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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Tragedy of an Untreated Alcoholic Monk

I'm sure quite a few of you are familiar with John Sanidopoulos' excellent blog, Mystagogy.  It is an indispensable site for English-speakers to get into many of the untranslated bits of Greek Orthodoxy.

One of our readers tipped me that John had posted this translation:

Anyone who has dealt with alcoholics knows what happened here.  Basically, the monk was left as many are in the modern Church to 'fend for himself' when it came to his alcoholism.  You can hardly imagine in the Desert Fathers a monk being permitted to continue drinking with only his prayers to rely on.  

Just for clarification, I want to make a few points:

  • Elder Paisios does not condemn the alcoholic monk.
  • He reports that the monk's suffering in life, with no one really helping him, was met at death by God's own army coming to bring him to heaven.  This type of 'psychopomp' is generally reserved for saints and ascetics, since they have repented.  In this case, the monk received the help he did not receive from men.
  • The deterioration in the monk's condition, whereby at the end he was getting drunk with only two or three drinks, is common with end-stage alcoholism.  Over time, as the alcoholic's body gives out, his tolerance diminishes.  He clearly drank himself to death.
  • The monk's elder apparently had no idea what to do with him, and so simply put him in his icon corner and waited for a miracle.
  • Elder Paisios describes the physical allergy aspect of alcoholism in describing his exposure at a young age.

  • Give the time frame of the story (referencing the massacres of Greeks in Turkey in the 1920s), this monk's experience of Mount Athos was during the 'idiorrhythmic' period ( when the monks lived separate lives and the common life of monasteries had not yet been reestablished.  This lasted until the 1970's, when the renewal efforts began and the monasteries reestablished communal life.  From the Wikipedia article: "After reaching a low point of just 1,145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1,610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. In 2009, the population stood at nearly 2000.[3]"
This tragic story ends on a positive note: even the alcoholic who received no help with his disease can count on God's mercy in the end if he desires it.  However, it also portrays how many in the Church have handled the disease of alcoholism: judgment without help.  To be fair, most 'normies' either inside or outside the Church have no idea how to help addicts.  Yet, the Church has always had the tools necessary to treat addiction through ascetic struggle, like what we see in the 12 Steps.

Yes, the Steps are an ascetic struggle.  Don't be fooled.  Most people are more willing to go on a diet rather than do the Steps.  Food is easy to give up when it comes up against being honest with one's self.  Shallow and careless people can diet, but they certainly won't take the actions the Steps demand.

If the Holy Mountain had been a healthier place (as it is now), undoubtedly this monk would not have been permitted to go so long without any help.  Mind you, there are still plenty of Orthodox who do not understand the Tradition well enough stop themselves from demanding the alcoholic 'try harder' to quit.

But, in my experience of talking to Orthodox monastics, when we discuss the matter of addiction and how the Steps work, they enthusiastically agree that what they do in their monasteries is essentially the same process.  The rejuvenation of monasticism is actually happening throughout the Church in recent years, and with this renewal (Mt. Athos is now harder to get into than Harvard) will come more opportunities for people to have the benefit of proper assistance in battling addiction.

Nowhere (other than the US and Canada) in the Orthodox world have we seen monasticism embrace the 12 Steps more enthusiastically than in Romania.  Patriarch Daniel has led the Holy Synod of Romania to embrace the 12 Steps (c.f. and work towards integrating the program into seminary education curricula.  Floyd Frantz ( has reported that the monasteries are especially excited about the Steps and getting AA into the villages.

Hopefully, fewer alcoholics in the Church will be left to struggle without help from the rest of us.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 'First Movement' of the Mind

Long before the invention of psychology, the monks of Christianity have studied the human mind.  They have many interesting things to say to us in the modern world if we can overcome the terminological barriers.

One interesting concept is what was called 'First Movements' of the mind, from the Latin primi motis.  In Greek, the term protopatheia is used, literally 'first suffering.'  These terms are used to describe the initial image that enters the mind.  These images are not in and of themselves sinful, but it is what we do with them that is the problem.  

The Greek notion of pathos is to 'suffer,' and this suffering is not merely pain inflicted as a wound, but also the pain caused by lack.  The thought that enters the mind, if it encounters a desire within the person, will stir up that desire and cause suffering.

So, the thoughts that torment us are causing us harm not because of what they are, but rather what we are.  The problem is within us.  We are tempted because of our condition, and we cannot blame the thought or image itself.

For example, it is not that you have sinned if you stand in line at the supermarket and happen to glance over and see the cover of one of 'those magazines,' but it is quite another thing to stare and begin to fantasize about the person on the cover.  The 'First Movement' is the initial image, which then triggers a response.

In our daily lives, we are bombarded by these 'First Movements.'  We live in an age where we are constantly hammered with information that all demands a response.  What is worse, the human mind is plastic enough to be molded and shaped by these images.  Cultures do this to humans by consistently telling us what is good and bad.  We develop our tastes as a result, and are often stunned when we encounter the odd beliefs and preferences of peoples from other cultures.

It is impossible to prevent these 'First Movements' without utterly cloistering ourselves, which is why monks ran off into the desert.  But, if a First Century man needed to flee into the desert to find peace and examine his passions, how much more do we?

What's more, can we really go from hours of being bombarded to a few minutes of silence and expect our minds to stop the dizzying pace we have set for ourselves?  A few people are discovering that knowing everything and doing everything might not be the best answer to the problem of happiness.  Modern thought has told us that knowledge leads to happiness.  That's wrong: knowledge usually leads to more unhappiness because you begin to see how much things are screwed up.

