Monday, January 17, 2011


I should be reading about piety in the medieval period, but instead I am absorbing two books related to addiction. One is Addiction & Grace by Gerald G. May, M.D.; the other is Smashed, a memoir by Koren Zailckas that the author describes as, "a story of a drunken girlhood."

It is interesting to read about the concepts and phenomenon described in Addiction and Grace and then watch to see if they show up in Smashed. They do.

In discussing addiction, May focuses on what he calls "attachments." He defines addiction as, "any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire." He goes on to say that addiction is caused by the attachment or nailing of a desire to a specific object (chemical substances, relationships, success, etc.). He explains that attachments form through our investing psychic energy into certain activities, things or people that bring us pleasure (or relief from distress). Many of these investments are kept unconscious by means of self-deception. Thus, our motivations are never completely pure, making it difficult to "catch" ourselves in our growing addictions.

Fascinating stuff!

I think I've given away enough of the May text. If it sounds interesting, purchase it! However, there were several thoughts related to spirituality that I want to share as well.

In a chapter devoted to spirituality, May says that humans tend to "displace" our longing for God upon other things. (Another "version" of this I have heard is the idea of throwing other "stuff" into the "God" hole and never feeling satisfied because only God can fill that space.) He offers a fascinating explanation as to why we sometimes feel separated from God; or as if God is hiding from us. God refuses to be an object of attachment; He desires full love, not addiction. Thus those perceptions or sensations we entertain of "Where is God?" are perhaps God's way of telling us, you can't "have" me like this. Likewise, May defines full love for God as turning to God over and above other things. "Authentic freedom and love will not be captured by attachment," he says.

Now here's the really good stuff: May says spiritual growth is more about relinquishment, not acquisition. It's a process of transformation, not education; an unlearning process in which our old ways are cleansed, liberated and redeemed.

I was reminded of this idea as I was reading a passage from Isaiah this morning. Not because of what the passage said, but because of a note I had written in the margin in my more legalistic days. I got up from my rocking chair in search of a pencil. Then I erased my comments. Perhaps that is something like what May is describing -- this process of transformation -- erasing our old selves.

May describes three reactions we tend to have toward our spiritual hunger (what he calls, "God's loving, threatening call"), making the point early on that we are created to be in connection with God. "First, we may try to deny or avoid God's call, repressing our desire and displacing its energy..." onto other objects (that, he says, is what contributes to addiction). "Second, we may make images of spiritual reality, cellular representations that enable us to feel a measure of power over it instead of remaining dependent upon it." (These cellular representations are references to what's going on in our brains between the neuro transmitters and the neuro receptors as we process various experiences, learning and associations). "Third, we can try to be present to the mystery in a gentle, open-handed, and cooperative way. This is the contemplative option...."

When I read Reaction 2 yesterday, I had an epiphany. I understand Reaction 2 as a "false god" kind of thing; what you might call keeping God in a box. "If I define God as A and not B, he is easy to understand, manufacture and manipulate." I think I have spent the last few years clawing my way out of the pit of Reaction 2 and searching for the hidden doorway that leads to Reaction 3. What a relief. So often, I was asking myself, What is going on with me? Why doesn't "this" and "that" work anymore? Why don't I believe "this" or "that" anymore? Why isn't God behaving the way I was so certain He behaves?? Have I lost my religion? Is my faith gone? Am I losing my mind??? How affirming to have a "name" of sorts for this experience.

In this same chapter, May discusses our "heart" self -- that "self" that is at the core, the essence of who we really are. It is not connected to any of our multiple "identity systems," like where you work, what your gifts and talents are, who your spouse is, who your friends are, where you went to school, who your kids are, etc. It is that "self" that you discover for very brief little intervals in the midst of deep prayer or meditation, when you let go of your identify systems and experience God's presence in a particular way that cannot be described, just somehow known or perceived. It's those experiences that make you say, Wow, how do I get back to THAT again? Then find in utter frustration that it is not a state capable of being manipulated or controlled. It merely happens, when you learn to let go.

Like May says, it's about relinquishment, not acquisition.

Soul-nurturing stuff -- at least for this girl.

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