Navigating the Nine Strata: The Reality of Growth and Change on the Recovery Path

“No matter what type we are, we can observe the following about Inner Work: ‘Work on ourselves proceeds layer by layer, from the most external forms of personality to the inner core of our Being.’” (Understanding the Enneagram, 359)

The Reality of Growth and Change on the Recovery Path—Navigating the Nine Strata (Modeled from The Wisdom of the Enneagram, pages 372-378

By Michael Naylor Copyright 2023

If you hang around the world of addiction and recovery you will notice quite vividly, several factors. Newcomers entering addiction and landing in early phase recovery, the time of one year to five years sober, usually don’t make it. They disappear. One day the seat they have been holding in alcoholics anonymous is empty. A slight shock wave of recognition goes round the room.                                                                                        

Dig deeper, and one discovers that those in middle phase recovery—year five to fifteen clean and sober—all too frequently relapse and disappear at rates most of us shudder at. After holding a strong place in recovery, or a position of authority, an earthquake occurs. Tom, or Phil, or Mary vanishes from the rooms of recovery. Their disappearance shocks many. Questions, like shouts, arise: Why? I thought he was doing great. What happened?                                                                                                                                                

Deeper still is an even more unsettling truth. Those in ongoing recovery—fifteen years sober and beyond—those looking like they are far past any danger, relapse and disappear into addiction. People are rocked to the bone. This can’t be happening? Where’s the safety in recovery? Aren’t there any guarantees? How, after all these years of witnessing others relapse, after acquiring tremendous knowledge about addiction and the capacity to help others, how could this dear human being be taken out by their addiction? It makes absolutely no sense.                                                                                                                                                                          

And then, lurking behind the shock of all these tremors is an even larger number of individuals who are sitting on the edge of relapse, who have hit a stuck point in their recovery after years of happiness and success in their recovery journey. Hanging on to the phrases of “Easy does it” and “First things first” and “Keep coming back” and “Get a sponsor” and “Ask for help,” they sit in quiet despair as emptiness, meaninglessness, and loss of purpose engulf them. A wrong turn has been made—so they think—but how, why, when? Some sit at this impasse for years, wondering what they have done incorrectly while continuing to work the 12-steps of recovery and generously sponsoring people—yet it is not doing its familiar magic. What’s wrong with them, they think, that they can’t change their persistent state of suffering, can’t move the monolith of deepening unhappiness that haunts them in the face of acquiring a spouse, family, car, home, good job—all of which provided them so much solace. They have come so far. What has gone seriously wrong?                                                           

And hidden further are those, having joyfully established themselves on firm footing in addiction recovery, maintaining abstinence five, ten, fifteen or more years, are haunted by other addictions. Billy Jones, now sober over twenty years, is 200 pounds overweight, his belly protruding, a heart-attack written all over him. Arriving in recovery at one-hundred-fifty pounds, he now sits at three-hundred-fifty pounds. Food is his addiction. Or Martin, twenty-four years sober, finds himself all too frequently at the pornography video-shop, copping cheap tricks, risking his reputation and his job every week, the strange thrill of sexual addiction the powerful remedy for the shocking emptiness that has driven him for the past ten years.  Or Thomas, twenty years sober, an addiction counselor, who has lost his job after a second occurrence of inappropriate behavior with a female client. What on God’s green earth could be driving him to get his sexual needs met in such a dangerous, unsatisfying, surely-to-fail manner? Promoting addiction recovery as a counselor, his inner life is riveted by a strange addiction sorrow that he doesn’t understand, nor knows how to navigate.                                             

The world of addiction recovery is impacted by these very potent dynamics alongside the victories of sober people. When Bill Wilson and company were guided to start Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 they could not envision that eighty-years later that so many people (millions) would have entered recovery, gotten sober, and then become stranded on these islands of unexpected difficulty. Bill, himself, had only begun the conversation about ‘emotional sobriety.’ Bill struggled with ongoing anxiety and depression throughout his recovery (see the 2012 documentary Bill W), and with sex and love addiction causing his wife terrible suffering, while simultaneously helping so many step onto the road of recovery (read Bill W: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, p. 1-2). As Francis Vaughn , long time friend of Bill and Lois writes: “Serenity was not a state that anyone ever attributed to the sober Bill Wilson…Because an enduring emotional balance seems always to have eluded him, Bill was never far removed from the struggles of the newcomer.” (Bill W: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, p. 6, by Francis Vaughn). And yet too frequently glorify Bill Wilson, often not realizing the difficult stuck points he’d reached in his recovery.                                 

Bill Wilson, all very human, struggled with personality habits of the Type Three. “Bill was hardly a poster boy for the joys of living a sober life the AA way, yet AA’s poster boy was exactly what he was supposed to be. It was the role he was expected to play both in AA and in his many public appearances before distinguished medical, academic, and governmental bodies; not once or twice, but again and again, for more than thirty-five years. He played the part because it was expected of him and because, although he might not feel worthy of it, he liked the attention. Like most seducers, Bill was far from immune to the siren song of fame.” (Bill W: A Biography, p. 7, by Francis Vaughn)                                                                                               

Truly remarkable is the fact that in the face of his personal struggles with his ‘character defects’ he possessed enough presence and awareness to remain humble and motivated to free others from their suffering, often going to great lengths to support ailing alcoholics. At his worst, he was taken by his sexual passions and attractions, was self-promoting and compelled by the Three’s vanity and deceit. But at his best, he was humble, generous to those suffering, honest about many of his foibles, and dedicated to championing and creating a network of support for those struggling with addiction.                                                                                      

To successfully navigate these very human challenges that Bill faced, and which every recovering individual will encounter, intelligence, understanding, clarity, and true direction is needed. And this awareness: that the healthy and courageous actions one takes to live a sober and clean life will also take an individual to very difficult and predictable emotional, psychological and spiritual impasses. That’s reality. In recovery circles it’s called ‘peeling the onion.’ Spiritual growth compassionately takes one directly to the next door of growth and opportunity. What has not been healed and digested will be revealed. And, as said in AA meetings, “You either grow, or you go.” (And keep this in mind: Gurdjieff said clearly that the farther one goes along the spiritual path, the more difficult it becomes, but not forever. Meaning, unforeseen difficulties will arise until all of one’s false personality is digested.)

