Friday, January 31, 2014

The Common Cold as a Spiritual Practice

Surrender. Acceptance. Lying in. And then it’s the last stage of the cold when that awful tickle cough begins. And I learn silence. The coughing begins when I talk, so I learn to not talk. That means listening in meetings and listening to other people, not responding, not reacting. 

It gives me time, internal time, to process. What have I heard? What am I seeing?

Silence. Waiting. Patience. Don’t talk. Sit still. The common cold is a spiritual practice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fake It Till You Make It

You've heard it a million times and if you are a sponsor--or a parent--you may even have said it many times too: "Fake it till you make it." or its corollary: Act as if."

We are advised to act brave when we are scared; pretend to be a confident leader when you are a nervous one; and to act like you deserve good things to happen to you. Often when you pretend you are the right one for the new job or the promotion-your real self and talents (ones maybe you haven't been aware of yet) will show up.

If you have been around recovery for a while you also know that this works--when we remember to work it. It turns out that many times we are offered experiences that other people or our higher power know we are capable of but we may be the last to get it.

But now, it turns out, there is science behind that faking it and acting as if. Our minds can change our bodies and our bodies can, in fact, change our minds. I recently saw a fabulous TED Talk with Amy Cuddy on the power of body language. No, not just the "don't cross your arms" stuff--but the science and the strategy that emerged from her research on power.

The link to the Amy Cuddy TED Talk is below. It's 20 minutes and worth every second of your time. I encourage you to watch and listen to the very end because she also has a powerful message on how we can use this info to help others as well.

Enjoy this. More power to you!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Marriage as a Container

Years ago a therapist suggested to me that a relationship, or a marriage, is a container. She was helping me to see that I needed to get in that container with my partner and be held by the relationship itself even when I could not be held by the other person. I loved the idea immediately.

I later began to think of my marriage as a bowl. I collect old yelloware bowls of all sizes and I especially like the big ones used for mixing. Bowls are containers, relationships require mixing, and sometimes relationships require kneading, time to rise, punching down and rising again.

A container. Or a mixing bowl. That’s what commitment gives to a relationship. It holds the space. Not having a commitment means you can drift and slip and slide. It’s similar I think to the constraints of poetry. A villanelle or a sonnet is a container and by being forced to stay in the container creativity is unleashed.

David Richo, in his book, “How to Be an Adult” writes about relationships in a similar way. He says, “A working relationship is a crucible in which the human tasks of holding on and letting go can be fulfilled.” We have to hold on and let go at the same time. Marriage creates the container, the bowl, the crucible, which allows two adults to hold on and let go over and over.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Longterm Benefit of Writing in Books

I have been reading from the same meditation book for more than 20 years. It is Melody Beatty’s “The Language of Letting Go” and it is one of many “non-conference-approved” books that I rank high in my lifesaving library.

Beatty’s daily meditation book has a page a day with a brief essay on a recovery topic and some quotes or affirmations. I am so aware of the gift of seeing the same messages over and over, year after year—thru at least 20 years of my recovery. And today I am especially glad for the habit of writing in my books.

When I open this well-worn, broke-back, coffee (and tear) stained paperback—I can see the notes I scribbled in 1990, 1993, 2001, and 2003 and on and on. What makes me laugh now is to see the names of people (often coworkers or neighbors or boyfriends) that I was praying about. (Those anguished “help me” prayers) When I read them now I can’t quite remember what the big offenses or fears were about or I can see (humility) exactly why I was having an issue with that person—or kind of person.

I have this daily, written record of what has changed thru the course of my recovery—and most compelling what has not changed. When I come to my meditation altar and open this book today and see that ten and five and two years ago I had a similar issue with a different person I get a clear lesson in who (yes, me) has the issue. And it’s fresher than a journal because I am guaranteed to come to each of these pages at least once every 365 days.

Beatty’s lessons are all about denial, acceptance, detachment and letting go. But I am so glad that I never let go of this book so I have pure evidence—in my own handwriting—of how far I have come and what still lies ahead in my journey of recovery.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Addiction and Making Art

Is addiction a necessary part of making art? Does creativity and madness go hand in hand? It’s a long debate but luckily I tested that theory many years ago and found that drinking and writing left me with illegible pages and next-day headaches that decimated any additional writing. All drinking did was make me sad that I wasn’t writing while fueling my fantasies that if life just gave me better breaks then surely—surely—I’d be a successful writer.

