Staying Sober Without God: The Practical 12 Steps to Long-Term Recovery from Alcoholism & Addictions, by Jeffrey Munn is a welcomed addition to the growing library of secular recovery literature. Munn’s reasoned and practical approach while targeted for atheists and agnostics, can be used by anyone interested in learning about the Twelve Steps, and regardless of their addiction.
In this episode Wes B. and John S. discuss their impressions of the book while sharing their own personal experiences as atheists who choose to integrate the Twelve Steps into their program of recovery.
00:00 John S: Welcome to AA Beyond Belief. This is episode 112.
00:23 John S: Today I’ll be speaking with Wes B, from my home group, We Agnostics about the book Staying Sober Without God by Jeffrey Munn. We’ll talk about our overall impressions of the book, and then delve in a little deeper into how Munn interprets the 12 steps. This episode will be posted to coincide with the book review published on AA Agnostica so be sure to head over to aaagnostica.org to check out their review of the book. Alright, I’m here with Wes from my home group. He’s been on the podcast here before when we were talking about another secular 12-step book. And today, we’re going to be discussing a new book that’s titled Staying Sober Without God and it’s written by Jeffrey Munn. Thank you Wes for agreeing to do this and being here.
01:08 Wes B: Sure, thanks for having me John. I’m happy to review another book with you.
01:13 John S: Yeah [chuckle] Why don’t you start by just giving us your overall impression of the book?
01:19 Wes B: Okay. Well, my overall impression of the book I was really, really pleased with the book. In fact before you even open the book, when you look at the cover it says Staying Sober and then it says Without God and it’s very, very prominent and I like that. I like the fact that it’s very clear from the outset that there’s no God in this. And clearly that’s the problem that many of us have with the sort of antiquated language in the Big Book. So I guess we can go through it and discuss different portions of it, but I would say that this particular book I think it has everything you need in it if you want to approach sobriety secularly. There are certain little critiques I have of it, but overall, I was very pleased with the material within.
02:16 John S: I was too. My overall impression of it was favorable. I thought it was well-written. I thought it was well-reasoned. I thought that most of the steps were comported to my experience with working them in my time in AA. There were a few things that he mentioned in there that I thought were fresh. I liked for example, we’ll go into it when we go through the steps, but I like his examination of fear, and I also liked some of the things that he wrote about at the second part of the book or the third part of the book when he talks about things that weren’t mentioned in the steps. But yeah, the book is pretty much laid out in three parts. First of all it talks about what is addiction? What is recovery? Then it goes into the steps. And then the third part is what things that aren’t mentioned in the steps. So maybe we can just talk about the parts. First of all, he has a discussion about what addiction and recovery is and I thought it was interesting. I mean, he just looks at addiction… He didn’t talk about it in medical terms, like the other book did that we discussed, but he talks about it simply as behaviors that we can’t stop that are harmful to us. I don’t know, what do you think about that as a way of looking at addiction?
03:35 Wes B: I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at addiction. He also mentioned our sort of character defects, our character assets pushed to the extreme, which I thought was an interesting… I’d never really thought of that before. But character assets pushed too far become character defects. But certainly, just looking at addiction as a series of behaviors that you can’t stop, sure, I’ll take it. That applies to everything from overeating, sex addiction, so yeah.
04:16 John S: Yeah, and all of those addictions can… Any of those addictions could use this book, anyone who has those addictions.
04:22 Wes B: Absolutely.
04:23 John S: But yeah, that’s a nice simple way of looking at it. It’s not really necessary to have to go into all the scientific things about the dopamine and all that kind of stuff, which I think is interesting but still, yeah, when you boil right down to it, it’s a behavior that’s harmful. And in my case, the behavior was drinking to excess and it was one behavior I couldn’t stop.
04:44 Wes B: Yeah. And for me it was opiates and alcohol, and it was certainly a behavior that I was unable to stop.
04:51 John S: Yeah, and he defines recovery too, which he… He defines recovery basically as which I can agree with as adapting a new lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle, and trying to maintain that throughout life.
05:06 Wes B: Right, absolutely. He mentions here, I’ll quote, “There’s no doubt that faith and spirituality can play a tremendous role in the recovery of many people. But I’ve come to believe that it is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful when imposed on recovering addicts for whom a faith-based approach is not a good fit.” Which is a nice… As part of sort of the introduction to this book. And he goes on to say, “Upon telling their fellows that their attempts to connect with a God hasn’t worked, they’re led to believe that they are doing something wrong, or that they’re over-analyzing, or ‘too smart for their own good.’ ” And that’s the kind of stuff. I went through a recovery program that was very traditional and I heard that all the time like, “So you think you’re God?”
05:57 John S: Right [chuckle], right.
06:00 Wes B: Your higher power is yourself. What is it called? Will run riot. Self will run riot, and the bottom line was, “No, I want to recover, but I want to recover without the bullshit. I want to recover without God.”
06:20 John S: I’m beyond frustrated that so many people still stick to the religious language from 1939, because honestly, in my opinion, I just think it’s a total accident of history that it turned out that way. Because if it hadn’t been for the damn Oxford group, I mean, all they did, they just discovered that one alcoholic talking to another, sharing experience of what they went through worked for them. And it just was a total accident that they did this through the Oxford group, that spoke with religious language.
06:52 Wes B: Right.
06:52 John S: So, therefore, we have this religious language. [chuckle] And it’s…
06:55 Wes B: Yeah, and the antiquated religious language, and the overtly misogynistic language.
07:02 John S: Yeah.
07:02 Wes B: It all stuck and now we have to write all these separate damn books to bridge the gap for those of us who are quite frankly, critical thinkers.
07:15 John S: Yeah. Yeah.
07:15 Wes B: Atheists, agnostics, so on.
07:18 John S: But it’s really the fault of the people that came after them because those people who wrote the book they said, “Hey, believe us. We don’t know everything, more will be revealed later, this is just what we’re telling you now in 1939.”
07:31 Wes B: Right.
07:31 John S: I don’t think that they expected 80 years later that people were going to be trying to replicate their words and follow their…
07:37 Wes B: Right, I know, it’s like Bible literalists.
07:40 John S: Right.
07:41 Wes B: It’s I can’t… Yeah, they didn’t think people would take that football and run with it and stick to this very strict language that has become just this AA dogma that then pollutes so many traditional meetings.
