A Skeptic’s Journey to a Higher Power

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Originally published in TGIF at Renascent on February 27, 2015. TGIF Weekly Recovery News is an e-newsletter published on Fridays by Renascent, one of Canada’s leading abstinence-based treatment centre, and features articles and lived experience essays on a variety of themes relating to recovery from alcoholism and addiction. Email subscriptions are free and can be made here at Renascent. Once subscribed, you will receive a link to the e-newsletter every Friday.

by Lisa N.

The struggle I’ve had finding a real Higher Power has been 17 years long, and it turns out that Higher Power was so simple I almost missed it. If you are like me, perhaps my experience will be useful somehow. Here is what happened.

Round 1 — I Came:

I walked into AA 18 or 19 years ago. The God Issue turned me off completely as I was an atheist; the notion of a Higher Power was not only foreign to me but seemed a bit ridiculous. I stayed for about nine months, found a higher power in the form of a tall, dark, and handsome addict who had been in AA for 15 years yet was unable to stay sober. Suffice it to say things did not go well.

Round 2 — I Came To:

I returned to AA. I was properly defeated, beaten, bruised and willing to entertain the notion that there might be a power that could help me stay sober. They said “Fake it till you make it” and that the group could be my higher power.

Thankfully, I saw enough alcoholics in the rooms staying sober under conditions much worse than my own. This inspired me, and the collective wisdom of the group coupled with the literature became my Higher Power.

I got a sponsor, got rid of the addict, and started working the steps. I got very active in AA and in my new life. Thanks to the program, I haven’t had a drink since February of 1998. I haven’t been perfect and have had many struggles since. “Progress, not perfection” are words I truly live by today — and without alcohol I can manage to progress.

My sponsor told me to adopt the attitude “take what you like and leave the rest for now.” Often the things I left would make sense later on. The important thing was to focus on what I related to rather than the things to which I did not.

So, “turning it over” in Step 3 simply meant moving on the the next steps. Six and Seven were a little tricky but I managed to interpret them without the need of “God the Father.” For Step 11, prayer became my ongoing dialogue with the “universe,” akin to doing affirmations. I practiced moving meditation through yoga and exercise. I found an AMAZING church that spoke about joy and love — a language I could hear.

Fast forward eight years. I still was not a believer in a supernatural being who has a hand in the day-to-day affairs of humans. For me that never felt like truth. Although it is said in AA literature that your Higher Power can be a God of your understanding, I felt uneasy about mine being so different. The God most addicts shared about in meetings (and in the literature) was out there somewhere, personified as a “Him,” and had its hand in the material world in a rather arbitrary way. I could not relate at all.

Around 10 years of sobriety, I felt like I was a fraud. I just didn’t have a God. The Group of Drunks (GOD) was no longer enough to keep me sober because I began to see great (human) fallibility. So I decided not to go to meetings any more, as they no longer were a source of inspiration. This did not go particularly well. And that was the end of Round 2.

Round 3 — I Came to Believe:

Oddly, I still am atheist/agnostic, a skeptic and a science lover. However, there was something I had missed, and I had to fall and struggle to find it. That struggle brought me into another 12-step fellowship, as it was apparent that I was again powerless and needed to be restored to sanity. Frankly, it was a miracle I didn’t drink.

This time, however, I don’t feel pressured to believe what others believe any more. I have completely let go of what others think of me and my Higher Power. As a result, I have come to a Higher Power that is deep within and a very real part of me. I have often heard people say, “You need a god, just make sure it isn’t you.” But I personally needed a higher power that WAS part of me.

Turns out I had one! Here’s what it is …

I have always had a sharply intuitive voice of truth deep within me. I feel it in my stomach. When I listen to it synchronicity always happens, life flows like a gentle river and my heart feels lighter. When I don’t listen, chaos inevitable ensues. It is ever-present. I never ever considered that this was actually my Higher Power – it was too simple!

I’m not sure where intuition comes from, whether it’s a biological imperative genetically coded into our cells for survival, or if it has a connection to something bigger. I do know that I can “plug in” or “unplug” from the power. When I plug in, I am in that flow. Life is simple, without struggle, chaos or drama. When I unplug, life is an uphill battle that is meaningless, and I am left in the deep dark black hole I call “The Void.”

How do I plug in?

  • Being an active part of a like-minded group like a 12-step program. Going to meetings and being around people who are striving to walk a spirit-centred life as opposed to an ego-centred life.
  • Fitness: It has saved my life. I suffer from clinical depression and being active keeps my endorphins high and staves away the darkness.
  • Connection with others: Keeping in contact with a small but healthy circle of friends is key. It has been proven that just being with another person raises our serotonin levels — which tells us we are programmed to be in community.
  • Conversely, removing myself from toxic and addicted people is imperative.
  • I love to read, or listen to podcasts about science, psychology, and spirituality. These tools help me see the universe and our place in it as a wonderful, majestic mystery.

