S1 E6: TJ Woodward on Awakening the Consciousness
Spiritual author and speaker TJ Woodward sits down with Meadows editorial director Wendy Lee Nentwig to talk about how awakening our consciousness can help us unlearn the false beliefs that are holding us back.
TJ Woodward: Hi, I’m TJ Woodward. I’m the author of the books Conscious Being: Awakening to Your True Nature and Conscious Recovery: A Fresh Perspective on Addiction. What I’m most excited about now is I’m also the creator of the conscious recovery method which is a modality of treatment. Actually, I’m going to say it’s a modality of healing because I’m very interested in moving the conversation from how we treat addiction to how we actually help people heal their addiction and it’s operating under a very simple premise. It started with the question, what might happen if I started to view the person I’m working with through the lens of spiritual wholeness rather than looking for what is broken about them?
I’ve seen remarkable results because of that simple question.
Wendy Lee Nentwig: So, we’ve met before. We talked back in the day before either of these books were actually something you could hold in your hand. For the people who haven’t met you, let’s talk a little bit, share a little bit about how you got into this field, why recovery and spirituality, why it means so much to you personally.
TJ: Well, I could go way back and start actually from a very early experience. I remember being a very, very happy child. I remember being absolutely present and in awe of the world. Really, what my earliest memories are, are simply being an awe of the world and laying in my backyard, mesmerized by a blade of grass. I promise there’s a reason I’m telling this story because around the age seven, I had an experience where I closed my heart. It was an unconscious strategy or an unconscious mechanism to protect me from a world that I could quickly, I quickly was realizing was not really celebrating viewing people as their whole and perfect spiritual self.
So, through a lot of different traumatic experiences, I built a wall around my heart. I got sober when I was just shy of my 21st birthday, so 33 years ago, believe it or not. I really recognized at that time that it wasn’t so much about what I needed to learn but what I needed to unlearn and I felt so broken and so damaged. I remember feeling so damaged when I first got sober. I met a woman named Mary Helen Brunel who changed my life. She was one of the first people that really saw me as a whole and perfect spiritual being. She saw everyone as a whole and perfect spiritual being but it was one of the first times I was in the presence of someone who had the ability to see that.
How that informs how conscious recovery came to be is I started working in the addiction treatment field over a decade ago and I quickly realized that most modalities were focused on symptoms and behaviors and they were treating the person as broken in some way. So, here’s someone coming into treatment or coming into a therapy office that already feels broken, already feels damaged, and then many clinicians are trained to diagnose and treat.
Although of course, that is a very valuable part of the process, there’s also this other piece where what might happen if we were to view the person we’re working with through this lens of spiritual wholeness. So, I wrote conscious recovery, I developed curriculum, I have a workbook all because I think it’s time for us to shift the treatment paradigm to really getting down to the deeper root causes and offering some actual tools to help people break free and return to their wholeness.
Wendy Lee: Great that you mentioned the workbooks. There are workbooks for each of these books. Why was that an important component to have?
TJ: Well, In my first book, Conscious Being, I had many, many people say to me, “This is really cool and it sounds really great but I have no idea how to apply this to my life,” because Conscious Being I think is a little bit more esoteric if you will. It’s not related on addiction specifically but for everyone how to reconnect with their essential wholeness. So, I realized that I wanted to offer something that’s more practical that would take the concepts from each chapter in the book and gives them exercises for someone to see how can I really apply this to my life and how can I use this material? Not so much as a concept, but as an actual practice.
Wendy Lee: Tell me a little bit about your spiritual path. You’re based in San Francisco, right?
TJ: I am.
Wendy Lee: What that has looked like there and kind of that training ground and some of the things you’ve done there.
TJ: Well, spirituality to me, when I first got into recovery, actually I got sober in Dallas, 1986, and it was a time where there was more of, let’s say a religious overtone to spirituality which I think is great and it wasn’t something that I really resonated with. So, for me, meeting Mary Helen and she had been to India multiple times and she had studied Eastern philosophy.
For me, what became really appealing is more of the new thought teaching, more of the Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, so I started studying a lot in my early 20s and in my early recovery looking at how spirituality can actually apply to my life and how for me, how I could shift it for more of a religious approach, more of a God that’s up there and out there to a more inner approach.
I was reading and really resonating with this different teaching that was saying, “What if I’m essentially whole and perfect?” I keep going back to that because that’s the important message for me that God essence or spirituality or source, whatever word we use, is an essential part of each of us. It’s not something we need to seek out there but something we can return to within.
Wendy Lee: You also use the term the great remembering and I wanted to talk a little bit more about what that process was like for you and what did it show you about who you are?
TJ: Well, if we go back to a remembering of how I felt as a young person, a very young person when I remembered who and what I was and who and what I am, filled with joy. I work with clients who with heartbreaking honesty say they can’t remember that. They remember the experience of coming into a world and immediately experiencing trauma.
For me, I actually have the remembrance of that time and place when I felt so filled with joy. So, for me, my framework is a recognition that each of us comes into this world in that way deeply connected. If you look at a really small child under five, they pretty much let us know how they feel. They allow themselves to feel that those feelings pass through them.
