Interview – Marya Hornbacher

This interview was published on 11/01/2011 at the Edge Magazine.  It is part 1 of a series examining the role of spirituality within writing.

A NonBeliever’s Higher Power

Introduction and bio:

Marya Hornbacher, a Pulitzer Prize and Pushcart Prize nominee, has written several books dealing with various mental illnesses, including eating disorders and bipolar.  Her books have been translated into multiple languages and are taught as part of coursework at universities and literature programs in the United States and Europe.

Marya’s previous book, “Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps”, was written as a guide for those dealing with addictions and mental illness.  Her most recent is “Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power”.  Written by someone who does not believe in God and has been through AA and the 12-steps, it provides a working and grounded guide to spirituality, while exploring the principles within the Big Book.


Edge: What inspired you to write “Waiting”?

Marya Hornbacher: It seemed to me that there was a hole in the recovery literature where the spiritual experience of the non-believer could be discussed. Much of recovery literature gives the impression that the non-believer does not have a place in the program; the statement that recovering people are welcome to find any “God of their understanding” is useful for many, but still assumes that all people will understand something, or someone, as a God or Higher Power.

There is a great deal of concern expressed by believers in the 12 Step program when a recovering person states that they do not believe in any God or Higher Power; there is sometimes an assumption that that person cannot “get” the program, or, in other words, cannot recover. I wanted there to be something in the recovery literature that discussed spirituality from the point of view of someone living a non-theistic, non-deistic, but nevertheless spiritual life. Waiting explores the possibility of spiritual practice, and recovery in a 12 Step program, for anyone.

Edge: Can silence be an answer to the hard questions we ask?  How can we interpret silence?

Marya Hornbacher: Waiting looks at exactly that question or premise that our hard questions will be met with silence (if we are looking for answers from without), and that as sentient beings it will be up to us how we interpret those silences. The book’s purpose is to give readers a sense that their own process of “waiting” – often in silence, or in quietude listening to the spiritual self – is a spiritual process, and a means of discovering our own answers to those hard questions.

Edge: What is the relationship and interconnectedness of humans and nature?  Are they separate entities?

Marya Hornbacher:  This reminds me of the funny distinction we often make between the physical body and the mind, or “self.” We are the body. The body, nature, and all that is around us is not something else, but is actually what we’re made of.  We consist of all we see, all we touch, taste, and breathe. We are no more than, no less than, matter; and yet what a wonder that from matter arises beauty, consciousness, oceans, heartbeats, glaciers, cultures, and breath.  The spiritual self has evolved as much as the physical self.  I think it is helpful to remain mindful of the fact that we are but a fragment of all that is. It keeps us aware of both our smallness and our responsibility to one another, and to the world.

A quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson sums this up: “So that we are all connected, to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically”.

Edge: What is the role of nature in writing and spirituality?

Marya Hornbacher: I know that when I am reading, if I do not feel grounded in place and in the writer’s voice, I feel untethered; I want to put my feet on some solid ground as I read, and hear some human voice. So I think the writing I love best is that which gives me a sense that I can walk around in the world the writer describes, and can walk in the company of that writer as he or she speaks. For myself, I want to show the reader the world I see—but that is inclusive of all places, whether I am writing of the countryside or the ocean or New York. This probably has to do with the fact that I generally don’t make a sharp distinction between “nature” and “non-nature”—I see both the inhabited world and the more “natural” world as possessed of beauty and possibility. As far as the role of spirituality in writing – I think writing hardly exists apart from spirituality. There’s a way in which the spirit speaks in any creative endeavor, and I do think that tapping into one’s creative impulse taps into one’s spiritual self at the same time.

Edge: As a writer, do you have an obligation to write about spirituality?

Marya Hornbacher: I don’t know that I feel it so much as an obligation as an opportunity, so I suppose yes, there is a sense of purpose to it. There is so much to think about, feel, and discuss with one another in regards to spirituality; the fact that I have an opportunity to participate in that conversation is incredibly lucky. I feel that as long as I have language at my disposal, I can use it to find my way through some of those ideas and experiences with the hope that a reader might engage with what I write in a way that is enjoyable and useful for them.

Edge: Do you consider yourself Atheist or Agnostic?  Where did all of this come from, what created it, why are we here, where are we going?

Marya Hornbacher: I can’t say that the terms are significant to me; I think each has gathered connotations that make it less helpful in understanding a person’s spiritual perspective, rather than more.  The where, what and why are really the central premise of Waiting, and a big piece of my spiritual practice: not knowing is the nature of the human condition, and I feel it can teach us humility and acceptance in a very deep sense.

