step 11, spiritual awareness

by Terrie C. 

The principle of Step 11 is SPIRITUAL AWARENESS.  Prayer means asking.  Meditation is a form of listening.  AWARENESS comes from recognizing that we have had a Higher Power who cares for us, even when we may be not in touch with that knowledge.  My experience of prayer is asking the Higher Power of MY OWN UNDERSTANDING to help me in moments where I cannot see my own way. Both prayer and meditation could be called the SACRED PAUSE. 

In the WELCOME reading of CoDA, it acknowledges that our suffering is rooted in the dysfunctional systems that we grew up in.  It also specifies that our childhoods were traumatic and that our behaviors are linked to “trying to restore within us the emotional losses” resulting from that. 

May we each be whole: Mind, Body, Spirit.  Pursue daily healthy choices that soothe you. Life is short, be present to yourself. When we can be present to ourselves, we are more present to others. An outcome is healthy relationships.

Early in my recovery, I was quite able to pray and follow my understanding of the wisdoms of changing myself to have a better life.  I found myself unable to meditate in a traditional way despite many efforts.  A couple of years ago I was listening to Bessel Van der Kolk on a YouTube video talking about his book “The Body Keeps the Score” when he said that people with PTSD often have difficulty meditating.  What I was able to recognize that day is that my orientation to survive caused me to be hypervigilant in the extreme.  Working with a therapist in 1989 gave me a visual for seeing myself more clearly.  She called it PERPETUAL PERISCOPE DUTY. At that point I did not know about hypervigilance.

Also, in a recovery group in the 80’s someone brought the book “Original Blessing” by Mathew Fox that included a chapter on Art as Meditation.  I had not done art for about 20 years at that point and recognized that I had used it as a child and young adult to calm myself.  I began again and it helped.  In 2017, I had a Quantitative Electroencephalogram (QEEG) to evaluate my PTSD.  The statistical analysis is that anything over 1.9 standard deviations from values for healthy brain function is diagnosable PTSD.  I had a lot of 3s and 4s in the categories of activity I was tested in.  My art segment was almost normal.  It truly was meditative and calming.  My spirit must have known this at a very early age!

As recovering people, we need to understand the path trauma takes to disrupt our lives.  It has been described by some as a separation from ourselves.  About 3 years ago my therapist asked me if I knew about ACEs.  I did not.  It stands for ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES.  He recommended a book for me by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. “The Deepest Well”. She is a California pediatrician.  As she began her practice in a highly traumatized population, she began to question some diagnoses for some of her patients and learned about a study of this and decided to expand study for further understanding. She developed a questionnaire to address each child who came to her.   

There is now much understanding that trauma gets passed down historically and intergenerationally.  When our brains are developing in the first 3 years of life trauma interrupts normal development to self-regulate.  Unresolved trauma throughout life affects behavior, mental health, and physical health.  It is not our fault! Beginning to understand this about ourselves can help us unhook from the shame we feel about our inability to function.  Trauma interferes with our ability to learn. 

The changes to early brain development stay with us, and we can do something about it if we work to resolve our trauma.  Notice that current science written by trauma specialists have titles like “The Body Keeps the Score”, Van der Kolk, or “Begin with the Body” by Resmaa Menakem. 

I feel really lucky to have a therapist who has led me to many resources to understand what is going on with me and understand physical things I can do to train my body in new pathways.  It feels like my Higher Power helped me get to him and I have made the choice to do the work. 

