The Higher Power Struggle

Even writing this, I feel embarrassed. I feel as though I should know it all, like there’s something shameful about having more questions than answers. Because I’m four and a half years into being sober I should know everything. Somewhere along the way I equated length of sober time with strength of spirituality. I don’t know where these unrealistic expectations have come from, it’s as if no one in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is a human being also grappling with the concept of God. We all struggle.

Though while I’m grappling with my conceptions of a higher power, I’m simultaneously fulfilling my responsibility to help other people with their journey. I’m a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous and AA says my job is to, “Put the hand of my sponsee into the hand of their higher power.” This means that I’m helping women to discover what God means to them. I’m taking them through the twelve steps, each step exploring a facet of their relationship with their spiritual life. I feel like a phony doing this while my own conception of a higher power is flapping in the breeze.

Most days I don’t reach for God. I go through my life without a thought to what a higher power might look like. Some days, though, I find myself praying and asking the hard questions. I wonder how I’m supposed to be living a spiritual life. If asked to describe God I wouldn’t have the words. I’d say I believe there’s something out there, but the details evade me. I’d feel defensive about my spiritual life as I’m “supposed” to be cultivating it. Instead of doing so, I often find myself evading the topic altogether. 

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time I had a richer spiritual life. I earnestly believed there was a benevolent God who cared for me and was looking out for me. I enjoyed trips to Catholic masses and I had a full prayer life. I put faith in something greater than myself. I asked God for guidance frequently and I trusted my gut. I felt at peace with the idea of a higher power and would be happy to talk about it when asked. I don’t know what happened or how I even got there.

Perhaps I’m just jaded now. I don’t believe there’s a force that controls the universe or that there’s a man in the sky pulling the strings. I mean, where the fuck are you, God? Why do bad things happen in the world? Why do we hurt so much? These questions reverberate through my ethos. I can’t seem to get past them. They strike me in moments like last summer where my mental health was so bad that I wanted to die. I felt alone and abandoned by God. Also when I’m dealing with the gut-wrenching suffering of a breakup, I can’t seem to reach out and touch a higher power. If there’s some compassionate force in the world then why the hell isn’t it eliminating suffering? It doesn’t make sense to me. These questions sometimes block me off from building a conception of God.

I have more questions than answers, but I need to settle on something. Alcoholics Anonymous says that in order to maintain my recovery I need to be connected to a power greater than myself. I’m forced to consider and reconsider what it means to have a higher power.

I know that the way to do this is through action, starting with prayer and meditation. Part of me believes prayer goes nowhere, that it blasts off into the abyss and dissolves. Another part of me has experienced it working in my life. Most of the time when I pray it leads to my shoulders dropping down a bit. My breathing slows and I’m more focused on the present. It works despite the fact that I don’t understand or particularly like it. 

I have a mixed relationship with meditation. Sometimes I am frequently doing it and other times I’m avoiding it like the dickens. Meditation makes more sense to me, though. There’s a clear and concrete way that it’s helping me, it’s scientifically proven. According to Healthline, it can reduce stress, enhance concentration, and improve self-awareness, to name a few benefits. Nonetheless, more often than not I find myself acting like a small child stomping her feet and shouting, “AA or Buddhism can’t make me meditate!” Though whenever I get myself to practice it almost always feels worthwhile. It returns me to my center where I feel goodness and life. 

That center is equated to basic goodness in the lineage, Shambhala, that I practice in. This is perhaps the most important idea for me that’s in Buddhism. It’s the idea that all humans are inherently good. Actually, everything in the world has basic goodness. It’s not necessarily “good” and “bad” in the way that we’d normally think of it. Rather, it’s good because we can experience goodness. The giggle of a friend, the feeling of water on your hands while you wash them, blades of grass- these are all basically good. Chogyam Trungpa, the former Shambhala leader, writes: “We have an actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” It’s about being awake to the present moment, no matter what that is.

I find solace in concepts like this that Buddhism provides. Another idea is one of suffering. The first noble truth is that suffering exists. Then we’re shown the origins of our suffering. Third, we see the way out of suffering. Lastly is the actual path to transcend suffering. This matters to me because it shows me that I can have greater acceptance for the way life is. I don’t always have to be butting up against problems. I can realize that life is what it is and any attempts to combat that are futile. Although I practice this totally imperfectly, it’s been wildly freeing.

I find Buddhism makes more sense to me than Catholicism, the religion I grew up with because it lives in the truth and the here and now. Rather than waiting for something to save me, I’m doing the footwork to be my best self. Nonetheless, even though I adore Buddhism, I also crave some higher power to take care of me. This is where I have to look outside of my religion and work with AA’s idea of creating a higher power unique to me. 

I play tug-a-war in my mind with Buddhist principles and Christian ideas. I can’t find myself 100% identifying with Buddhism. The split in my mind is confusing and frustrating. Some aspects of Christianity make sense to me, like a greater force that loves its children and even to some degree, the saving part, a God being able to help me out. I know I’m completely contradicting myself because that’s exactly where my faith is at right now. It’s unclear. I have to accept that I’ll never be a perfect practitioner and actually one of those doesn’t exist.

While I spend lots of time at Shambhala, my Buddhist center, I also have other ways to bolster my general practice. Part of my life cultivating a relationship with God includes something quite embarrassing. I get so much shit when I tell people this, but I do it anyways and don’t care what people think. I enjoy listening to Joel Osteen on podcasts. Despite his controversial life, he reminds me that I’m a lovable child of the universe and that I deserve to be here. I find his message of hope to be healing and compassionate, which is much of what I imagine God to be. I try to move towards things that feel warm like that. My spirituality is full of imperfections and contradictions. 

Some people think not only that Joel Osteen is crap, but also that any idea of a God is garbage. The AA big book says, “We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness,” and I believe that to be true. Spirituality is very important to me. It’s simultaneously like a tether and an open sky. It keeps me grounded while letting me exist in the present moment. It’s solace while also being reality. It’s not weak to believe in something greater than myself. In fact, I find it to be wildly courageous to place faith out into the universe. This may take the form of allowing prayer to bring me a sense of calm or working with acceptance, knowing that I have no control. It’s scary as it requires a blind trust in something, but to me, it’s been worth it. 

Us AA’s are lucky because we’re almost forced into a spiritual life. We’re told we need to find a higher power or we’ll perish. The only way to go is towards God, whatever that means for any one individual. I mean, God can look many different ways. Maybe it looks like a father figure to someone and an androgynous figure to another. To some, a higher power may mean the wind or the ocean. After all, they’re certainly powers greater than ourselves. For me, I’m not quite sure how to describe my God. 

I still struggle with the meaning of a higher power, even with years of AA under my belt. I guess the message is that this is okay. It’s perfectly fine (even great) to still be asking questions and to challenge beliefs. What would it be like to have a world with no more questions in it? What would be there to work towards to give us meaning, hope, and fear?

I’m saying all this searching is okay, even good. I hope that I continue to have questions and I hope that I keep working to be okay with not having all of the answers. God is a huge concept to wrap my head around, it’s fine if it takes me a lifetime to even make a dent.