Recovery from addiction is often defined as a spiritual experience. It takes the addict’s focus out of self to others, from his wants and desires to empathy and sympathy to other’s conditions. It transcends self-centeredness and reaches out to others who are more experienced for guidance and who are still struggling for helping.

Giving it away

Many alcoholics discover this spiritual lesson in recovery: You get what you give, and you will surely get something back when you give something away. The only way to keep what you have is to give it away.

Giving consists of a yieldingand a willingness to let go ofmaterial possessions and the vision of the self as needy and grasping. Giving just for the sake of giving requires a detachment from the need to get something in return; the gift, we realize, has already been given to us.

Here are six ways of “giving” to strengthen your recovery:

  1. Give ear. When we “give ear”, we listen, heed, pay attention. You have a choice – hundreds of options, really – about where you can focus your attention. The choices you make will determine the experiences you create for yourself.
  1. Give forth.When you give forth, you send something out into the world, as in expelling your breath, expressing an opinion, or giving voice to your innermost longings. We can be pompous – like some teachers and sermon givers who offer detailed instructions about moral conduct or the “right” way to solve problems. In spiritual terms, however, giving forth signifies a letting go of the need to be right or perfect or perfectly in control; it is a way of stepping out of the self and into some other reality greater or more powerful than the self.
  1. Giving back.We are all indebted to whoever or whatever has given us the gift of life, and it is through the way we live our lives that we pay back that debt. If you are an alcoholic, during your drinking days, you only took in; if you are like most alcoholics, you took everything you could get from anyone willing to give it to you. Rarely did you give anything back. The anguished insight that so much was taken and so little was given in return is the source of the alcoholic’s most profound spiritual distress.

The most difficult spiritual work in recovery is to understand that the source of your anguish is not the desire to get back what you have lost but to give back what you have taken.

  1. Give in.The surrender implied in the act of giving in indicates a willingness to give yourself over to something more powerful than yourself. Ironically, alcoholics have been giving in to powerful substances but resist doing so in the process of recovery!

Giving in is similar to giving up, as the rock crumbles under the steady pounding of the waves or the earth yields to the raging river. As your boundaries bend and flex, the image of the self as fixed and immobile gives way to a sense of being stretchable and impressionable. “I can change,” you realize. This thought leads to another idea: “I can be changed,” which in turn makes possible the surrender inwords “I am willing to be changed.”

When you give in, you let go.

Addiction to alcohol offers the illusion of control: a few sips,and your life is transformed in moments. Letting go of the idea that you can do that whenever you want or control what happens when you drink is the first and most difficult step in recovery. With that admission of helplessness, you give up the substance you crave and the ultimate control over your life that you desire.

Not until you give up your demand to be in control – when you finally accept that you are not in control – can you also liberate yourself from the self-centred conviction that you can do anything and everything you want. The surrender that occurs when you give in and give up opens your eyes to a whole new world. When you accept your limitation, you find peace. You discover triumph in defeat.

  1. Give chase. If you are going to give back, you’ve got to get up and get moving. Anyone can “talk the talk”, as alcoholism educator Father Martin put it, but “walking the walk” is an entirely different story. When you stand up, put one foot in front of the other, and start moving, you give chase.

You cannot achieve or keep your sobriety unless you are willing to give chase to a new life. When you give away alcohol or drugs, you get sobriety, but that’s all you get. If you want more, you will have to go looking for it. Spirituality is something you need to seek out, and you have to keep after it with a fierce will and determination. “With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start,” writes Bill Wilson in Alcoholics Anonymous.

  1. Give rise to.All these ways of giving give rise to the birth of something new. In giving away – letting go, surrendering – you give up the demand for ultimate control. The very act of surrendering) giving up, giving in, giving out, giving way) creates an other-centred perspective on life. Why surrender, after all, if you can do it all by yourself?

Acknowledging that you cannot do it all, or hand it all, or control it all, you also accept the fact that someone or something outside you has more power or influence than you do.

In the experiences of surrender and acceptance, you take the first tentative steps toward “a spiritual way of life.” “First of all, we had to quit playing God,” explains Bill Wilson in the “Big Book.” Why? His answer is, as always, wholly practical and related to real-life experience: “It didn’t work.” From that jumping-off point, your task is to discover what does work. Released from a self-centred focus, you are free to look outside yourself for the answers to your questions.

Life is life in all its messy, complicated, chaotic uncertainty. Life is not just peace and serenity. Life suffocates us at the same time it forces oxygen into our lungs. In one moment, we feel bowled over with bliss; in the next, we are howling with pain.

The first experience of real life occurs in the early stages of recovery. That’s one reason staying in a rehab, where support is always available, is safe during this vulnerable stage.

The Homeless Kodo, a famous Zen teacher, liked to say: “Pulled around by Zen, kicked and dragged around by Zen…ah, wonderful.” Substitute life for Zen, and you’ve got the idea and the direction.