Last night I was preparing materials for a writing workshop that I’ll teach next month and I found this quote that made me laugh out loud:

“The only place you’re likely to find more alcoholics than an AA meeting is a writing program.”  That’s from the editor Betsy Lerner in her book of advice for writers called, “The Forest for The Trees.”

Oh, I do know the truth of that. Many years into recovery and after learning that I could write by—get this—sitting down to write, I participated in a famous writing program where I did learn much about writing, and especially about building strength and habits. What I saw there also, quite sadly, was the enormous amount of alcohol and drugs that were false encouragement and false soothing for the genuine ache of creating art.

I am so glad that I was well into recovery when I faced that scene. And even with that I had moments of thinking that the cool kids—students and faculty—were all able to drink and I was sure I was missing something keen that kept me out of the “real writers” circle. But it seems that was not true at all.

We know the myth and the lie of suffering for creativity. Yes, making art of any kind is hard, and almost always lonely, but adding booze only increases the pain and kills the art.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Addiction Can Save Your Life

I have finally come to understand that truth. Our addictions, the things we used to cope and manage and not feel were—at one time—life saving. My first therapist used to tell me this over and over and I thought she was nuts, but now with better eyes and better understanding I know it’s true. If I had not had the cushions of food, drink and drugs I could never have withstood the realities of my early home life and I would certainly have died or gone crazy.

But now, in later recovery, I am coming to understand another layer of this phenomenon. That is, that our addictions are not “bad”; they are actually the shadow side of something else we are seeking. Jung said something like this to Bill Wilson and before that to Roland Hazard, when he told them that alcoholics substitute spirits for spiritus—alcohol for the holy. The intention isn’t wrong, but maybe the route is.

So I think this is a task of ongoing recovery and later recovery: after we spend some time switching from booze, to food to work to relationships to expensive hobbies to shoes and then maybe some prescription meds and back to food again we have to get quiet and ask what’s underneath.

No huge surprise. We’ve had glimmers along the way. We want love and friendship and companionship. We want to be deeply and truly known. We want to give and receive love. We want intimacy and always, I think always, we want creativity.

It would seem that should be so easy. A workshop or two, some to-do lists, maybe counseling and some church? But no. I think—and I remember learning this 30 years ago in OA: real healing begins with crying, the kind where snot runs down your face. Deep release. Deep admittance. Deep longing.

Our addictions are accompanying us. They are the coded version of our best selves. They are our guides. And somedy we’ll look back and realize they were our friends.

Monday, January 13, 2014

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

You may have heard about this new book. It received tremendous pre-publication publicity and thoughtful reviews in major publications. Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine so he’s well connected in journalism and publishing, and Stossel is a terrific journalist so yes; his new book is extremely well written.

What knocks us back most though in reading “My Age of Anxiety” is that Stossel’s story is extraordinary—it’s a memoir of his horrific anxiety disorder and his attempts to cure, manage and often mismanage it. But, here’s the big thing: his story is also very, very ordinary—anxiety disorders are now the number one mental illness, and also at the top of the list of physical complaints that Americans bring to medical doctors.

What you might have heard about Stossel is how bad his anxiety is. He has multiple crippling phobias—heights, spaces, flying, public speaking and strangest—a fear of vomiting, both the act itself and the additional fear of fearing it will happen. Yes, that’s the craziness of phobia and anxiety.

Most of us don’t have those kinds of over the top nameable anxieties. But as people in recovery it would be rare to not have anxiety at all. After all—many of us drank or drugged or ate to not feel something that scared us. Anxiety was both a cause and a trigger, and, you’ve heard this, “Take the rum out of the fruitcake and you still have a fruitcake.” When we stop using we still have fears and phobias and worries that we have had to find new ways to manage.

So I’m strongly recommending Stossel’s book as  great cultural commentary, a wonderful piece of new nonfiction, and as an example of a kind of sideways addiction memoir—you’ll see the lengths to which Stossel goes to chemically manage his fear.

But the greatest strength of this new book is the way that Stossel brings us a global perspective—history, science, memoir, psychology and raises the big question of why anxiety and why now in our modern, advanced culture. He questions the basis of anxiety and invites us to both forgive and help ourselves –and those we love—who live with this terrible, daily disorder.

Here are Stossel’s words from “My Age of Anxiety”: 

“Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and many modern psychopharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes once had it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Soren Kierkegaard and his existentialist descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it—as W.H. Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentators have declared—a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society?”