07:58 John S: Yeah.
08:00 Wes B: I was told in recovery over and over, “Your best thinking got you here. Your best fucking thinking got you here.” They beat that into me. And he, in his book, he says, I love this, “Our best thinking doesn’t destroy our lives, our worst thinking does.”
08:17 John S: Yeah.
08:17 Wes B: And it’s like yeah, it, this… I was approached with such hostility. “Your best thinking got you here.” It’s like, “No, no, my worst.”
08:27 John S: That’s true.
08:28 John S: Yeah, I know, I never did really did understand that cause in actuality, yeah, it was my best thinking. The best thing I ever did was decide to stop getting help. So it was truly my best thinking…
08:37 Wes B: Right.
08:38 John S: It was my worst thinking that…
08:40 Wes B: My worst thinking.
08:41 Wes B: Was keeping me away.
08:42 John S: Got me into trouble.
08:43 Wes B: Right, right.
08:43 Wes B: My worst thinking is what got me into the hospital, got, resulted in pancreatitis, and all sorts of things and that was my worst thinking. He also mentions here, this is one of my favorite quotes in the entire book, and it sort of, it appeals to me as an atheist, because this is sort of how I look at the world and this is very similar to something that Carl Sagan once said, he says, “Some like myself can drive a sense of awe, wonder, and meaning, just from contemplating the cosmos and our existence within it, as well as the process of Evolution that made us what we are today.” And that is, to me that’s sort of that’s his spiritual statement and for those who make this wild assumption that atheists are not spiritual, and are devil worshippers and all this, it’s quite to the contrary. Most of the atheists I know are intimately connected with nature and awe, and spirituality of sort of their own form. I get more out of, to be honest with you, I get more out of 12 steps as an atheist than I did when I was trying to do this before I realized I was an atheist.
10:00 John S: When I was trying to conform myself to this idea that there was some God out there that was going to solve all my problems for me, or direct me, or guide me, or whatever. And when I abandoned that and went with this concept that there’s a natural explanation for everything, that I’m in, I have, it’s what I do that matters not what I believe, and it’s my connection with other people that empowers me, not some supernatural force. I mean it just makes more sense to me. And it just, it works better for me. And honestly, when we start talking about the steps as we go through this, there’s two steps that I think we atheists do better than anyone else, and they’re the two most religious steps that are in the program, steps six and seven. Because if you really believe them literally, you don’t really have to do anything.
10:46 Wes B: Exactly, the work is done for you.
10:49 John S: Yeah. Yeah. But we’re forced to have to do something.
10:52 Wes B: Right, right. Because if you approach, “Hey God, take away my character defects.” It doesn’t magically happen like that. It’s a process. It takes works, it takes critical thinking. It takes being rational and you cannot pray away your defects.
11:13 John S: No.
11:13 Wes B: That’s horseshit.
11:14 John S: So we’re forced to think about them, and actually do something about them.
11:18 Wes B: Right.
11:18 John S: So that’s…
11:19 Wes B: And that’s interesting to me, that you went through that transformation.
11:22 John S: Yeah.
11:23 Wes B: Right. So you approached the 12 steps sort of as a believer, and then approached the 12 steps as an atheist, because I came to it already as an atheist.
11:30 John S: Yeah, yeah. As an atheist, yeah.
11:32 Wes B: So that’s really fascinating to me, and I haven’t heard you actually say that before. And I think that’s really interesting that you have approached it both ways.
11:41 John S: Yeah.
11:41 Wes B: So you know.
11:43 John S: And what’s weird too was because my background, I did not have a religious background, but AA became my religion. So I was going to meetings and I was doing my best to believe.
11:53 Wes B: Right.
11:53 John S: And I guess I was going through the motions, I did the whole, “Fake it til you make it” thing. I would actually get on my knees and pray.
12:00 Wes B: Yeah, yeah.
12:00 John S: And I would talk about God, and I would try to have this connection, but I always kind of deep down knew that… I guess what my problem with it all along was that I always felt there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t really believe like other people.
12:18 Wes B: Did it seem somewhat fraudulent?
12:19 John S: Yeah, I could never actually make a connection with God like other people seemed to.
12:24 Wes B: Right, and you felt phony.
12:27 John S: Yeah, I did.
12:28 Wes B: You felt like you were going through the motions and paying lip service to the community, and that’s what you knew, you probably knew what they wanted to hear and see.
12:36 John S: Exactly, and in a way, I’m kind of… It’s just, I am a human being, that’s what human beings do…
12:42 Wes B: Right.
12:42 John S: But there’s a part of me that feels like, “I wish I could have been more independent in my thinking, and less of a conformist.” But I totally conformed.
12:52 Wes B: Well, in traditional AA it’s all about conforming.
12:54 John S: It is, it’s rewarded.
12:55 Wes B: Right. It’s highly rewarded and to show up and to challenge the 12 steps, or the traditions, or even mention that you are an atheist, it’s frowned upon. You will receive crosstalk. At the end of one of my meetings, a fella came in late, so he didn’t catch the preamble, which declared that this meeting was agnostic, atheist. He rambled on for about 12 minutes about all sorts of religious stuff, which we allowed, and then at the end of the meeting, he stood up, put out his arms and said, “We’re not going to say the Lord’s Prayer?” And I said, “No, this is a secular meeting.” And he got furious, and he said, “Shame on you, shame on you.” And I chased him out of there with extreme vulgarity, because I couldn’t tolerate that in our group.
13:50 John S: Yeah.
13:51 Wes B: But that’s the kind of actual hostility that sometimes will rear its ugly head in traditional meetings. So I think that there is an undercurrent within traditional AA of people who are either agnostics or atheists, but are scared to share that, or… I think that, like you said, we’re human, we naturally conform to the herd, the tribe or whatever, but I think that you will find there are probably a lot of people in AA going through the motions, and the fact that we have now more secular groups, and since the world itself is, I wouldn’t say on an exponential rise, but certainly on a rise of free thinkers, I think we’re going to see more people showing up at our meetings, quite frankly.
14:44 John S: Oh yeah, we are. But you’re right, people are afraid. I was afraid, I was afraid to let people know about the books I was reading.
14:51 Wes B: Really?
