I like the metaphor of humility I heard on a Joe and Charley tape. One of the guys said to imagine that my being is like a balloon. If the balloon is fully inflated with ego, there’s no room for God to work in my life. As I become right sized and my ego shrinks there is an empty space in my being. Since nature abhors a vacuum, Spirit fills the void. Humility is empty space created when ego is deflated-- when I've let go of all my old ideas, even my ideas about God.

But here’s where it gets tricky for me... as soon as I think that emptiness creates humility, my ego starts to plan and scheme about how to get itself empty. (This even sounds silly!) It attaches itself to the desire to be empty and then makes non-stop suggestions about what I should do to achieve this empty state. My ego tells me to “do more service, work the steps, pray and meditate more, read another spiritual book.” I feel better when I do these things, but I’m learning that feeling better does not mean I have gained one iota of humility.

I’m learning that humility is a quality of "being-ness". It is not a product of doing anything. It’s living life completely on life’s terms. There’s nothing I can do to consciously create this empty space. Certainly the steps and service help to right size me, but there’s no formula to God consciousness. It's all a gift from God on its time, not mine.

I can’t try to be humble. Even talking or writing about humility fills the space with ego. Humility is so anonymous that the right hand doesn’t even know what the left hand is doing. I'm not there yet.

Qualities of Recovery

Fortunately for me only a bare minimum of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness is required to make a start in sobriety. I don’t really have to be honest, I just have to have the capacity to be honest. If I can say, "my name is Jeff, and I’m an alcoholic" and mean it, I probably have the capacity. Our program doesn’t require me to believe anything. I can take what feels right and leave the rest. So what is there to be close minded about? And all I have to do to demonstrate my willingness is show up at a few meetings each week, drink coffee and laugh at the newcomers’ solutions; talk to my sponsor about my favorite subject -- me; and offer mostly parroted advice to people with less time than me. Seen in this light, I need to stop patting myself on the back for sobriety. It’s nothing I did anyways.

There is one more indispensable quality I would add to the list -- compassion. It’s strange that I can’t find mention of this word anywhere in the Big Book, yet it is critical to my recovery that I learn to care about others. I learn compassion when I connect with you through the shared pain, confusion and anger of our disease. I know what you’ve been through because I’ve been there too. As the saying goes, I’ve walked a mile in your moccasins. Compassion for others melts away my self-centeredness and asks "how can I help?" rather than "what can you do for me?"

I didn’t start out with a bucket full of any of these qualities, but I believe I am more honest, more open-minded, more willing and more compassionate than I was when I walked into my first meeting fifteen years ago today. I consider myself recovered from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body," but I also recognize that I am a long way from being fully restored to spiritual sanity of Step Two. I'm no longer hopeless, but I'm not fully recovered either. I guess I'm right on schedule as my first sponsor would say.

As the voice of self hate continues to die down, I am beginning to hear another voice gently reminding me that my sobriety is a precious gift. I fully express my gratitude for this gift by being of service both in and out of the rooms and by continuing to hack away at all my old ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that separate me from you, from the rest of humanity and from God. If I had to guess, I would say that this is the work I was sent here to do.

Living Inside Out

In my journey before AA I lived almost entirely from the outside-in. I got totally sucked into the idea that my good would only come to me if I were successful in the world. I entered the maze and began the frantic search for the golden cheese. I strove to get ahead, to achieve, to win at all costs. Today I know that it wasn’t money, power or prestige that I searched for, but the holy grail of self-acceptance.

I achieved a measure of worldly success that felt good for a while but it was never enough. There was always the next mountain to climb. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned and cynical. Toward the end of my drinking my life was so heavy, I had trouble finding the energy to show up. It was in this state, at age 47, that I was graced with a moment of clarity that pierced the walls of my denial. I was allowed to see the truth about what I had become. I was not a vision for you.

The doors to AA swung open to greet me. In a very real way AA reconnected me with life itself. I worked the steps and began to strip away the "old ideas" that blocked me from my Higher Power. I got into the habit of spending some quiet time each morning listening to my internal guidance system. I am learning to be of service both in and out of the rooms. Today I know that the good I had been struggling to find was right inside of me the whole time.

Unlike the painful struggle of my life prior to AA, I’ve noticed that the "right" things for me seem require almost no effort. Almost 12 years ago, unemployed again at age 50, I faxed just one resume overseas and two months later I was working in Shanghai, China. Thus began a wonderful adventure. I have had the chance to resurrect my career and provide for a reasonably secure financial future. A few months after my arrival I met a beautiful young Chinese woman. We celebrate our ten year anniversary next month. Because of a lack of AA’s here with time, I’ve had great opportunities to sponsor I wouldn’t have had back in the US. Some of those men are now sponsoring other men.