The only portion of that question I’d begin to take a stab at is ‘why are we here’ – and I would come up with a number of answers. The one most key to my spiritual practice, though, is the belief that we are here in great part for each other. I find my sense of purpose in focusing more on the needs I can try to meet in the human community, and less on determining answers to things I am incapable of answering.

Edge: Regardless of belief in a God or higher power, do you believe your gifts and purpose were pre-determined by a divine being or by yourself?

Marya Hornbacher: Neither. I believe each person’s gifts and purpose arise organically within them as they proceed through life, emerging from that person’s individual experience and their gathered wisdom as they go. I believe that gifts or purpose are often born of necessity: we are faced with our own challenges and opportunities, and our spiritual selves respond with the best that they have.

Edge: In “Waiting”, you write that we as people need to come to grips and accept limitations.  Please explain this more.

Marya Hornbacher:  I believe we must accept limitations within a spiritual context as the spiritual basis to humility.  At the end of the day I am only human, have no control over other people, and no control over time.  We are free radicals bouncing around and reacting to each other.

When you come up against the wall of human capacity, a need arises for a spiritual connection to humans and people to overcome that wall.  Finding and engaging within a community is part of accepting limitations as a solo human being.

In a spiritual state you come to be the right-size regarding self and emotions, creating balance and stability.  My purpose is to be of service; however it requires another person to have the willingness to let go and they must have a need.

Edge: How do you adapt the giving to something that is chaotic, in a state of flux, unpredictable?  Is there a common or core set of needs that always need to be addressed?

Marya Hornbacher: The core needs we have, as humans, beyond the basic hierarchy of needs, are spiritual in nature, but differ from one individual to another. So yes, I think there is a common need: spiritual nourishment, and spiritual growth. It seems to me that regardless of era and culture, the expression of spirit has always manifested in myriad ways, not least of them art. This spiritual drive to express, connect, give, develop, and grow, is, a constant; and so there is no need to adapt it to certain changing factors, but simply to continue living as human/spiritual beings, expressing and connecting and giving spiritually, becoming more enlightened as to what feeds the spiritual needs of the world over time.

Edge: Does self-control stem from or arise from a spiritual nature, in which there is an inherent balance?  Does everything simply boil down to having self-control?

Marya Hornbacher: Nothing boils down to self-control.  I believe it exists as an intellectual concept in deciding to have two scoops of gelato instead of six.  Self-control for me is a spiritual awareness, peace of mind, and willingness to do the next right thing, in the context of community and the earth.  It is surrendering and developing the awareness that you are not in control and that you are not alone.  The intellectual version of self-control can create a disciplined spiritual practice as a foundation for this growth.

Edge: What is the catalyst to become more willing to change or do the next right thing, especially when spiritually bankrupt – a concept explored throughout your book?

Marya Hornbacher: The act and moment of hitting bottom is real and can be a slow process when spiritually bankrupt or in denial.  It may be defined or surface when running out of money or hope, getting sick, or falling into a coma.  Rarely does a change happen because of something little.  The process requires you to do it on your own, in isolation, before reaching out to the community.  Until the moment of bottoming there exists a sense of fissure between yourself and the community.  The moment of clarity comes when you feel and want to be a part of this.

Edge: When the guiding principles of addiction fade, is this the “self” taking back control, or the principles becoming less controlling?

Marya Hornbacher: I distinctly believe that the self fools itself if it believes it controls very much, if anything at all. The premise of the 12 Step program is that we need to learn, and learn humility from, the fact that the individual holds very little power over realities of any kind. For those of us who do not hold theistic or deistic beliefs, I think the task is to let go of the notion that we can or one day will, control anything. Again, this is about humility, and the real relief one can feel at recognizing the simple fact that we are not in control. As the guiding principles of addiction fade, they hold less control over the self; the self, ideally, grows more spiritually aware, and in that awareness, comes to hold different principles dear – those principles (morals, ethics, tenants of faith) become the ones that guide us, where once addiction drove us forward toward our own destruction.

Edge: What did you yourself learn while writing this book?  How did this change after the book was completed?

Marya Hornbacher:  I went into the writing of the book with a slightly amorphous idea of what I believed. As I wrote, I felt my own spiritual life strengthening, my own ethical and moral beliefs becoming clearer to me, and the guiding spiritual principles of my life making themselves known. It is something I would recommend to anyone: simply write down what it is you believe, do not believe, what are the values you hold, how do you express yourself spiritually, how do you know when you are in spiritual need, and how do you get nourishment for that need.  Basically, what is your spiritual practice? What would you like it to be? And how can it become that, and then continue to become deeper as you go? Those were questions that I had the opportunity to face as I wrote Waiting, and I am grateful that I had that opportunity.