Impermanence

“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:

IMG_9547
Guanyin

“Why am I here?” I inquired.

“You are here to help,” she replied.

En-lighten. Illuminate.

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

Love and Wonder

I loved technology when I was a kid. In middle school, I entertained myself for hours by teaching myself HTML code and photo manipulation. While the internet ultimately played an integral part in my addiction, it was also a creative outlet and a tool for inspiring positive change. I started my social media campaign, Human Too, in that same spirit of positivity and I feel incredibly blessed to have creative license in my career as a web content manager. However, the drawback of working with social media platforms is that you actually have to use them.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some element of futility in trying to harness social media for benevolent purposes. The part of me that teeters on the edge of needing a tinfoil hat -but I don’t think is too far off the mark – cynically believes that technology is not only a drug contributing to the achilles’ heel of civilization, but also a means by which the masses can be easily manipulated. That’s some serious 1984 or House of Cards shit, but it’s tough to refute. The difference between me and other cynics is that I still think it’s possible to live a contented and meaningful life in spite of the disillusionment.

When you turn on your TV set or scroll through your newsfeed, it seems as though the world has collectively gone mad. And maybe that’s not far from the truth. The world doesn’t make sense. There is an element of absurdity to the whole concept of human existence. But when you unplug and stop to consider the realm directly outside your window, the picture is likely to stand in stark juxtaposition. Maybe you hear the traffic or the crickets. Maybe you watch your neighbor get the mail or water the garden. Maybe the breeze blows. Maybe someone on the street coughs or waves or speaks indistinctly. And maybe, in that moment, everything is okay. So which version of reality is the most accurate?

If you choose to invest yourself solely in the digital narrative, it’s easy to view the world as an angry, hostile place. And sure, people are angry…but mostly we’re afraid. I can only speak for myself, but my buttons are most easily pushed in terms of my identity as a gay person, a woman, and a police wife. “How will you hurt me? What will you take from me?” These are the questions behind my own personal brand of rage. My fears are immediate and acute and frequently supersede my consideration of my global brothers and sisters. We are all self-preservationists in our anger. We are driven by and united by fear.

All of that is not to say that self-preservation is bad. The instinct to survive is what makes us human. Fear is human. It is merely an observation that we share a common ground.

In a climate saturated with the threat of nuclear war and simmering racial tension, it’s only natural to feel like our existential terror is somehow unique. But millions of people have experienced or are currently experiencing the heaviness of wartime. Millions of people have experienced plagues, famine, natural disaster, genocide, and the collapse of civilization. Millions of people have held their lover and wondered what kind of earth their children were destined to inherit. We have been fearing the end since the beginning. It’s part of the package deal when you occupy this planet.

I used to get very upset by the idea that there is no life after death. I don’t know what I believe anymore, but I think it’s highly likely you simply cease to have consciousness. I believe our energy leaves an imprint on a place. I also believe in the fabric of the Universe – a divine thread connecting all living things – but beyond that, I cannot say for certain.  The only reason the uncertainty bothers me now is because I can’t bear the idea of not seeing my wife. I guess if we don’t have consciousness, we don’t know the difference.

These are heavy thoughts. Perhaps you’re thinking: “What’s the point?” And here’s where the cynics and I diverge. The point is that you are conscious in this moment. The point is that you have the ability to love and to be filled with wonder. Our purpose, in my view, is to love and wonder.

Early in my college career, I spent about five minutes as a philosophy major. Looking back on my notes, I found a page that declared “the meaning of life is awe”. If you can maintain your sense of awe, you have unlocked the secret of living. It’s hard to say how that bit of insight came to me, but I have subscribed to the ideology ever since.

Addiction numbs our consciousness. Our drugs of choice block us from feeling love and wonder. We die prematurely.

There’s a reason Buddhists strive to be “awake”. There’s a reason yoga and meditation advocate for the present moment. The “now” is all we have. It is the only time in which we are able to love and be loved. It is the only time we have to consider the profound and miraculous beauty of our delicate existence. The precariousness of our position is what makes it breathtaking.

I don’t think anything needs to “come next” for this flawed and absurd life to be more than enough. We don’t need to do anything for life to have meaning…we need to simply be. I have often sat by the ocean and reflected sadly on the idea that the dead no longer have the capability to inhale the intoxicating air. It is a gift to experience the wonders of this wild earth. I think the real question is whether we receive it or we reject it.

The activity of appreciating the morning light is not just for poets and painters – it’s for humans. If all I do with the rest of my days is exuberantly behold the sunset and love as much as I can, I have achieved the “it” for which mankind toils. If all I do is celebrate wildflowers, a good meal, clinging rain drops, a shy smile, cool summer grass, and all the other remarkable minutiae…it is enough.

I am sober. I am awake. My being vibrates in the truth of the moment.

The cards are stacked and it’s hard to say how the deck will scatter. I don’t know if anything I do will ultimately make a difference. But I know that my being has purpose. I want my voice to be a whisper in the din: “Wake up”. Don’t die without living. Don’t live without meaning.

Fear

“I don’t know what my body needs right now,” I just said out loud, as I pushed my laptop away and reached for my steaming hot cup of tea. There’s a part of me that wants to write, but there’s also a part of me that just wants to finish season two of the Golden Girls…or even stare off into space. The part of me that wants to write won out. (It usually does.) The last couple of weeks have been intense and – through the overwhelm – the reigning emotion has been fear.

Fear might be “the big word” to talk about when it comes to addicts and alcoholics. I have never once met an addict or alcoholic who has not conceded to being a fear-driven creature. People say: “I felt like a square peg in a round hole”. Others describe it as a feeling of “not being okay”, “not belonging in the world”, or “being the only one missing the guidebook to life”. When we drink, use drugs, or engage in our compulsive behaviors, our sense of existential unease magically disappears. We suddenly “fit in”. We can be confident and interesting and appealing. We feel like “ourselves”.