I have no idea if my Higher Power sent me to China to work, to marry, or to sponsor. Maybe it is all three or maybe it wasn’t for any of these reasons. All I know is that it certainly had nothing to do with any plan I made. Left to my own devices I’d still be running through the maze afraid that all the cheese would be gone by the time I got there.


I had a year or so of weekly piano lessons when I was a kid but today I can’t play a single tune – not even chopsticks. Practicing spiritual principles in AA is just like practicing the piano. If I don’t practice what I am learning, the tiny light that was awakened inside of me will die out. If that happens, I’m right back to my darkened, dirty apartment with only my bottle of wine, bag of pot and remote control to keep me company. If I want my life to be a beautiful melody instead of a dissonant nightmare I have to practice.

A few years ago, I came upon a twenty-four hour practice plan. It is to show up, pay attention, do the next right thing, stay out of results and be grateful. This plan has served me well.

I show up by living in the present moment with the willingness to do what is suggested. I pay attention by getting quiet and listening for the still small voice inside me. I do the next right thing by following the guidance I receive, even if I don’t want to. I let go of results by not having any expectation of how my actions will turn out. I practice an attitude of gratitude by being aware of all the blessings I receive each day. Of course I don’t do any of this perfectly, far from it. But if my life gets wobbly, I can look at this plan and quickly see where I need more practice.

I am coming to believe that every human is given a unique gift. The gift is using our God given creativity to express love. Each of us expresses differently. I find my unique expression of love by practicing the principles in all my affairs. God does the rest.


I heard that trying to get spiritual is like standing in water up to my neck trying to get wet. I cannot get spiritual because I already am. I often forget this simple fact. When I go through my day remembering that I am a spiritual being I am able to see the world from a whole different perspective. Then it’s much easier to connect with others as human beings, not because they have something I need or want.

I came to Alcoholics Anonymous mired in judgment, cynicism and negativity. Today, I am more often able to see that the world is perfect exactly the way it is and that you and I are OK too. I can still get so caught up in my stuff, that I miss the beauty that surrounds me. But at least I know it is there if I am willing to look.

Today I realize sooner rather than later that I am trying to run my own life. I have become more sensitive to self-inflicted suffering. A few years ago the adrenaline rush of self righteous anger used to feel good. Today it doesn’t. After my sobriety, my serenity is my most precious possession. I’ve learned through painful experience that without peace of mind a happy, fulfilling life is just not possible.

A holy man was asked to define spirituality. He said, “When you are hungry, eat! When you are tired, sleep!” More and more I’m coming to believe that life really is this simple, natural and effortless. As I continue to let go of the old complicated ideas, I get closer to the idea my Higher Power had in mind when he sent me here.


I awoke this morning with a familiar feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach. As soon as I opened my eyes my ego began to point out to me everything that could go wrong. It seems that it’s my ego’s job to keep me in fear of all the pitfalls that lie ahead and to convince me that there’s no way I can avoid them. It took me a good hour before I realized that I am perfectly fine and the fear is not based in reality, but only my ego trying to assert itself.

My ego is a false idea of who I am created by me in temporary ignorance of my true spiritual self. It’s the choice to be separate. I can always tell when I’m in ego. Whenever I’m arguing, reacting defensively, acting like a know-it-all, or in any form of self-pity, I can be sure that I’m coming from my little separated self. My ego is an illusion, but it is so compelling that I can’t help but get caught in it, like a dream I just can’t seem to wake up from.

I heard a good definition of ego -- a huge fortress with towering walls of steel reinforced concrete three feet thick and razor sharp barbed wire strung all around the top built ... around nothing. Isn’t it funny that my ego builds up these elaborate defenses and then someone says something I don’t like and the mighty walls come a tumblin’ down. One tiny little comment is all it takes to reduce my vast defenses into piles of crumbled ruins. This is proof positive to me that my ego is an illusion and has no real power. If ego had any real power wouldn’t I be immune to the comments and actions of others? But it has no power because there is One who has all power and it ain’t the ego.

The problem is not what my ego tells me. The problem is that I believe it. Thus I react in anger and say things I don’t mean. I lie to try and impress you in the false belief that if I can get you to feel good about me, I can feel OK about me. When I focus on everything that’s wrong with the world, I’m in ego, separated from the truth that life is just fine the way it is. My ego is not a bad thing. It simply can’t be trusted. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is "don’t believe your mind, and when in doubt, don’t believe your mind." This is so hard to do!