I will readily admit that I do not spend as much time in silence as I need to for my own health.  It takes ma great deal of work to slow my mind down to the point to where I can examine each thought.  We cannot even discern what thoughts come from the devil and which one's are our own if we do not cultivate the clarity and stillness necessary to carry out such tedious work.  That's why we repent of them all.

So, how do we deal with these 'First Movements'?  The answer from the Fathers: cut them off.  If you find your mind wandering into a bad place, then walk it to a better place.  You cannot stop thinking, but you can choose to think about something else.  You can develop a strategy by working out what you will think about when a particular thought enters your mind and starts to pluck the heart-strings of your passions.

If you fight the thought, you will think about it all the more.  Let is go and move to the better one.

This is a difficult practice, but it can help you cope with these 'First Movements' until God has healed your passions enough to remove the temptation.  Then the thought can enter, but will not trigger sinful contemplation.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The 15%

I've looked around on the internet for studies of drug diversion programs that work reliably.  In short, I have only found one study that claimed success: 15% of its participants ended up quitting their (self-reported) drug use-

What's fascinating is that this number is also statistically meaningless when it comes to 'success.'  Let me show you why I say this.

The Russian Orthodox Church has around 150,000,00 members.  It is comprised of a little under 30,300 parishes.  That's just under 5,000 people per parish.  15% of that is about 750 people, which is about average as far as the number of people who are served by a typical parish if you count the rolls.

The number is slightly higher for the US, according to the Krindatch report:

The American numbers are going to be higher because we are in a minority status here in the US with lots of alternatives to Orthodoxy, and so adherents are going to be more active and maintaining their faith, as opposed to other places where it can be largely neglected without losing the 'identity.'

What do the two numbers have in common?  As a whole, less that a quarter of the average population is really interested in spiritual matters.  The number usually falls in around 15%.  The rest vary from casual interest to none whatsoever.

Unless you have a program that can successfully weed out people who are not part of the 15%, then you are never really going to get a better success statistic. If you fall below that, then you have to take into account who you are drawing in and what you are doing with them.  But, then again, recovery programs that boast better numbers (like AA did in its inception) also go to great lengths to choose only people who are 15%-ish.  They are usually referred to as the 'willing.'

The problem of addiction is a spiritual one, and so being disinterested in spiritual matters is a real stumbling block to recovery.  Now, the same can be true of lots of other problems: disinterest in diet and fitness will hamper your ability to get your diabetes under control.  However, being disinterested in diet and fitness does not mean they are not still critical for your health.  It is that you have made a choice to be sick rather than take an interest in your well-being.

People make this decision all the time when it comes to religion and spirituality.  They simply don't care enough to explore the matter, even when it is making them miserable.  Like the obese diabetic with severe arterial sclerosis, they would rather die than change.  We bury people all the time who eat themselves to death.  We also see plenty of social problems that would be cured by spirituality, but few people willing to seek out God.

Since we never really know who the 15% are or when they will 'awaken' (or even whether they will stay awake or not over the long haul), we must share the Message with all people and serve everyone equally and without prejudice.

Even seemingly hopeless cases wake up and see the Light...


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jumping to Conclusions

Of the list of human problems, jumping to conclusions is one of the most primary.  Be they stereotypes, reactions, reflexes, or whatever you want to call them, these mental failings have the ability to unleash horrific consequences.

Most of all, they are often plainly stupid.  There is a difference between leaping out of the way of an oncoming car and assuming that the driver is purposefully trying to kill you.  The driver may have been negligent, intoxicated, having a seizure... but it is easy jump to some kind of conclusion before we have all the information.

Addicts struggle with this all the time.  They are sensitive to the opinions of others (addictions is often empowered by the addict's desire to turn down his sensitivities) and will assume that even a small change in tone or minute expression instantly means the worst for the addict.  Part of sobriety is not making that leap and waiting for more information.

In the era of instant information, we are being consumed by these reactions.  There is a shooting in the news that people have jumped to all kinds of conclusions about long before the investigation is complete.  People are reacting out of stereotypes, both of the shooter and the deceased.

As Christians we must first assume that only God knows the truth about all things.  We know only a little, and while He may reveal a great deal to us, it is minuscule compared to what is out there to know.  We must live in the humility of our proper place: we don't know everything.

If we can accept this premise, then we will have the calmness to examine ideas and concepts beyond our stereotypes.  One great disservice we can do to others is assume that we do not have stereotypes and false conclusions while the other person is rife with them.

Isn't that the heart of Christ's message regarding the logs in our eyes and the splinters in our neighbors'?  Who are we to call someone else a bigot when we ourselves often have bigoted opinions and judge others before we have gotten to know the truth about them?

False assumptions destroy addicts, because they will often use these false opinions to justify their poor circumstances.  This is a profound tragedy and an impediment to spiritual growth.

In as much as we must examine ourselves carefully, we should exercise the same caution when examining the events and people around us, lest we fall into the trap of lazy thinking and falsehood.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Willingness to Explore

In life, we can settle for the world we are born into, or we can take risks and explore new 'places.'  If we believe that God will help us and ultimately save us if we go 'too far,' then we can make the choice to go out beyond the 'established borders.'

Spirituality requires us to be explorers, to move beyond what we know into places that we do not know.  Of course, most of this journey is within ourselves.

I liken this to the old story about the Irishman who was asked if he knew how to play the violin.  He responded, "I don't know, I haven't tried to yet."

We will not know our limitations until we push out to them.

Humanity has a great deal of unrealized potential.  Each of us has vast acreage of inner space that we have not seen.  We must go deeper by trying new things.

