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By Mahala Kephart
LifeRing Board of Directors

A Clever, Reassuring Device

It seems to me that the Higher Power notion can work if you absolutely don’t think about it. It’s a clever, bright, reassuring device. Just shut your eyes tight, believe it, and don’t ask questions. Once you lift the cover and peek at the wiring, you see that the batteries that make the Higher Power light up are in your own head. The Higher Power is nothing and does nothing unless you make it so: it is your own sober desire that supplies its energy. 

Once you understand that you are the  mechanism that makes it work, you can no longer believe in the notion of the Higher Power. But then, you no longer need it: you have found the sober power within yourself.

Martin Nicolaus, LifeRing founder
How Was Your Week?, LifeRing Press, 2003

Choosing Secular Sobriety

A secular approach to recovery allows individuals freedom of choice in following whatever religious or spiritual paths they wish to explore.  Because LifeRing does not promote religious concepts in published materials, and because we avoid religious practices of any sort in our meeting formats, LifeRing provides a safe environment for individuals of any and every spiritual belief system, including, importantly, non-belief.

In the early stages of recovery, it seems especially critical to us that individuals be encouraged to conserve mental energy and focus that energy on making abstinence and sobriety the priority in all aspects of their lives. In the words of one counselor,  “Early recovery is hard work enough. When we ask people to also take on the issues of spirituality, oftentimes it’s just too much for them.”

Medical science now offers a wide choice of treatment modalities for most health conditions, combined with an increasing focus on individualized medicine.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that treatment for chemical dependency would be likely more effective it, too, were able to offer an array of treatment approaches tailored to meet individual needs and circumstances?

If given the choice, only a small fraction of the American public would choose a faith-based treatment protocol to combat a life-threatening medical condition.  At LifeRing, we wonder why addiction treatment should be viewed any differently.

When sobriety is described to the addicted individual in a simple negative construction of  “the subtraction of alcohol or drugs from your life” often expressed in ways that carry sinful overtones, the addicted individual, in turn, sees the prospect of sobriety and long-term recovery as nothing but a scary, gaping void.

Which is of course ironic, because it is substance addiction that creates the void as it systematically shackles the human spirit, poisons every bodily system, tortures the emotions, and impoverishes the intellect. It is when alcohol or other mind-altering, addictive drugs are taken out of the equation that what emerges is usually a wonderful, miraculous, precious, and capable human being.

Being the Protagonist of Your Own Recovery

In LifeRing, the recovering person — that miraculous, precious, capable human being —   is considered the protagonist of their own recovery. We define abstinence from alcohol and drugs as a practical, doable project and encourage each individual to take this project into their own hands, and with hard work and perseverance, rebuild their life.

Most people begin their recovery journey following a long, painful struggle between their sober and addicted selves. That internal struggle, a series of battles, really, rages on unabated until the sober side acquires a decisive superiority of force and begins winning those battles and, eventually, the war.

Most people also begin their recovery journey somewhat lucky to still be alive. They may have achieved and accomplished many things while in the throes of active addiction, but for many, simply staying alive and being able to begin a recovery journey at all is an achievement of extraordinary magnitude.

In LifeRing, we believe individuals can and must learn to stop ingesting addictive substances before worrying what to call themselves or wrestling with their religious or spiritual beliefs. In LifeRing we are united by the practice of a behavior — abstinence.  That we lived long enough to begin the recovery journey at all should probably be accorded more awe and respect than is our societal norm.

To us, the idea of starting out one’s recovery journey by focusing on shortcomings, deficiencies, and lost opportunities seems counterproductive. In LifeRing, we encourage individuals to focus, instead, on cutting their losses, focusing on their assets, and moving forward with their lives.  Yes, there may be some messes to clean up, and individuals in recovery may have to make up for lost time, but in that, are we so different from most of humanity? What is different about those of us in recovery is that our internal addictive substance control units are burned out and gone.

Apart from that, we’re pretty much like the ordinary human being.  And all human beings need connection. In LifeRing, we encourage conversational engagement, and forging focused, sober, purposeful connections with others.  In such an environment, the sober self — with all its potentialities —  can surface in a stable, resilient manner.