14:52 John S: Yeah, I was afraid of letting people know what I was reading. I read Dawkins and…
14:57 Wes B: Oh yeah, how dare you?
14:58 John S: And Hitchens, and… Oh, and I was just… And they convinced me.
15:03 Wes B: Sam Harris.
15:04 John S: Sam Harris, and they convinced me.
15:05 Wes B: Yeah, I read all the same stuff.
15:06 John S: They totally convinced me.
15:07 Wes B: Yeah, read The God Delusion.
15:08 John S: Yeah, I read that.
15:09 Wes B: Take your time, read “The God Delusion,” and if you want a little bit more florid and difficult reading, read Christopher Hitchens work.
15:22 John S: But I would go to these meetings, I’d tap dance around them. I’d tap dance around the steps and everything and all the religious language, trying to somehow be honest while holding back, and I couldn’t do it anymore. And when I started speaking my truth, I got some of that pushback that you were talking about.
15:38 Wes B: Got a little pushback, yeah. But you were on a high wire. You were doing your little balancing act, trying to fit in with the group while having it makes sense in your head. Just like… Although I’ve been an atheist pretty much as long as I can remember, I did go to Presbyterian church when I was a kid, so somewhere… Village Presbyterian church somewhere. My name is on a list there somewhere. But although that was a very liberal church, there wasn’t a whole lot of dogma there, but still, I just remember all sorts of stories from the Bible from when I was a child, and to me, it was all just patently nonsense, nonsensical, and whenever I’m sort of challenged on atheism, first of all, I say it’s not, it’s certainly not a religion, it’s sort of the opposite, it’s just common sense.
16:34 John S: Well, let’s go ahead and talk about his steps, if you don’t mind. One thing that he recommends a lot when it comes to working the steps, which I think… Which would have worked for me because I like to write, he recommends writing a lot. And he goes through steps one through three which, to me, the way that he defines them or describes them pretty much comport with my experience, which is basically recognizing a problem. But the way he words the second one is coming to the understanding that you need a healthy lifestyle, which is kind of a different way of wording it, and then making the commitment to it. So, the way I saw it was pretty much the same. I admit I have a problem, I came to believe that there was help, and I made a decision to go through with it.
17:26 Wes B: Yeah, and that those are practical.
17:28 John S: Yeah.
17:28 Wes B: Going back real fast, I remembered what I forgot. Very simple. I simply say to people, my atheism, I believe in God the exact same way I believe in Santa Claus. That’s it, bottom line. But going back to what you’re saying, yeah, I recognized I had a problem, and I made a decision to deal with it. In a lot of these recovery books, so you and I have discussed a couple of these, but you and I know there are a lot of them out there. And whenever the steps are rephrased, it always seems to be some sort of semantic balancing act, or some semantic gymnastics just to tweak it a little. And I have found, as we discussed earlier, in this book, just a lot of his practical versions of the steps were of steps that were already practical and without God, so kind of unnecessary, some of the steps. The steps that include God certainly need a practical revision, but we’ll get to that. Sorry, go on.
18:42 John S: No that’s fine. But when he talks about the first three steps in particular, he talks about the first step and he actually recommends, how do you work that step? And so he says, write it out, write out your experiences, talk to a friend about your experiences, and then, when you finally get to the place where you’re convinced that you have this problem, then you’re there, then you’re totally convinced. And I can see some value in that, but I have a different kind of a nuanced view of these things. I think that the steps, especially as written, are… A lot of them are experiential and they’re nothing more than a description of an experience. And I think those first three steps are just that. It’s just that… If they were describing an experience they had. It was the way they were describing I’m hitting bottom and asking for help, basically.
19:32 Wes B: Right.
19:33 John S: And, they worded it because their experience was a religious one, they were put in a religious language. But… So for me, I think that these steps… Those three steps happen to you. They aren’t really necessarily things that you do. However, I do find value still in reading books like this where you can maybe understand that experience better. You know?
19:55 Wes B: Right, right, right.
19:56 John S: And what… And how and how it shaped you.
19:58 Wes B: Right, right. I love how he goes into detail about each step and working each step. But his practical version of the first step was, admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle, and currently lacked the tools to stop it.
20:14 John S: Yeah.
20:14 Wes B: Which is a perfectly reasonable. But the traditional version of course, admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. That also works.
20:24 John S: Yeah, I know, I don’t ever have problems with the first one.
20:27 Wes B: No, in fact I don’t.
20:28 Wes B: And in fact, it’s kind of the most important step. Gets you in the door. And once you truly admit to yourself, you have a problem, then you have a chance of… You actually have a shot at recovery.
20:40 Wes B: Yeah.
20:41 John S: Now I’ve met people who have problems with the word powerless.
20:45 Wes B: Yeah, yeah, I can see that.
20:46 John S: And some of them think too, because you can read ahead and they say, “Oh I’m giving up my power to God,” but I just look at it as… You are empowered by admitting that you’re powerless over alcohol, I’m powerless over my drinking.
21:05 Wes B: Right, exactly, exactly, powerless over alcohol.
21:08 John S: Alcohol not every… I’m not powerless over doing something about it. I’m powerless over when I drink. You know, what happens.
21:15 Wes B: Exactly, exactly. But people are free to use whatever language they want. But I like how the book is filled with sort of actionable steps. I mean…
21:24 John S: True.
21:25 Wes B: It’s action. It’s a different way of living, it’s changing your habits, changing your… The way you interact with the others, these simple things. Honesty and compassion he goes on about those and just mental health in general. He even mentions in the book this is not a substitute, there are no 12-step programs, they’re a substitute for actual professional mental help. And receiving professional mental help through a therapist or in conjunction, a therapist and a psychiatrist is almost necessary for most people, if they’ve really hit rock bottom. To have that in addition to the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are a great thing to read when you’re at home and to work on your life. But a lot of us need more than just the book.
22:18 John S: Yeah, yeah, and he writes about… He says… He wrote in his… He wrote in the book that it’s inherently human, I guess, to want to have a blueprint or some course of action to take, a plan to follow. And I know for sure that a lot of newcomers, they do want that. And when we were first starting in our group, I was a little bit turned off by some of the structure from traditional AA. But I saw some of the newcomers coming in and some of them are a little bit frustrated that nobody was there to tell them what to do. They didn’t really have a thing to do, so a book like this is helpful because you can get it out, you can read it and you can… There’s certain activities you can undertake, there are things that you can do that are concrete.
