Be Still: Step Eleven

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Jetty at a lake during a tranquil, foggy dawn.Before refrigerators for home use began to proliferate in the 1930s, people used ice boxes to preserve their food. The ice for these ice boxes was store in icehouses that had thick walls, no windows and a tightly fitting door.

In the winter, when lakes froze over, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the icehouses, and covered with sawdust. This way, the ice could last well into the summer.

A man working in an icehouse once lost a valuable watch. He conducted a painstaking search, carefully combing the sawdust, but to no avail. His coworkers joined in the search as well, but their efforts proved futile as well.

A young boy heard about the fruitless search and slipped into the icehouse while the workers were taking their noon hour break. He soon emerged with the watch.

Grateful and amazed, the man who had lost the watch asked the small boy how he was able to find the watch.

“It was simple,” the boy replied. “I closed the door, laid down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.”

We pray and pray and pray. But then do we remain still enough to hear the still, small voice of the Divine?

Step Eleven of Twelve Step recovery calls for prayer AND meditation. I see no “OR” in that step. What’s amazing about this step is that it was first published in 1939–many decades before meditation caught on as a practice in the West.

For me, no practice has taken more time and concerted effort than really getting still and listening to my inner guide. I remember going to Eleventh Step meetings in the first few years of my recovery- meetings where there is a period of silence for ten to twenty minutes after some initial readings.

My early attempts at stillness were futile. I’d waste valuable minutes worrying if I needed to cough or clear my throat. Every creaking chair, sniffle or cough distracted me. If I was able to get a little bit quiet my monkey brain would start chattering noisily and drown out any reflection on whatever had been read. Frustrated, I stopped going to such meetings and discarded the notion of meditation for about the next three years of my recovery.

But then there was that manic episode. Within months I found myself fired, disgraced and sitting in jail. Following my stint in “summer camp,” as my family calls it, I resolved approach the steps with a renewed vigor.

When I got to Step Eleven I rededicated myself to getting still. What better way to get an early warning indication of impending mania than to see if my monkey brain could be quieted. What better way to seek guidance from a power greater than myself

In re-approaching Step Eleven, the first thing I did was cut out the drugs. No, I wasn’t talking street drugs or abusing prescription medications. I am not one of those people who has one sobriety date for alcohol, one for marijuana and yet another for who knows what. I’m talking about digital drugs.

To get quiet, I need to cut out the iPod, smartphone, TV, tablet and PC long before I sit and meditate. I need to give my mind and hour or so free of digital distractions before I can begin to get still.

Rather than jump quickly from a plugged in world to stillness, I need to give myself a little “wind down” time. So now I read for an hour or so before meditation. Sometime I flip actual pages and other times I swipe the screen on my Kindle. I don’t count it as digital drug use if all I do is read on my Kindle.

With my mind freed of tweets and updates and breaking news, I am ready to get quiet. Depending on the time of year I have two place of refuge to visit. During the warmer months I am in the pool surrounded by swaying palm leaves … one bonus of living in the desert. During cooler months we have a room set aside in our house for meditation … sorry folks in metropolises, square footage is easier to come by in the desert.

In all seriousness, the “where” doesn’t matter much. You could be living in a small flat, but if your TV and stereo have an off button, you can find your quiet place. What’s more, I haven’t found that it makes much difference if I am sitting in a comfortable chair, standing in the pool or even out for a walk along the canal that borders our housing development. Step Eleven makes no mention of sitting in the lotus position.

What does matter for me is that I start with some deep cleansing breathes and then make an effort to get quiet and go within. For a time I sit back as the observer and just watch what is going on in my mind. Then, like a gentle librarian, I issue a gentle shush to whatever part of the egoic mind is clamoring for attention.

When the mind is finally settled, I pray a simple prayer. Learning from my wife, I’ve tried to make a practice of praying a gratitude list instead of racing into what me, me, me wants. Only after I get to a place of feeling truly grateful do I pray about what’s on my mind. Remember, Twelve Step literature suggests that we pray for things like forgiveness and to be shown what our next steps to be. We are admonished not to pray for our own selfish ends, but where we can be of help to others.

Once I’ve prayed I return to a meditative state and just listen. The divine or your inner guide or whatever you choose to call it doesn’t do a lot of shouting. The insights and answers that pop up are gentle, soft and only perceptible to a quieted mind.

Because the rush of life and the din created by digital drugs is so overwhelming, I’ve begun to make a practice of recording the thoughts that crop up immediately during periods of meditation. Get them recorded before the hectic pace of modern life obscures those insights. Whether I am sitting in the meditation room or standing in the pool I always have a pad of paper nearby. When I walk and meditate I carry a digital recorder. It amazes me how when I return to what was recorded, often several weeks later, how I can recapture the essence of what was communicated with just a few notes or comments.

The Eleventh Step works if you work it. If you are new to recovery give it time. We wind that monkey mind up pretty tight when we are using. It takes time to settle down. If you have been sober for a while remember to make it a regular practice. Nothing pays dividends like getting still.

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