Don Riso and Russ Hudson have described and mapped this very real territory of spiritual growth that each Enneagram Type will, by necessity, encounter on their way to genuine liberation. They have identified Nine Stratum (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, p. 371-376), or nine levels, that each individual will pass through on their journey to deep well-being, authenticity, intimacy, and the awakening of their True Nature. Named “The Excavation and Recovery of the True Self,”they have provided a necessary and critical tool for successfully navigating necessary, difficult, and predictable Enneagram Type-specific challenges which will be encountered as one grows in spiritual awareness. Put clearly and succinctly, they say:

 “The process of growth entails an ongoing cycling among letting go of old blockages, opening up to new possibilities in ourselves, and then encountering deeper levels of blockage. Although we might wish that spiritual growth would be more linear, and that it could be accomplished in one or two major breakthroughs, the reality is that it is a process that we must go through many times on many different fronts (my italics) until our whole psyche is reorganized.” (Wisdom of the Enneagram, p. 45)

What is critical to understand, is that as an individual grows in recovery from addiction, they will face times in which they feel periodically worse rather than better. And by worse, I mean worse than when they entered recovery! Because they are clean and sober, their capacity to experience undigested suffering will be more direct and pure. And, as they transform this suffering, they will also experience deeper and deeper states of joy, well-being, clarity and strength. With correct knowledge and orientation, these crisis points in their recovery become opportunities rather than something mistakenly interpreted as a wrong turn, i.e, “I must not be working a good recovery program.”                                                                                                                                             

Let’s take a look at the journey down the Nine Strata. They are as follows:                                             

Stratum One: Our Habitual Self Image                                                                                                            

Stratum Two: Our Actual Behavior and the Shock of Seeing It                                                                           

Stratum Three: Insight into Our Internal Attitudes & Motivations.                                                                     

Stratum Four: Experiencing Our Underlying Affects & Tensions                                                                   

Stratum Five: Experiencing One’s Core Suffering                                                                                            

Stratum Six: God’s Waiting Room: Our Grief, Remorse, and Ego Deficiency                                                   

Stratum Seven: The Shining Emptiness, the Void—The Return Home                                                       

Stratum Eight: True Personal Being/Stratum Nine: Non-Personal Universal Being

Let’s take a walk through each one and see how they relate to the path of addiction recovery.      

Stratum One: Our Habitual Self Image

Riso/Hudson calls this the stratum of our habitual self-Image. It consists of all the images and self-concepts we have about ourselves. A Type Four might think, “I’m a deeply sensitive person. I am emotionally honest and deep. I can sense the suffering of others and articulate their feeling states. I’m creative. I’m different than others, unique and more sensitive than others, an outsider. I’m often misunderstood by others. I am kind, gentle, impressionable and intuitive. I don’t like ordinary routines that others live by. I often feel shy and self-conscious around people. ”                                                                                                                                        

At Stratum One all types see themselves as an accumulation of self-concepts, some negative and some positive, and often cannot see when their actual behavior runs counter to their self-concept. When someone confronts them about their inconsistent behavior, they defend themselves through denial, disbelief, rationalization, minimization, or simply cannot “see” they are acting differently than what they imagine themselves to be. The Type Four at Stratum One will not see when he is insensitive or even hateful towards others but will instinctively re-interpret his behaviors as being consistent with his purported “sensitive, compassionate, deeply attuned” self-image. That is, he will be blind to his actual behavior. Of course, for a Type Four, this would be horrid to embrace—as it is for any Type when their behavior and their emotional reactivity runs in the opposite direction of their idealized self-image and imagined capacities. The ego, which is built on false concepts of oneself, is wired to not seeing the truth of one’s behaviors. Inherent to the ego and maintaining its status quo, is the Inner Critic—which every Enneagram Type has—who is a cheerleader of denial, minimization, disassociation, and the rationalization of anything that looks like it might intrude on the prison system of an individual’s limited self-concept. It’s a guard dog designed to inhibit an individual’s ability to experience the truth of their actions. This is why so many individuals struggling with their addictions are truly “blind” to their actions, truly blind to how they affect others and cannot ‘see’ themselves, making it extremely difficult for them to seek recovery. And, ironically, the worse things get for them, the stronger their denial system, and their Inner Critic, becomes.                                                                                                          

You could say that at Stratum One and individual is mired in ”sincere delusion.” They think they know what they are doing, what they are up to, and believe they perceive reality accurately, but don’t. Anyone living with someone caught in their addiction knows only too well the frustration of trying to get the alcoholic/drug addict to see the consequences of their behavior, while the individual whistles past the graveyard, sincerely deluded. But that said, when someone does get sober, the truth is that the majority of their fixated personality habits, which they identify as “myself”, are largely unseen. Once sober and clean, having acquired enough awareness that this is necessary for their lives, the deeper worker of actually observing one’s ‘defects’ of character—the word used in Recovery Circles to identify the nine vices that cause suffering and the misperception of reality—begins at Stratum Two.