They’re very much in the moment, they’re filled with joy. For me, the great remembering is simply a recognition that underneath all the layers of strategies and trauma and pain and shame that many of us have experienced, that light is still there.
truth is still who and what we are. For me, it’s really the great remembering is remembering that essential truth. To me, that’s the ultimate surrender, you might even say the only surrender. It’s a surrender to that deeper truth, our own magnificence, our own spiritual essence.
Wendy Lee: So, another term that we talk about that we hear from you is “becoming conscious.” What does that mean for you? Can you elaborate a bit?
TJ: Absolutely. I’m going to share this because there’s a simple way to talk about it. If we plant a maple seed in the ground and the ground, in this case, is representing the unconscious, what’s under the surface that we can’t see, if I plant a maple seed, I get a maple tree. SO, what we can see is the tree but what’s created, of course, the tree is the seed. In other words, everything within the seed to create a maple, this tree is already within it. Why I say that is the unconscious is the same way, so in conscious recovery, we look at deeply held core false beliefs as the unconscious.
Most of us create a belief system, or as I say, BS belief systems about ourself and the world. Many of us believe I am not good enough. I am not worthy. I am broken in some way. When those beliefs are trapped in the unconscious, so again, imagine the seed, we are growing I’m-not-lovable trees. So, no matter how much work we do trimming the branches or adding some lights, we’re going to keep growing the I’m-not-lovable tree until we really get down to what’s held or trapped in the subconscious or the unconscious for us to explore, so we can begin to do that deeper work. That’s really the work of conscious recovery.
We’re inviting to not focus just on the branches if you will or the strategies or the symptoms. We’re getting down to taking a look at where those seeds were planted and how we begin to work with those and unlearn some of those beliefs so that we can start creating a different picture of our lives.
Wendy Lee: That really feels like something that is newer from the time when you first began your recovery journey. We weren’t really looking at what was underneath at what was behind the behaviors. It was more just the behaviors themselves. Why do you feel like that’s so important that that’s changed so much?
TJ: Well, I think consciousness evolves, right? When I got sober, I think what we were doing then is looking at it in terms of patterns. So, people might have said where do you think this pattern developed and people might have spent 20 years in talk therapy looking at where the patterns developed, I quickly realized, okay, so I know where the shame comes from. I know where these beliefs came from. I know that it came from my own experience of shutting down and closing off but that doesn’t really change it. That awareness isn’t really going to shift the deeply held beliefs.
I think at that time, it was just where we were at in consciousness. Even when I started in this field a little over a decade ago, some of what you and I are talking about today would have been viewed as fringe. This is on the fringe. What are you talking about, because I talk a lot about frequency and energy and how we in the quantum field the observer has an effect.
That wasn’t a conversation that people were really in a decade ago, so I think we’re simply evolving and more and more of us are recognizing that we need to get down to those deeper roots. Another thing I’ll say is the generation that’s coming of age now, they’re coming in with a different consciousness. So, they’re coming in recognizing that this is a deeper experience or a deeper situation on their lives and not so much just focused on the out-picturing of the symptoms.
Wendy Lee: When we choose not to pursue that journey toward consciousness and self-discovery, how does that negatively affect us? How does being more conscious benefit all of us whether we’re in recovery or not?
TJ: Going back to the analogy of the seed in the tree, so I’ll share from my own journey because I think experience is helpful and it also really informs how I work with clients. I was walking around with the I’m-not-lovable seed. I believed I wasn’t lovable. Of course, I had these I’m-not-lovable trees all around me and what was happening for me is I desperately wanted love. I desperately wanted someone to see me or love me but I was literally vibrating at the frequency of I’m not lovable, so I kept finding myself in relationships that we’re confirming the core false belief.
If I’m not doing any of the work in the unconscious, no amount of strategy because in conscious recovery I call addiction of brilliant strategy because it’s a strategy that serves us in some way. So, if my strategy like mine was is please love me, please love me, it was almost an addictive need to be in relationships but I kept showing up for relationships that were confirming the actual core false belief. So, if I’m walking around unaware of what’s in the conscious and the unconscious, I’m going to keep repeating that.
That’s why we hear, gosh, this time, I thought this job would be different. This time I thought this partner would be different. This time I thought I would move to this new city and it would be different but ultimately, until we get down and work on some of the deeper unconscious beliefs, biases and that frequency, we’re going to keep repeating that.
Wendy Lee: We have a couple of questions that we’re asking everybody so that we get just a wide range of opinions from all across the field and different experts. The first one is what’s the best piece of recovery-related advice you’ve received?
TJ: Wow, the best recovery-related advice I received comes back, I’m going to go way back again to my first mentor, Mary Helen Brownell, who would say to me, “Recovery isn’t about learning, it’s about unlearning.”
To me, that was something that my mind could grab on to at the time because, to me, the recovery process as we’ve already talked about is returning to the essential place. If I believe I’m my story, if I believe I am what happened to me, if I believe that the trauma that has happened to my life creates who I am today, if I believe that fundamentally, I’m going to keep repeating that. How that’s tied into addiction as it’s painful to live that way and so eventually, we’re going to look for someone, some things, some substance to soothe that.