Now, there is always a caveat: don't try doing something that everyone fails at.  For example, it is probably a bad idea to join a commune with the idea of staying for life, because it is a demonstrable fact that communes break apart within a few years.

An explorer, before he explores, tries to learn as much as possible about the world he knows before he goes out into the world that he does not.  He then paces himself, and all along checks and double-checks his decisions.  He remains flexible and willingly change his pre-conceived notions based on what he finds along the way.  While his venture is risky overall, he takes few risks as best he can.  

Ultimately, the explorer returns to tell others about his adventures and help others to make their own journeys.  The explorer never really ventures only for himself.  To do so would only make him an 'exile.'

Be wise, and explore.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Self-Reliance Deception

When this article came out, I remember thinking how many people would appreciate it for confirming the obvious: self-confidence and incompetence are usually co-occurring:

Yet, we are constantly berated for not having enough 'self-confidence' and how we're supposed to 'feel better' about ourselves.  Really?  Is that what its all about?  All my problems are just because I don't feel good enough about myself?

This study demonstrates what we already know: feeling good about yourself and super-confident is usually an indication of incompetence.  The study found that the incompetent are stuck because they do not have the skills necessary to accurately judge their own performance, nor are they able to judge the work of others.

It seems as though Jesus' words are proved true: judgment is a sticky topic for those are more likely to be condemned.

As much as we should seek not to condemn or criticize others, we should seek to be judged.  Yes, I meant to say that: we should seek out the competent to examine us and make good evaluations.  The trap is this: can I tell who is competent if I am incompetent?

Yes, and no.  What we must do is approach the topic of competence is a gradual manner.  Our first step is to renounce our own sense of competence and the need for self-reliance.  This is the key.  If you do not believe that you must be perfect, but rather you are on a path to perfection that you have not achieved yet, then you can be open to seeing your errors.

We often set our sights on perfection, but Christ did not come preaching 'perfection' as an achievable condition for men.  He came preaching repentance, which means a defeat of incompetence.  There's a difference.  For example, you can clean your house because you like a clean house, then you can also clean your house because you are afraid of dirt and the slightest thought of it drives you crazy.  One is positive, the other is negative, though both result in a clean house.

If you seek perfection because you fear not being perfect, then you are missing the point.  Perfection as established by Jesus is attained through God, which means we repent so that He can fill us with His perfection: we are perfected, but not perfect.  

If we are being perfected, then we will need outside assistance and the ability to admit that we are imperfect and in need of help.  Self-reliance becomes a hindrance, and confidence a dangerous game.

I recall hearing the story of a young sailor fresh out of nuclear reactor school.  In his first sea deployment, he did his 'by-the-book' tests and came out with a reading that the reactor was having problems.  He took it to the Lead Petty Officer, who laughed it off.  He redid the test, got the same reading, and went to the Chief.  The Chief laughed it off, and so did the reactor Division Officer.  Then he took it to the Captain.  The Captain then watched him do the test, saw the results, ordered the reactor shut down and had them towed back to port.  The sailor got a commendation, and the others got put on shore for the durations of their foreshortened careers.  The problem was one of confidence: the others thought the test was the result of the young sailor's inexperience, and so they had no confidence in him.  The problem was that they should have had confidence in the test itself, no matter who does it.

And this leads us to the other problem: can we receive the truth from people in whom we have no confidence?  This is also the problem of recognizing competence.  Some people can appear foolish, yet they have great wisdom.  St. Paul talks about his preaching as looking foolish.  Christianity has often been quickly dismissed because so much of it does look crazy.  This is often why heresy can look very reasonable.

In the end, we must be able to see the fruits of something in order to determine its truth. The competent person is competent because of the fruits of his actions: he does the job well.  How does he do so well?  Very often it is by having a healthy sense of self-doubt, which leads him to take great care.

If we cultivate an inner self-doubt, rather than self-confidence, we can absorb sound advice and helpful correction.  If we cultivate self-confidence, then we risk moving into over-confidence.  This will cause us to miss critical information, and lead to an inner 'nuclear incident' which might have been avoided if we did not look down on others.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Judging Thoughts

If we decide that we are really going to improve our thought-life (the experience of thoughts), then there are a few things we need to keep at in mind (yes, there's a pun in there).

First, we must remember the admonishment from Fr. Meletios, "You are not your thoughts."

The next is to remember that bad feelings are my problem, not someone else's fault.

No one else can 'make' me feel anything.  I choose to be offended, or aggravated, or resentful, or critical.  My hatred or disdain for others is my own doing.

Therefore, when I experience a thought which alienates me from others, then I have an unhealthy thought that I must work on and uncover the roots of.  Ultimately, at the core of this discomfort is a fear: fear is at the center of the passions, which drive us away from God.

Men who have fallen prey to their pride forget this axiom and inevitably fall victim to poisonous thoughts.  Once we give ourselves permission to think ill of others, then we fall into an abyss of hatred when God is not present.  God does not want us to hate one another.  We are to forgive as we have been forgiven.  having forgiven, we can receive His forgiveness more easily.

The hypocrite is always in danger of being uncovered and ashamed.  Hypocrisy is not a place we want to be found.  We always fight against it.

Before we fall to that trap, we should judge our thoughts and progress based on how we are with others, even those who hate us.  Do we hate them back?  Do we react with anger and contempt?  If we are experiencing these negative feelings, then we are on the wrong path.  These ideas must be pushed aside and their origin uncovered.  We must repent of these feelings and thoughts, and ask God to enter in and heal us.

