If it’s not Practical, It’s not Spiritual
By Felipe Alou
When I first entered the Recovery Movement in 1986, there were certain things that helped me to stay. First, I was there because I needed help, and help was there. Another of the things that helped me stay was the principle enunciated in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous, “If it’s not practical, it’s not spiritual.” I had never consciously and deliberately engaged spirituality as a way of living before (though it was all around me all of my life). I came up in a household of atheists. I came into adulthood very attracted to socialism as a social system, and very opposed to religion.
Had the Recovery Movement been religious or been connected to religion I would not have stayed more than a minute or two back then. As I got one day clean following another in the various recovery programs I entered, I began to see the difference between religion and spirituality. One of those differences is that the spiritual principle has meaning only in its application to how I live each day, only in each step which my feet take on the ground, one after another.
To explain this principle, that for a proposition or behavior to have a genuine and positive spiritual presence, it must be practical, it merits our attention that this logic coincides with basic scientific method. Both the recovery movement and socialism adhere to the scientific method — socialism calls this method historical materialism. Put simply, the value of the recovery way is proven in the lives of millions of people; the relevance of historical materialism resides in the revolutionary practice of millions of people.
Of Roaches, Pot Bellies and Emotional/Mental Health
Here are three applications of this principle:
(1) My sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous is a person with whom I share issues that I would share with no one else, or almost no one else. And my sponsor has a habit of putting in my face things that I don’t want to talk about. I have had a problem with roaches in my apartment, and I shared this problem with him. As is his style, he repeatedly brings up my roach problem, definitely more than I want to talk about it. However, I listen to my sponsor because he has successfully practiced the principles of recovery, and by listening to how he has done this, I can replicate the emotional/mental health which his life exemplifies.
As a socialist, I use the social science tools of historical materialism to analyze problems. It was not until I entered the Recovery Movement that I discovered that socialism is a spiritual as well as political and economic way. “If it‘s not practical, it’s not spiritual” is also a principle of historical materialism. I have roaches in my apartment. Historical materialism teaches me that I must study my situation, and that Home Depot is “home” to many capitalist businesses whose point of departure is “How can I get money out of this man’s pocket and into my wallet?” Further, it’s not just getting the money once. The capitalist businesses which are good at what they do, have perfected the trick of getting you to come back and give them more money. Therefore, they will sell you a product which will initially kill the roaches, but will also attract more to come back, so that you will “come back” and buy more products. To make certain that this point is clear: the producers of Raid Roach Killer are not using scientific method for the purpose of getting rid of roaches. They are using whatever principles they are using for the goal of getting my money, repeatedly — that’s their goal.
Meanwhile, Karl, the 70-year-old maintenance man who lives in my building, told me: “I scrub down every corner of my apartment. Then I take Everclear 190 proof grain alcohol and put it in spray bottles. I spray every corner. Every morning when I get out of bed I spray every corner.”
Using genuine scientific inquiry, I have to give Karl’s prescription at least as much of a look-see as the capitalist products on the market for roaches. I lean, because of my own life experience, towards listening to Karl before I listen to the ads on TV. Karl’s goal is to rid his apartment, and by extension mine, of roaches. He does not have an ulterior agenda. Karl is an everyday Brother who is helping out the person next to him, another everyday Brother.
(2) I have a small pot belly. I’m not happy with it. I need to eat less and exercise more. Again, being in recovery and being a socialist, I do not utilize the alternative offered by capitalist businesses, in this case the medical industry of this country. They offer bariatric surgery as the “cure” for compulsive overeating. Recovery teaches me that compulsive overeating is a symptom of the disease of addiction. As such, it cannot be cured by stapling my stomach. The disease of addiction is a mental, spiritual and physical disorder — it’s not simply physical. People overeat, not merely because of a physical craving, but in an effort to fill a mental and spiritual void inside themselves. That void cannot be overcome by a mere physical response.