Ugh. What a lie this disease spins for us. I had NO idea who I was and I didn’t want to know, either. Figuring that out would be way too fucking scary. I would have to leave the safety of my sick little comfort zone. God forbid I discover I was “just like my father”. Come to find out, I am like my father in that we share a disease. That’s where the similarities end. Today, I have healed enough to say that perhaps we would have had more in common if he had been able to get well. As it advances, addiction shrouds anything beautiful in ugliness. Unfortunately, my father died before he could break free from the shroud, but his suicide showed me where a fear-based life leads. Today, I understand that his children may be his only opportunity to show the world the light that existed underneath the illness.

I felt as if he was with me when I wrote that. “Hi Dad,” I said. “I’m still mad at you but that’s okay. I see you”. Obviously, I don’t literally see him. When I think of him in memory, I actually feel nauseated. It’s because I don’t see a man, I see the embodiment of total sickness. It’s repulsive and it is the very thing I do not want to become. When I think of him as a spirit, however, the disease is gone. He is whole again. I can honor that wholeness of spirit. In fact, that wholeness of spirit is what I strive for today, except I am able to do so here, amongst the living.

One of the first pieces of advice I was given in recovery was to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I avoided fear like the plague for my entire life. I’m a lot better at feeling it now, but I’m still far from fearless. Take the past couple of weeks for example: First of all, I had an endoscopy. It wasn’t the procedure that freaked me out – although having a camera shoved down your throat isn’t a good time – but the idea of the unknown. I do NOT like the unknown. I also do NOT like feeling out of control. I like it when I get answers on MY timetable…not the timetable of medical professionals. Why do I struggle so hard against the things I can’t control? Well, sometimes I still feel like an undeserving piece of shit, waiting for life to punish me for merely existing. You see, I was just hired for my dream job, so why wouldn’t life laugh in my face and then drop the other shoe?

Wait. I was just hired for my dream job? Yup. That brings me to example number two: I was just hired for my dream job!(!!!) Out of the blue, I received a message from a local recovery center. They were familiar with my work on Human Too and they were interested in how I could bring my photography, writing, and social media skills to the table. It is everything I have ever wanted…but because I don’t have an advanced degree, it’s something I thought I could never have. So while I felt an overwhelming sense of joy, my silly, silly brain automatically conceived all the possible ways I could be an inadequate pile of manure. Ridiculous, right? Furthermore, I have to work my current job until the middle of June. So my silly, silly brain automatically freaked out about how to handle both positions at once.

Long story short, I survived my endoscopy. While I’m still not sure what’s wrong, I am comforted by the fact that it looks great in ye olde esophagus. I am historically predisposed toward muscle spasming and tension, so if the test results reveal nothing else, it could just be another delightful way my body internalizes stress. I also gratefully accepted my dream job… and I love it. It is not work…it is my mission.

I know this position is going to push me to grow. I feel like I have already evolved so much this year and I am amazed that my growth game is continuing to expand in such a profound way. I guess I am ready. As for the sheer volume of things on my plate – including the need to organize foot surgery for this summer – I am surviving by keeping my focus in the day. I’m not going to reach the finish line any faster by worrying about tomorrow. I will get there by doing what I need to do for today and then doing that on repeat. I’d rather be a speedy hare but, gosh darn it, I am a tortoise.

My list of fears is swiftly declining. I obviously have the big ones: Losing my wife, violence enacted on my person or loved ones, cancer, spiders, fire, drowning trapped in my car (or drowning, period), ladybugs (okay, so that’s not a typical fear), bats, the mere existence of President Trump (sorry, couldn’t resist), salmonella, cruise ships, a world without Stevie Nicks (oh, my broken heart), and etc. But the list of “things I’m afraid of that other people are good at” has dwindled down to a handful. I’m afraid of flying alone (being out of control, getting lost), driving in Boston (being out of control, getting lost, claustro-fucking-phobic traffic), subways and city buses (I still don’t know where the eff I’m going, I get motion sick, not to mention other people’s germs), and attending events with large groups of people (I am too introverted for that shit; small talk makes me want to poke out my own eye with a stick). Ironically, if I have a PURPOSE for being at an event, i.e. speaking or hosting a table, I could care less. If I have to be there just to “be social”, I’d rather eat a grasshopper. It’s too overstimulating. I like one-on-one interactions or small groups, followed by a week of solitude. 😉

If I need to overcome these fears to improve my quality of life, the Universe will gift me with the opportunity. There is no quicker way to gain confidence than to do what scares you. Recovery has provided one opportunity after another. Clearly I don’t like feeling lost and out of control, so these teachers will appear when I’m ready to learn from them. Also, just because I have these fears, doesn’t mean I can’t live a full life despite them. I can hire a car, get a direct flight, or ask a friend for support or companionship. I think one of the biggest mistakes we make – whether we’re in recovery or not – is pretending that we can do everything ourselves. I didn’t get well on my own. I received help and guidance from literally hundreds of people. I can’t take credit for any of my success, either. There have been strange angels all along my path who have opened doors I couldn’t possibly unlock myself.

Fear has no power over you when you view yourself as a member of a benevolent tribe.

After my endoscopy, I was sitting in an Olive Garden parking lot while my sweetie ran inside to pick me up some fettuccine alfredo. (The nurse told me to drink a smoothie. Ha! To be fair, I asked the Docs permission. 😉 ) The sky was melting into an ephemeral pink and purple painting. Relief washed over me. I felt like the Universe was laughing with me instead of at me. “See, Autumn,” it said. “Everything is going to be okay. It always was. You are my beloved child. I have work for you to do”.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I just need to eat first”.