Stratum Two: Our Actual Behavior and the Shock of Seeing It

Being able to enter and navigate Stratum Two is essential for long term recovery, and absolutely necessary for getting an individual through the doors of recovery. At Stratum Two I begin to see over and over again that I am not who I say I am. How I imagine myself to be is often not how I show up in the world. I begin to notice that I do many things that contradict my self-image. Perhaps an individual has believed that they never get angry, that they are always laid back (the Type Nine) but at Stratum Two sees that yes, in retrospect, they have acted angrily, expressing their anger by not noticing loved ones or simply checking out on them. Or, after having a heated argument the Type Nine notices retrospectively that indeed, his voice was angry, it got louder and more abrasive, and was filled with sarcasm.  His self-image of ‘I’m always laid back and easy-going and never get angry’ begins to weaken as he sees the truth of his actual behavior. Or the Type Four begins to see that although he pictures himself as sensitive and gentle, there are times in his day when he is mean-spirited and hateful, the opposite of how he’s imagined himself. He experiences a shock—he is not who he says he is.                                      

If an individual who is locked in the prison of addiction begins to see that his behavior is actually killing him, is actually hurting himself and others he cares for, is actually generating the opposite of what he says and thinks it does, a huge door of possibility opens for him (or her). He will not be truly motivated to change if he can’t see and experience the reality and suffering of his substance use. At Stratum Two he begins to see that he’s been telling himself that his drinking/drugging hurts nobody, but realizes the opposite, that it’s actually devastating those he loves.  He’s been adamantly affirming he’s not addicted to substances, while sacrificing everything—wife, family, job—for his substance use. A brilliant light goes on.                                                            

As anyone familiar with addicted individuals knows, substance abuse has the potent capacity to numb and distort an individual’s ability to enter Stratum Two. Many ‘enter’ Stratum Two when they’ve landed in rehab, or detox, or are sitting in a jail. The drugs wear off and grace intrudes, and the individual gets a glimpse of his actual life. Real impressions and realizations regarding his behavior touch him. He is rocked by remorse, shame and guilt. He believed that he never hurt his wife with his drinking and drugging, and suddenly ‘remembers’ countless scenes in which she has been heartbroken by his actions. Reality breaks thru his denial system, and his story that his drinking has hurt no one, is destroyed. The moment of truth arrives: I am not living as I thought I was. I see I have minimized the suffering I’ve caused others; I can see clearly the hurt I’ve caused on the faces of those I seek to love; I see my heart has grown numb and hardened, that I’ve raged at others.                                                                                                                                                                            

This terrible remorse and guilt which delivers the gift of desperation can also send an individual running out the back door (it often does), where they pick up their drug of choice to numb their new awareness. Being able to endure the suffering of seeing through one’s addiction delusion, i.e., I don’t have a problem, you do!—requires a gutsy willingness to stick with the difficult realizations. The support of others is critical, who can, if skillful, intercede when an individual’s Inner Critic (the force of self-hatred) tries to drive them back into addiction. One must allow the compassion of others to touch you, while you see and embrace the results of your substance abuse. Not an easy task. Those that stick with this unveiling of reality (while barraged by the self-hatred their Inner Critic stirs up), find that they are guided and supported not only by others, but by their own internal resources. There is something inside them, something greater than themselves, a mysterious ‘other’ that rises to support them when feeling overwhelmed by their past and the errors they have made. God, Presence, Divine Intelligence, All That Is, grace…arises when one sits squarely with the truth.                                                         

To arrive at Stratum Two an individual must have a willingness to see through his/her illusions. If the desire to see the truth is not present he will be unable to navigate this Stratum and he will turn back. It’s at this Stratum that individuals actually begin to accurately find their Enneagram Type because they can see what they actually do, rather than what they imagine they do.                                                                                                        

In the addiction field an attempt is sometimes made to help the addicted person see the effects of his/her addiction (Stratum Two realizations) through an Intervention, where family members, friends, and co-workers reflect the actual behaviors of the addicted person with the hopes of breaking through their denial. If the Intervention is done with great compassion, and avoids attacking the individual with shame, blame or guilt, it can assist an individual in seeing the reality of their substance abuse.

Second Shock of Being Clean and Sober: I am Powerless Over My Personality

The second shock of recovery (after the first shock of getting clean and sober) is the shock of realizing the prison of personality habits that you are mired in. Bad news: shortly after the great relief of being sober (one to twelve months) will come another shock. Now it’s not your drinking and drugging that are causing you suffering, but the habits of your personality type which run rampant and beyond your control way more often than you’d wish for. Once again, you feel horrible and hopeless. (Many in the first year of sobriety are so discouraged by this that they give up and relapse. And yet recovery will consist of deeper and deeper realizations regarding one’s powerlessness over personality habits, and the increased need for serious inner work, support & self-forgiveness.) The hope all bring to addiction recovery is that by stopping their substance abuse, their suffering will end forever. Well, it does, and then it begins again, as they face into the driving force of their addiction, those life-acquired personality habits that encase them in a limited range of experience.                 