The medical industry uses science in the service of, first of all, making money: The average bariatric surgery procedure, to “cure” compulsive overeating, is a sweet $6,000.
The goal of the recovery movement in using the scientific method is to help us live healthy so that we can contribute to the creation of a healthy society. In addition to working on my mental and spiritual health to fill the void that no amount of overeating can ever do, I listen to the peoples: In the fitness room of the community health center of which I am a member, Henry (on the machine next to me) without provocation advised me to drink a dollop of lemon juice (straight) each morning, and chase it with a bottle of water. He said, “It reduces the size of your stomach. Your feeling of the need to eat will be reduced. You will eat less. Your pot belly will diminish.”
I’m going to listen to Henry over Weight Watchers. Henry was for free. He had no dog in the race. He’s making no money whether or not I listen to his advice. Historical materialism teaches me to listen to the peoples for their remedies. That’s why I listen to Henry over the surgeon regarding the presenting physical issue – my pot belly.
(3) I’m listening to the recovery movement over the prescriptions of the psychiatrist to address the mental and emotional aspects of the disorder. The psychiatrist is offering me opioids as I walk in the door. His goal is to make money. And once I take his opioids, I must keep coming back for more — this is a physical law of the disease of addiction. As my friend Mary points out, “they call this ‘continuing care’…” The Recovery Movement is a people’s health care liberation movement — no money changes hands, and it works!
Karl, Shifra, Henry, Mary and Kevin
I listen to the peoples, but not all at once. Karl gave me his prescription for roaches maybe one year ago. One week ago I woke up, performed my morning meditation, and then realized I was on fire: I launched a maniacal campaign against the roaches. I unleashed a regimen of scrubbing corners, throwing out rugs, sweeping, and mopping. I filled two large garbage bags with clothes that I will never wear again in life. I took them later to Morgan Memorial; I’m a good doo bee today… :-). I waged a war of annihilation. The roaches could see it was a new dawn — instead of shrugging their shoulders, and then going on about their business as they usually do when they see me, they were fleeing for their lives. And I took no prisoners. It was a genocidal campaign. (My friend Shifra, after reading this story, challenged me that she is opposed to genocide, no matter which living thing it is directed against. I am considering this proposition because I must listen to the peoples.)
The next day, as soon as I awoke, I went around to all corners, saw a couple of dead roaches, swept them up… and sprayed…every corner. Two days and three days later I woke up, went around, sprayed every corner, and saw not one roach. It is now two weeks, and no roaches; and I spray every day.
My sponsor, Kevin, has strange habits. Today, this morning he asked me about the roaches. Understand, he has periodically asked me about them, and I simply slide away from the subject. Today, I gave him the complete update.
He says, “How do you feel?”
“Hmmmm. I don’t know. Hmmm, ‘good’ isn’t a feeling.”
Kevin: “OK, Felipe. Tell me how you felt when you had roaches?”
“Well, I felt dirty. I felt ‘less than,’ like there’s something wrong with me.”
Kevin: “Yes, and you couldn’t have any visitors. That’s a terrible way to live.”
Note that this is not how he spoke with me when the roaches were there. He never said to me, “You are living in a terrible way.” It is now that I have defeated the roaches that he is mentioning that he thought the way I was living, not being able to have guests to my house, was “terrible.”
“So, now we have a practical lesson in the ways of God,” He told me. “God was trying to teach you something through the roaches. Allah was in the roaches. We are learning about feelings. You can’t identify how you feel? It is basic to the disease of addiction to not be able to tell how we are feeling. We can’t identify our feelings and we act out in our addictions as a way of controlling our feelings.
“Allah gave you a gift of the roaches so you could identify that when you don’t take care of yourself, you feel dirty, you feel shame; and when you do take care of yourself you feel clean. Cleanliness is a practical application of spirituality. If it’s not practical it’s not spiritual.”
The roaches were trying to tell me something, and two weeks ago I learned what they were trying to teach me: “We don’t like 190 proof grain alcohol…”