On the other hand, thoughts that bring us closer to others are good thoughts.  Ones that harbor mercy, patience, and generosity are to be heeded.  Thiis is the easiest 'rule of thumb' for thoughts.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Accepting the Blame for Thoughts

Fr. Meletios (Webber) often says that we must remember one thing: "You are not your thoughts."

We have thoughts all the time that are bad, yet how is it that we are expected to not identify with them, yet at the same time confess them?

The mind is a factory of thoughts: it is constantly combining impulses (desires and anxieties) with memories into fantasies, some designed to 'plan' and others to 'distract'.  You can slow the mind down, but it is impossible to shut off entirely. Even in sleep it isn't possible.  Humans are thinking beings.  

Yet, to say "I think, therefore I am" is also a bit of a stretch, especially when it comes to the quality of those thoughts.  In our present, fallen state, the broken mind entertains broken thoughts.  Just because horrible ideas enter your head does not mean you will act on them.

This is why we can say that we are not our thoughts.

Each day we are bombarded with horrible images and ideas.  Is it no wonder that we will continue to think about these things.  We have experiences and feelings that are very powerful, and we have a mind used to coming up with permutations of these experiences, so is there a great mystery as to why our minds can end up spewing utter garbage as it puts together scenarios?

Not only that, but when you put the hunger of the passions into the mix, then you can wonder whether this absurd and horrid thought is something you are hungry for.  Then is gets worse.

In addiction, the passions are so strong that the addict can easily become convinced that his ideas are what he really wants.  He can feel hungry for 'anything,' which accounts for part of the reason why addicts can often bounce from addiction to addiction.  A heroin addict can dry out and become a religious maniac the next.  Observed and noted.

So why then should anyone accept the blame for such thoughts?  It is not so much the thought itself that we are concerned about, but asking God to heal our inner attraction to the thoughts that we have.  Bad thoughts pluck the 'heart-strings' that are 'tuned' by our passions: our broken and needy heart seeks solace in 'something,' and when it comes into contact with bad thoughts, that pluck of the heart-strings vibrates within us.  We experience, even for a moment, a desire for that thought. 

This is what we must confess: these momentary desires can lead us to the revelation of the wound deep within us.  In the place where we do not wish to go because we are frightened about what we will find.  Yet, deep within us is where God's grace must flow to heal and bring light.

By repenting over all thoughts, yet not being tempted to associate ourselves with those thoughts, we maximize our reception of God's grace and mercy while not despairing that we are hopelessly perverted.  Now it makes sense that the Desert Fathers, though living perfect lives, constantly wept: they knew deep within themselves that there were still unhealed places where temptations still lurked.  They knew that they still had small desires within themselves for sin that, if left untreated, would quickly spread and engulf them.

It is helpful to think of these inner wounds as 'infections.'  Some go away quickly, but others require a great deal of care and time to heal.  A great infection can be reduced to a tiny spot, but if the medicine is discontinued, the infection will quickly flare back up and retake its old ground, and then spread beyond.  We keep the medicine on the wound by maintaining our state of repentance.

Accepting the blame and asking for mercy is the only way to keep God's mercy flowing.  when we stop asking, then He stops working.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Demonic Temptation

If we examine the prayers of the Orthodox Church, we often see that demonic activity is mentioned:

And grant unto us, O Master, when we depart to sleep, repose of body and soul; and protect us from the murky sleep of sin and from all the dark pleasures of the night. Calm the impulses of passions, and quench the fiery darts of evil which are craftily thrown against us; check the turbulence of our flesh, and still all earthly and material thoughts. And grant us, O God, a watchful mind, a prudent reason, a vigilant heart, a tranquil sleep free from all the fantasies of Satan. Raise us up again at the time of prayer strengthened in thy commandments, holding steadfastly within us the remembrance of thy judgments. (from Little Compline) 

O holy Angel who accompanieth my wretched soul and lowly life, forsake me not, and depart not from me because of my extravagance and wickedness. Give not access to the evil demon to rule with his might this mortal body of mine,... (from Little Compline)

Demonic temptation is a struggle for all Christians, and addicts have their own unique battles with the demonic because of their compromised wills.

A quick review of demonic activity: the word 'demon' comes from δαίμων in Greek, which is essentially a 'messenger' (this is why you may get a 'mailer daemon' ( when an email bounces, since some programmers have actually read Classical Greek!).  Demons bear messages.  The other form of this concept is ἄγγελος, or 'angel.'

These messenger spirits come delivering messages.  In the case of what we most often refer to as 'angels' (as opposed to 'fallen angels'), these messages come from God the Father.  Angels will often communicate clearly and announce plainly where they are from and Who the Lord is.  Angels usually appear in visions, but God can even make them appear as live human beings.  However, there are times when angels may subtly communicate through thought. After all, they are not material beings and so they communicate to the spirit of those with whom they converse.

Demons or fallen angels, on the other hand, do not bear messages from God, but rather the opposite.  They seek to bring man down by provoking his temptations. They bear a satanic message, which is centered on the selfish desires of each person they seek to influence.  In essence, when you are following satan, you are following yourself.

Demons are no so much interested in gaining worship for themselves, but getting us to stop following God.  They envy our unique position as material and spiritual beings.  Therefore, they seek for us to abuse these areas so as to drive us away from God.

How do we know we are being demonically influenced?  It is very hard to discern one's thoughts when we spend so much time racing from thought to thought, so we often do not know when we are being 'tempted' by our own selves or a demon is placing a thought in our heads, or, rather, communicating with us.  While it may feel like a thought is being put in our heads, it is merely our spiritual nature at work: we are meant to hear on more than just a material level.