Stratum Two, where we see our actual behaviors, gets periodically more intense the longer we are clean and sober because we see with increasing clarity, the reactive habits and patterns that automatically run us without our permission, often taking charge of us, regardless of our intention. If we can bear with these difficult manifestations of our personality as layers of self-image delusions are peeled back, we begin to gain real freedom, and to develop harmonious relationships with others. We see how we affect people and can apologize when we’ve hurt them. As we gain the awareness to see our actual behaviors we start to clearly understand why we are successful with loved ones and the world, and why and how we are not. The doorway to freedom opens. Change becomes possible.                                                                                                                                                 

This process of discovering unconscious patterns and habits is a continuous journey of ‘observing’ and ‘transforming with compassion’ what heretofore has been invisible to us—peeling the onion of our distortions. This is what Riso/Hudson call “Excavating the True Self.” It all starts at Stratum Two, seeing that our actual behavior does not match what we’ve imagined ourselves to be. As we gain more Presence, inner strength, and mercy for ourselves, we are able to embrace even deeper manifestations of our personality habits that continue to cause repetitious suffering in our relationships. Out of the haze of one’s known world one will be shocked to see personality habits that one was completely unaware of. (Of course, the hope everyone holds in recovery is that I will only need to do inner work for a year, at most!). And, each transformation, difficult as the process is, reveals more of what is real and true in us, giving us the ability to more deeply savor reality, those we love, and those who inhabit our world.                                                                                                                                                          

This is the natural rhythm of psychological and spiritual growth. As we realize and consciously witness the blazing speed of our personality habits and their stunning capacity to keep us locked in repetitious suffering, compassion will arise, for ourselves and others. Our capacity to love and care for the world and ourselves will grow. Our ability to sense what is precious within us and others will come online. We will begin to experience joy, love, curiosity, beauty, passion, clarity, strength, and intuitive guidance. As many have learned, the fruits of this labor are unmistakably great. You would not pass on them.

Stratum Three: Insight into Our Internal Attitudes & Motivations3.20,13

Here we begin to see what’s beneath our actual behaviors, what’s driving them. Again, willingness to know oneself is needed to navigate this Stratum. Good therapy deals with this Stratum because here, the therapist is trying to help the client see ‘why’ they do what they do, what’s ‘driving’ their behaviors.  This is the level of our psycho-dynamics, our history and what shaped us. So, a Type Two begins to see that since her alcoholic mother rarely could see her or acknowledge her as a little girl, that today she is desperate to get people’s attention, desperate to be seen as a loving and kind person who gives her heart to others. Because mom was so taken by her alcoholism, she realizes that she took mom’s inattention to mean that she was not wanted. This desperate feeling of not being wanted sets her up for taking loving actions towards others to ensure she is indispensable to them. She notices sometimes that she intrudes with her generosity in her desperate need to be loved. She sees in retrospect that she is constantly vigilant for signs of abandonment and is driven to guarantee no one will reject her unexpectedly.                                                                                                                                            

At Stratum Three it helps to have feedback, someone else reflecting objectively what they see, giving insight into your behavior to help you sort out what’s what. Trusted others can ‘see’ elements of your story that aren’t available to you because they are not enmeshed in it. You are discovering how you were imprinted by your past, how a whole set of associations and reactions were hardwired into your psyche. You learn you have an Enneagram temperament that also has deeply structured and molded you. You are a Three, and see that you learned quickly as a kid what achievements gave you praise, what interactions with your parents sent you into desperate action to gain their approval at any cost, and how devastated you were when you weren’t noticed. Looking back on your life you remember how your parent’s reactions to you affected your Type Three temperament—your need to be seen as valued as precious and worthwhile—and that due to mom and dad’s inability to be present with your real needs you suffered dearly, and learned quickly how to manifest the image of the successful one that you thought they would admire. You realize that today this aspect of your being is in charge much of the time, driving you.                                                                                                                         

The result of navigating this Stratum is a clearer sense of ‘this is what happened to me,’ as you clarify your psychological story and the specific experiences that shaped you and deeply imprinted you. You see the context for your acquired range of automatic response patterns that run without your will and faster than your ability to control them. They just ‘happen.’ It’s in the aftermath, as a Two, that you look back and see, “There, I did it again. I couldn’t help myself. I got nervous and immediately started doing nice things for everyone because I didn’t want to feel unwanted. This happens so quickly I barely notice it, if at all.”                                           

Each type at Stratum Three begins to see more and more, how little real control they have over themselves and their reactions, while imagining they were fully in charge of themselves (Step One in AA, “Came to be believe I am powerless over alcohol” becomes “Came to believe I am powerless over much of myself.”) The illusion the ego creates (Stratum One) is simply this: You are in charge; you have control; you are conscious! At Stratum Three one discovers another layer of real humility: I have much less control than I imagined. I am hard-wired to a personality structure that runs me that I take as ‘myself’ while believing I am in charge. Reviewing your day, you see how often the emotional habit of your type (Four envy, Eight lust, Seven gluttony, Five avarice, One resentment, Three vanity, Six anxiety, Nine disengagement) is the driving engine of many of your actions. You notice that little things set this personality structure in motion and that the reactive habits of your Enneagram type arise swiftly and take over.                                                                                                  

You’re a Type One and see you are hardwired to finding what’s being done wrong or inefficiently, that you feel obligated to intrude on others to improve them. As you review your life you understand how these personality habits were strengthened because as a child your father abandoned you, your mom worked two jobs and was never home, and born with the temperament of a One, you did what you needed to handle your rejection and loneliness—you became a little adult taking responsibility for things around me. Today you are shocked at how often you see yourself playing the role of the adult-who-always-knows-what-should-be-done. You notice you can’t relax and that you’re on-call twenty-four-seven, trying to fix the chaos and errors around you. Now seven years sober, seven years of improving and polishing yourself and trying to polish others, you are hitting a wall, the wall of your personality habits. You’re beginning to see this pattern (Stratum Two awareness: I see that I am angry and critical and even punishing while believing I’m being good and trying to improve others), and beginning to notice that your kids and wife won’t talk to you because of your criticisms of them. The very ones you seek to love don’t want to spend time with you, and frankly, you mostly feel annoyed with them. So you criticize them harder (You do exactly what doesn’t work and pushes them away!). Why can’t you stop, you think to yourself! In a searing glimpse you see the automatic functioning of your personality habit. Your Type One ‘inner robot’/personality script is destroying what your care about, but oddly you are conflicted because it seems and feels like their fault. Insight into this helps but you notice that more often than not, you still can’t help giving the message to loved ones that they are doing it wrong, that you know the right way. It’s such a part of your psyche that you rarely see it (Stratum One trance states). The best you can do when you see it is to say you’re sorry (Stratum Two right action). And truth be known, at year seven in recovery you are aware of a growing misery. Your wife has talked about leaving you. This is real. You ask yourself, desperation growing, “Did I get sober and clean to arrive at this juncture where my loved ones want nothing to do with me, in which I could actually lose them? What can I do to change this?”                                                                       