Conversation Breeds Connection

We believe conversation drives connection. A typical LifeRing meeting might look like a group of friends — relaxed, sober, spontaneous, secure — sitting around a table, or in a circle of some sort, talking about the current concerns in their lives. We encourage individuals to ask questions if something is unclear, or respond to the questions of others if they feel they have something to contribute.

LifeRing participants report greater engagement in this type of meeting than in meetings that do not allow for respectful give-and-take between participants. They report that tool-sharing and collective work fortifies their analytical and intellectual selves, and the supportive conversational atmosphere supplies emotional sustenance. This, they have reported over and over, is a combination that facilitates their all-around growth and competence in sobriety.

The underlying assumption of the LifeRing meeting format is that recovery is a work in progress, and that participation in the group is both a privilege and a mark of self-respect.  We provide encouragement and support for each individual to build a personal recovery program that works for them.   The Recovery by Choice Workbook, published by LifeRing Press, lays out a series of secular sobriety tools and checklists in the context of nine work areas, or domains. The workbook is used individually and by some LifeRing groups, in both structured and unstructured formats — allowing individuals and working groups to focus on areas of immediate concern and to save others for completion, or reflection, later. Some individuals who participate in LifeRing also choose to participate in other sobriety support groups, including traditional twelve-step groups, because such involvement offers them additional tools and connections that strengthen their sober selves.

Individuals who have become addicted to chemical substances are often said to be a special case, or class, of people, powerless to manage their lives.  In LifeRing, we believe the addicted person is not powerless to learn and maintain abstinence.  The addicted individual may have to struggle, but so long as they keep addictive substances out of their body, that individual can, and will, prevail.

Addiction research has consistently demonstrated that no treatment modality brings lasting improvement unless it mobilizes an individuals’s own natural, inherent recovery resources. In LifeRing, every individual  is encouraged to select and assemble a personal set of sobriety tools appropriate to their particular needs at any point in time; to choose freely from among the ideas and reflections of others; and to discard tools that didn’t prove to work for them, or tools they no longer need.

So it is that in LifeRing, each participant can say, “No one else has a program precisely like this one. It works for me because I built it myself; I know it intimately; I own it and I operate it; I made it; it is mine.” With those feelings come investment, commitment, motivation, and hard work.

The LifeRing approach isn’t — and will never be — for everyone. But once sober — abstinent — we believe we can stop merely surviving and begin to live again, shaking off our inner addict’s plan for our life and forging a new path. In LifeRing, we believe we can do more than just get through the day. We can seize it.

 Carpe diem! Sobrietas Contra Spiritus.

LifeRing is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other, non-medically indicated drugs. In LifeRing, we offer each other peer-to-peer support in ways that encourage personal growth, continued learning, and personal empowerment. Our approach is based on developing, refining, and sharing our own personal strategies for continued abstinence and crafting a rewarding life in recovery.

Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area more than a decade ago, LifeRing has grown to include more than 150 face-to-face meetings, and supports several vibrant on-line communities with participants from, quite literally, around the world. LifeRing is a 501(c)(3) organization, governed by a nine-member board of directors, all of whom are practicing sobrietists. LifeRing holds an annual meeting and Congress in May of each year in which board member elections and policy decisions are acted upon democratically, with each meeting and on-line venue represented by an individual elected to vote on its behalf. The LifeRing Service Center is located in Oakland, California.

Mahala is a musician by training. Her career was spent in university fundraising and fundraising management. She is now in active recovery from addiction to alcohol, and credits her involvement with LifeRing for giving her recovery serious traction. She will tell you, without hesitation, that regaining the voice and actions of her sober self has been the hardest work she has ever done. But also the most rewarding. A member of the board of directors of LifeRing, she lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is an active member of the local recovery community.

13 Responses

  1. Mike S. says:

    There’s a LifeRing meeting within a half hour drive from me. Too bad it’s on a night I can’t get there. Closest Agnostic AA is 57 miles away. Frustrating.

