Extremes Meet

Extremes meet: good and bad, good and evil, mind and body, past and future–extremes meet and repel each other or turn into each other, they either polarize into opposites or unify into complements or both oppose and complement.  It is Groundhogs Day all over and over, again and again, endless repetition, and eternal recurrence of the same.

In the realm of spirit, everything is always connected to its opposite: thin is never without fat, poor travels the same rails as wealth.

I think of poor Bill Wilson trying to get sober.   He can’t help himself from stealing bits of Lois’ meager income to buy bathtub gin and off he goes again, endless repetition.  An alcoholic in his cups is not a pretty sight and Bill’s sordid behavior would be hard to recognize as the prelude to one of the greatest lives of service since Jesus Christ.  Opposites necessarily arise together, generate each other, require and constitute each other and there is nothing we can do about it except to accept it.  Which for the most part is exactly what we don’t do and probably won’t do.  We are like the Pharisees in the bible who tried to get to heaven by obeying the law.  I call it looking for a one ended stick, i.e. trying to be only good ina good/bad paradigm, or only right in a right/wrong universe.  We have either/or minds trying to make sense of a both/and world.  Saint Paul’s words still haven’t sunk in, i.e. that reason just doesn’t work the way spirit does.  “The purpose of the law is not to obey it, but rather to demonstrate that we will not obey it.  The purpose of the law is to multiply the sense of sin.”  What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?  Well, what do philosophy and religion and psychology and neuroscience have to do with our disease?  Many people don’t like to listen to Paul because he is so enthusiastic, the original en-theos-iast.  Still, if Bill had not been such a miserable sinner none of us would have been able to identify with him.   It is his woundedness that inspires us to heal, his hopelessness actually grounds our highest hope.

As Nietzsche said, “Health is the amount of disease we can overcome.”

So far, officially, recovery has read only two books.  In recovery everything we know officially comes either from the Bible, especially the Gospel of James, or The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.  Most of us haven’t actually read either of these books,  but Bill devoured them and wrote what he digested into our program.  The day after his white light experience at Townes Hospital his inspirational friend Ebby, the one who had given Bill the spiritual take on alcoholism, and led him to the Oxford group, showed up at Townes with a copy of William James still famous book through which Bill was able to articulate his ‘hot flash’.  We owe everything, from our sobriety to our philosophy, to Ebby, who did not stay sober, to Ebby, whose resentments took him out again and again.

Only two books, but what a prodigious return on investment.  Almost never have so many owedso much to so few books which they still haven’t read.  We have certainly used them well.  As Bill was fond of saying,  AA is a kind of spiritual kindergarten.  We all, in my generation (baby boomers), remember from kindergarten that Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, and we still use our ABC’s without noticing, so well did we learn our lessons.  In recovery we return to our official books, Alcoholics Anonymous (unofficially called the Big Book for historical reasons pertaining to size) and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.  These are our primers and we have digested them well and pass on the messages to each new sufferer.

But each new sufferer begins in kindergarten and none of us outgrow the need to relearn those first lessons and to keep them green.  Spiritual health seems to require the willingness to learn the same simple lesson anew each day, to begin each day in kindergarten.

It is a miracle that Bill succeeded in helping us learn a few simple things, simple things with the power to transform our lives over and over, one day at a time.  Today we say we have a simple program for complex people.  We are drawn to complexity, virtually addicted to it.  It is difficult for us to stay with things that are simple.  That everything requires its opposite in order to exist and that the opposites complement each other, despite the appearance of opposition, such things trouble and unsettle our linear minds.  In action our thinking drops them out.  Our minds are inherently decisive, i.e they seek to ‘cut-off’ (=de-cide) the alternative.  Just as the presupposition ofsobriety is drunkeness, the ground of anything is its opposite.  This may be fine for the philosophers and we may sort of know this, but we still want to have a ‘thin’ without ‘fat’ and ‘rich’ without ‘poor’.  We want one ended sticks.  We want to cut off the alternative.  We want to be saved without admitting to being sinners.  We have not yet grasped the value and importance of what William James considered a defining prelude to spiritual awakening, i.e. the experience of something being fundamentally wrong with me as I am constituted.  (This does not mean that something is wrong with us.)  We want a world where we can gamble without having to face the possibility of being a loser, and above all we want power that cancels powerlessness.  But in recovery, they don’t turn the lights on until we admit to holding the short end of the stick, i.e. until we accept and admit that we are powerless over some essential aspect of our lives.  The joke is that even if we begin with the short end, in the light of recovery we will discover that every stick has two ends, that if we get straightened out about which way is down, we will find we already know about which way is up and that powerlessness gives access to undreamed of possibilities.  We must overcome our addiction to clear and distinct ideas, to remain open to the truths that don’t fit, the truths that are too simple to be understood; the simple truths that we must learn to create for ourselves in order to gain access to the experiences they can generate.  Our programs are full of these simple sayings and it is probably a profoundly simple intuition that guides most groups to hang the slogan “Think, Think, Think” upside down.  Program sets many things on their head in the process ofstanding us on our feet.

