Marianne Williamson—Because Love is not Passive

By Zachary Siegel 03/09/15

The Fix Q&A with spiritual activist Marianne Williamson on the role of spiritual principles in recovery, politics and society.

Arron Landman

Marianne Williamson is a spiritual activist, an author, a teacher, a lecturer, the founder of Project Angel Food, and the co-founder of The Peace Alliance, to name a few of her activities. She also ran for California's 33d Congressional District in 2014, bringing an intriguing promise of spirituality to the political process. She is most famous for her 14 books, four of which are New York Times bestsellersA paragraph from her book, A Return to Love, which sold over three million copies, is so powerful that people have mistaken it for a quote by Nelson Mandela. (It begins, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we we are powerful beyond measure.") A longtime favorite of The Fix, she was gracious with her time, pragmatic and laughed more than might be expected, as we discussed AA, A Course in Miracles, the role of spiritual principles in recovery and where those principles conjoin with politics.

Who are you and what do you do?

(Laughs) I write books. I give inspirational talks and seminars. And I am an activist for political causes, specifically how they impact and intersect with the spiritual and humanitarian values that I speak about.

What first attracted you to this unique area you occupy?

In the 1970s, I started reading a set of books called A Course in Miracles (ACIM). I started leading small groups in the study of The Course and by the early ‘80s I was giving lectures in Los Angeles. Not too long after that, the AIDS crisis burst onto the scene and we founded “Project Angel Food,” a meals on wheels program for those with AIDS here in LA. From the earliest days of my career, the work of internal transformation has gone hand-in-hand with external efforts socially and politically.

We’re becoming a sedated nation, when instead we should be an awakening one.

What is your definition of applied-spirituality? I often hear it in ideas or abstractions.

Non-applied spirituality is when I know I should apologize to someone, but applied spirituality is when I actually pick up the phone and do it. Love is not passive; it's participatory.

What about addiction? And so-called spiritual-sicknesses?

I believe there is one Truth, spoken in many different ways. And I feel that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous—like A Course in Miracles and other paths—are direct expressions of that Truth. You always know when you’re in the presence of something spiritually true because it dovetails with everything you feel to be spiritually true.

Throughout my career, I’ve known many people in recovery who were attracted to A Course in Miracles, first because the principles are the same; and secondly, because the eleventh step—to seek through prayer and meditation a conscious contact with God—is something A Course in Miracles helps accomplish. It can be a primary tool in doing the eleventh step. Historically, there's always been a bond between AA and The Course. But over the last few years, some AA fundamentalists have been touting the notion that if you're in AA then you shouldn't do anything else. That’s their own thing, though—it’s certainly not in the big book and I personally think it's inappropriate. Some sponsors these days seem to go way beyond their traditional role of simply helping someone work the steps.

What is called the ego in the The Course can be likened to an addiction to fear. Alcoholism, drug abuse, behavioral abuse are all forms that the ego/addiction takes. The larger phenomenon is the spiritual disease of addiction that has beset the consciousness of humanity. You don’t have to be addicted to a substance or to a particular behavior to be at the effect of the addictive global-mind. 

The way I frame what I think you’re tapping into is a cultural and societal phenomenon, for instance, that of the modern consumer-subject. From the first days I could remember I was being advertised to, compelled to consume, seek objects.

Absolutely. Many people think their suffering is due only to personal circumstances, without realizing that a larger, hurtful societal conversation affects all of us. Many of our personally painful circumstances are due to larger neurotic or even pathological factors in society and the world.

The one you mentioned is an example—that we are addicted to certain things because we’ve been taught that something outside us is the source of our happiness. Consumerism in that sense is a form of idolatry. That cruise…that object…that whatever...will make you happy. And then, of course, if it doesn’t work out, then here’s a pharmaceutical to lift your spirits about it. When, in fact, the source of our happiness has very little to do with what we get and has everything to do with what we give. Simply knowing that, strikes at the core of our addiction to immoderate accumulation.

People who are in the recovery community, or personal growth community, should be the most involved socially and politically—not the least.

What is it about The Course or AA that you see as the solution to this gigantic, global disease?

Of themselves, both are just techniques. And there are many others as well. The solution itself is God as we understand Him, or conscious contact with the truth of who we are. The solution lies in understanding we are more than mortal beings—we are spiritual beings. And when we are aligned with that knowledge in mind, body, heart and soul, we are lifted above the lower level energies of chaos and fear. The right use of the mind (i.e. “righteousness”)—taught powerfully by both AA and The Course—liberates us from the neurotic, pathological, addictive personality. 

