Sunday, January 08, 2017

Prayer & Meditation, but How?

We get lots of advice on how to work the Eleventh Step. 

Those of us who grew up in a faith tradition had the preliminaries of prayer. Maybe we knew how to say grace at dinner, or a bedtime prayer from childhood, or if we had religious training we knew about the Christian prayer formula: ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Something like, “I love you God, and I did some bad stuff, but I’m also grateful for a lot of stuff, and here’s what I need today.” Friends who grew up in Muslim or Jewish families learned lots of prayers as well.

But meditation? Not so much. We were told to be quiet in church or temple, and maybe we were shown icons or religious symbols to focus on, but did anyone actually teach meditation?

Then we join a Twelve Step program and doing meditation is strongly encouraged. So we try. We sit down and think about nothing. Ha! Most of us are off that chair or pillow in less than a minute. How, exactly how, is this medication thing supposed to work?

Yes you can get an ap for your phone. But still…it’s the being still that is the hard part.

But this week I read a new book that breaks down the entire why and how and when. The book is called “The Mind Illuminated” By Culadasa (also known as John Yates, PhD.) The unique aspect of this treatise on meditation is that it brings Buddhist meditation and neuroscience together—so its got the best of the ancient and the most modern thinking and concepts. 

This is a book to read from front-to-back if you are that kind of learner, or one to scan for the parts you need: where to meditate and what is a mantra? Etc.

If you want to have a very direct experience of these principles and this teacher, Dr Yates will be doing a workshop at the NYC Insight Meditation Center on January 20 to 22nd. 28 West 27th Street.  It’s a weekend workshop, so contact them to sign up. He will also be speaking/signing in Beacon, NY on Sunday January 29th 2:30 pm at BeBhakti Yoga, 89 DeWindt Street.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Other Program

Here is another one of those changes that happens to us in long-term recovery: Many of us start to go to --or go back to –Alanon. Some times a sponsor makes the suggestion, or maybe we start to notice some women who have as many years in recovery as we do but it seems like they struggle less at home, or at work, or with themselves. When we ask them we found out that they were practicing an AA program and Alanon.
It’s a funny thing about recovery from addiction. In the early years we had to learn to be less selfish. We learned to consider the impact of our behavior on other people. 

We identified with the Big Book story about the man who comes out of the storm cellar, surveys all the damage and declares, “Look Ma, ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing.” We laughed. Oh yeah, no one—especially those near and dear-- is applauding that we simply stopped drinking. 
So we learned to listen more, and to consider the needs of others, to concede, to compromise.
But then, if we keep at our recovery, we reach a point where we actually have to learn to be selfish again. You may hate that word and prefer “self-caring”, but really selfish can be a good thing. It’s almost like we have to go back over the old ground again and say, “So what do I want?” and, “What do I need—even if it makes someone else unhappy?” 
And now, with some sober time, we can learn to take care of ourselves and let other people be unhappy—or deal with their own feelings.  Yes, it’s another one of those paradoxes in the program. 
And when we find that it’s hard to know what we want, or to ask for what we want, someone near us—maybe sponsor or a friend in our home group notices. They see that we don’t take care of our needs and we are invited—or sent—to an Alanon meeting.
This is another reason why we want to keep going to meetings even after years and years of recovery—we want to keep growing in all the ways that—on the surface—have little to do with consuming alcohol, but which have everything to do with living a sober life.
And this too: After many years in AA most of us have friends and probably partners who are, yeah, alcoholics—they may be sober but still it’s our thinking as much as our drinking that keeps all of us coming back.
Rules for beginners in Alanon are the same as in other twelve-step programs: try six meetings, try different meetings, raise your hand, listen to the people with experience, read the literature and even do service. And try not to compare.
It’s hard to be a beginner again, but the big payoff is that there’s a real multiplier effect when we are working both programs.  It’s the best of both worlds: To be able to care for yourself and for others with honesty and peace. Detaching with love. Continuing to grow. One Day at a Time.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Preparing for New Year's Eve

We are getting ready for New Year’s Eve. I’ll shop for yummy snacks and we’ll stay up late—or not. Go to parties, or not. We might dress in sparkles or just relax in flannel as 2016 officially ends. And then…

And then it is a new year and the very first day of 2017. A new year is a blank slate, and while we love that it is also just a little unnerving.

Maybe part of the over-drinking and over-eating we’ll indulge in later this week happens not so much because of what we are leaving behind but rather because of what lies ahead. Maybe, like me, you have been saying, “I’ll deal with that after the holidays.” 