So, the discernment of thoughts has always been emphasized in Christianity.  You must know whether a thought is coming from your own mind or someone else's.

What panics most people is that they think demons can read their minds, and this is not true.  Demons cannot read our thoughts, but having been around people for a long time, they are pretty good at guessing.  It can seem like they are reading us when they are in fact not able to access our thoughts.  They can only 'speak' to us with feelings, images, and concepts.

Part of an addict's work is to discover his own passions that at once reveal the source of his unhealthy thoughts and what he can be tempted by.  Once he knows his temptations, then he also knows where he's going to get punched when he enters the ring.

Demons do not want us sober, because sobriety means growing closer to God.  They want us to follow after ourselves.  So, the more we seek God, the more we will have to contend with demonic opposition.

Monks, due to their choice to engage the struggle face-on, are often the hardest hit by demonic contention.  There are many stories from the Desert Fathers about these battles.  The rest of us who live in the world, with its hustle and bustle, rarely spend the time to examine our thoughts and where they come from.

For all concerned, it is important for an addict to understand that he is not always responsible for the thoughts that come into his head, but what he should not do is entertain the unhealthy ones.  This is why addicts need 'sponsors,' to review thoughts and see which ones are 'light-bearing' and healthy, versus those that are selfish and destructive.

On the one hand, the Church encourages us to confess all thoughts and ask forgiveness for them all, just because it is safer that way and also because even the thoughts that not our own injure us and we need healing from them.  Demons can't punch you, but they can bring you to painful sorrows.  Confess these and you will experience great healing.

There is a great deal more to be said about this, but this is enough for now.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Altering Our Attitudes vs. Mind-Altering

Having brought up the issue of Bill Wilson's LSD experimentation (it is important to emphasize that he experimented with vitamins as well), I think it is critical to draw a conceptual line between engaging in mind-altering behavior.  There is a lot of that going around these days, from drugs to Tony Robbins/Joel Osteen or some other machine.

I want to be very clear: if you have a bad attitude, it is your responsibility to change it.  That is your job as a Christian.  Christ's Incarnation is not an excuse to have a bad attitude, be it self-pitying or condescending.

Obviously, our attitudes effect everything.  That's why problems of perception are BIG problems.

So, why not take LSD?  It makes you feel great (unless you have one of those legendary 'bad trips' that has you jumping off the roof or staring into the sun with binoculars) and potentially alleviate depression and poor self-esteem.

Let's throw some cold water on the problem and wake everyone up: the biggest problem with bad attitudes is that usually they are triggered by focusing on fairly minor issues and ignoring a great deal else.  If you are feeling poorly about yourself, an honest inventory of your life would not only reveal a great deal to not feel poorly about, but also many things that you really should feel bad about but conveniently ignore.

Orthodoxy, and much later AA, does something 'counter-intuitive': it forces the person seeking hope to further stare into the abyss of his hopelessness.  You must not run from despair, but throw yourself into it completely.  In the Steps, the Fourth Step is just such a plunge, where the 'stepper' eventually takes responsibility for all of his own suffering without blaming others.  This is a uniquely Christian idea; we do not blame, but completely accept blame and not only forgive, but ask forgiveness.

It can be said like this- if you want to climb out of the pit, you first have to stop falling.  The person who avoids falling into despair remains a prisoner of despair because he still inches downward and never really comes up.  Addiction is the vain attempt to not fall 'as far.'  But, it does not stop the descent, and provides only a small ascent for a short while.

The talking heads of 'positive thinking' want you to believe you don't have to hit bottom before you can 'turn it around.'  That's baloney.  Why?  Because in order to turn your life around, you have to look at all of it, even the really bad parts.  Tony and Joel are not going to tell you to do that.  It ain't easy and it does not sell books.  None of them would make the money they do selling a book entitled, You Really Should Know How Bad You Stink.

The Church teaches people to come to confession for precisely that experience.  The 12 Steps are all about laying it all on the line and looking at everything without sugar-coating it.  You must get to the bottom of the pit, so you can then start to climb out.

What the Christian knows is that if he hits the bottom, he will not die.  He will be in a totally miserable place, but will still have a light shining above him.  The person in the midst of falling only sees the darkness, and bits of light reflected off the walls.  To look up, he must hit bottom and turn around.

We believe that the light is Christ, and that His light is love and forgiveness.  Those glimmers of light at first, when you are far enough down, can seem very bright.  It is those momentary flashes of light that give the falling person hope.  They often keep the addict fighting the fall, but he really must finish the fall before he can turn around and see the real light.

In the first three steps, those glimmers are about all we have to convince the addict of his problem and the solution: fall all the way.  You can go to the bottom and survive.  Once there, then the climb begins.  Of course, it is not unassisted, but we must work.

We ought not to seek to 'adjust' our attitudes by ignoring or embellishing facts.  Lies are just more darkness.  Tony and Joel 'coach' people they don't know.  How can they help people 'feel better' when they don't know whether is feeling bad for a good reason?  Many times, bad attitudes are triggered by a dose of truth: we've all met the egotistical person who is, frustratingly, very good at something.  That's what's annoying about it.  The egomaniac can often see only his good, forgetting all the horrible things he's done.

Rather than trying to feel good, we should try to see the truth in the light of God's love.  We must be willing to 'make the plunge' into ourselves to see the truth and repent.  This is the ultimate 'attitude adjustment.'  We do not seek mind-altering attitudes or techniques.  We only need the hope of God's love, and then our attitude will naturally be changed, but only so long as we look at everything in the light of reality.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Materialism, Politics, and Addiction

In my youth, I was politically active, and while I still have opinions, I am much less impressed with the subject.  Why?  Mostly because I think that politics misses the point: happiness is not achieved through policies, but through our union with God. There is no salvation in the ballot box.  On the other hand, politics almost certainly will create misery.