23:05 Wes B: Yeah, that are concrete. Absolutely, that’s the point. So this is a book that, by the way, after this podcast, I’m handing to a sponsee.
23:14 John S: Oh, good for you.
23:14 Wes B: Because the book is so helpful. So what I say to the sponsee, “Okay, here’s the book, underline or highlight everything that applies to you, or everything that resonates with you, and there’s a good chance that your highlighter’s going to run out of ink. Because there should be an awful lot as an addict that you recognize in here”. But again, the action steps, like you said, there is sort of a blue print here. Here’s some actual things you can do to move forward.
23:51 John S: If we have a step meeting at We Agnostics, I wouldn’t mind using that book and also, Bill Wolf’s book. I think the two books are really good. I think multiple books are great, but I would be happy to use that book at a step meeting because it’s got a lot of… It’s got a lot of weight to it, it’s got… It’s something that people can read and discuss and think about and do, I mean there’s really good stuff in there.
24:15 Wes B: Absolutely. This particular book is a little bit more clinic clinical than Bill Wolf’s book, which was 12 secular steps.
24:23 John S: Yeah.
24:25 Wes B: Bill’s book is really good in the fact that it’s simple, it’s like something like if you just get out of treatment. That would be the book.
24:33 John S: Absolutely, and that’s something else I wanted to mention is, a book like this that is just absolutely… Well, first of all, it’s very well written and full of information. First of all, people coming right out of treatment, reading is not easy for them, often. And then you also… Those certain percentage of those coming out of treatment, weren’t readers in the first place.
24:56 Wes B: True.
24:58 Wes B: So even if you were a reader, you’re sort of impaired. And if you weren’t a reader to begin with, it’s like they’re looking at ink on paper, but they’re not getting the message. So discussing these in groups is really wise because they can hear.
25:16 John S: Right.
25:17 Wes B: They can hear the message. But they might not… They might have a hard time in that… So we have all these wonderful recovery books out there, but how many people who need them are actually reading them?
25:30 John S: Right. True. That’s one of my concerns. I wasn’t at much of a reader when I was first getting sober. I read the big book and I was actually thinking about this too, the Big Book. When I very first saw it, the first time I ever saw it, I was disappointed. I said, “What the fuck is this?” But after a while I began to almost worship it like everybody else did.
25:52 Wes B: I still have… Look, I’m a stone cold atheist, but I have an intimate connection to my Big Book. It’s full of notes, it’s highlighted all to hell and dog eared. I have an intimate relationship with my Big Book. And I got one of the really big ones, like the ridiculously large ones so that I had room to write notes.
26:11 John S: And I like history too, so it’s anyway… For me it’s interesting to kind of transport yourself back to that time in that language. It’s just like if you watch an old Turner Classic Movie, it’s that language from the Big Book is in these movies.
26:24 Wes B: No. It’s like, “This dame needs to get sober.” Yeah. Not exactly, it’s… Super antiquated, rocketed into the fourth dimension. There’s some interesting language in the Big Book and…
26:36 John S: In fact, if we could do a Step Meeting at We Agnostics, I might actually do bring the Big Book in. Oh yeah. I think it’s good to know it just from at least a historical perspective, so that people understand… There’s a lot of people in my group that never read the Big Book, in our group.
26:51 Wes B: Yeah.
26:52 John S: And I am always bringing that up because it’s, “Look guys, I’m an atheist but there’s so much value in the Big Book.”
27:00 Wes B: Yeah there is. There is.
27:01 John S: If you highlight everything that you relate to, it is just… And if you need to scratch out the word God or cut it out with scissors, whatever you need to do, pick up a damn Big Book.
27:12 Wes B: Yeah. Yeah. And if you’re going to do the steps from a secular perspective, it’d be good to know what the other way was anyway, just to see…
27:22 John S: Well, to sort of have the experience you had.
27:24 Wes B: Yeah. Yeah to see the…
27:26 Wes B: To see it both ways. And you had a lot of that language, like you said, it was a holdover from the Oxford group or whatever, but that… And of course the… Because of the semi… I don’t know how to figure to say semi… Brilliant. Overt misogynistic language in the Big Book. I know of several women in the group who will not get near the Big Book.
27:50 John S: I know. They don’t like it.
27:51 Wes B: Which is totally fair.
27:52 John S: Yeah.
27:53 Wes B: But again, cut those pages out. There’s still a lot of content. And one of my favorite sayings is, “Take what you need, leave the rest.” And you can learn something from almost any fucking book you’ve got.
28:05 John S: That’s true. That’s true.
28:06 Wes B: And I’m a big reader, I read a lot and I read widely. And you can learn… You can actually learn healthy ways to conduct your life soberly from reading fiction.
28:22 John S: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t read enough fiction.
28:24 Wes B: There are certain things you can just sort of pick up.
28:26 John S: Yep.
28:27 Wes B: Now, of course if you want the speedway to the highway to sobriety, a book like this of course is better.
28:34 John S: Yeah.
28:35 Wes B: because this book is absolutely full of useful information, and as you were saying, the importance of writing which I do a lot of too. There’s something about the tangible, the ink on the paper, it’s forcing your mind to think about what you’re writing. So writing some of these lists, writing in preparation for the steps like this book recommends is really wise. I have sort of a funny story in high school, I used to make little cheat sheets so I could cheat on tests. I would write really really small on a piece of paper and unleash all the information. And then I’d read that, but then, when I got to the test, I knew the answers.
29:17 John S: Yeah. because you studied. You… Yeah.
29:19 Wes B: Yeah, right. Because I wrote it all down, and so I had actually put it in my brain without realizing it.
29:23 John S: There you go.
29:24 Wes B: So I didn’t even have to reference my cheat sheet because I had learned it all, because I wrote it down.
29:30 John S: By preparing to cheat, you’re actually studying.
29:32 Wes B: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, yeah. So there is value in writing something down because it’s forcing you to sort of think about it.
29:42 John S: Can we talk about four and five for a little bit? His steps four and five.
29:44 Wes B: Yeah sure.
