“The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.” – Anonymous
This time-tested battle cry of the old-timers of Alcoholics Anonymous echoes down through the ages, reverberating off of the painted cinder block walls of floor wax and bad coffee-scented church basements across New England and beyond. I’ve heard it so many times over the years that I stopped hearing it for a while, relegating it to the status of a trite, folksy cliche, of which there are so many in AA. Upon entering more deeply into zen practice and 12 Step practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace a more boots-on-the-ground, head-where-my-ass-is approach to the whole “spiritual component” of AA, as it is so frequently and oxymoronically referred to. Spirituality, of course, is not a “component” of anything, but rather the totality of everything. This notion that spirituality can somehow be compartmentalized is simply a sleight of hand that the ego employs in order to substantiate its own existence and keep itself in control of things.
The “you’re not him” platitude isn’t simply a call to humility; at its best interpretation, which, for the moment, I’ll assume that I’m making, it is a call to action and an admonition against launching a flight of fancy into the world of concepts. How easy, how comfortable, how convenient it is to think about God, to ponder Greater Meaning and Higher Power from within the safety of my own intellectual framework, as was so often done during those late nights in the conversation pit, a drug-addled tradition immortalized long before my time by the characters of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, who so often stayed up late into the night talking – wild! – and drinking wine – great! How useful was that endeavor in my own journey some thirty years after Ray Smith and Japhy Rider graced the bungalows of Berkeley? To be honest, it was extremely useful insofar as it informed my process of cycling through the seductive labyrinth of ideas and substances to land on the meditation cushion and in the aforementioned church basements.
Buddhism is, to my understanding, less of a philosophy or a religion, and more of a psychology. It offers us nothing more or less than the opportunity to develop the capacity to look at our own minds. Not a promise, just an opportunity, an opportunity that holds the key to ending our own suffering, not forever, but moment to moment. Also known as Forever. The Buddha offered sort of a bottom-up approach to this problem of being human, rather that the top-down approach that was on the table prior to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The practice isn’t so much about connecting to a Higher Power as it is about connecting to our own experience. In other words, our heads tend to already be in the clouds, so to speak. Our work consists of coming back into our bodies.
It comes as a shock to many of us that we create the overwhelming majority of our own suffering. We seem to believe that we have no agency in that suffering, lacking, as so many of us do, the understanding that it isn’t the circumstances or events of our lives that create suffering, but rather our response to them. “Pain is inevitable,” I’ve heard echo off of the painted cinder block walls. “Suffering is optional.” In other words, it’s how we relate to the pain of our lives that determines our degree of suffering. It’s our job to decide how we relate to our pain. The world is full of others who can help us make that decision, but no one else is in a position to take away our suffering.
What is problematic about the “Higher Power” approach to the “spiritual component” is that it feeds the illusion of duality and sets us up to search for a solution outside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of addiction. Our suffering arises out of this idea of separation, which creates the notion that something outside of me will fix me, fill me, heal me, or complete me. It’s a fools game, of course, because there’s really nothing “out there.” The self is looking for itself outside of itself, and guess what? There’s nothing to be found.
There’s nothing to “get,” which is good news, because both Buddhism and Recovery (which, in this writer’s humble opinion, aren’t different) aren’t about getting things; they’re about getting rid of things. Getting rid of all the stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of reality as it is in this moment. And the biggest chunk of stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of this world? The unfounded belief that “me” and “this world” are two. Ego will do everything within its power to substantiate this belief. It’s this desperate attempt to control our experience that gives rise to what the old-timers call “playing God.”
So I can take it as read that I’m not God. What, then, am I? Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to this as Great Question. The first time I sat down for a koan interview with his student, Zen Master Bon Haeng, he asked me, “What are you?” It’s a no-brainer , I thought. He’s starting me off with the easy ones.
“I’m a human being.”
He hit me with a stick.
There is nothing to grasp…
p.s. please excuse the gender bias of the old-timers. They are, after all, old-timers.
top photo: summer reflections on a pond, Pisgah State Park, Hinsdale NH