We live in complex worlds but there is a genuine simplicity beneath all this complexity.  In recovery we are told we have a three-fold disease.  The Big Book tells us, “we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick.  When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”  This is simplicity itself!  Where did they get this clarity of vision?  Our minds consider it to be information, something else to know about, something like the other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety seven things we know.  It is important here to remind ourselves that we have a mental disease.  Our self-knowledge not only avails us nothing, it tranquilizes us, while availing us nothing.  Knowing we have a three-fold disease conceals the mystery of these three folds and their connection to the source of all mystery.  Knowing we have a three-fold disease obscures the possibility of actually unfolding these folds and returning to source.

The discipline and practice that can inquire into these things and penetrate the foundations of our disease and our recovery is the one that has historically been the least interested in us: philosophy.  Philosophy is a still hidden resource for us, while we seem to be hidden from the philosophers.  They seem to be totally unaware that addiction is, in fact, the killer application for post-modern thought.  It was, rightly, to philosophy that Bill was guided when he needed to make sense of his profound personal awakening.  Philosophy didn’t get Bill sober, but it did give him the way to articulate his experience so that he could communicate it effectively to another drunk, which is what kept him sober.  It is ironic that he recognized William James more as a psychologist, like Carl Jung, than as a philosopher.  It is still philosophy that can speak across the disciplines of science and religion, psychology and spirituality.  Was it just a lucky stroke that Ebby provided Bill with one of the very few books that could have bridged the cultural divisions of his time and spoke with a voice that was both scientifically respectable and spiritually valid?  Was it accidental that, very much through William James, AA learned to speak a vocabulary of ‘will’ and ‘belief’ that appreciated the seniority of emotion to reason?

Coming into program we can hardly help taking these things for granted.  We simply learn to speak the jargon of recovery and we do experience the miracles.  We learn a new, more powerful way to communicate and too often assume, naively, that such power must indicate objective truth.  We are not scientists or philosophers or theologians.  Initially we were just a group of drunks who wanted to stay sober one day at a time.  We are like children on the first day of school, some innocently excited, some suspiciously terrified.  We can hardly be blamed for not appreciating the miracle of our own genealogy.  But there are miracles here aplenty, miracles which should be recognized and stories that should be told, so that recovery can come fully into its own and play the role it is capable of playing in accelerating the social and cultural transformation the world is currently undergoing.


I entered recovery on hearing the simple truth that I could not stop drinking on my own.  I don’t think I ever would have guessed this in a million years.  Every time I drank, I’d figure out how I would stop.  I had obviously learned some lesson that was now very clear to me and there was no way I would make that mistake again; and then of course, I’d make exactly that mistake and I’d drink.  It took another alcoholic and an ironically embarrassing situation to get me clear but once I heard the message from another drunk, I simply never had to drink again.  That was definitely a good thing because as soon as I got sober my other issues began to assert themselves.


I want to propose a somewhat philosophical examination of a few simple things, on the premise that such an examination will deepen our ability to participate in the healing our disease makes possible.

The topics I would most like to examine are:

  • The exact meaning and nature of our three-fold disease, focusing on its essence and its precise manner of existing.  Clearing up some profound and simple confusion about the notions of body, mind and spirit.
  • The exact meaning and nature of ‘resentment’, considered as the source of all forms of spiritual disease.
  • The future of recovery.
    • How can we leverage the lessons of AA to get the same kind of decisive result in areas of food, sex, relationship and money.
    • The re-spiritualization or re-enchantment of life.

Along this way I hope to introduce you to a few other books and a few other thinkers, all of whom I’m hoping and believing you will find interesting as personalities and fruitful as guides pointing out fascinating ways to observe your own life as you trudge along your road of happy destiny.

(Originally Posted March 29, 2013)