In The Course, it says we think we have many different problems but we really only have one: our separation from God. I believe AA agrees. The disease is alcoholism and the answer is God. The spiritual seeker comes to understand that no matter what the problem, the answer is a realignment of our consciousness with love at the core or center of all things, which is God.

I have difficulties with framing that sickness as separation from God. Maybe for me I’d say it is that I am alienated from life itself, or maybe the world that I live in, or maybe even from myself.

Fine. That’s why it says, “God as you understand Him.” Our relationship to other people is the experience of God. God is not just a belief, God is an experience—that can only be found in our connection with others. That’s why AA talks so much about taking responsibility for and repairing our relationships with others because there’s no experiencing God’s peace without it. Addiction is a disease of isolation. Many people, at a kind of immature stage of their spiritual development, think that they can find God, but ignore other people. But there is no experience of God outside our right relationship with other people and the universe itself.

On that note, then, support groups, like the first groups you held on The Course, do something for people by simply bringing them out of isolation and engaging with the world again.

ACIM is slightly different than AA in that way. AA obviously stresses the importance of groups and for good reason, but ACIM simply stresses relationship and doesn’t comment one way or the other on the establishment of groups. The Course is speaking to a slightly different aspect of the wound, and points out that everyone we meet is an assignment representing the possibility of maximal mutual soul growth.

There is a growing body, or a shift maybe, in the recovery community that is dissatisfied with the spiritual solution offered by AA and the Big Book. People are becoming more materialist in this sense, more mechanistic in the reduction of recovering from an addiction to a simple modification of behavior. What are your thoughts about this?

AA is a spiritual program, which claims that alcoholism is a spiritual disease. Period. Go mechanistic and behaviorist and all that, fine, but the phrase “being in recovery” has traditionally meant being in AA.

My own opinion is, “Good luck with all that I-can-do-it-without-God” mentality if you’re fighting a serious addiction. But maybe I’m wrong. And God doesn’t have an ego by which to be offended one way or the other. And He certainly doesn’t need me to defend Him. The principles of AA are spiritual whether people identify them as such or not. The notion of a Higher Power that can do for you what you cannot do for yourself… that you are powerless before the addiction, but an experience of that Higher Power will free you …there’s nothing more spiritual than that. 

The serious addicts I’ve known have come to recognize the profundity and even the necessity of recognizing that only a power greater than themselves can free them from their suffering.

What do you see as the necessity of making amends that frees someone? What role does forgiveness play in the recovery process?

Amends and forgiveness are key to right relationships to other people, and therefore key to right relationship with God. The two are not separate.

The addict—particularly the serious addict—might be forced into the realization that while drunk, he or she might have done some terrible things, sabotaging himself or herself and possibly even hurting others. Unless we’re sociopaths, we feel guilt and remorse and conscience when we realize that. If I’m flooded with memories of a night when I made a fool of myself, or stole, or lied, or in whatever way acted without integrity—part of the pain of recovery is that those memories come back and haunt us. This can be extremely painful and some people start using again, to create a buffer between themselves and their painful memories. But owning the memories and making right what we’ve made wrong is necessary for our return to right relationship—to God, and to ourselves. Which is why it’s essential to doing the 12 steps. It makes sense why we need the support of other people to get through such heavy lifting.

The spiritual principle that matters here is that the universe is all-merciful. The Atonement is a cosmic reset button, a way of invoking the miracle of new beginnings no matter how much we might have messed up before. The Atonement is a fundamental, spiritual principle that is at the heart of all the great religions and spiritual paths. Whether we’re talking about taking a fearless moral inventory and making amends in AA, confession in Catholicism, or Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Judaism. It’s all the same principle—that we have to go back and admit our mistakes, and surrender them for healing. We have to clean up our mess from the past, and will to be different in the future. And when we do that work, a miracle does happen. You start to change. You become humble. You feel clean again. And you can sense, like a small streak of light on the horizon at dawn, that you might, you just might, experience your true self again. You come to realize that in the moment when you went astray, when you acted insanely, you simply weren’t in conscious contact with your true self. But God held your true self in trust for you until you were ready to return. I mean, really, how cool is that? 