Political attitudes are mostly the product of materialistic notions.  We assume that either the acquisition of property, the protection of property, or the distribution of property is where all our answers lie.  The problem of politics is that it inevitably ends up telling someone what to do.  The most effective politics, therefore, is when a politician offers to do something else to someone else in exchange for your vote.

Politicians rarely get up and promise to make your life tougher.  They would not get elected that way.  They are also pretty good at condemning someone else, be that person from another party, another belief, or just different in some other way.

But, what this results in is the problem we have now that people want change without having to change themselves.  They want others to be responsible without having to be responsible.  They want others to stop doing something or start doing something, yet without a reciprocal change.

That's a materialistic idea: materialism ultimately means there are no interconnections between subjects beyond their material boundaries.  The only shared connections between subjects is like matter, which must always behave in a predictable manner.  For example, water always freezes at 0°C and boils at 100°C.  If you apply this to politics, then 'conservatives' are always 'greedy' and liberals are always 'gullible.'

When we treat humans like matter, then we take away from them the ability to differentiate from whatever category we have assigned them to.  Obviously, there is a reason to rob someone else of his individualism: it makes it easier to hate him, and even easier to legislate to control his behavior.

With the amount of law-passing in the modern American scene, politicians must objectify those that they seek to control.  Given that there are so many people, that is a lot of humans who's humanity must be ignored.  Once you ignore someone's humanity, you can dismiss their opinions and don't even have to worry about thinking too hard about your own: your ideas might not be the best, but since you are the only 'rational creature' around, your ideas are the only one's that count.

What does this have to do with addiction?  Well, addicts and those with serious mental disorders do the exact same thing.  This is part of why most of us sense the utter madness of modern politics.  Modern politics has become a battle over what people are to be dismissed and ignored.  Addiction dominates the addict by dismissing the humanity of those whom the addict hurts with his disease.

For the addict, like the politician, the needs of others only impinges on his own designs.  He wants things, and sees people as either 'good' because they facilitate his acquisition or 'bad' because they interfere even if just by being in the way at the time.  If an addicted father hears the pleas of his children for his time and attention, this only seems a nuisance that prevents him from spending more time doing what he wants.

The addict will not sacrifice for the other, and he won't change if he can help it.  So, he objectifies other people, placing them in simplistic categories (usually all bad), so that he can ignore their cries and continue in his selfish drives.

Sound familiar?  Yes, the politician is much the same.

For our world to change, we all need to grow up and stop looking at others as the enemy.  The recovery of the addict comes when he sees others sharing in the same humanity that he has and how we are all wrapped in bonds of suffering that we wrap each other in.  When the addict moves from hatred to compassion, he ascends from a materialist views of humanity to a spiritual one: he sees the bonds between all of us.

If we are to help our modern world, it is going to be through this awakening to God, who ultimately is the bond between all people made in His Image and Likeness.   

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Alcoholism in Eastern Europe

I'm sure some readers will take issue with my analysis here, but that's fine by me. This is opinion: just a stab at pinning down the facts.

From my continued conversations with Romanians over alcoholism, it seems apparent that the corrosive forces of materialism and anti-spirituality have devastated Eastern Europe from the Carpathian Mountains to the east end of Siberia.  That's not to say that alcoholism was unheard of before Communism, but Communism succeeded in aggravating the problem and amplifying it to such a degree that it is destroying the people... literally.

First, let's look at the comment posted by one of our Romanian readers:

Well, being from Romania, I can tell you that right after the revolution in 89, which replaced the communist regime with the democratic regime (as it's become very clear nowadays), all that people were being taught to want through tv were tropicana juice, american cigarettes and Dallas episodes. This became a religion very quickly and exponentially expanded to more products and tv shows. It was no wonder that when I went to a summer camp in Canada, the other children were amazed at how well I knew their cartoon culture. A couple years later I actually moved to Canada and it only took about a year of high-school and you almost couldn't tell the difference between me and the local kids. Looking back though I realize how crazy this actually was and how easy it was to manipulate people right after the revolution. I now live back in Romania, and see the results after 20 years of "democracy". Many people left the country for the western locations they saw on tv, the locals have become very disconnected from their own country, the local environment and resources are largely disrespected, a huge percent of the population smoke and drink, and the rich and corrupt have taken full advantage by stealing and selling the entire country (literally). Sorry, for being off topic, but this is a very unhappy example of what our world can and sometimes does become. And now the "government" gets to act like something from an Orwell novel, but that's probably yet another story with deeper and more evil roots. 

Romania and other nations behind the Iron Curtain were indoctrinated in Marxism, which held that man's only drives were materialistic in nature:

"The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." —Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1. 

For Marxism, the material world is all that exists.  Therefore, all solutions to all problems lie solely with man's relationship with the material.  Want to solve the world's problems?  We are told that all we need to do is 'distribute wealth.'  Once people have 'enough' material necessities and comforts, human problems such as war and oppression will cease.

In his book Envy: a theory of social behavior (, Helmut Schoeck theorized (in the 1960's) that Communism would fail because it refused to take into account human drives such as envy, which take hold of people even in the midst of great wealth.  Now, I am not saying that letting people starve is moral or condone-able, but I am saying that wealth alone does not solve the problem of human happiness.  Nor does it entirely feed the hungers of the human heart.  This is why we in the West, despite our opulence, have so much personal misery as to need drugs and other addictions.

