“Write,” I tell my clients. I sing the merits of the writing process: rewiring the brain, getting uncomfortable, finding a voice, purging toxicity, cultivating awareness, discovering patterns, sitting with self, developing connection…
And then I go home and swallow the words that rise in the midnight darkness because they are ill-timed and inconvenient (yet that is the only time I make for them).
I’d rather not be a hypocrite – even if I’m the only one aware of my hypocrisy.
Lately, I’ve been acting like a lighthouse with legs. I’ve been dashing madly around my island – raving about the waves – when my job is to stay with my light. There is no real aid in rescuing, only in illuminating. I can’t illuminate when I’m unglued from my foundation, my lamp cooling in the dusk like an afterthought.
In the interest of practicing what I preach – “Write! Illuminate! Make yourself a priority!” – here are the words I tried to blanket in sleep:
There comes a time when Mortality darkens your doorstep with the sole purpose of decking you in the face. You’ve acknowledged Mortality, of course; you know it’s there. But prior to the uninvited appearance on your doorstep, your interactions have always been limited to polite nods – like passing a stranger on the street. You accept the stranger’s existence, but you don’t make prolonged eye contact.
When Mortality stops to blacken both your eyes, gazing brazenly into the core of your being, you have to decide what to do with the intimacy of the encounter.
Most humans – active addicts, especially – would rather close their eyes and pretend the exchange never happened. Distraught by the implications of what they’ve seen, they choose blindness. They choose clinging and craving. They construct elaborate castles out of sand, feigning permanence and certainty.
Somewhere along the line, without quite comprehending the magnitude of my decision, I stopped choosing blindness and opened my eyes. I wasn’t looking for impermanence, but it was waiting on the other side of my lashes.
Having spent most of my life running from pain, its arrival is still a shock, like falling through a frozen lake into icy water. A drowning man’s knee jerk response is to resist, expending precious energy in the wild flailing of limbs. A return to the ice – if there is to be one – requires surrender.
We will likely fall through the ice many times in our lives.
In “A Buddhist Perspective on Grieving,” Roshi Joan Halifax writes:
The river of grief might pulse deep inside us, hidden from our view, but its presence informs our lives at every turn. It can drive us into the numbing habits of escape from suffering or bring us face to face with our own humanity…
When we move through the terrible transformation of the elements of loss and grief, we may discover the truth of the impermanence of everything in our life, and of course, of this very life itself. This is one of the most profound discoveries to be made as we engage in Buddhist practice. In this way, grief and sorrow may teach us gratitude for what we have been given, even the gift of suffering. From her we learn to swim in the stream of universal sorrow. And in that stream, we may even find joy.
We all suffer. We all swim in the stream of universal sorrow. We are all afraid. The sound of ice cracking sends terror down our collective spine. This is our humanity. When we deny our suffering, we deny our humanity. When we make ourselves numb to the stream of sorrow, we disavow the truth of our existence.
Addiction, by its very nature, is making that which is human progressively inhuman. The avoidance of suffering is the avoidance of life itself. The paradox is that in order to love, we must open ourselves to suffering. Everything changes. Everything.
My wife and I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. During our visit, I snapped a photo of the sculpture Guanyin and the associated display. It said:
Buddhists believe that, although life is characterized by suffering, every being has the potential to achieve enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. A bodhisattva (“enlightened being”) has reached the state of Buddhahood but remains on Earth to help all beings attain enlightenment.
I don’t pretend to have reached Buddhahood by any means, but I do know that the recovery process has delivered me to a state of wakefulness. Sometimes it hurts to be awake, because it means I have embraced the full range of the human experience. Sometimes it’s lonely, because I want to be numb like so many of my peers. But reading the museum plaque comforted me, as if I’d had a conversation with the Goddess of Mercy herself:
“Why am I here?” I inquired.
“You are here to help,” she replied.
Suffering magnifies the radiance of everything else. Grief emphasizes the value of everything that is not grief; driving in the rain, a tired mother’s tongue-in-cheek admonishment, the color green, warm skin, cool sheets, the smell of coffee, a sincere thank-you, a paper grocery bag, every atom of beautiful minutiae…
On my way home from work, I thought about how I would write this. I thought about how we all fear suffering. I thought about what it means to be sober and what it means to live in the truth of humanity, and how the two are pretty much one in the same. And when the back window of the vehicle in front of me came into focus, I saw a sticker:
Love > Fear