Do Benchmarks Matter?
In AA, there’s a longstanding tradition of recognizing lengths of sobriety by presenting chips to the sober person—with different colors or medallions denoting the lengths of sobriety. The first chip one receives is the white chip, which is a sign of surrender to a new way of life. We “give up the high cost of low living”. From then on, the chips are given on a monthly and annual basis. It’s a very short ceremony punctuated by applause, and the premise is to display enthusiastic support, especially to newcomers. Indeed, after years of addiction and suffering, a day, a month, or a full year sober, can be a victory. It’s very common for a chip winner to tell a story of how some negative event occurred during sobriety, but how the saving grace of the tragedy was being free of alcohol and drugs: “But I stayed sober through it. I didn’t pick up a drink.”
But if we’re celebrating the absence of a behavior pattern (and its corresponding substances), what presence has filled that void? Well, anyone in recovery can fall into the trap of being a dry drunk — that is, being technically sober, but lacking any spiritual progress or positive change in other areas of life. After all, the point of getting sober is to improve the quality of life. So, strictly speaking, sobriety, when defined as an absence of drugs/alcohol, is not much of an achievement in itself. What matters is how we fill in the blanks and get high through our revised and updated pursuit of God-consciousness.
In AYP, there are enlightenment milestones which are helpful in tracking our progress. First is the rise of inner silence cultivated through practices like Deep Meditation. This inner silence is an unshakable core that endures life’s changes with an equanimity and timeless tranquility. Second is an attunement to the flow of ecstasy/energy/life-force inside of our body, and in our surroundings. This can be stimulated with practices like Spinal Breathing Pranayama. Finally, both stillness and ecstasy begin to merge, and we taste the fruits of our active surrender:
We find our own self to be the essence of all things. This is the experience of unity, union, enlightenment. The world does not disappear. It becomes transparent. Boundaries become like veils, thinly covering the essence of life, which we have come to know as an expression of our own nature. Can we still act in the world? Yes, but our motives are different than before when we could only see ourself as separate. We now act in the interest of a broader self. In doing so, we may seem to become selfless. The truth is that we always are acting for our own self-interest. But our self has become universal, so our interest is for the whole of humanity, and for the whole of life.
In AA, the Ninth Step Promises echo the same kind of sentiments. They speak of a new kind of freedom and happiness. Our whole outlook on life will change. We can handle difficult situations that used to baffle us. These miracles will come true, so long as we put in the work necessary to achieve the transformation. So, in theory, as time elapses, chronological benchmarks like chips should be a nice pat on the back to recognize our success. But let’s consider Yogani’s insight into the purpose of any benchmarks or milestones:
The mileposts are useful to keep us going, to keep us inspired and regular in our daily practices. The mileposts are not so useful for proclaiming, "Today I am here along the road to enlightenment." Indeed, we may well be, but it will only be significant when we have gone past there and our experience has become permanent and unnoticed. When the experience becomes natural and normal, it becomes real. It is life as we are meant to live it. The mileposts will be dissolved in the journey. Enlightenment, ultimately, is not so much about the mileposts. It is about enjoying becoming that which we always were.
So, don’t worry about chips, or proclaiming, “I’m sober.” The proof is in the pudding of our inner condition and our compatibility with the outer world. We become more fluid, versatile, and dynamic as we shake off the staleness of abuse, and infuse our character with vibrant tranquility. Regardless of any accolades or outside opinions, we can rely on the peace and joy in our own hearts to confirm our progress. And that joy will emanate outwardly, in varying degrees of subtlety and expressiveness, sometimes barely noticeable, and sometimes more effulgent. Once that radiance is shining, we will feed our luminosity with the best soul food available, and dissolve the barriers that stand in its way. A divine addiction!