Boot Camp

I chose “quiet” as my word for 2019. I didn’t understand the irony of my choice in January.

This year has been the opposite of quiet as it’s traditionally understood. I already talked about some of the upheaval we’ve experienced, but life has added several more layers to a cake I’d like to return to the bakery. I don’t need to get into specifics but let’s just say I don’t dare ask, “what else?” Experience has demonstrated that I will invariably find out. These days, I try to laugh, throw up my hands, and say, “okay, we’ll play your way”. Sometimes my laughter borders on hysteria.

On Thursdays, my dear friend and coworker, Jen, often drives us to a local eatery to pick up lunch for our afternoon meeting. Sometimes she also listens to me rail against the onslaught of lessons the Universe has deemed necessary to assign. “It’s like boot camp,” she sagely observed, “sometimes the Universe has to tear you down to build you back up”.

“I thought I went through boot camp when I first got into recovery,” I whined. “I don’t want to do it again”. But Jen was right. These lessons – unpleasant or not – are all part of the spectrum of human experience. Walking through them with an open heart is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know why I was naive enough to think that once I got through early recovery it was going to be smooth sailing. I guess I felt like I had “paid my dues”. But so many people have paid a much higher price in pain currency. There’s no debt ceiling. Life is not fair…it just is.

Jen went on to tell the story of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. Rather than try to recount the story from memory, I am excerpting it from a fabulous article by Aura Glaser, which appears in Tricycle magazine:

One day Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have got to get rid of them!” He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence. After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. They simply stare at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving.

At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.

The tale of Milarepa revealed that I’d spent months in full on demon opposition mode. Resist! Resist! Resist! My one woman protest rivalled Occupy Wall Street. If my imaginary tent had a sign, it would say: Welcome to Occupy Cave – No Demons Welcome. But Jen’s words helped me lower my angry little fist. “Gag on this, demon,” I taunted. We had a giggle as the dialogue went further sideways.  As it turns out, “offering yourself completely” is a little easier said than done.

Not long after Jen bestowed her words of wisdom, I heard someone else say, “recovery is about making yourself visible”. I had to scrape myself off the floor. (I also have to eat crow for claiming I don’t hear new things very often. Maybe I just haven’t been listening.) These words resonated because I still love to hide – even after almost ten years. I’m the stereotypical alcoholic writer – without the bourbon and chain smoking. While I’ve been working on making myself visible in a very literal sense – like, for example, hanging out with our new (awesome) downstairs neighbors – this lesson also applies to hiding from my so-called dark side. Active addiction, in its most naked form, is the avoidance of pain. So recovery isn’t just about connecting with others, it’s also about connecting with our “shadow” selves – otherwise known as our humanity.

Glaser writes:

When we don’t acknowledge all of who we are, those unacknowledged parts will land in what Jung called the “shadow”… This is one way of seeing Milarepa’s encounter with the demons. He was encountering his shadow—all that he had suppressed and rejected in himself…We come upon our greediness, jealousy, or impatience, and the next impulse is to go to war… We don’t realize that all the while we’re strengthening the thing we’re fighting against. It’s like trying to push a beach ball into the water. Holding it down requires a huge amount of energy, and inevitably it pops back up with equal force, taking an unpredictable direction. But if you give the beach ball space and let it be, it will float effortlessly along the surface.

2019 has looked something like this: I shove each new beach ball under the water. It shoots up and smacks me in the face. I push it back down. It flies above the surface and lands 100 yards away. I swim after it – water splashing and limbs flailing – and it bobs just out of reach. I splutter and gag on the water… and it continues along undisturbed. Who is really causing all the commotion?

The infuriating answer is that it’s not the beach ball.

Glaser talks about being “willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it. And somehow this willingness, this gentle allowing, starts to calm things down..We discover that the journey is a dynamic process, full of alternating successes and failures. And we discover that failures are not dead ends. Every time we’re up against the wall, we’re also standing at a threshold. The invitation to open to our experience—whatever it is from moment to moment—is always there, no matter how many times we need to rediscover it”.

My definition of quiet has changed. It’s returning to center – the nucleus of existence – despite the noise. It’s the giant flamingo float in a pool of beach balls. It’s the eye of the storm. It’s the vantage point from which I can greet storm and sphere alike and acknowledge the purpose of our proximity.

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