On Service as part of your Integral Recovery Practice


Jul 09

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

This is a quotation from one of the “lost gospels.” This quotation comes from the Gospel of Thomas that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1948. I think this verse deeply reveals the necessity of service for our emotional and spiritual health, and thus for a stable recovery. If we do not access and bring forth our gifts as a response to life and in service to the times in which we find ourselves, that “living water” will grow stagnant and unfit to drink. That which is within will poison us as it putrefies from lack of outward flow.

If there is a healthy self-interest in service, this is it. In the Prayer of St. Francis it says, “it is in giving that we receive.” There is an unofficial tradition in AA which recognizes that even from the beginning of the journey of recovery, a person must engage in service. Even in such simple acts such as showing up a few minutes early and setting up the chairs before a meeting or making the coffee (the nearest thing AA has to a sacrament), simple small acts of service are an outward manifestation of an inward turning away from the egocentric black hole of addiction. As one’s health and capacities grow, one is expected to increase one’s degree of service by helping other alcoholics and taking part in the governance of the AA community at a local level, and then at higher levels. This is one of the great insights of AA that needs to be included in an Integral Recovery model. In Step 12 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous it says:

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In the Twelve Steps of Integral Recovery I expressed the idea this way:

As a result of this awakening journey, I commit myself to a life of integrity and service.

This, I believe, is covering the same ground, but has simply expanded the circle of service and concern beyond other alcoholics to wherever one’s particular callings are, and to all the conditions one is confronted with in life.

I did not take on this whole area of recovery because I thought it would be a good career move. It was simply the elephant in the room where I was, and I didn’t see anyone dealing with it in adequate way. At some point you have to step up to the plate of life and learn to hit the pitches that the pitchers are throwing at you, or you are going to strike out.

But let there be a cautionary note here: one’s service needs to be grounded in an ongoing Integral Life Practice. If this is not so, your endurance and effectiveness will simply not be sustainable in the face of the seemingly overwhelming needs and challenges. In the late eighties and nineties when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was very involved in social activism and saw many around me fall under the weight of this type of service (myself included) because they lacked an effective means of repair and renewal. The results of deeply committed service without a renewing practice are exhaustion, depression, giving up, and growing cynicism. Service should be the outward fruit of your inner work.

Practice without service is eventually simple narcissism, and service without practice is self-defeating at best; and at worst actually hurts the cause you are attempting to serve. This has long been discussed in activist circles, but I believe that the emergence of the Integral wave brings the possibility of a much more healthy and effective activism. In my mind, not to do my ILP is a selfish act, as I will decrease my effectiveness and most likely fall back into the darkness of depression, thus becoming an instrument of pain rather than peace. It is a simple moral imperative: to live well, we must serve; to serve well, we must practice.

As we empty ourselves through service and express our deepest gifts in the world, we are renewed and refilled by our practice. In the beginnings of the recovery process, the capacity for service may seem small, but simply showing up is the first step. Service and practice must be woven into the pattern of an Integral life from the very beginning of treatment. This will make the foundation strong and the roots healthy. Alignment and integrity happen when our inward moral intentions match our outward behaviors.