  2. jo-anne k says:

    I am a believer in the “whatever gets you through the night” philosophy of life and sobriety. Whatever path gets a person sober and clean and living to their fullest potential is the one that I wish for them. What I find interesting about LifeRing is the use of “miraculous” in describing their members. A miracle is defined as an unexplainable event. The use of the word “miraculous” makes it seem, to me, like sobriety was something granted rather than worked for and yet working for one’s own sobriety is one of the ideas of this group. I am not a miracle, I can explain my sobriety and what I had to do to achieve it.

  3. Bob C says:

    Ironically that at many of the most quasi religious AA groups in Toronto, the fellowship is downplayed as an aspect of individual recovery… “Its about god…” Etc. The truth, however, is that these ideas, purported by a group, act as norms for people to belong to the group. It’s so funny to watch. In this sense, each group has its own set of informal norms, which enable belonging to that group. Therefore, viewed this way, the steps are less a personally transformative journey towards god. They are a means of initiating one into the group. The quasi religious folk would never admit this.

  4. Bob C says:

    Excellent. Any near the GTA?

  5. life-j says:

    I’ve been to the lifering chatroom quite a bit over the last year, and it’s a nice little group of folks. Haven’t investigated it much beyond that. I like the little 31 Days pamphlet published by modesto lifering, sort of a little cousin of Living Sober.

    Though this article felt a bit much like marketing the program, I have to say that Lifering is the non-aa program I have come to think the most of.
    Even as perhaps I don’t quite subscribe to an entirely secular approach. The struggles we have in making an AA section which is for the nonbelievers bear witness to how hard it is to take out the god stuff without taking out just about everything while we’re at it, and I guess that’s how lifering and the other secular programs got started. Nice to make a clean start.
    What I’m struggling with at present is what we call the spiritual aspect of AA. I agree entirely with you that in AA it is pushed way too early (and of course often peddled in the dubious form religion), but beyond that I don’t really want to let it go, whatever it is.
    And I put it that way, because now, as we’re making the agnostic meetings, we’re groping for a common spiritual denominator. Some of course have their spiritual affiliations already, buddhism or whatever, myself I’m still searching after all these years, and especially searching for what the spiritual aspect of AA IS.
    Surely, it is not higher power in any sense of the word. We were talking about “doublethink” and cogniotive dissonance in the aaagnostica chatroom earlier this morning, and the “need” for a higher power falls somewhere in those categories for us.
    It is SO unquestioned that one has to have one, and it is so necessary to have one that the concept gets stretched beyond its capacity to hold meaning, but still it is a necessity. Doorknob, the fellowship, anything. The biggest problem I see with it is that it is designed to sneak the real, true god in the back door, and that’s why you have to have one, the door is cracked. And surely, they have explained to me on many occasions, the group is a power greater than yourself. Yes, but how does it become “higher”?
    It’s a level playing field, we’re alcoholics helping each other, there is no “higher”. And that’s what they don’t like about us in AA – with no “higher”, no back door to sneak god in through. But still, I feel a need for a spiritual dimension to my recovery, and that, I believe, is what binds AA together.
    I’d hate to throw that out while throwing out god, even as I can’t define it.
    Anyway, thanks for the reminder that there are other ways to get sober than AA. The AA monopoly is about to get broken. About time.

    • rich n says:

      The AA group can suffice as a higher power, or power greater than oneself as the Big Book puts it, because of its collective sobriety, experience and wisdom. That’s why Group of Drunks can work, provided my ego gets out of the way.

    • Thomas says:

      I just read your article and found it honest and interesting and the higher power debate will always pose a problem because how can someone believe in the unseen? And as you say, how can you define God? The answer is you can’t – the same as you can’t define Love, both the same, but you feel love and trust in it. The ego is what stops the belief system, the ego doesn’t want us to be liberated, it wants to keep hold of us, so I don’t think that it’s God who needs to be understood, it’s us, we need to set ourselves free from the ego and then we get the natural love in abundance. Thank you.

      • Dave says:

        In 1935, co – incidentally only a year or so after prohibition was repealed, a pair of desperate men, both dying from alcoholism, stumbled over a cure. Seems that one alcoholic connecting with another could keep both from drinking. Despite some initial setbacks this turned out to be the case and a few short years later thousands of former drunks had quit. Magic? Of course it is. But what to call that will be socially acceptable? God. What else? But wait a minute! Now we’re gonna’ lose the agnostics and atheists. Oh well, at least we got the Druids back. Abracadabra baby!