29:45 John S: Okay, so his step four is very very very similar to the original step four where he… Basically you make lists, and what he suggests you do is you make a list of all the… First of all he talks about what resentment is. And this is important for people who don’t know what a resentment is, or the word resentment. But he breaks it down, and this is exactly how I was taught to understand it, a resentment means to re-feel, it’s to relive some past event, and to feel the emotions as if it’s currently happening. And it’s not necessarily a very healthy way to live, because it keeps you living in the past, and these resentments will take on a life of their own, so it takes you out of reality. So anyway, he says, “List all the people in your life that you resent”, and then he says, “List what happened, the thing that occurred,” I believe is with the next part…
30:32 Wes B: And then the impact.
30:33 John S: And the impact, what had happened to you, right?
30:37 Wes B: Right, and then my part.
30:38 John S: And then my part.
30:39 Wes B: Right.
30:39 John S: Yeah, and then that’s exactly like it is in the Big Book. And he says, “You’re looking only at your part, even though the other person might have played a part, you’re just looking at your part.” Totally just like the Big Book is. Okay. I don’t know, what do you think about that process?
30:54 Wes B: Well, I think it’s great, because again you’re writing this stuff down which is forcing you to think about it. It’s forcing you to look at these things, and it’s also forcing you to take some fucking responsibility.
31:05 John S: True.
31:05 Wes B: That’s what it’s really all about. And he stresses that in this book, that it’s very easy to play the blame game and say, “I drank because of work, I drank because of my wife, I drank because of this. This that… ” You can blame everything, “It’s the world’s fault.” Right? But if you want to get sober, you have to transition into this… You have to start taking responsibility for your role in it. So when you write these things out, ultimately, the last column, my part in it, that’s the goal. It’s what we’re trying to get to. And once you acknowledge your part in these resentments, it can really help to sort of reshape the way you feel about them, and can help get you prepared to… Well, make amends if you need to, or whatever. But if you understand… Truly understand your part in it, that’s the goal right there. And the beginning of the Big Book refers to resentments as the number one offender, and I think that’s one of the most brilliant lines in the Big Book because the resentments will take you down faster than… The resentments are what caused you to take the poison so the other person dies, whatever. Resentments are insidious. They’re deep and can be super harmful so… Sunlight is the best disinfectant, Right?
32:29 John S: Yeah.
32:30 Wes B: Let’s get these things out. Let’s write them down, let’s analyze them, and let’s see what our part…
32:36 John S: And I like what he wrote in there about being objective, and he talked about objectivity as like what a scientist does when you’re doing an experiment. You’re just being objective, you’re just looking at the facts, and that’s what this is. Then when, if you ever get to the point where you’re doing it where you start feeling shame, then he says, “Take a break. Walk away”, because that’s not what it’s about. You need to take a look at it just from a factual perspective of what actually happened. You’re looking for the truth, you’re not looking for, you don’t want to wallow in bad feelings when you’re doing it basically.
33:05 Wes B: And this goes back to logic and critical thinking. Looking at the facts, being… And like you said, looking at the truth of the situation.
33:14 John S: The truth.
33:15 Wes B: And the truth of the situation often involves something you did.
33:21 John S: Yeah. Yeah.
33:22 Wes B: You almost always had played… You played some role in the resentment.
33:27 John S: Yeah. Then he talks about listing your fears. And there’s something in there that I really, really liked, and I think I’m probably going to forget about it. Oh, yeah. Okay, I liked the way that he looked at fears. Now when I originally did this inventory back many years ago, when it came to my fears I just put them down on paper like it says to do in The Big Book, and I asked myself why I had them. In the Big Book, it says, “Because self-sufficiency failed you.” Okay. I didn’t quite get a lot out of that, but the way he looks at it, he says, “You’re looking at basically irrational, okay, you have these core beliefs.” He says, “That aren’t necessarily true. That they’re a bit dysfunctional, and these are fears. Your fears are based on these core beliefs that aren’t necessarily true. And the way that you overcome these fears, or you deal with these fears, is you replace them with reality-based core beliefs.” So you could have a core belief that the world is… That life is dangerous, the world is dangerous, I think is one that he says. That’s a core belief.
34:36 Wes B: Right.
34:37 John S: But you can replace that with a reality-based belief that there are risks that you can mitigate.
34:44 Wes B: Right.
34:45 John S: Yeah. So I thought that was just a nice way of looking at it. That you’ve got these core, your fears are nothing more than the misplaced core beliefs. If I understood it right.
34:54 Wes B: Yeah. No, no, you nailed it. Another distorted core belief he has is, “I am unlovable.” And his alternate realistic belief is, “I have lovable traits that I can learn to nurture, and so on. I am incompetent. Well, I am capable of learning just like everyone else, there is several things I’m knowledgeable about.” So yeah, the alternate realistic beliefs that you can sort of focus on can steer you away from your distorted core belief. I really like that too. There’s another one distorted core belief, “Nothing works out for me.” Alternate realistic belief is, “Some things work out for me and some don’t. I can choose to focus more on the things that do work.”
35:41 John S: Yeah, yeah. I like that and it’s pretty similar to where I finally got as an atheist when I looked at my fears, the way that I deal with fear is through understanding. So it’s pretty much the same thing. I know that my fears are pretty much irrational, but if I really understand the truth, like if you’re afraid to fly, understand how airplanes work.
36:05 Wes B: Right, right. Yeah.
36:08 John S: And that’s how they treat fear of flying, by the way, they teach people how airplanes work, they take them on flights, and whenever there’s a bump or something, they explain what it is.
36:17 Wes B: Turbulence, right? I sat next to a woman on a plane who was absolutely horrified and I, we were landing, and I explained to her, that even when the wheels touched down, the wings are still carrying the plane and it’s all super safe, and it’s unbelievably reliable and it’s…
36:38 John S: So the fear comes from not understanding.
36:40 Wes B: Exactly, exactly.
36:40 John S: It’s from not knowing.
36:41 Wes B: And I’ve heard you talk about this in meetings before, about just, yeah seek the truth about the situation and that will… And I’m really bad about it because I have a lot of unrealistic, just ridiculous fears, and I should follow your advice and really look at the truth of the situation. I have insane, fucking ridiculous fears, like going to my, like driving down to my art studio. Why should I be scared of that? I am. Of course I’ve been in, two people have run red lights and hit me in the last year and a half, but that’s maybe part of the fear of driving. But something about just even going to work. It, so I am very familiar with irrational fears, and that’s something I personally need to work on, but I love your approach, and I’ve heard you say it before. Where you break it down, you learn the truth about what’s really happening in real life and sort of seeking understanding of that.