Even the concept of unlearning just being able to play with that idea has been life-changing. It was then because I started to ask myself, what is the meaning I’m making about this? What’s story have I been carrying around? What is a different possibility here?
Wendy Lee: What is your favorite recovery related book or resource?
TJ: Well, other than Conscious Recovery, of course. Now, I would say that my favorite book that could be considered a recovery but it’s not recovery-focused specifically but filled with universal principles is A New Earthby Eckhart Tolle. I think he does a beautiful job of helping us to see this whole idea about the pain body and the wounds that we’re carrying, how that creates our life, and how we can use principles and practices to return to that place of wholeness.
That book has been inspirational. Another one that I’ll mention is When Things Fall Apartby Pema Chodron. I’ve used that with many, many clients over the years. I’ve created groups around it. It is really powerful in helping us learn how to be with ourselves because, to me, recovery really is learning how to be present with what is. If addiction is running from pain, then recovery is learning how to be present with it. That book has been really instrumental not only for me but many, many clients I’ve worked with.
Wendy Lee: What is one thing you would change about how the behavioral health care industry works or how we think about behavioral health care and recovery?
TJ: Do we have two hours?
Wendy Lee: I know that was a loaded question.
TJ: Yes, I think it’s– and I really, really appreciate that you’re asking the question and that in itself, I think is really important. What I would love to see change is that clinicians are open to a new possibility and that possibility is that a recognition of what gets created when we think we have to have the answer, or what gets created when I think that I need to fix someone that seems broken.
I want to invite the entire behavioral healthcare field to look at the possibility that innate within every human being is the ability to heal and it may be really obscured and behavioral health can be a way to create a space for someone, a safe space for someone to be able to begin to look at these deeper underlying issues to get down to the core beliefs and return to that place of wholeness.
In other words, maybe more simply said, many times in the Western medical model we’re trained, I am here to diagnose you, ask you what your symptoms are, and help you get rid of them. I actually think that works really well to an extent and in behavioral health, I think the deeper question is rather than looking at that, let’s look through the lens of homeless.
Let’s start experimenting with this, playing in this new paradigm and see what happens. That’s my invitation to everyone working in the field.
Wendy Lee: Okay, last question. What do you wish the general public understood about recovery and spirituality?
TJ: Wow. That’s a big question because when I tell people I work in addiction treatment or in the behavioral health care, let’s look at addiction first. When I tell someone I work in the addiction treatment field, most people inevitably talk about homelessness and what they see as addiction. What I would like to help the general public learn about addiction is that is one face of addiction. It’s a small face of addiction. Many of us have addictive tendencies. Many people that one wouldn’t even know, CEOs of major companies, are dealing with and working with addiction.
What I would want the general public to know is that it is possible for each of us to recognize that we have addictive tendencies, and it’s also okay to begin to have the dialogue because as we know, shame is certainly in my work and conscious recovery, I identify that as one of the three root causes. Shame lives in secrecy. Shame lives in silence. So, what I would invite the general public to do is to have a conversation. To ask people that they know that are in recovery, if they know someone to share their journey, and to recognize that the stigma that has been around addiction for hundreds of years is coming to an end.
More of us are having the courage to stand up, tell our stories, and be more present and authentic.
Wendy Lee: One last question for you, what is next for you? Not that two books isn’t enough, but what are some things that you’re looking at on the horizon, some things you’re excited about?
TJ: I am really excited about being part of shifting the treatment paradigm. I have a very, very big vision for that and that vision was received from a very deep spiritual place. Conscious Recoverycame from that place. I didn’t even really want to write it to tell you the truth because I didn’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed in the addiction space or the addiction field, but I kept listening to that inner knowing. What I want to be a part of is shifting the treatment paradigm completely and bringing in the possibility that we can start to use these conscious recovery principles. I want to see the conscious recovery curriculum in at least 1000 treatment programs.
What I’m really up to in a practical way, is I’m writing my third book, I’m creating a lot of online content, we’re going to have a community online for people that are interested in conscious recovery, that they can join and do interactive exercises, connect with other people, get some videos from me. So, I’m working on a lot of things in the material world, but what I’m really working on deeply is knowing that more and more of us right now are waking up and offering some different possibilities of how we view and treat addiction. My vision for myself is to be a part of that and to connect with amazing programs like The Meadows and other people doing amazing work.
Let’s magnify this, let’s take away the stigma, let’s stop looking at people and labelling them as broken in some way. Start to look at the possibilities of what can happen as we look at this addiction through the lens of wholeness. So, you can see I’m very excited about it.
Wendy Lee: TJ Woodward is a spiritual author and addictions counselor, who’s also the founding minister at Agape Bay Area, a center for awakened living in Oakland, California. You can find out more about what he’s up to at tjwoodward.com.
To check out more episodes of this podcast and find all kinds of other resources and tools from Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, visit beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening and I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.