        • Thomas says:

          Like the letters to Carl Jung back in the day when Spirituality was the only cure but whatever anyone’s perception of spirituality whether that be God or the Cat? it doesn’t really matter as long as we learn to share the pain and not contain it. As long as we let people be and don’t judge them for their beliefs,then that’s the way forward, it’s the ego that seperates. Great reply. Thank you.

  6. James L. says:

    With 36 years of continuous sobriety I was so grateful to happen on a AA Freethinkers meeting in South Miami , FL. How refreshing it was to hear like minded people, many in long term recovery, express what I have felt for many years. Not living any where near the area, when we went home to Cape Coral, we started our meeting for agnostics and atheists in AA. The meeting has been well received and is stable and growing. If you ever find yourself in the area we meet at 5 pm at Jaycee Park. Thanks for your post. You have also expressed what so many of us feel. You validate us.

  7. Pat N. says:

    THANK YOU, Mahala and AA Agnostica! Some of us longtime AA members locally have been exploring LifeRing for a couple of years. We’ve attended LR meetings in L.A. and Seattle, and read their basic “text,” Empowering Your Sober Self, and spent time on their websites. We are particularly interested because it looks like an entry point into sobriety for newcomers who are absolutely aghast at AA’s common religiosity. We’re old-timers, I suppose, still active in our We Agnostics group, but see the LifeRing approach as a great addition to the sobriety toolbox.

    We even tried to start a LR meeting, but it didn’t fly beyond our little group, for a variety of reasons. We thought it was because it isn’t AA, so courts, Tx centers, and AA in general weren’t interested (and we couldn’t bridge the gap).

    So we have started a new AA meeting using some of LR’s excellent ideas, but making sure we register w/GSO, elect a GSR to the local district, advertise through AA channels, etc. But we share with LR a commitment to secularity, a conversational format, and a focus on practical here-and-now life changes developed by each individual.

    In our meetings, as in LR, each attendee can choose to respond to the question: “How Was Your Week?” with whatever is significant to her/him.

    Others can choose to respond on the spot to the individual, provided their input is positive and supportive. No advice unless explicitly asked for.

    This is shunned as “crosstalk” in many circles, but to us, it’s like friends and family sitting around the living room. Instead of reading “How It Works,” we try to live how it works.
    In most AA speaker meetings, one individual’s “share” is the focus, even when followed by input from the audience. Even “discussion” meetings are really serial monologues. Both these formats are useful, and we attend those, but nowhere is it written that they are the only ways to share our experience, strength and hope.

    It’s too early to tell how the local AA community will respond to this new meeting. Surely some will feel threatened by it, but we’ve had little static in setting up We Agnostic-type meetings in the past. Our hope is that some newcomers will get more comfortable about drawing on all the resources of the larger, established AA community after starting sobriety in this meeting.
    I think the WAFT wing of AA and LifeRing are natural partners. If I was helping a newcomer, I would urge them to read Empowering Your Sober Self: The LifeRing Approach to Addiction Recovery rather than the Big Book. Unlike the BB, it’s well-written and nonpreachy.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you so much, Mahala. Yes, after 41 years of continuous sobriety from my primary drug of addiction, Colt . 45, I am deeply grateful that I got sober in New York City. What got me sober was not the power of some external god or entity that I can’t know and don’t understand, but the healing power of other alcoholics with whom I could slowly over time come to trust, respect and eventually care deeply for, so long as I didn’t pick up and went to meetings.

    I also worked as a health care professional in addiction in and around New York City, and what I observed is that the most powerful factor in recovery is not from the lectures, the exercises, the DVDs, the information from treatment staff, etc.; rather, it is the healing power of positive peer group processes among themselves. Peers relate their different experiences about how the treatment information personally affects and impacts them — that’s the sweet spot!

    I remain very active in service in AA at the group, District and Area levels so that I can continue to be a power of positive example that one can recover in AA without the religiosity of any external deity , but by believing, even if initially “acting as if”, and daily practice to seek the source of power within oneself.

    Thank you for the alternative means of recovery you’ve evolved over the past decade through LifeRing.

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