Leslie Jamison’s book The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath uses a broad scope of material to construct the experience of addiction and attempts at recovery: through personal memoir, research into historical figures, and reflection on the methods and theories associated with treating substance abuse. There are many, many reasons to read this book, and none of them are explicitly prescriptive. Instead, Jamison ends up talking a lot about her experience with alcoholism, and gently exploits the memoir genre to create a case which is so intimate with her own reality that it will not leave its readers alone after they have read it in entirety.

One of the most interesting parts of Jamison’s recovery that she documents in the book is her use of prayer. Her impression of faith from her childhood was one of disillusionment, but when all her self-understanding hadn’t given her “any release from [the] compulsion” of drinking, she turns to the ritual of prayer, quoting David Foster Wallace: “I used to think you had to believe to pray. Now I know I had it ass-backwards.”

“This ruptured syllogism—If I understand myself, I’ll get better—made me question the way I’d come to worship self-awareness itself, a brand of secular humanism: Know thyself, and act accordingly. What if you reversed this? Act, and know thyself differently. Showing up for a meeting, for a ritual, for a conversation—this was an act that could be true no matter what you felt as you were doing it. Doing something without knowing if you believed it—that was proof of sincerity, rather than its absence.”

There is so much of what we do with our bodies and with our hands that don’t require any thought. These actions, from gestures to our favorite catch-phrases, or even the way we walk, is a sum of our entire life experiences. These aren’t controllable or conscious things, as any nail-biter will know.

As a society we’re used to the idea that there’s a lot of frustration between our minds and bodies: we continually curse and continue our late-night binge eating, our old cigarette habit. I keep falling into the same trivial arguments with my partner, over and over again. We always get over them quickly; they’re always shallow, but it’s become a habit. I would attribute this to the past arguments we’ve slipped into, and the familiarity and repetition of the way we’ve learned to communicate to each other. The point is, what we do holds far more weight in our everyday lives than the strained and vague theological thoughts we have when listening to a sermon in church.

I don’t want to propose a simplistic idea that God is just conveniently waiting for you to do your morning routines—to make a cup of coffee, or take the pre-work walk with your dog in the nasty hours before dawn—but I think that Jamison makes a significant case for the doing of things as a reversal of her own attempts at finding meaning: that her actions give her a purpose that she couldn’t have pre-thought or conjured up while lying in bed.

To me this is a kind of relief; like many others, I am dismayed by the amount of deep thought that goes on in my brain compared to the lame output that results. I think about Aristotle’s different types of love, and then I go spend $10 on tacos. I form a mental opinion on the Women’s March and its implications for future generations, and promptly open Instagram to watch videos of baby ducks. We experience a disconnect that we don’t even realize: our minds lie in one place, our bodies and actions in another. The earth is splitting even right between our feet and we’re just trying keep footing on both sides without ever looking down.

And so, to hear Jamison talk about prayer, and about how it was an action to her before it represented any kind of enlightenment or communication—this takes holiness away from my intellect, which doesn’t do very well, and forces me to sit and receive it instead, to act on its accord.

When finishing up my art degree (a work still in progress), I sat in a class that focused primarily on what it looked like to be an artist. One of the first things our instructor established was that being an artist was not a matter of thought, but of practice. The work and progress came not from being able to think of great things, but from spending long, dull, painful hours with our artwork every day, even if we didn’t know why.

The more we worked that semester, the more I understood that she was right. The longer I spent doing something with the paintbrush in my hand, the deeper my artwork became—never when I expected it to, and never in the way I wanted it to. That process became its own growth. Going through the motions—literally pulling myself out of bed to go stand in my crowded studio with my attempts at art—mattered more than anything else I was doing to further my artistic skill. Needless to say, when I gave my practice less physical time, it quickly shriveled up.

This is not just to say that good habits make for good results—we can try all we want and still make more bad work than good, sometimes—but I think that the practice of art, distanced as it might be from the everyday world, has got something right: it gives value to action. It argues, by proof of existence, that there is something about doing things that is valid even if we don’t know why we’re doing it.

Jamison’s habit of prayer fortifies her path to recovery without really defining it. She talks about it only a few times before letting it go to focus her writing on other aspects of recovery. What stays with her in her writing is the presence she feels with the world around her: with the countless bathrooms she prayed in, and with the inanimate objects like bubble bath containers and old shower mats. There was a significance to these things would never have been there before. Just as my time spent with my artwork made (at least a little) sense of my relationship to the strange marks and colors on paper, Jamison’s prayer brought her closer to a sacred awareness of the present. “In those bathrooms,” she describes, “God wasn’t faceless omnipotence but proximate particulars, grout and soap—the things that had always been there, right in front of me.”