Inhabiting Stratum Three is both a blessing and often shocking for those in recovery. Here you acquire more insight and more explanation for your behaviors and reactions, and then face another reality: insights help, they give you more freedom. But you still react!—over and over again. Armed with knowledge on why you react, it doesn’t create enough internal freedom from your reactions. You still get angry when your wife’s voice hits a certain note. Now, you know why—it reminds you of your mother. After getting sober, and doing the Steps of Recovery and then navigating into Stratum Three, individuals see more distinctly the trap of their personality reactions. They see they are possessed by an inner robot that still runs autonomously (although they now understand how it got programmed into them). In the face of these continued discoveries an individual may assume they’ve gotten worse and is failing in their recovery, when the opposite is true: they are gaining awareness to truly see themselves, peeling away layers of distortion.  A shock is needed to transform these insights into genuine change—the shock of Presence. Which translates into being here, now, able to contact the present moment, able to observe ourselves and inhabit our experience as it occurs unclouded by our stories on  reality, or by our tendency to project and interpret the present moment through the lens of our personal history.         

Stratum Four: Giving Attention to Our Underlying Affects & Tensions

At Stratum Four we begin to see our personality in action, and begin to do what Riso/Hudson call catching yourself in the act.’It’s one thing to notice in retrospect that when I come home from a day at work that when my wife speaks to me, it strikes a note of rage inside me when she simply asks me how my day has been. In hindsight I see that I respond impatiently and won’t talk to her. I think to myself, what’s that all about? It’s quite another thing to notice, in the very moment that my wife is being nice to me and asking me about my day, that I am feeling angry and having all sorts of strange and condemning thoughts about her niceness. I observe my body is tightening and cringing when she speaks, my heart is tightening and closing, and I’m feeling the anger in my body. In other words, in the moment I am noticing and experiencing my reactivity in my body, heart and mind. I am present to the moment in which I am having my reaction, and I am observing myself, my body, emotions and mind, without judgment. I am not following the impulse to leave this experience, but sticking with it, curious to notice how ‘it’operates in me, how ‘it’runs me.                                                                     

At Stratum Four I’m not interested in the psychological history that has shaped my responses, but here I am experiencing my psychological defense structure directly, in the present moment, and learning to stay with the tension, anxiety, and suffering I’m experiencing without creating a story. I am noticing my type’s reactivity and fixated habits when I am doing them. I am bringing the shock of presence, of inhabiting my experience ‘now,’ observing them ‘now’ and sensing directly how I fall asleep, go unconscious and close down. I experience the tensions in my body as I contract and close myself off in the style and habit of my Enneagram type, staying with the physical and emotional pain, hanging in with the anxiety that arises as I stay present to these manifestations.                                                                                                                                                       

In this Stratum you sense how contorted your body has become as a means for shutting down feelings, awareness, and sensitivity to your body. You are inhabiting the defensive structure you have acquired throughout your life time, while seeing yourself abandon your experience, feeling directly the real suffering of this recoil, and witnessing and experiencing how quickly, like lightening, that it occurs. This is the prison system of your ego. You realize at this deeper level just how little freedom you truly have. As you stay with these experiences your Inner Critic is turning up the volume. “You will die here if you continue this. You’re life will fall apart. You’ll lose all control. You won’t be able to function. No one will love you. Stop this nonsense. You will destroy your life.”                                                                                                                                      

To be in this moment directly experiencing the defensive structure of your personality means sticking with a deeper level of pain and suffering. But this seems contrary to what you heard when you entered recovery, that one’s their life after sobriety gets less painful. Yet what is often unsaid is that at particular junctions, one’s life becomes extremely painful as one does the work of penetrating the very defenses that contributed to one’s addiction. At Stratum Four you sense directly the crux of your addiction and how you instinctively found a way to avoid it so you could survive as a kid. You realize the inherent intelligence in surviving the suffering of difficult child and teen years through your substance abuse. Now real freedom comes by feeling the suffering, rather than numbing it. The good news—you have the capacity to do this.                                                                             

All the recovery work you have done—to become honest, a man of integrity, able to take responsibility for yourself, able to experience compassion and love for others—has brought you to this turning-point juncture, this shock point, when you encounter the really ‘real’ of yourself. Your self-image again takes a tumble as the ‘you’ you’ve called yourself begins to waver. It can be easy to assume “I’ve taken a wrong turn. I must be doing something really wrong to feel this badly. I can’t bear to feel this suffering. This shouldn’t be happening. This wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t made a serious error in my recovery work.” Wrong! You are exactly where you need to be. This should be happening.                                                                                                                             

You are moving exactly in the right direction towards what you love most. You’ve just arrived at the next doorway, the next challenge, the next opportunity for growth and freedom. This is a necessary passage, one that requires continued support by those who know the territory. This is not navigated by intensifying your 12 Step program, getting more people to sponsor, going to more meetings (in fact, your 12 Step Work got you to this juncture) but by learning to be present and tolerate your personality manifestations, sensing into it as best you can, such that they begin to dissolve. You cannot make your personality reactions go away, cannot change them, but you can become willing to be changed. You can observe them (your fixated habits of reactivity) with compassion and non-judgment without acting them out in the form of shaming, blaming or judging others, or self. Awareness brings the miracle, and allows grace to enter and transform your habits. And—you can apologize when you have harmed others. Sincere apology and heartfelt remorse, wherein your heart hurts over actions you’ve taken which hurt others, is a powerful tool of transformation.                                                             

Here you sense directly how you numb yourself to your emotional suffering, how you tighten to deny the reality of your experience, how you leave yourself through the contraction of your body, heart, and mind. We see the lightening quick responses of your type’s psychological structure to vacant ‘now’ immediately. You  stick with your experience as long as you can, not giving into your inner robot—but observing it and feeling it.                 

