is not nothing. So I take pleasure and am grateful for the wherewithal to keep on this path. Others have expressed interest, so I keep reporting in.
This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:
What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.
To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.
This morning marks four full weeks of daily spiritual work: prayer, reading, journaling, and meditation. I have done each of these things every morning since the year began. I’ve done them even when it felt as if I did not have the time. I’ve done them even when I had to look at my watch and say, “I have fifteen minutes and that is what I have to devote this morning.” So some mornings have been better than others. But I haven’t missed a morning.
So in other words, this has been a practice. Something I have done regularly and without fail.
I ended 2014 at a very low point emotionally and spiritually. I felt exhausted and pressured. Things that had brought me joy before seemed tepid at best. I had fleeting periods of good feeling, but they were briefer and briefer. I felt increasingly empty, even in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and evident physical health. I was working out. I was doing yoga. I was eating right. Indeed, some Facebook friends would say I over-emphasized my “healthy lifestyle,” flooding the Internet with pictures of happy-me at yoga and the gym, and plates full of good Paleo grub.
At the new year, people often make resolutions or set intentions. I resolved to try to take some kind of action. I could not go on so empty. I decided to shed all of the “activities” I had engaged in, all the body-worship and inward-focus. My healthy eating, my working out, even my yoga . . . it was all focused on me. It was a circle leading nowhere.
So I dropped it all and got back to basics. Simple, spiritual practice. Period. Nothing fancy. Each morning:
Read spiritual literature
Pray to the God of my understanding
Write a “letter to God,” which counts as my journal
I can’t say I am a person with deep faith, so the prayer was nothing fancy. I asked each day for knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power and willingness to carry it out. In other words, my prayer was just that I would know the next right thing to do, and have the willingness to do it. I did not picture a being overseeing the world, it was not a Christian or any other kind of religious god I was praying to. Just a force for good that I think of as x. An unknown quantity. I’m not even sure I believe, nor do I think I have to.
The journaling was simple too. You often see people in movies writing a “dear diary” kind of entry. I thought it would be useful to feel as if I was telling someone what was on my mind that morning. A long time ago someone mentioned to me that when they were feeling bad they wrote a letter to God and that stuck with me. So I tried it again.
And as for meditation, this, too, was nothing fancy. A few years ago I obtained the book Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. It’s got a CD with a few short meditation exercises. (Here’s audio of the first one, which just focuses on being aware of breath.) They are each about ten minutes. I would just listen to one every morning. If I had little time, I would just set my timer for five minutes, and count my breaths, trying to be aware of how I felt for each one. Again . . . nothing fancy.
The purpose of all this was twofold. I wanted relief from the hamster wheel rolling in my head. And I wanted to focus outside of myself. By asking for the power and willingness to just be helpful in the world, I thought I might fret less about my own little dramas.
After a few days, perhaps just short of a week, I began slowly to feel better. My world did not change, the skies did not part, there was no “awakening.” I just felt better.I began slowly to feel more able to handle things that came my way. I did not fear the day so much. Troubles began to shrink. I began to have some perspective.
Another week passed. I began to feel I had the mental (and temporal) bandwidth to start yoga again, and some exercise. But I promised myself if those things crowded out my spiritual practice that I would drop them again immediately. So what if I got fatter and weaker? I had to be right on the inside. And the practice continued.
And things kept improving.
This has been the steady result. Not in a linear progression — it has had its ups and downs, its strong days and weaker days.
I plan to continue this practice moving forward. Not out of any virtue. I don’t think “good people pray and meditate, bad people don’t.” But it seems to be working for me and I don’t want to feel like I did four weeks ago. And it gets easier each day I practice. I am less distracted as I write, my mind wanders less when I meditate.
But overall I can say I feel much more whole than I did on January 1. I feel more useful to those around me. And that’s an OK start.
As many of my friends know, for some years now I have eliminated almost all grains from my life. Save for the occasional cheat, I do not eat wheat or any other grain. I try to avoid added sugar and anything processed. My diet consists of meat (especially grass fed beef and bacon), green vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach), and nuts (almonds). For treats I eat dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, and dates — but I am trying to reduce those.
The result of this way of eating is that your body ceases running primarily on sugar (which the body derives from carbohydrates like wheat) and instead runs on fats. It is important, therefore, to get enough healthy fats.
One way to do this is to eat a lot of grass fed butter. (Cows that are grass fed create food that is good for you and has a healthy balance of things like Omega 3 fats, etc.). David Asprey, who founded the Bulletproof Executive, has developed a great way to have a cup of morning coffee and get lots of the good stuff.
My trainer, Grant Hill, recently turned me on to Asprey’s “Bulletproof Coffee.” I am now a convert. A cup of this will charge up your morning and power you into lunchtime easy. It sounds insane, but it is quite tasty (like a latte) and way easy to make.
I could not find a good tutorial (i.e., one with step by step photos for the simpleminded like me) on how to make Bulletproof Coffee, so I thought I would post one here.
500 ml of GOOD coffee. Organic is best.
up to 80g of grass fed butter, unsalted. Kerrygold, at Trader Joe’s, is good. [UPDATE: Not salted, not grain fed.]
Dear entrepreneurs: In case you want to get this set up for the summer, I thought I would let you know what kind of experience I would be willing to pay money for.
I am looking for an Ancestral Fitness Boot Camp. What is this, you may ask? Good question.
In essence, this camp would be a time to reboot and recharge my physical being. It would be at least two weeks in duration. All the food would be Paleo-compliant. There would be two workouts per day, held outdoors, using MovNat and other intense training principles. There would be no clocks to speak of. We would get up and do what we do throughout the day based on our bodies’ timetables. Since I am creating my dream environment, of course there would be a yoga class available every night.
There would be no cell phone or Internet service whatsoever – we would be completely unplugged from the grid.
Furthermore the artificial light used at night would be minimal to nonexistent. Maybe we would even use candles and flames.
The point of all this would be to create the cleanest reboot experience possible for the human organism. By re-creating the conditions – or simulations and approximations of the conditions – that we experienced throughout the majority of our species evolution, I hope that I would in essence be able to culturally detoxify.
I fantasize returning from this experience, which may in fact need to be more like four weeks, refreshed, revitalized, and ready to rock. Oh, and really strong!