Thanks to my sponsor, a new outlook and recovery program, my higher power simply is “The Great Mystery!” I love it.


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A Skeptic’s Journey to a Higher Power — 21 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey so far Lisa.

    Always enjoy and get a lot more identification from reading on this site than my local meetings but still attend even though they are not secular, agnostic or freethinking. Its still good to spend time with fellow recovering alcoholics. Fellowship, human interaction and not wanting to become isolated are good reasons for that.

  2. Giving credit to that ability to pay attention to your good inner voice instead of that bad “aw, fuck it” voice is a good thing. Better than trying to fake belief in a sky pilot when you’re not wired that way.

    Good essay and thanks,

    Dave B

  3. The fundies seem to start crawfishing when confronted with the bit about where the Great Reality is.

  4. Thanks Lisa,

    Our paths have taken very similar directions. I fought the god issue to the point that getting drunk & stoned seemed a better idea. Of course that didn’t work out too well. When I finally reached the point when I couldn’t stop drinking or using no matter how hard I tried, I gave up and went back to AA. Many of the faces were still there, and some of them were non-believers, like me. I couldn’t understand how they managed to stay sober.

    Then a friend suggested I read the Tao Te Ching, and listen carefully to what Lao-tzu was saying. I did and I found my higher power – the tao! Chapter one laid it out – the tao is the origin of heaven and earth (pre big bang), and if I can define the tao, then I don’t understand what the hell I’m talking about. What a relief – my higher power is the “life force”, the creative force, that has absolutely no human attributes. My higher power is a complete and total mystery, yet it exists as sure as a seed turns into a dandelion. It’s the stardust that is our very being, it is a spiritual mystery, that I can hope for (but certainly not pray to), it is fate, it is the last gasp of our dying earth, as the overgrown sun devours it. It is an incredible, awesome force that I can love but never understand. And the beauty is that science (which I do believe in) supports my beliefs, because there is no evidence of anything preceding the big bang. At last I have a higher power, and it has helped me stay sober for going on 13 years.

    • That is the conclusion I have come to, also. I am very comfortable with Zen, which I see as Tao flavored Buddhism.

      The two together make a lot of sense to me.

      • I agree totally with your comments, Tommy. I too have been following both Zen (esp. Thich Nhat Hanh), and secular Buddhism, as developed by Stephen Batchelor (“Buddhism Without Beliefs” and “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”). Thich Nhat Hanh has written dozens of really beautiful books, that provide a wealth of living suggestions, but Stephen Batchelor is an agnostic existentialist, and his philosophy permeates his writings. I recommend both very highly.

    • I too really enjoy the Tao. I consider myself a born again cosmic naturalist. 36 years sober and have attended meetings the entire time regularly. I’m lucky to be of a personality type that is strong enough to be true to oneself. The area that I’m in lacks cultural diversity. I’m really enjoying this site and believe it to be healthy. Let’s open the doors to recovery wider. Bill G.

  5. It was in a therapist’s office that I first became aware of a quiet pool of deep reflection that existed within me, I place I could go anytime. Sometimes I missed my freeway exit!

    Several years later I reread the despised chapter “We Agnostics” and found that “great reality deep within me” that has allowed me to stay in AA despite the contradictions, absolutism, sexism etc. that permeates its pages. My gut feelings have lead me down the wrong path sometimes, but like my brain, my gut was damaged by years of alcohol and substance abuse.

    I would add to the above list, eating a healthy diet. Healing my gut, literally, I think is necessary for healing my rational self and being aware of my intuition, which I see has a power greater than the one I can tap into using my brain alone.

  6. Thank you for this great article. It was one of the ideas that I had had as a higher power, but I then I forgot about it as I thought that it was coming from me and therefore my ego may be involved.

    But, I totally agree with you. I believe that there is a part of me, deep within, that always knows the right thing to do. It’s not something that I can just tap into easily. I have to allow it to come through.

    Thank you so much, this has helped me enormously.

  7. Thanks Lisa, a thoughtful read. Yes, like you, I’ve found “the Great Reality deep down within”. The members who wrote the Big Book assert, “It is ONLY there that He (sic) may be found.” (My emphasis). They add, “It was so with us”, which modestly suggests that it might not be that way for others. My credo is the passage in the book’s Spiritual appendix: “With few exceptions our members find they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it ‘God-consciousness’.” Re physical fitness as an aid to recovery, it’s well known that sometimes the only relief Bill W could get for his depression was going for long walks. Robert Louis Stevenson called his legs his two doctors!

  8. Well done, Lisa. Very much the way I see things. I’m comfy with the terms Deeper Power and Higher Purpose. Martin Nicolaus, founder of LifeRing, says we alkies have a Sober Self we were born with and an Addicted Self that develops. As long as we have a shred of the SS to stand on, we can eradicate the AS. I think that’s what AA does.