In Romania, Communism was replaced with a type of Capitalism that was still entirely materialist.  Communism relied on materialism as a form of social control: the state regulated what you could or could not have, and so you came to cooperate with the state if you wanted anything (that includes food and freedom).  People under Communism wanted the same things people in the West wanted, and the collapse of Communism only made getting those things easier.

The problem now is that the people have access to more material goods, but like their counterparts in the West, are disappointed with the results.  Communist officials from 20 years ago are still turning the system for their own good as officials of the new regime.  Communist taught people to sneak around the system in order to fulfill their basic desires and now they are doing the same thing.  Corruption and systemic violence are part of the norm in the East.  Romania has made some inroads in curing this, but the biggest problem, alcoholism, is only starting to be addressed.

That's because the Church as of yet has not really begun to attack the premise of materialism.  Mind you, the ROC has never utterly caved to it, but from years of oppression, only now are Church leaders ready to attack the matter straight on.

Materialism and addiction are tied together: both lack any spirituality, and both see benefit only from immediate gains.  Both the materialism and the addict will sacrifice tomorrow for today, whereas the spiritual person sees today as part of eternity.

Wherever you have materialism, you have misery: abortion, dissatisfaction, fear of lack, etc.  Alcoholism has always been an easy 'medicine' for these problems, which is why Communist leaders never made a sustained effort to sober their people up.  Keeping them drunk keeps them from asking for more of anything else.

We in the West are not that much better off.  We are entertaining ourselves to death.  We consume porn, drugs, and food in record amounts.  Now, even our economies can no longer bear the strain.  There needs to be a change.

We all must examine the deeper reaches of the human heart, the hungering of man's spirit for something more profound.  It is this drive that pushes man into addiction, but also draws him out into sobriety.

The thirst for God can only be quenched in the well of the Church.  And so, the Church must proclaim the existence of the Living Water, who is Christ, not just as a religion, but a living experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mind-Altering Drug and Self-Perception

One of the central problems of mind-altering drugs, especially seen in cocaine and methamphetamine but also in LSD, is the radical shifty in 'self perception.'  These drugs not only excite the individual, but make him feel better about himself.  A cocaine user will report how much more self-confident he feels, while a meth user will certainly feel paranoid, but at the same time convinced he is doing things better than he would off the drugs.

Any time we take a substance that alters our perceptions, we must be cautious as to whether we are passing towards or away from reality.  Anti-depressants, for example, are not meant for us to feel happy about a massacre, but reduce the effects of brain chemistry that unrealistically depresses the patient.

Self-perception is important, but only so far as it is honest.  That is what 'humility' really is: honesty about one's self.

Chemicals themselves cannot help us measure ourselves against reality: they don't have that kind of ability.  They merely alter other chemicals in the brain that affect our mental processes.

Distorting reality is what we want to avoid, which is why projects like testing LSD are never going to address the major problem of addiction: the perception of God.  Drug-induced euphoria is not the same as the spiritual experience that we hunger for.

The assumption of medical professionals is that if people 'felt better' about themselves, they would have fewer problems.  The opposite is most often true: the better you feel about yourself, the worse off you usually are.  Ego maniacs leave a wake of damage and distress in their passing by, and they themselves are usually greatly grieved by their surroundings.

Drugs can give us euphoria about ourselves, and even momentary experiences where we will'feel' interconnected with the world and our ego boundaries are momentarily 'softened' or 'blurred.'  But these are neither permanent awakenings or real: they are effects produced by the drugs.

Addicts need something more profound.  They need a lasting experience effecting no so much their view of themselves (i.e. improving self-esteem, etc.), but rather their view of God, who then illumines both the person and his environment.  It is an externalized source.

It is measured as much by the addict's self-perception as it is by the degree the addict is able to heal and maintain his relationships with others, which in turn reveal his relationship with God.  And, the latter will effect the former; as the addict sees his relationships improve in sobriety, he will feel better about himself and grateful to God for making it possible.  These impressions in turn effect his emotional state and further improve his relationships with others.

This cannot be done with a drug, because a drug does not provide God or the reality He brings with Him.  We cannot rely on chemicals to fix our problems.  Even the drug that cures psychosis cannot heal the emotional damage done to others during a psychotic episode.

'Living better through chemistry' is a dangerous proposition.  Drugs cannot be used to replace the spiritual experience.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bill Wilson, AA, and LSD

One of the underlying problems of categorizing addiction as a stand-alone disease is that it is so often found keeping company with all sorts of other diseases and problems.  Addicts are often found to be suffering from mental illness, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, horrible memories, etc.  This is why therapy for these other problems can very often be beneficial, though it is best to treat them separately.

The medical community has never given up on trying to 'crack the code' of addiction, in large part because these other treatable conditions are usually co-occurring and can be confused.  Also, because of the overwhelming effects of the disease on the body and mind, doctors and medical professionals are often the 'first responders' in addictions crises.  Science wants a cure for all ailments, because science wants to understand the why and the how.  If you have those, then you generally have the cure.

So, now this article pops up on the BBC about the use of LSD in Great Britain to treat alcoholism:

Of course, this does not surprise me: the UK has a very high rate of atheism:

LSD seems like a perfectly easy way of getting a 'religious experience' without having to do more than pop a pill.  The problem with this method is that it confuses two problems: addiction and depression.