My ego is like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain pulling the levers. The lights are dazzling and I can’t help but get sucked into the drama. I’m not sure I will ever be completely free, but it’s clear that my desire to recover and my willingness to do what is suggested is slowly but surely leading me out of ego in the direction of my true self.

Step One

Exactly one week before I walked into my first AA meeting, I lay on a soft leather couch in a therapist's office whining about my life. I had just read -- skimmed actually (it was impossible to read anything of substance when I was drunk)-- a book that detailed midlife crises in a number of men about my age. In total denial about my real problem -- alcoholism, I concluded that this was what was wrong with me -- I was having a midlife crisis. This was the reason I had no energy or enthusiasm for much of anything, why my life was so mechanical and boring and why I could not seem to get it together to find a new job even though I was quickly running out of money. I wasn't so much there for therapy, but to confirm my own diagnosis.

After the therapist listened patiently to my sob story, she said something that shocked me. She said "I don't think I can help you Jeff, you are certainly welcome to come here once a week and pay me $80 to listen to you talk about your life, but I don't think I can help you." I swallowed hard, first because she didn't buy the midlife crisis theory, but mostly because deep down inside I knew I had no where else to go.

When I asked her why she couldn't help, she hit me with the truth, right between the eyes. "You have the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old, you don't have an ounce of humility in your whole body, and your thinking is so cloudy from your drinking that your couldn't hope to get any clarity on your life." I was still reeling from her comments when she looked me deep in the eyes and said "you're in trouble aren't you Jeff?" The voice of my ego screamed that I shouldn't admit to anything. I paused for a long moment and looked at my feet. What actually came out of my mouth was a whisper -- "maybe."

It turns out that little "maybe" was just enough of an admission of powerlessness and unmanageability to make space for my higher power to begin to work actively in my life. I have profound gratitude to that therapist who had the integrity to tell me the truth rather than string me along as a patient. And for the grace I received in somehow being ready for the truth when I heard it. Almost fifteen years later I can still act like King Baby on some days and true humility often feels out of reach, but my thinking has, in large part, cleared up and I make mostly responsible choices in my life today.

Great Events

The first great event of my life happened when circumstances forced me to surrender just enough to be open minded about AA and to follow suggestions. The second great event was a much, much deeper surrender. It happened like this...

I was 50 years old and I just lost a job that I thought was much too good for me. I hadn't worked for 16 months while finding my bottom and during the first part of my recovery. Then I finally found this job. I was working a good program but those pesky character defects raised their ugly heads in the workplace and, after only 15 months, I was out on my butt. I immediately went into a shame and fear spiral, taking me to the darkest place I had ever been to in my life. I was sure that I would never work again. I had very little money and no prospects to borrow any more. I was in shock, but I did what I learned in AA. Instead of picking up a drink I picked up the phone and called my sponsor. At his suggestion I went to a noon time meeting and shared what had happened. I didn't get much relief, but I didn't drink.

For three days the voices in my head kept screaming "What a loser you are Jeff!" and other choice commentary. The voices pointed out that no one would hire a person my age with my recent resume. I had to agree. I was in so much fear I couldn't breathe. The only way I could sleep was to run around the block as fast as I could until I was completely exhausted, then I had to repeat the Serenity Prayer for hours. before I would slip asleep.

Then on the fourth day another member worked me through steps four through nine on this work issue. He helped me see clearly my part in what happened. I made the list of all the people I had harmed. I wrote letters of sincere apology. I wrote a thoughtful letter to my boss telling him of the insights I'd had about what happened and asking him to reconsider. He decided it was best that I leave the company, but by this time the fear had disappeared completely. I can remember feeling that somehow (although I had no idea how at the time) I was going to be OK. I floated on a pink cloud.


Lightening My Load

I am on a train. On two outstretched arms I carry a heavy suitcase filled with the stuff of my life -- my attachments and desires, my worries and fears, and my beliefs and attitudes. Since the train and I and my suitcase will arrive at the destination all at the same time, why don’t I put it down? Because I can’t. I have been carrying this stuff for so long it feels like a part of me.

My arms burn and my legs are wobbly but I can’t put the suitcase down. I wouldn’t know how to be without it. As the pain of carrying the suitcase rachets up, I distract myself by looking out the window and dreaming.

I'm awakened from my dream by the pain. I just can't bear to carry the suitcase for one more second. With no other option, I ask for help. The porter comes, but, instead of taking the suitcase from my arms, he opens it and together we look inside. I notice a few old, musty things I had forgotten about. They are no longer useful and I wonder why I had been carrying them around for so long. I ask the porter to please remove them for me. He does so gladly.