In The Course it says our task is to learn to love others the way God loves us. So if I was a jerk in my past but God showed mercy to me, then can’t I show mercy to others? Ultimately, we only get to experience what we give away because, at the deepest level, we’re all one. If I’m judging other people then I am judging myself. Any attack on someone else is an attack on myself, so ultimately forgiveness is an act of self-care. We judge less when we realize that a judgment will only boomerang back our way.

I’ve caught myself at times starting to judge someone, then remembering that at one time or another I did something worse than what I’m tempted to judge them for. There were a couple of times when I was tempted to judge young women who I felt were behaving irresponsibly, then laughed out loud thinking, “That was nothing compared to how you were, Williamson. Shut up!”

Societally, there is little compassion when we look toward our policies that penalize and criminalize those who have mental health issues and addiction. What do you see as the solution to these policies?

We need to end the drug war. But don’t kid yourself; the drug war does not simply have to do with a lack of compassion—it also has to do with billions of dollars made by the prison-industrial complex. And the frame of mind that lacks compassion for drug addicts just lacks compassion, period. No one group is singled out for special mean-spiritedness. The collective ego, just like the individual ego, is like a heat-seeking missile looking for evidence of anyone’s guilt. 

The Calvinists founded the United States and we have a bit of the punitive in our national character. The solution is to shift our attitude on drugs, from treating it as a criminal justice issue to treating it as a public health issue.

We have 2.4 million people in prison in the United States. That number was only 300,000 in the 1970s. We have the largest mass incarceration rate in the world. Non-violent drug offenders comprise 500,000 of the people in our prisons; about half of those are for marijuana-related crimes. This is a travesty of justice and it is a huge financial boon to segments of our society that are profiting off unnecessary human suffering. 

But the larger drug problem in the United States today is legal drugs; our biggest drug pushers at this point are corporate ones. A pharmaceutical-psychotherapeutic- industrial-complex is marketing anti-psychotic drugs, for instance, to the general population. Abilify—an anti-psychotic—is now the single largest prescription medicine in America today. We’re becoming a sedated nation, when instead we should be an awakening one.

You ran for Congress in 2014. Where do politics and spirituality intersect for you? Do spiritual principles, like those found in recovery programs, come into play?

Spirituality is the path of the heart, and politics is the path of our collective decision-making and behavior. If love should guide our lives individually, then it should guide our lives collectively. Politics can be used for healing purposes, and it can also be used for destructive ones. But whichever it is, it makes a difference in the lives of millions of people. The reason this should matter to the spiritual seeker—someone in recovery, or any other—is because no serious spiritual path gives anyone a pass on addressing the suffering of other sentient beings. 

America has the second highest child poverty rate out of all the advanced nations in the world. Our banking policies, tax policies, and trade policies, take in the major resources of our country and systematically siphon them off to the hands of a very few members of our society, leading to an epidemic of economic stress. And that has very real human consequences. People feel stressed, so they take another drink to take the edge off and so forth. Whether it’s employment benefits, college loans, quality education or even the establishment of enough parks and libraries, we should do everything we can to promote an environment of happiness and creative excellence.

But that can only happen if we make love, not economics, our bottom line. American capitalism has lost its ethical center, putting short-term economic gains before the health and well-being of the people of the United States, the people of the planet, and even the state of the planet. Whether you’re an individual or a company, some things you should do simply because they’re the right thing to do, and other things you shouldn’t do simply because they’re the wrong thing to do. But if your bottom line is short-term economic gain for your financial shareholders—and only that—then conscience and righteousness fly out the window.

The market has become a false god in America. Life doesn’t exist just to support greater profits for health insurance companies, oil companies, defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies and so forth. Yet, you wouldn’t know that from the way we function as a society now. This is not just a political offense; it’s a spiritual misalignment. And I think the spiritual community can have a lot to say about that.

I’ve felt for a long time that people who are in the recovery community, or personal growth community, should be the most involved socially and politically—not the least. If you could send the United States of America and the behavior of the U.S. government to an AA meeting and apply the 12 steps—we would realize, for instance, that we’re addicted to oil, and perhaps, even to war at this point. The United States needs to atone for many errors; come clean about our own hypocrisy and transgressions against the principles we purport to stand on; and in certain cases make restitution and amends.

A lot of people who visit The Fix might be using or sick and want to stop. What would you say to any one of them right now?

Go to a meeting. NOW.

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.