Friday, January 30, 2015

Thomas Merton: Contradictions and Prayers

On January 31, 2015, we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer. 
Merton’s life was full of paradox and contradiction. He was an extroverted New Yorker who entered the silent world of a Trappist monastery in the back woods of Kentucky. In making this choice, he left behind his ambition to become a writer, only to have his abbot sit him down at a typewriter and tell him to write. 
Deeply attracted to women he gave up female companionship in becoming a monk, only to fall in love and have a powerful love affair with a young woman when he was fifty-one years old. 
Merton sought solitude in a hermitage even as his life and writing turned outward to society’s evils: war, violence, injustice. Profoundly Christian, he discovered toward the end of his life the spiritual riches of Eastern religions.
One of the most famous prayers of Thomas Merton, and one of my favorite prayers is this—from his book: “Thoughts in Solitude.” Merton wrote:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadows of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Writing Your Way to Happiness

Felix Emile-Jean Vallotton
Tara Parker-Pope, health writer for the New York Times, posted a piece this week on the scientific evidence that writing—journaling—is good for your health, and that writing can help with pain, recovery and wellness.

We have known this anecdotally, and we’ve seen other research from medical schools in the United States—studies of patients with everything from asthma to appendicitis, and through cancer and chemo—those that write—regularly—report less pain, less illness-related stress and faster recovery times.

In our recovery programs—for our addictions—we are encouraged to write. Our twelve steps include writing inventory, writing lists and writing amends. In current practice we talk even more about daily gratitude lists and writing out topic specific inventories: food, cars, relationships, men, work…we write about our “issues” and we write to explore and express feelings. And it works.

But do we write when things are going well? When recovery has a calm period? When life is more happy than sad?

We should. The article by Parker-Pope—the link is below—shows that writing can shift us into happiness and keep happy times alive. It works for men and women, individuals and for couples. One of the striking pieces of research that is reported here is that re-writing one’s own story can lead to a big change in our outlook, and that by writing -with pen to paper-we can re-write (internally) our story and our perspective.

I’m trying this tonight. I have (yet another) nagging issue and I’m putting pen to paper to re-write how I am and how this could be different. Why don’t you try that too—and let’s compare notes. Deal?

Here’s the article by Tara Parker-Pope:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Desire and Wanting

We are concerned about the economy. We worry about the stock market, investments and retirement. We are told: It will get better. It will get worse. It will rebound. Some say it will be bad for another year and then it will improve. 

How do we cope? We have to make do with less. Lots of articles offer advice: Eat at home. Take the bus. Rearrange what you have, don’t redecorate. But at the heart is this question: Can we be happy with less? Can we do it when the American way is all about believing that we need and deserve more.
I keep thinking about is what it was like when I really had so much less. In my 20’s I lived in Washington, DC and made $11,000. I had an apartment and a car. I packed my lunch and saved up to go out for dinner. Was I really as happy as I remember?

Yes, I was-and you were too. The reason isn’t complicated. We wanted less. I was proud to be paying rent.  I wanted to drive so making the car payment for my used 1971 VW Beetle was great.  I bought clothes on sale or at consignment stores, and when friends moved they passed along the furniture they didn’t want.  But over time, through reading and travel and meeting new people, I learned about nicer cars, and better clothes. I began to want a real couch and a newer car and I began to fantasize about someday buying a house.

Later my hopes included owning a Subaru and –I laugh to remember this—I thought I’d have the perfect wardrobe when I could buy one (yeah, one) really good purse. Today, four houses later and closets filled with shoes and purses, I can feel deprived simply by thinking about making this car last a couple more years. Everything I have now is nicer than what I had at 25 but it’s easy to feel poor. Why? Because I have seen --and imagined --better.

Wealth is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we can’t afford, we become poor--regardless of our resources. And when we are satisfied with what we have, we are rich. That second part is supposed to be true anyway. The hard part is to ignore knowing. We know there are nicer things and we know people who have them. In most cases we don’t
really know those people but we think we do because we have seen them.