And now, suddenly, January 1st approaches bringing this uncomfortable combination of agitation and malaise.  Expectation does that. The arrival of this delayed reality is also the arrival of what are, in the best sense, our ordinary lives.
In the Christian liturgical calendar the days that are not Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter are called Ordinary Time. While we delight in holidays we know that our ordinary time is much more precious. Our ordinary days, though they don’t make it into photo albums, are the days in which we live our real lives. 

The older we get the faster time seems to move. We might assume that this is because we are more aware of our mortality, but there is also research that suggests that the shift in how we experience time is neurological and results from lowering dopamine levels in the brain which occurs as we age. On New Year’s Day we grab at time: If time is limited, and the slate is clean, how will I choose what goes into my new year?

Our fantasies run to perfection, and the new calendars we start now collude with us. A calendar is an organizational tool, but it is also a hedge against despair. For one day we enjoy the promise of those 365 empty, numbered squares. And then, pen in hand, we strike: How to fill it? (This is why using a phone calendar is so unsatisfying: there is no demarcation, no old versus new, and no regret versus hope.

Even if we don’t formally write out New Year resolutions, most of us hope for improvement to body, mind or spirit in 2017. Whatever our goals, what we hope for is always something better: better relationships, better health, better work, and we rail against the imperfect. But in ordinary time, and in our real lives, all that we have-- and that we can have-- is imperfection. 

Still, we try to wrestle time into submission. We talk about how we will spend time in the New Year and that metaphor is a good one: Time is precious. It can be served, stolen, borrowed and squandered. It flies and flows and runs out. Without time we can’t even tell the simplest story. All narrative depends on it. Beginning, middle, end. Past, present, future. 

When we choose a verb we are saying something about time. There is a bit of wisdom from the ancient Latin grammar that we can borrow for this day. It is the verb tense called “past imperfect,” used for actions still uncompleted, and for stories continuing to unfold. 

That is the tense--and perhaps the tension--of New Year’s Eve.   

And so for your New year’s Eve, whether in sparkles or flannel pajamas, let us welcome 2017 by relaxing our vigilance and allow our stories to unfold in blessed, imperfect, and ordinary time.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Ho Ho Holiday Party at Work

We are entering the time of year that makes seasoned managers cringe and human resource directors want to leave town.  Despite fine words to the contrary, there is little Peace on Earth at the office this time of year because we are getting ready for the office Christmas, oops, I mean “holiday” party. 

Yes, we’ve learned to choke on the word Christmas and insist that the December party where we dress in sparkles, bring wrapped gifts, and drink eggnog standing next to an evergreen tree is just a winter event. But language games are the least of it when management has to plan the annual
—“no one will be happy no matter what we do”--office holiday party.


Career coaches give us the guidelines: You must attend, you should not drink, don’t dress like a stripper, and do make an effort to talk to many people. The warnings should certainly be heeded. The annual holiday party is ground zero for what is known in Human Resources as the CLM, or the Career Limiting Move. CLM’s include Xeroxing body parts, getting tanked with co-workers, and making jokes about the boss to his/her spouse. But love them --or leave them early-- the office holiday party is a ritual of the workplace.

The list of issues is long: Do we go out on the town or stay in the building? Is the event during work or after hours? Will there be dancing? Music? And biggest bugaboo: booze or no booze? The tension produced along the way inevitably ends up in an annual review or with someone not forgiving someone else for months.

Divisiveness is in the details. One of the words tossed around liberally in the weeks leading up to the party is “they” as in  they don’t have kids, they don’t like to drink, they drink too much, or they don’t have to pay a baby-sitter. Preferences also break down by personality type: Extroverts love parties; Introverts want to die. 

Some offices give money to charity instead but then end up bringing in a deli tray on December 22nd because it doesn’t feel right not to do something. I think it hits us that if we don’t have some kind of party, then we’re admitting that this is actually work and not really our family or our best friends. It’s one of the passive deceptions we engage in to smooth life along.

So what’s at the heart of this holiday ritual? Well, for starters we have strong cultural memories and it’s dark this time of year and we are longing for light. Workplaces have their own kind of darkness so it’s human to want to brighten that up too.

But there’s more. The office party is really a throwback. Yes, that sushi with sparkles affair in the boardroom is a remnant from the Ebenezer Scrooge days. It’s a flashback to the days when Big Daddy Corporation rewarded its Childlike Workers with the decent meal and glass of bubbly that they could never provide for themselves. The company party was also a time to reset any drifting notions of who owned the means of production.

I remember that kind of event. At the box factory where my Dad worked, the assembly line was shut down once a year: the Saturday before Christmas. Hot dogs were served from the corrugator and Santa arrived on a forklift. There were no Bring Your Kids to Work days back then, so the Christmas Party was how you saw where Daddy went every day. It was understood that that place and those people held the key to our family’s survival.