37:48 John S: Well, the fear of driving sometimes in Kansas City is pretty rational, because I actually lived in the northeast part of town, northeast Kansas City, people do not stop at red lights there. They just don’t. Whenever I would approach a stop sign or a green light, I would always stop and see if there’s anyone else coming before I went through it. You just don’t trust it.
38:08 Wes B: Yeah, I’m not…
38:10 Wes B: I can see my Nissan Xterra out your window and it’s my third one in a year and a half because of people running red lights.
38:17 John S: Yeah, it’s crazy.
38:19 Wes B: It’s unbelievable, so that is a rational fear. That it’s… Fear of driving, there’s some… There’s always risk in driving.
38:29 John S: There is risk.
38:29 Wes B: You can mitigate it. But the fear of being at my studio, and the fear that, “Maybe, what I’m going to produce isn’t as good as it should be,” or “Am I good enough to do what I’m setting out to do?” They’re all sorts of fears on all different levels that…
38:48 John S: Being an artist is difficult, I would imagine because it’s really like… Well, an actor is an artist, and you’re up on stage, and you might bomb, your comedian as an artist you might just bomb. You have the same thing as when you produce a work of art.
39:02 Wes B: Yeah, visual art.
39:05 Wes B: Well, it’s the same thing.
39:05 John S: Yeah, because you’re producing it for other people I guess, in a way, aren’t you?
39:08 Wes B: Yeah, basically it’s to be seen there and it gets judged.
39:14 John S: Yeah.
39:15 Wes B: It gets judged, sometimes favorable, sometimes it’s not.
39:18 John S: Yeah, I could see fear attached to that.
39:20 Wes B: Yeah, and I’m 37, and I’ve literally been an artist my entire life. I tend to think I know what I’m doing and I have a ton of education in the field and have even taught at the college level everything from Art History, to color theory, to drawing, painting, so on, and there’s still a rational fear. Even when my work is lauded. Even when I show up in fucking magazines and stuff, and I’m still terrified that I’m not good enough.
39:50 John S: Wow I can see that, that’s a… I thought “Maybe that’s why a lot of artists drink.”
39:55 Wes B: Quick plug from westvincent.com.
39:57 John S: Yeah.
40:00 Wes B: Yeah, I had a bottle of vodka on my drafting table always in the studio. There was always a bottle of vodka in there because I could work at, just without fear, I could paint fearlessly as long as I had my opiates and my vodka.
40:20 John S: Let me ask you this, veering off from this ever did work, were you afraid when you got sober, that you wouldn’t be able to produce art?
40:27 Wes B: Yeah, I was.
40:27 John S: I hear that a lot.
40:28 Wes B: I was and then I learned it was actually quite the opposite. My work has improved drastically since I’ve gotten sober. And that is a belief that many artists have, is that their work is better when they’re intoxicated. No, you believe your work is better when you’re intoxicated. You feel better about it but it doesn’t mean the product is actually as good.
40:53 John S: Yeah, I’ve always been interested about when I talk to people in recovery who are artists, whether it be any kind of art, whether they’re writing or anything, I’ve always been interested in that whole process.
41:06 Wes B: When all of your faculties are restored, you approach things more logically, more thoughtfully and more carefully, more creatively. It was really lucky for me, I was almost dead. I was a bad drinker and user, pretty bad, and so this is sort of my second shot or actually… I guess it’s my first, I’m starting now to be an artist because when I was drinking and using, I was hiding at home and doing all sorts of weird things and I essentially, got kicked out of a gallery because every time I showed up, I was just wasted. They didn’t want to… They’re like, “No, we don’t want to represent this loser.” Anyhow, enough about me, but there’s certainly a lot of drinking and using in the creative arts.
42:03 John S: A lot of magic.
42:04 Wes B: And a lot of it’s about fear.
42:05 John S: Yeah.
42:06 Wes B: You see a comedian, Ron White on stage with the glass of whiskey, he drinks on stage, and yeah that’s… I’m sure, I’m sure, there’s no question in my mind that he does that to combat fear.
42:18 John S: Sure.
42:19 Wes B: And to bolster his confidence.
42:22 John S: Sure, sure. Well, let’s look at his steps six and seven, which we were talking about. I don’t know if we’re talking about this when we’re recording or not, but I think I told you that atheists do this better than others because we actually do work in it. There isn’t any God that does it, but what he talks about here, it’s pretty much the conclusion that I had come to is that I don’t really use the word character defects, I think of them as personality traits or character traits, he does the same thing and the way he described it, if I remember right, is that we developed these traits as a way of dealing with life, and it was a dysfunctional way. It turned out that we relied on them to get through life, but it turned out to be dysfunctional, and so we had to learn, we had to find positive or character traits that work.
43:11 Wes B: Right, he said, “We are not defective, we have developed thought and behavior patterns that once served a purpose, but have become dysfunctional. Most of these so-called character defects are actually character assets that have been taken to an extreme in response to life events.”
43:25 John S: And doesn’t he say something about, it’s not about removing them, but it’s replacing them with positive traits?
43:32 Wes B: Yeah, exactly, and focusing on the positive traits. And implementing the positive traits in simple daily steps, like holding the fucking door for someone. I mean, just little tiny things. If you try and pick up litter, pick up trash, you do these sorts of things, you show up to work on time, whether or not anyone knows, if you’re the only person in the building, you still show up on time, just this little daily make sure you do so many helpful positive things that any decent person would do. I mean, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is become better people.
44:13 John S: Right, yeah.
44:15 Wes B: So I like the fact that he makes it clear that these are very… Some of these steps… These are really easy things to do, just go out and be a decent person.
44:25 John S: Yeah. When he does these steps too on six and seven again, he starts, he talks about writing, again, I think in step seven, because he says put Post-It notes so that whatever positive character traits you want to practice and everything like that. That’s probably good, that’s probably good for someone. I’ve heard sponsors say things like that. Put something on the mirror in the morning so it’s like the first thing you see and all that kind of stuff.