At this Stratum, things like yoga, body work and massage, which loosen the structure of the body’s defenses and give it more flexibility, are of great help.

 Stratum Five—Experiencing One’s Core Suffering                                                                                                     

At Stratum Five we encounter what Bill Wilson named “the underlying causes of addiction.” He points to this inevitable reality: that AA is a spiritual kindergarten (As Bill Sees It, p. 95.) which starts you on a great adventure journey to discover the real driving forces of your addiction which inhibit your capacity to experience your beauty, depth, strength, intelligence, loving-kindness, and joyfulness (to name just a few!). At Stratum Five you hit pay dirt.                                                                                                                                           

Riso/Hudson describe Stratum Five in this manner: “Here we get in touch with our scared, pissed off, enraged, hurt inner infant and all the raw animal needs that are at the root of every human being, and the ego just the window dressing to make it all look more civilized. You will experience hatred and feel intense resentment. The Enneagram passions are right here, vivid and in color. The passions are driving you and you are sensing them. You’re aware of how driven you are, and how your whole life is driven by these animalistic needs. The animal soul is in charge, so this is where it really gets nasty and raw.” (IEA presentation on Excavation and Recovery of the True Self, 2010)                                                                                                    

At Stratum Five you directly experience what you have been defending against—rage, shame, hurt, fear and terror. Not just whiffs of these feelings; you experience the depth and reality of the suppressed feelings and wounds you instinctively dodged or buried as a kid, because no one could support you through them. You were on your own, alone in the universe, with no real words to communicate your experience. Here, you’re so angry you could blow up the world, so broken-hearted and ashamed you fall to the ground in grief, so terrified that you shake from the inside out. You go directly into these feeling states, embodying them, not fleeing them, enduring them as the heart of compassion is born in you. You live and experience the very suffering that gave life to all of your defensive, self-protection mechanisms which you needed to survive and shut down via your addictions.                                                                                                                                                                      

You feel the suffering of the passions, the heart’s response to being cut off from what it loves. You’re a Four and you feel the suffering of your emotional habit of envy—the heart that is tortured, lacerated, a sword slicing through it. You’re a Two and you feel the suffering of your emotional habit of pride—the heart that is completely cut off from love. You’re a Nine and you feel the suffering of your emotional habit of sloth—the heart that is shattered and disconnected from everything it loves. When you tap into this soul suffering at year ten of your recovery (or year fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty) it’s as if God unleashed the devils of hell upon you. You feel raw. Emotions storm through you. Grief lays you on the ground. Rage has you burning with anger, ready to strike (You’ve never felt such pure anger, and here you’d thought you’d hermitically sealed it away inside you). You wake up in the middle of the night, terror pouring through you like a 1000 volt shock wave. You are opening up your circuits of aliveness, returning to your real life, as you embrace and navigate through this suffering. The good news—you will pass through it. Wonderful things await you.                                              

So, you’re a type Three, and you feel at your core your utter worthlessness, the sense that you have no value. This is the very thing that has driven you to succeed at any cost, the very hurt that alcohol and drugs have helped, temporarily, to suppress or shape-shift into states of grandiosity, or narcissistic rage. But here you feel the heartbreak that has driven you to do your Type Three habit of going into overdrive, amplifying your energy to outrun these feelings. Now, the gloves come off; you face into the suffering, the feeling of having no value or worth, directly embracing your basic fear, the driving engine of your addiction. You feel what you’ve been driven to avoid. Courageously you walk thru this door of your freedom.                                                                               

Many, not aware that this is a rite of passage, a necessary step in the direction of real happiness, turn away. Stopped at this door, twenty years sober and clean, with no clarity about how to proceed, one does what they must do. The Eight, unable to tolerate this suffering, hardens himself and begins to rage (just like he did in early recovery!). To his dismay he discovers his defense patterns coming alive, resurrecting from the hermetically sealed casket of early or middle recovery, he getting angrier than ever, pushing loved one’s away, utterly confused about why this is happening. Why, after years of feeling he had his anger under wraps, has it become explosive again? He feels like a nuclear bomb ready to destroy everything. Why is his life suddenly getting worse, and he feeling more and more desperate and confused, and truth be known, empty and broken-hearted?                                                                                                                                                              

He re-does his 12 Steps, hoping to take the charge out of his anger. He does his emergency routine which has helped him through the rough spots in the past—going to more meetings, sponsoring others, trying to give away what he’s been given. He finds only emptiness or fleeting relief—it’s not the solution and not delivering the precision he needs to move forward. He explains his situation to fellow members in recovery and he gets formula answers—what has worked in the past,answers he already knows and tries to implement and which did help before. Yet more and more he feels the program and the promises are evading him. He swings from the feeling he’s done something bad to his worse-case scenario occurring—the world does not want him; he is rejected, just as he feared. After talking about his confusion with recovering friends for too long a period, he resigns himself and stops talking. And one day he is gone. His seat at AA meetings is empty. He drinks, and the shame of his defeat tears him apart. He becomes one of the long term tragedies that rock AA and NA. The best of the best have fallen.                                                                                                                                            