Now the suitcase is lighter and much easier to carry. I tell the porter I won’t be needing his help anymore and continue on my journey. But I was wrong. The suitcase becomes so heavy again that I have to call the porter for help once more. We look again and I see many more useless things I’ve been carrying around. The porter quickly removes them.

Again I feel comfortable and believe I can manage on my own. Again I dismiss the porter but by now I have become sensitive to the weight of carrying around useless baggage. I call him back again and again until my suitcase is empty. As the train nears its destination, I ask him to take the empty suitcase from my arms. I know he will when the time is right.

Taking the Steps

A few days before I walked into my first AA meeting, I was graced with a vision about what a mess my life had become. A tiny bit of truth had seeped through the thick wall of my denial. In kind of an instant replay I was shown that all the negative events of my life had a common thread: alcohol and drugs. I was allowed to see that flunking out of college, two drunk driving arrests, divorce, financial disasters, job problems, relationship problem -- you name it -- were not just isolated cases of bad luck. They were ominous signs that I was heading in the wrong direction. I had ignored these signs for thirty years, but this vision was so clear and the pain of my life was so great that something inside of me let go. Unknowingly I had taken step one.

Steps two and three were no problem. I got that I needed to change and that something more than human help was required. That left only God. I began the journey of letting God restore me to sanity by committing to take the rest of the steps.

I got good whiff of myself in steps four and five and it wasn't a pretty smell. I became aware of a good-sized list of my negative qualities of character in step six and an honest desire to be changed in step seven. I wanted so much not to return to the pain, frustration and confusion of my old life that I became willing to do steps eight and nine. After serious hand-to-hand combat with my ego, I finally went to those people I had harmed and made my amends. I rode taller in the saddle.

In practicing step ten I saw how my stinking thinking had been robbing me of peace of mind and a chance at real happiness. I reserved a short time first thing in the morning to communicate with a God that I misunderstood. My prayers were mostly "please" in the morning and "thank you" the last thing at night.

As I stood at the doorway to step 12, the little spiritual pilot light inside of me ignited a desire in me to find out what I really am and to discover my true purpose for being on earth. But I was only a few months sober from 30 years of serious drinking. My cells were still saturated with the “ism” of alcoholism -- negative thinking patterns were hyper-active and the voices of self doubt were chattering constantly. Without both parts of step 12 the little flame may have died out.

I needed to begin to pass it on -- not to save another drunk's ass but my own. I didn't own many principles at the beginning, but I began to practice anyways. I suited up and showed up early to set up the chairs. I called other alcoholics every day -- a difficult assignment for an isolator with an inferiority complex. I became willing to listen to what my sponsor and others had to say. I held out my hand to newcomers. I made AA the top priority in my life. In this way I developed the feeling of being "a part of." This feeling is alive in me today. By practicing step twelve I remain a member in good standing. The warm breath of my Higher Power keeps my flame alive.

Spiritual Love

All I ever wanted in my life was to be loved. As a kid my parents and other well meaning adults filled me with ideas about what I must do to be loved: Behave, get good grades, set goals, work hard, don't fight with your sister. I failed at all these things and learned that love was conditional.
I picked up other ideas from movie and sports heros: be tough, don't cry, never back down from a fight, win at any cost. If I couldn't be the biggest and strongest or the best shot, then I had to be the smartest or the most ruthless. Perhaps the most damaging idea was that I should be self sufficient. I had to figure out all my problems myself and not ask for help under any circumstance.

Later on society bombarded me with the idea that I would be loved if became a success in business, make a lot of money, buy the right house, vacation in the best spots use the right deodorant. I had to keep up with the Joneses because it seemed to me that the Joneses we getting all the love. I was keeping up for a while. As Bill says "I felt I was winning at the game of life." But I still felt empty inside. I drank at that emptiness for 30 years and I pretended that I had love even though in my heart of hearts that I was certain I was unlovable.

It took 47 years, but in AA I found out that I had it all backwards. It isn't being loved that brings peace and happiness it is in being loving. My willingness to be of service both in and out of the rooms is being loving. When I have this willingness I am that channel that St, Francis talks about in his prayer. But I'm not channeling human, emotional love rather the unconditional spiritual love of the Universe, that I call God. This is what you meant when you told me that my job was to love everyone, but I wasn't required to "like" everyone. I try to remember that I don't have to "feel" loving to be loving.

"When you love you should not say, 'God is in my heart,' but rather, 'I am in the heart of God."
--Khalil Gibran, "The Prophet"