  9. What a long journey we embark on in AA when we first come into relationship with this “Higher Power” concept. When I was continuously told to “do God’s will,” I wondered how I could possibly know what was God’s will? If I am to put myself into a category, it is Mystic. Over the years, after much seeking out and engaging with open-minded AA members, explaining my dilemma, some members did speak about this simple, wise harbinger of truth: our conscience, our intuition, our sense of the next right thing to do. A Higher Power is not my ego, not my troubled self. It is not the wounded small one who will take comfort in any form, no matter the harm. But this higher consciousness is within me. It has been with me for as long as I can remember. It is also the foundation of my wonder and awe at the great beauty and mystery of life, the majesty of which is too grand to put into a box, or a self-styled image of me put into God-like form with human characteristics. Thank you, Lisa N., for this elegant essay that brings a breath of fresh air and remembrance of our native wisdom.

  10. Indeed, thanks, Lisa. Your journey resonates deeply with the one I was gifted with when I first got sober in New York City, where it was a common prescription to “Take what you need, and leave the rest” along with the basic formula, “Don’t drink, go to meetings, and help others.”I can’t know or describe who or what provided me with the gift of sobriety, but your description of “The Great Mystery,” as experienced through the human power of the Fellowship, suffices for me. It did when I first got sober and it does a day at a time several decades later.

  11. Well written piece, and I like especially the plug in list at the end. I think it practically says all that needs to be said about recovery. And that much said, we need to say something about the program. We need to have a program, but the more I’m around you folks the more I am seeing that the program of AA is hopeless because of certain few things that turns it all into quackery. The concept of a higher power is perhaps the worst of it. We need to stop talking in terms of a higher power. Listening to our intuition is good. It may not be infallible, especially early on I’d say it could be problematic, but the concept is good. I think of my program as “doing the next right thing”, which more or less adds up to the same thing, but once we talk about a higher power it all gets real messy. For starters of course the obvious such as a higher power that is inside me yet bigger than me that is physically impossible, right? I know that is just nit-picking and somewhat missing the point, the worse thing is that the higher power takes both the responsibility, the ultimate initiative, and the joy of getting it right away from me, and places it, typically, with some outside source. I know this essay doesn’t, quite to the contrary, but most AA does. When this essay does the contrary, and places the higher power inside the self, all justification for calling it a higher power is gone, all justification that is except for that of trying to fit the big heel into the small shoe of AA. AA says we must have a higher power, and so many of us go through or have tried to, a struggle to come up with a higher power. If ever there was an instance of man creating god in his image, it seems like in the AA way it cannot get much clearer that that is what we’re doing by creating our own concept of god. If there is a god, it is nonsense that we can have our own concept. God would be what god would be. But never mind, so far as I’m concerned there isn’t one.
    Yet here we go, trying to fabricate one, or something we can call a higher power, just because we’re mired in the terminology and concept universe of AA. If we don’t get out of that we will always be limiting ourselves, we will not be able to ask the right questions, we will not be able to come up with the right answers. We will be limited in the same way as in the question “did you quit beating your wife yet?” – saying no is obviously incriminating, saying yes at least makes us admit that we did, whether we actually did or not. the question does not leave us room to consider that maybe we never did. In the same manner the whole language and thought universe of AA limits the questions we can ask, and the solutions we can find. I have a dear little friend here, an agnostic by her own admission, who for the longest time struggled with trying to find a higher power, convinced she would fail if she didn’t, and I hear it at meetings a lot, people get stuck on this, and fabricate all sorts of BS for themselves in order to make themselves fit the mold. Openmindedness is good, but without honesty it’s not going to get us very far. Y’all go re-read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, now. AA doesn’t have anything on – except of course the handful of plugs listed above, or a similar list of activities and attitudes. It’s that simple. They’re the ones that save our lives, and they alone, not all the religious rubbish or the 1930s pop psychology.

    • Yet again I am hearing another AA phrase that is new to me. “I am going to do the next ‘right’ thing”. What does that mean? Does it mean that any action I take must be right because I say it is? How complicated must AA get?

      I was lucky in that when I got sober some 36 and a half years ago I was told that once I got sober in the main my mind would be clear enough not to do wrong things or at least not wrong things that I would be caught for if I chose to do them. Very simple things that most humans do but I was often too drunk to understand.

      You know what happened? Mostly I have done the right things and when I was wrong I had to face the consequences. Very very simple.

      • I hear “the next right thing a lot”. I see it as another reading of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most religions teach this or something close to it.

    • Glenn, I hear it a lot too but as I said it is new or newish to AA. And remember AA is not a religion.

    • Ditto. Fitness, (if I don’t get carried away) reading, trying to let go of ego and staying away from toxic people. It took me a LOT of years into recovery to figure this out somewhat. Thanks for sharing this.