You must have support here. You must surround yourself with people who have walked through this inner terrain, who can help you when everything inside you says, “Flee this moment. Do not feel this stuff. This will be the end of you. Every bad thing you imagined will occur if you sit in this emotional fire.” It is serious business. At this door of freedom your core fears will arise like a dragon before you, and you will sense into its stark message, will feel it in the marrow of your bones. If you are Four, you will feel the devastation of feeling that you are utterly insignificant. A Two, that you are utterly cut off from love and are unlovable. The One, that you are inherently bad and irredeemable. The Nine, that you are nobody special and cut off from all you love, your heart utterly desolate. The Seven, that there is no joy, only a world in which there is suffering. The Eight, of utter castration and deadness. The Six, that the universe offers you no guidance, you fated to live in a state of panic and disorientation. The Five, that you are lost in a meaningless and chaotic world, with no strength or capacity to survive it.                                                                                                                                                           

Riso/Hudson say, “You feel all the hurt and shame and inadequacy that we are all walking around with and how scary it is to be a human being, how much fear we have in our nervous systems, all the trauma stuff. There you sit. There is no prettifying it here. No making nice about it. This is a no-BS Stratum.” And in this fire, you will, if you can resist acting out defensively in your type’s fashion to the feelings pouring through you—rage, heart break, shame, terror, despair, animal hunger—will experience the arising of inner support, of something deeper inside you coming to your aid, be it compassion, strength, knowingness, courage. In this dark hour of the soul will arise real light, love, clarity, and awakeness. As you courageously experience the truth of your very real woundedness, you discover support is there, has always been here.                                                

And then, you pass through to another door…                                                                                          

Stratum Six—God’s Waiting Room: Our Grief, Remorse, and Ego Deficiency

Nothing could be stranger. Riso/Hudson describe it this way: “Everything feels false here. You can say something like, ‘It’s a Saturday morning!’ and you feel fake. It’s not a self-attack or self-judgment. It could sound like depression, but no. You’re awake and aware. Whatever you thought God was—gone! Whatever you thought spirituality was—gone! However you thought you were going to save the world—gone! You are being emptied out.” (Excavation of the True Self, IEA conference, 2010, Riso-Hudson).                                                               

At Stratum Six we experience the utter delusion of our self-concepts, beliefs and conceptual constructs. We sense directly into the shell of our personality which we have mistook for “I.” In so doing, we are shocked awake with the realization of how we have lived in utter falseness, wrapped in the veils of the ego. We are filled with remorse and grief in realizing the many opportunities we were given to know and embody the truth, to return to our authenticity, and that we turned away, over and over again, unwittingly choosing the false over the real. Grief for self and the world touches you, realizing that this precious world is not what it could be. This is the true dark hour of the soul, when all of our type’s ego-strategies to get that one thing you thought would bring you home, to heal you, is seen as fraudulent, and will never happen. If you are Two, it’s the belief that you will finally find someone who loves you unconditionally—then I’ll be happy. For the Four, it’s the dream that somehow your uniqueness will be finally realized, that the world will finally see that it’s been missing you and your specialness, and then you will be redeemed. Or the One, that one day you will do enough to redeem yourself and your badness—and finally prove your goodness. Or, the Five, that with enough study you will understand the world and no longer be engulfed in the idiocy of others.                                                                             

Whatever the type’s redemption script and ego-agenda is, here you realize its emptiness and that whatever you thought would bring you ultimate happiness, i.e. “If I just get that, or do this, then I’ll be happy,” will never, ever happen that way. And if it did, it won’t do for you what you thought it would. With merciful, kind eyes you see through all the emptiness and delusion of your ego agendas, identifications and stories and sit in a place of complete unknowingness. You don’t know where to go or what to do. The ego habits that have brought you temporary relief or temporary hope, you realize do not serve you. They are done and over. Now you must wait in this script-empty, directionless place for something you do not comprehend. You have entered the desert. All your identity stories dissolve. The “I” you have called yourself disappears. On the verge of a precipitous awakening, you wait. There is nowhere to go but here. This is Christ in the desert, Buddha sitting under the tree of enlightenment. A shock is required. You realize all efforting to ‘do’ anything is wrong, and only will return you to the suffering you have traveled through. Here, if you are not prepared or lack knowledge of the process—the necessary death of your false sense, your ego identity—you can despair, give up, relapse. Right at the door of your ultimate awakening, at the darkest hour before a very real dawn, please wait, simply wait, and trust…trust…breath…

Stratum Seven: The Shining Emptiness, the Void—The Return Home

Then—a break thru! You surrender. You drop your will, truly. At Stratum Seven a door opens and someone says, ”Next.” You walk through and enter the Shining Emptiness. You directly experience “the vastness of who and what you really are beyond time and space, where you came from.” (Riso/Hudson, IEA conference, 2010). To the ego, this is terrifying, at least initially. This is complete and ultimate ego death, but you have prepared, stage by stage. As you relax through the contortions of the ego’s last withdrawals (your aren’t destroying it, you’re seeing through it, wearing it like transparent, silk clothing, ever so lightly), “you get that reality is this shimmering, beautiful, astonishing, intelligent unity that has nothing to do with anything that your little mind thought it was.” (Riso/Hudson, IEA conference, 2010).                                                                                                     

This is what Bill Wilson got a glimpse of in 1934, when he said, “Suddenly, the room lit up with a great white light. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was the wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’” (As Bill Sees It, p.2)                                                                                                                                                                                