I do something every day for my recovery.  A main daily practice now is slow breathing where my belly rises and falls with a slower exhale.  This brings me into Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).  This is opposite to the Fight, Flight, Freeze (Sympathetic Nervous System SNS) response.  Normal people can do PNS without even thinking about it.  I still cannot. So, a BREATHING MEDITATION is re-training my body. The science for this came from Stephen Porges. (to be found on YouTube under Polyvagal Theory)

The neat thing about this is that I am comfortable doing it.  My Perpetual Periscope Duty does not get in the way like it did for other listening kinds of meditation. The activity of listening showed me to be very dysregulated in my QEEG.  Another Body Meditation that has been studied and is recommended by Van der Kolk is yoga.  Menakem’s trauma book has many practices to try.  One is humming.  This would be like slow exhale with vibrations.  Shaking our body after a stressful event is recommended by Peter Levine, another trauma scientist.   In a kindness and self-compassion class, I learned to put a warm hand on my heart or to cradle my face with my hands.  Touching ourselves in a nurturing way increases oxytocin in our bodies which is a pleasure hormone secreted when we are touched.  I have been practicing this regularly in the last year and it is very soothing.  Now, in addition to art I have all kinds of mediations that are connected to my body that help me heal.  Seek the things that help you feel calm.

What we have resorted to in our past that has not worked are things that gave temporary relief from our dysregulation. These in the long run were momentarily soothing but still kept us separated from ourselves and harmed us in the end.  They could be substance addictions or process addictions like working, shopping or other activities.  Choose proven self-soothing practices above.  Learn more.

In 2019 Scotland did a summit on ACEs.  You can listen on YouTube if you want to learn more. 

ACE-Aware Nation Conference – The science of ACEs is fundamentally hopeful – Dr Nadine Burke Harris

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtwmYaVTwis

Now, I know I have given you a lot of science here, and yet, even with reading and understanding all of this, I am better, but still have triggers and work to do on myself.  This video on YouTube would be a GREAT start and one last thing:  One of my all-time favorites to listen to is Gabor Mate (sounds like café) and he gave the keynote talk for this conference.  Here is a link to his talk:

Keynote ACES to Assets 2019 – Dr. Gabor Maté – Trauma as disconnection from the self

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tef5_HK5Zlc&t=3555s

Step 11-finding my higher power

By Terrie C.

The principle of Step 11 is SPIRITUAL AWARENESS.  Prayer means asking.  Meditation means listening.  One of the things I love about this step is that it gives permission to define our own Higher Power.  What does my spirit tell me?   

Many experiences over the last 40 years of recovery work have brought me gifts of awareness.  Early, I recognized that I had rejected my female self and began to heal with naming my higher power GODDESS.  I also liked the non-gender words such as HP, creator, etc.  I learned this from a woman in my Al-Anon group and it has truly helped me. 

Many of the members of that group were talking about how meditation was helping them.  I could never seem to accomplish that.  Another recovery group that was non-12 step that I began attending started with a reading of the trusted servant’s choice and someone chose Original Blessing by Matthew Fox.  I got the book and there was a whole chapter on ART AS MEDITATION.  It changed my life.  I had not done art for about 20 years at that point and knew that it had always worked to calm me.  I began doing art again and have not stopped.

A couple of years ago, I listened to a YouTube Video by Bessel Van der Kolk on healing trauma and he talked about how trauma survivors often have difficulty with meditation.  This helped me to understand myself better from those years when I could not accomplish it. I still have difficulty staying present during standard meditation practice.  He also describes that childhood trauma needs to be called DEVELOPMENTAL TRAUMA DISORDER not PTSD and that there is a difference between the outcomes of childhood trauma and trauma that happens to adults.  Mostly, I still refer to it as PTSD because it takes less explanation; my spirit knows that my trauma took place during early development and it helps me to know how that affected my spirit.  My therapist changed the words to Developmental Trauma RESPONSE.  It helps to think of it that way instead of being disordered.  Words matter!

I use art to meditate with.  It has been a portal into more calm, and also was very important years ago when doing inner child work and affirmations of myself.  I used old pictures of myself to draw portraits to help me see how little and vulnerable I was when the repeated trauma was happening.  One of those I collaged onto a piece of newsprint advertising homes for rent.  One of the ads said pets allowed.  On the newsprint, I wrote the affirmation SHE DESERVES THE GOOD STUFF.  A great fear was being homeless and it did not only mean shelter. 