44:47 Wes B: Yeah, my mirror at home has a little thing taped onto it that my sponsor in Florida has taped on his, or stuck to his mirror, it says “You are looking at the problem.” And that’s, although it sounds pretty negative, it’s really just a reminder that I am responsible.
45:03 John S: You’re responsible.
45:04 Wes B: I’m responsible.
45:04 John S: Yeah, it’s not something outside, it’s you that you can deal with.
45:08 Wes B: Yeah, [chuckle] certainly not. Yeah, there’s no supernatural or mystical power that’s going to remove my 26 character defects that I came up within rehab. Yeah, you cannot wish or… Sorry, you cannot pray those away. So again, it all goes back to his logical, reasonable, simple steps. These basic approaches to restoring a sane, healthy lifestyle. It’s really simple, and it’s all in here, and I love it. And he actually put in the book some examples of unhealthy character traits, dishonesty, entitlement, arrogance, manipulation, his jealousy and self-pity. I think those are more sort of emotions, judgment, aggression, apathy, insecurity, greed, vanity. And who among us is not going to identify with some of these, if not all of them, on some level.
46:10 John S: Yeah.
46:11 Wes B: And then, he does mention here, as you said, and he says, “Don’t worry about having a perfect list, you’ll probably add on to it later.”
46:18 John S: Yeah.
46:19 Wes B: So I like that, because it removes the pressure, especially, once again, if a sponsee is right out of rehab, this is all so new. Just write what you can, you can work on it tomorrow. You can keep adding to it. It doesn’t have to be a stressful… Like when you said, “When you get to a point of shame, stop, set it down, walk away from it.” You can work on these lists over time and there’s really no reason why you couldn’t keep working these things for the rest of your life, like with the maintenance steps at the end. It’s just a continuous process of, essentially, being a decent person.
47:00 John S: And when he goes into steps eight and nine, he does talk about direct amends and living amends, which I think are important. And he does talk about how, sometimes, you should not make an amend if you’ve committed violence against somebody, if you’ve done some really serious emotional damage against somebody, sometimes the best thing to do is to not approach that person.
47:22 Wes B: Absolutely. When it comes to amends, I’m a major proponent of just the living amends, more so than anything. I think that there’s an awful lot of damage that can be done when you dig up the past with certain people. I think a lot of people are over things. They’re not even thinking about it. You’re thinking about it.
47:43 John S: Yeah.
47:44 Wes B: They’re not. But then you go and you put it in their head.
47:48 John S: Yeah, all of a sudden it brings it back.
47:49 Wes B: Right. And what good does that do?
47:52 John S: It doesn’t. That’s what I dealt with, with my father. He would hate for me to regurgitate crap from the past. That was not helpful for him, with us, at all. The best way I could make amends with him was, really, just to change my behaviors and just to be a decent person.
48:06 Wes B: Right, right, and when people see you doing that, their trust in you and so forth, is slowly restored. Takes time. But he had one thing here that I hate to say, I did disagree with. He said, “When making amends, if they have specific requests of you, such as paying back money or providing a service to make things right, you don’t have to answer on the spot. You can tell them that you’ll get back to them later with an answer.” And I thought, “What the fuck?” If I’m taking this person’s time, to say I’m sorry, and they say, “You need to pay me back the $600 you stole.”, I’m not going to tell them, “Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you later.” I need to be prepared…
48:48 John S: You should be prepared, yeah.
48:50 Wes B: Yeah. You absolutely should not tell them that you will get back to them later. My God, if you are going into…
48:58 John S: That’s right. You should be ready.
49:00 Wes B: You should be ready. You should be ready to…
49:01 John S: You shouldn’t even be talking to him if you’re not ready.
49:03 Wes B: Exactly, exactly.
49:04 John S: Yeah, I agree with that.
49:07 Wes B: Just, “Hey, let me… I’ll get back to you on that.” The person’s going to go, “What the fuck? See, same old, same old Wes, walking off without committing to pay back the $600. Same old asshole.” So you should go into every amends prepared, fully prepared, to give back or say whatever you need to say. And you need to be prepared that you might get pushback. The person might, depending on your situation. Luckily, I’ve never had to go through this, but I’ve heard of it, people being very angry and saying, “Get the hell out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again.” I’ve heard of those situations. So you have to be prepared for those. I would like to think that, if there was any situation like that, I would know.
49:52 John S: Yeah.
49:53 Wes B: I would intuitively know, “I don’t think I should be digging up the past with this person. I don’t think it’s going to help either one of us.” So when it comes to amends, again, I’m a big proponent of just go out and live a decent life.
50:08 John S: We had a meeting about amends, at We Agnostics, not too long ago, and I remember I said something at the meeting that, if you have a doubt about making it, just don’t make it or whatever. And some people had a problem with that. But, again, I think what the difference was is that, some of the older people who had been drinking for 30-40-50 years or whatever, they might have done a lot of damage and they might have had more amends to possibly make. I stopped drinking when I was 25. I didn’t really have that many direct amends to make. I really didn’t do that much damage to other people.
50:43 Wes B: Right. And some of us, like me, I was in total isolation.
50:47 John S: Yeah, I was too. It’s like…
50:48 Wes B: I have friends, I have alcoholic friends, who would do wild, dumb, mean things at bars and in public, and make asses of themselves. But I was so scared that I would make an ass of myself that I just hid at home, and just fucked up alone. So I certainly did harm to my family, and those close to me, but I didn’t have the widespread wreckage that some alcoholics have, particularly if they’ve been creating this wake of damage for 30 years, They probably don’t even remember all the bad stuff they’ve done. So you need to be really selective because, again, yeah, you’re thinking about it, but the other person isn’t. They’re probably way past it. They’re living their own life. They’re past this shit. You bring it up, you’re just bringing them back to a bad place. Although, for them to hear an apology, it’s a humble act, so there is value in that. I did make amends to a couple I know, who I did make an ass of myself in front of. And they’re actually in the AA, so they were totally receptive to it. And they said, “Stop by anytime.” They said, “We appreciate it and we’re so happy you’re in AA too.”
52:11 John S: Yeah. Well, then just the last three steps are pretty much the maintenance steps, 10, 11, and 12. The one… And I don’t think there was anything in 10, he did again say you could do this either formally by writing it out, or it could just be more of a, just being aware of what you’re doing and who you’re harming type thing. But his step 11 was strictly meditation. It was nothing but meditation.