In this amazing moment, Bill was tapping into Stratum Seven, getting a glimpse of where his journey could take him, tasting God for a brief moment, he utterly impacted by this encounter. So affected by this experience, he began the journey of his recovery from alcoholism, and co-creating the single most impacting vehicle on planet earth for redeeming men and women from addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous. He had been given a gift of the Spirit, a direct taste of the Divine, a sense of what was always trying to reach him. But be clear about this, he was not living here, but was just beginning his journey from Stratum One and Two.[1]                                   

At Stratum Seven you feel that you are home, returned to your true source. You see that everything is a manifestation of God, including yourself. Riso/Hudson describe the great paradox: “The experience of it for the ego is terrifying because it seems like death, for the ego that is. But that ends up being the consummation of our love for God, and God’s love for us. It’s like the most ecstatic experience a human being can have. It’s like complete release, a physical orgasm is a pale imitation. It’s your whole soul in an orgasm.” (Riso/Hudson, IEA conference, 2010).                                                                                                                                                     

Put simply, you experience directly without obscuration, your True Identity. This is the stuff of Level 1 (in the Levels of Development), the return home to true Being, the Real Self. This is the “Peace that passes all understanding” as written in the bible. This is Bill Wilson saying, “All about me and through me there was the wonderful feeling of Presence.” Or as Riso/Hudson say, “You finally, without any veils, experience yourself as the timeless consciousness that is the only subject of all experience. It is the only Real “I”.”…You realize when you are in it, that this is what I’ve been searching for all my life…it feels like a return home, or the beginning of a return to your true source.” (Riso/Hudson, IEA conference, 2010).                                                                               

Stratum Eight: True Personal Being/Stratum Nine: Non-Personal Universal Being

It can be very difficult to separate these two Stratum, as they co-emerge. Russ Hudson states it clearly: “You’re left with the direct awareness that there is nothing here but God.Everything that you can experience, everything that is, is God.” (From Laughing and Crying, with Richard Rohr, 2010). Simply put, It’s the clear sense that Divine Presence is here all the time, and is what I am and you are. In fact, right here is God and you find it not in some cosmic, out there, trance, but in all the particulars of your life: your wife’s voice, the doorknob, the blue sky, the sound of the facet dripping, your angry boss, everything. Nothing is separate from the Divine reality. It is all God, it is all Presence. Nowhere to go but here. And, you fall in love with the world.                                                 

Riso/Hudson add: “You get that reality is this shimmering, beautiful, astonishing, intelligent unity that has nothing to do with anything that your little mind thought it was.” ((Riso/Hudson, IEA conference, 2010). You see and experience the miracle of this world. You see and experience the blessings and privilege of being a human being manifesting right now.                                                                                                                              

Russ Hudson clarifies: “In the Ninth Stratum you become absolutely human.You’re not up on some podium, you’re not better than other people; everything is intimate, personal, and delicious.In having your orange juice in the morning is an absolute experience of revelation.” In this state of absolute transparency, all the veils of habits you’ve acquired to shield yourself from the world and yourself are gone. Your heart is open. You inhabit your body. Your mind is open and spacious, no longer pummeled by a thought-stream of worry, preparation, resentment, objectification, deceit, or fantasy separating you from yourself. You are here, able to perceive, appreciate, and be taken by the miracle of your life. You revel in the magnificence found in the details and the amazing scope of reality. You are fully awake, savoring, sensing, and feeling the absolute preciousness of every moment. This is where your spiritual journey has taken you, through the gates of hell to a true heaven, found right here, right now, in this moment, alive and awake.                                                                             

Your perception of what brings you joy, what touches you, what fills your heart and soul, are so vastly expanded that a drug high pales in relationship to it. You have found what your heart truly craves and it is here, embraced in the sounds of your daughter’s voice, embraced in the texture of your hands, embraced in every impression you are able to savor reality with, sights, sounds, textures, tastes, tones, senses. This is the garden the ancients spoke of. This is what Bill Wilson sensed was in the future when he spoke of AA and the 12 Steps as kindergarten of the spirit. Intuitively he knew what awaited him.

The  Journey to Your True Self

The journey to one’s True Nature, one’s Authentic Self, is the hero’s journey. It’s Sam-wise and Frodo traveling to the fires of Mordor to destroy the ring that addicts those who wear it to power, greed, cold-heartedness and grandiosity. It is Harry Potter facing Voldemort, willing to risk his life for liberation. Along the way you will face insurmountable difficulties, that with patience, courage, utter determination and support, you will surmount. It is not easy, quick, nor beyond your grasp. But this must be faced head-on: you cannot journey alone. Much help is needed. Much wisdom from those who know the journey can be gained. Learning to see yourself requires the eyes and hearts of others to assist you in the seeing. The hope of all who begin this journey is that it will be fast and effortless journey once one has walked through the distress and horror of early recovery. Truth is, there will be times when it is easy, when everything flows, until it doesn’t. In which case one is challenged to begin again, with beginners mind, humbled in the face of not knowing what to do, or how to move through the next obstacle. Along the way you will acquire a wonderful gift: the capacity to inhabit yourself with joy, with peace, with tenderness, with aliveness, and with clarity. You will be, as said in 12 step programs, comfortable in your own skin. This is the hallelujah moment. And of course, you will lose this, and gain it back again, hundreds of times. It’s the dance of recovery, the journey into what is deepest, truest, and most real within you. And as you deepen, a heart of profound gratitude will emerge, and your passion to give away what you have been so generously and mercifully given, will continue to expand and awaken.

[1] See Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson by Francis Hartigan (Oct 12, 2001) for the remarkable story of Bill Wilson’s journey, a mixture of his genius and his very real difficulties.  

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