Today, in our workplaces, we play out that past. And despite all the tension it takes to get there, we’ll toast our teams with hopes for prosperity and pray for peace at work.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Taking Recovery to Work--Does God Show Up?

Inside my day planner I have written these words: Laborare est Orare. It’s the motto of the Benedictine Order of Monks and it translates: Work is Prayer. But I hadn’t thought, until recently, about how many people are actually praying at work. 

It’s not uncommon to hear a co-worker say something like, “Pray that delivery gets there on time” or “I hope to God this deal works out” but most of us don’t suspect the number of colleagues who go to their offices and literally, “hope to God”. 

Last year Fortune magazine had a story called “God and Business” about people who bring their Sunday values into their Monday world, and according to Fortune there are a lot of prayers rising up from office buildings all over America.

What is our reaction when we think that someone might actually be praying on the job?
Do we roll our eyes? Feel a sense of quaint embarrassment?  Ask to join in? If we consider that more than 90% of Americans say they believe in God, and 89% say they pray every day, it makes sense that some of that prayer would be in the office.

But you’re not alone if that makes you uneasy, because it’s not a simple thing when God comes to work. Diversity training has taught us that best practice means not trying to whitewash the workplace or removing all symbols of culture and belief but to allow differences to be celebrated and respected. The hard part is that when God goes to work He or She often brings not just the New Age rainbow raiment of acceptance but very often the strident symbols of specific religions and cultures. Even with the best intentions warm and fuzzy spirituality gets poked by the sharp edges of organized religion.

It raises a lot of questions that may not have satisfactory answers. Federal law requires “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the workplace. But the trouble is that there are often inherent conflicts.  I have a friend who works with a man, a senior manager in her company, and she wonders if she’s right to worry that his particular religion could get in the way of promoting women. Another friend tells of major conflicts at her company where the deeply religious HR director advocated for a health plan that did not cover contraception.

But walk through the office again and look at office bookshelves or take a peek in your co-workers briefcase and you’ll see books with titles like:  “God at Work”,  “Jesus, Inc.” or “What Would Buddha do at Work”. These are just a few of the new offerings from the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. The “Inspirational”, and more specifically, “Faith at Work” segments of publishing have grown 31 percent in the last four years. According to Publishers Weekly, the industry trade journal, we’re spending more than $900 million on these books each year.

Clearly we’re looking for some kind of help that the Employee Assistance Program isn’t offering. We want faith in something to get us through the week, and we want to know how to reconcile the prophets and the profits. But it may also be that we’re taking old values and giving them a new spin. 

When I read the individual profiles in the Fortune article I was a little dismayed. I had expected to learn how business people who were “out” as believers struggled with the legal and political aspects of their faith, but instead the stories were of people who are, well, simply good people: decent, honest and caring. What struck me was that they sounded kind of old fashioned until I realized that what they had was what we used to call good character.

It looks to me like we’ve discovered some value in our parent’s values after all. But true to form, we’re now dressing up the stodgy old  “good character” in the hipper garb of being spiritual at work. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Relationships-All of It is All of It

When John was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we moved in together people said to me. “Well you have a fairly new relationship and now you are dealing with cancer too. How do you know where the relationship will go, and if it’s really OK?”

And when I thought about their questions I realized that, after a certain age, any time you enter a new relationship you are going to get a surprise—just like getting a prize in your Cracker Jack box. It might be stepchildren, bad credit, chronic illness, job dissatisfaction. It might be a crazy former spouse, or it might be cancer. It’s always something.
What seems to be crucial is that we can’t always separate the relationship from the things that come with it. Rather, it is about seeing those things as the factors you will deal with, or talk about, or maneuver around in the relationship. There is not “the relationship” and then also the cancer. It is folded together. Dealing with all of it is dealing with all of it.   

We don’t know who discovered water but it certainly wasn’t the fish. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Anger and Fear

This week I am feeling anger. The election has shaken me deeply. I am also shaken by the reaction of friends whose reaction seems to be, “Oh well…that’s too bad…big sale at Macy’s on Veterans Day."

What does long-term recovery teach me about this anger? It tells me “restraint of tongue (Facebook) and pen.” I find myself posting and deleting and finally pushing away from the desk. I talk to safe people. I write to my sponsor. And I pray. 

I do not pray for the anger to go away. I know that in every faith tradition righteous anger has a place and a power. But I also know I have to sort out what is truly righteous on behalf of vulnerable others, and what are my own personal fears.


I heard this at a meeting ages ago: Under Anger is Fear. That helps me to dig deeper. My thinking changes when I can remember that. If I catch myself feeling anger I can ask, “What am I afraid of?”  And make a choice on what I do next.