The experimentation with LSD and addiction began with AA founder Bill Wilson trying LSD in the 1950's:

However, Bill Wilson also involved himself in niacin treatments.  Bill's underlying problem was that, once out of his alcoholic activities, his underlying problems of depression came up.  Bill was as much looking for a 'spiritual experience' as he was looking for relief from his life-long battle with depression:

Despite clinical trials, no effective link between curing depression and LSD was ever established.  However, studies are introduced every so often trying it again. Bill even thought that LSD helped facilitate spiritual experiences, but neither he nor any studies ever proved a lasting benefit.

That's why this BBC article is a non-story: the main advocate is:

Prof David Nutt, who was sacked as the UK government's drugs adviser, has previously called for the laws around illegal drugs to be relaxed to enable more research.

The earlier clinical trials got nowhere with addiction.  If they had, I'm sure they would have been in use some 40 years later.

There have been advancements in understanding and treating depression, most of which are significantly less dramatic than LSD trips.  Many forms of depression are strictly physiological and thus subject to medical treatment.

But, it is important to keep in mind that addiction is not a disease in the simplistic sense of the word: it is a spiritual disorder rooted in body, soul, and spirit of the sufferer.  While contributing factors can be treated in the normal, medical sense, they are separate.

This was evident with Bill Wilson, who was able to stop drinking and yet continued to struggle with his depression.  If they were the same, then Bill's depression would have lifted with his sobriety.  That didn't happen.

At the same time, chemicals cannot be used to 'trigger' a spiritual experience.  Surely, a person who feels better because of chemicals may find it easier to pray and believe, and I am all for people taking anti-depressants so long as they work the way they are intended (over-prescription is another topic entirely).  But, no chemical can take the place of the necessary work of preparing one's self for contact with God.

LSD will never do more than give people powerful but temporary experiences that help them escape from the mundane.  As chronological distance from the LSD even builds, studies have demonstrated that whatever benefits were achieved eventually faded.  We must never think that such experiences alone are the cure.

Even the direct experience of God requires work.  We must prepare ourselves, and after the contact, we must also be prepared to be changed as well.

We cannot use chemicals to replace or even trigger the experience of God.  This is why Christianity has never turned to peyote or mushrooms.  These things just trick the mind.  Spirituality requires labor.  It is difficult, and never really amenable to short-cuts.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Mind Wired for Pleasure

As the previous posts explain, human perceptions of pleasure and pain, desire and avoidance, pulling and pushing, are at the core of the human will.  Our will derives from our perceptions of the world and our reactions to it.

Good and evil are higher values that only are really understood as a child develops.  Until the mind is better formed and thoughts stretch out into the abstract, the person knows only what he wants and what he wants to avoid.

The Fathers of the Church speak of this, which translators have turning into the rather fun terms of 'appetitive' and 'irascible' aspects of the human will.  Yes, I had to get a dictionary to figure out what was meant by 'irascible' (, and then there's  Think of these two terms as 'pushing' and 'pulling,' and you will get the general idea.

Our minds are designed for the appetite for pleasure, and will use its own irascible avoidance to move away from what is not pleasurable.  Children will unashamedly plunge head-first into delicious food.  When a child receives food from a bowl it does not like, it will often strike the bowl in anger.  There you have a simple demonstration.

These aspects of our will, one causing us to run after something desirable and the other to run away from something unwanted are at the core of our daily decision-making.  It is unavoidable for mankind to not seek after what is 'pleasurable.'

Our problem is that our minds can deceive us in telling us what is pleasurable or not.  When we are young, we can receive exquisite pleasure from cartoons that now only bore us or, worse yet, are agonizingly insipid.  We remember when teenage banter was greatly entertaining, yet as we age it seems all the more ignorant and foolish.

The difference is context.  As we grow up, our context is that we learn more about what is really 'good' and 'evil' and we integrate this knowledge into these elementary drives of desire and avoidance ('appetitive' and 'irascible' aspects for you amateur theologians screaming at your computer screens for me to keep my terminology in line with the officially-recognized translations of the Fathers).

And, because this association is learned for the most part (though I have argued elsewhere that the general nature of man is to choose good, but this does not always happen and man has the ability to choose evil in the face of a threat), it is susceptible to distortion.  Perception is powerful, but it can be impermanent.  Context, such as present circumstances and long-term experiences, can alter it.

What we must do is bring our desire/avoidance expectations in line with what is good/evil in reality.  God has provided these two 'direction' for our will for a specific purpose: that we might learn, deliberate, and freely choose what is good. This choice of what is good is even more profound: we did not choose to be born, but we are free to choose whether to eternally accept this life or eternally reject it.

A big part of sobriety is accepting life on life's terms.  We must accept who we were made to be and where we were put.  To reject ourselves is the ultimate evil, because it is the ultimate form of destruction.

Our society is a mess right now because we are taught such a high expectation for perfection that we are constantly unhappy.  We chase after unattainable pleasures and are irascibly annoyed with many things that are actually good.  we are losing the ability to be happy as our expectations become more and more distorted with images that are 'photoshopped' and appear better than the real thing.  And, because we constantly see these things, we build up the expectation of having them.

You can imagine a rural villager in the Carpathian Mountains, fed on a steady diet of 'Baywatch' and '90210,' is going to become dissatisfied with village life.  When I was in Greece years ago, I used to laugh at Greeks watching these shows dubbed over in Greek, which the locals religiously watched in their houses while there were beautiful beaches right outside their front doors.  They under-appreciated what they had, wasting countless hours of real experiences on the beach while engaging in fantasies about beaches that really didn't exist outside the imagination of a TV producer.

Next week, I will start to explain more of the mechanics of pleasure and how we can, with a lot of Divine healing and assistance, begin to shift our perception of pleasure to match up with what is good.  This is essential to sobriety, and it is essential to the Christian.