In an Ernie Larsen workshop years ago, he was teaching about affirmations.  He said we need to figure out who is driving our bus (the original message) and then write an affirmation to replace that message.  He said we all deserve the good stuff.  And, of course the image on my art piece was me when I was young.  A lot of my negative messages came from my mother.  I left home when I was 16 to escape her, but I had taken her messages along with me and was acting out the beliefs she instilled.  Ernie impressed on me that it does not work to say we are not going to believe that old message anymore.  We have to replace it with something new.  I kept that piece of art up next to the bathroom mirror for years and looked at it every day. 

All of these examples are gifts of SPIRITUAL AWARENESS.

I have not talked about my husband very much in these meetings.  Meeting him was one of the best gifts of my life.  What neither of us knew was that he was a practicing alcoholic and I had very severe PTSD.  We met in June 1979, he moved in with me in November 1980 and shortly after that his employer sent him to treatment as a requirement of employment.  Since we were living together, I got to go to treatment as his significant other.  That experience gave me the gift of recovery. The counselor for the significant others said if we needed help to call him.  A year after treatment I did call for help. He recommended a specific Al-Anon (Women only) meeting for me and a woman pastor to check out at Plymouth Congregational Church.  How did he know I needed to heal the female spirit in me?  I only know that he was an angel and I followed his advice to a T.  That is how I came to the Goddess language that I still need to use!  I asked for his help and he saw what I needed.  An important part for me was asking for help! We married in 1983 and have both been seriously working recovery. It has saved our lives and our marriage!

Each recovery group that I have been in over the years has given me different gifts…at the moment that I needed them.  Too many to enumerate, but I know for sure that I have been getting help from HP.  I also know that I still have recovery work to do. 

Another non-12 step recovery group that I was in for over 20 years disbanded in 2016.  A good friend from that group started attending Co-dependents Anonymous and told me about it.  Another gift!  Here I discovered the Recovery Patterns of Codependence.  One of the best tools for my spirit. A way of identifying my behaviors that I want to change, and an affirmation of how.  Ernie Larsen would be proud of CoDA!

This year I have recognized that I still hold myself back and have difficulty reaching out.  I made a decision to change that and have been implementing it.  One of the people I reached out to from my CoDA meeting told me about TARA BRACH.  She is truly feeding my spirit.  I am listening to her talks on her website several times a week.  One of her talks called HEALING SELF DOUBT describes the Buddha as praying to the Goddess!  How happy I felt to hear that. She has many talks on healing fear and recognizing how alike we all are in having fears.  A human condition.   Her voice is soothing and each talk has an element of self-compassion and kindness!  I have been calling her my new HP. Her talks are spiritually focused. 

I am feeling that group attendance in CoDA has brought me in touch with many people I can learn important lessons from.  My success in outreach since I made the decision to do it more has been a rich experience in feeling more connected.  That does not mean I have not been afraid! It is outside my comfort level! A recent Tara Brach talk titled SPIRITUAL HOPE is what I feel emanates from my CoDA group. 

For about a year before I volunteered to be a Group Service Representative, I started going to all of the intergroup meetings.  I met someone there that became very important to my recovery.  We never know what gift of recovery that we will get by attending meetings.  I can look back on so many over 40 years.  The Goddess is with me!

AWARENESS comes from recognizing that we have had a higher power who cares for us, even when we may not be in touch with that knowledge.  Writing this piece has reaffirmed all the times in my life when my needs were met and now, I can thank my Goddess for being there.   This answers my question at the beginning. What does my spirit tell me?

Some quotes to close with…
A recent book by Nobel Prize Winning Neuropsychiatrist has found in imaging and QEEG studies that both creating art and beholding art affects our brains…

“Color and color combinations can have profound emotional effects” and “abstract art triggers rich completion by the observer….”

Eric R. Kandel  Reductionism in Art and Brain Science

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.  The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.”

Original Blessing by Matthew Fox in the chapter on Art as Meditation

MAY YOU GIVE YOURSELF YOUR OWN PERMISSION TO DISCOVER WHAT WORKS AS YOUR HIGHER POWER!