52:35 Wes B: I noticed that.
52:36 John S: So that was interesting,because I’m not a big meditator. I do see some value in it. I guess when I thought about step 11, when I was looking at these steps on my own, I was thinking more about, “What am I trying to achieve?” Whether it be through meditation or any other means? And I kind of looked at it as serenity is what I’m trying to achieve. So, for me, it could be anything including meditation that brings me to whatever I want, but he just strictly wrote meditation.
53:02 Wes B: Yeah, I was not a huge fan of that. He says here, “If you’ve never meditated before, this may all sound like airy-fairy nonsense and that’s okay. Give it a try, and you’ll get to experience it yourself.” And after that I wrote on the page, “How?” And I know that meditation, it comes in a lot of different forms and there are a lot of ways that different people do it, but I find myself sort of when I’m daydreaming, when I’m reading, when I’m painting, there are all sorts of periods of time in my day where I’m in almost a meditative state. And meditation, I suppose is when you’re sort of lost in deep thoughts, I know some would say it’s sort of the absence of thought is meditating. But meditation is such a, it’s such a wide net, as far as how it’s applied and how you do it, and everyone does it sort of in their own way. There are all sorts of great resources online if you want to… Guided meditations, I highly recommend, because the guided meditation will literally say, “Okay, close your eyes, monitor your breathing, feel everything from your head to your toes. Okay, you’re in a forest. Okay, now you’re walking down a path. Now, you see a river to your right, can you hear the river?” So the guided meditation, that’s a great way to get into to figure out what meditation is about are the guided ones, for those of us who don’t know what meditation really means.
54:38 John S: So basically he’s just describing these things as whatever you do. And then in step 12, you just help others. And he talks about going to meetings and helping people, or acting as a sponsor to help people. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t even have to be within AA. You can help people, just be a citizen, do something politically, or whatever you want to do in your community to help, would be a good way of giving back. And then he talked about, and I agree with him that you do it for a number of reasons, but one reason you do it, it’s because by, especially if you’re going to sponsor somebody and help them with the steps, when you do that, by showing someone else, it reinforces it for yourself, you learn for yourself.
55:18 Wes B: Absolutely. And that’s something that I discovered through teaching these college classes is I learned… Well, you have to know the material. So if you want to learn something, teach it.
55:33 John S: Yes, I’ve told that. I’ve been told that.
55:35 Wes B: Get prepared to teach it, because you have to know everything. Because the questions that come at you, you don’t know where they’re going to come from, and you have to have all your bases covered. So yeah.
55:46 John S: Yeah, I had a teacher who told me that once. He says he’s learned more from teaching than he did as a student.
55:50 Wes B: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
55:53 Wes B: Absolutely. I totally agree with that. I highlighted this portion here under working step 12. He said, “At the first meeting I attended, one of the greeters was an exceptionally, friendly, and calming person to be around. He immediately helped me feel at ease. Were it not for him, it’s entirely possible I would have shied away from meetings and either delayed my sobriety or not gotten sober at all.” I had the same experience with Greg H. The first meeting I came to, he was so warm and inviting. And so I try and emulate that whenever we have new people to the group, if I’m leading, or I suppose even if I’m not leading, just trying to be as warm as possible. Because a lot of people will show up to a meeting and they’ll make a judgment on that meeting, just based on the tone of the room, and how comfortable they feel there. And if they feel that sort of, “We’ll love you until you love yourself,” sort of thing. It’s really helpful and it’s serious shit, because this is life or death for some people.
57:01 John S: It’s funny, but in AA people really… That first impression means everything.
57:04 Wes B: Absolutely. That first impression… Yeah.
57:05 John S: If they don’t like that first meeting, they’ll never come back.
57:07 Wes B: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. That first impression is everything. And boy the groups, the four or five groups in Kansas City that I attend variously, there are very different tenners to those rooms and very different levels of welcoming.
57:28 John S: Yeah, yup, yup. AA, your experience with AA is really dependent upon what meeting you happen to go to on any particular day, because it’s just… It can vary from one group to the next. And even within a single group, it can vary. But anyway. I don’t know, is there anything else you want to talk about from that book that we should cover?
57:45 Wes B: I’ll tell you what, I’m going to read a little bit on the, just on the very back of the book. I found this really valuable, because this is a wonderful, concise summary of the book that would have certainly made me buy this book, as an atheist. Staying Sober Without God is a guide to, and sort of a plug for the book too, okay. Staying Sober Without God is a guide to lasting, genuine recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsive behaviors. 12-step programs have helped millions of people, but while our knowledge of addiction has evolved, the programs themselves have not. So, that’s referring back to the stuff that’s still stuck in 1939. Today, we have a more thorough understanding of how to bring about lasting recovery without the need to believe in God or a supernatural being. This book is intended to give atheists, agnostics, and non-believers a guide to recovery that is grounded in rational thought and practical action.
58:42 John S: Yeah.
58:43 Wes B: And I love that.
58:44 John S: Yeah.
58:45 Wes B: That’s exactly what the book is about, rational thought and practical action.
58:50 John S: Yeah.
58:51 Wes B: That’s what we implement, right?
58:53 John S: Yep, that’s what it’s about, as far as I’m concerned.
58:55 Wes B: Yeah, well… And it is, like you said, it’s what, as atheists, when we approach six and seven, we do it better…
59:03 John S: Yeah, it truly is practical and we do the work. So…
59:06 Wes B: Because we’re not just asking for some fairy to take our problems away.
59:14 John S: Well, Wes, thank you very much once again, I appreciate it.
59:15 Wes B: You got it, buddy.
59:16 John S: It’s been fun talking to you.
59:17 Wes B: Been fun talking to you.
59:18 John S: Thanks.
59:19 Wes B: Thanks. Thanks, John.
59:26 John S: Thank you for listening to AA Beyond Belief. Staying Sober Without God: The Practical 12 Steps to Long-Term Recovery from Alcoholism & Addictions, by Jeffrey Munn is available at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. Please visit aaagnostica.org to read the latest review of the book. And once again, thank you so much for all your support here at AA Beyond Belief, we appreciate it.