What I eventually (and imperfectly) achieved in developing a studio practice was a trust in something beyond myself. It is so tempting, in the moments before going to work with the physical materials, to try and mastermind it all beforehand: to draw a mental picture of the painting, and to decide what colors should be added; what should be drawn forward, or taken back in the composition. For most of my artistic experience, and I suspect for many others learning to make art, this ability to attribute my talent only to what was in my head was what I thought made me a “worthwhile” artist. Ultimately I knew that one day I would lose this studio habit, this time that I committed—either out of circumstance or laziness. And I could not bear to admit that my artistic practice would fall away with it, because that would be putting the art’s worth in something that was not from me but from the time spent with the work.

The truth, obvious at this point, is that thinking about your art while sipping on a coffee in bed might feel better than bending over a painting, but it’s not going to grow you as an artist. Instead, I learned that making art wasn’t about being in control of the operation, but becoming a receiver; in those precious moments when I wasn’t too caught up in my own vision, I took what that time and space gave me and put it down in on the canvas, and learned from it.

The presupposition is that creativity and talent must come from someone’s mind; that they’re born with the instinct for musical talent, or that no one can really ever achieve anything like da Vinci, or James Joyce, or Stanley Kubrick. Likewise, I thought that if I were really an artist of true talent, it should be a process of my (obviously magnificent) proficiency; just something that I was lucky enough to possess. What I learned was the opposite: that my own thinking really crushed any meaningful creativity and that whatever “artistic talent” I had was honestly something that I did not possess or control. And that practice of going into the studio became a matter of trust, not of decision.

Jamison talks about some presuppositions commonly placed on creative genius; it’s a hot topic for any writer or artist, perhaps because deep down we all fear that we are not actually artists, that draw back our curtain and we are in fact not what we claim to be—hence the idolization of what we feel we can never truly have (at least, that’s my experience). Jamison writes the story of alcoholic writers along with her own because the legends of creativity have informed her experience; she’s looked to them as examples of what alcohol can do for artistic and intellectual inspiration, and when she can’t sustain a life of drinking, she looks to those writers and musicians who tried and sometimes failed to find their voice outside of an altered state of mind, to help with her own reckoning with the reality of sober life.

Months into her first stint with Alcoholics Anonymous, Jamison’s initial impressions of sobriety are replaced with the false confidence that she can start drinking again. Readers already know what the outcome of this will be, but her justifications to herself of her own strength of mind are too relatable to be judged. Maybe it’s not with a substance (or maybe it is), but we’ve all gone a little bit of time without something and then miss it so much that we become brazenly convinced of our ability to strongarm the substances of our previous habits into watered-down and morally admissible ‘rewards.’ It’s at this point in the book, when Jamison fails in the way that most do, that the story directly stops being about recovery from alcohol and that it starts getting under our skin, because it’s just about the way that we try to retain a semblance of self-control over our lives. This self-control is not pretty: it doesn’t usually work, and worst of all, conquering ourselves once doesn’t usually shed the vice out of our lives forever. Jamison’s breaking of her sobriety stings because it is circular and familiar; it is the self unable to break free from itself because of its desire for autonomy.

And so it is with this realization that prayer sessions in a cold bathroom start to make sense; that praying to anything other than yourself is uncomfortable and might throb like the sound of the rattling bathroom fan in the ceiling. Jamison’s reluctant commitment to the habit somehow transforms her experience of what’s around her, as she comes to terms with the ‘ordinary’ once more. It’s found in casseroles shared with other AA members in someone’s living room, or the dull throb of a day spent wanting nothing more than the drink she can’t have. At first, this is something that art must be repelled by—this thoughtless routine, processed cheese dishes which do more nutritional harm than good—but as she follows the path of others who have pulled themselves up out of addiction, Jamison finds some worth in this ritual of sobriety; something which contradicts my liberal-arts-formed idea of what art seems to always be about: the transcendent, the spiritual, the things we don’t often live through. Instead, art can be about what we have to live through (our own selves being one of the harder hurdles, sometimes); the recognition of creativity and sobriety as forces beyond our say-so which bring us back to the presence of the world and our undeserved privilege to live in it.