For this you can blame television and magazines like Oprah and Vogue. We see what others buy and own and wear. Every new thing whispers its promise of happiness then gradually slides into the background of everyday life. Then we notice that someone else has a different or nicer thing. 
Our appetites are continuously whetted.

This is why many of us recall feeling better when we were younger. We felt like we had enough. We didn’t expect that we should have a lot more. 

It’s our expectations that trip us up. We substitute one desire for another and convinced each time that the next –whatever-- will make us happy. What we need is less desire not more money.  Here’s the solution this year:  Expect less and want less. It might be anti-American, but it’s so sane and so smart.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Give Yourself an Anniversary Gift

Here’s a question for people who have been in recovery for many years: 
Do you buy yourself a gift for your recovery anniversary? I’ve learned that recovering people celebrate anniversaries in different ways. I love to give and receive gifts so I started early to celebrate the milestones.
I know one fellow in Baltimore, Maryland who puts a dollar in his top drawer each time he attends an AA meeting and on his anniversary he counts his money and buys a new golf
club or luxury gadget. Another woman I knew in Overeaters Anonymous bought herself a piece of good jewelry for each anniversary she celebrated that ended in a 5 or a zero. 

Another recovery friend loves boots so her anniversary gift has become a splurge pair
—“these boots are made for walking the recovery road.”

Another kind of anniversary gift I hear about is of folks giving themselves the gift of a twelve-step retreat, or a spa weekend or a visit to a place like Kripalu Yoga Center or Omega Institute.

Twenty-five years ago I bought a beautiful scarf for my fifth anniversary and that became my annual gift. I have some gorgeous scarves. Sometimes I choose a scarf that fits the theme of my year—One year when I had done a lot of work focused on healing my relation with my mother I chose a scarf with a Mother’s Day theme. The year that much of my growth came from losses I bought a scarf with autumn leaves falling from blackened trees. The scarf from year ten is pink with silver keys—my reminder that I have the “keys to the
kingdom”. But my favorite, I think, is a rose colored silk square with an image of a ship in a bottle. That is my reminder of how I was once trapped and how I sailed free.

Many of us also give gifts on our anniversaries—especially a “birthday” gift to a local Intergroup or a charity we care about. After all these years, and coming Out of the Woods, we know that service is gratitude in action. And sometimes, gratitude is gratitude in action too.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Women, Food, and Desire

In early recovery we hate cravings. We pray for them to be removed. We do everything to distract ourselves from them. As our recovery continues we generally lose the cravings for alcohol or drugs. But food? —That’s another story.

Issues with food addictions typically come as chemical addictions start to resolve. We stop drinking and start eating, or an underlying eating disorder pops up when the pills or cocaine goes away. We try everything to mask it. We focus on work or exercise or different food and special diets, or we get into a relationship. 

But food cravings are there. We struggle and we joke. We laugh about them with friends, and we suffer the shame of them when alone. We want those cravings to go away!

But what if the cravings are a message? What if food cravings are a map? What if they are a map to buried treasure?

That’s what Alexandra Jamieson is writing about in her new book, “Women, Food and Desire.” Jamieson is a holistic nutrition coach, and co-star of the award-winning documentary, Super Size Me. She’s written a bunch of cookbooks and a handbook on vegan eating, but now she adds a study of the emotions and neuroscience to her healthy eating recipe.

What makes this a worthwhile read is that she talks primarily about food cravings but she includes cravings for sex, sleep and selfhood as well. Yes, holistic—we want all those things. Her book has remedies based on your craving type (there’s a cool online quiz on her website) and her message is about not pushing cravings down and away but facing them and following them to unearth the real desires in our life: love, affection, affiliation and meaningful work—and steps to take to a life outside the bag of chips or the box of chocolates.

This is definitely not a process for newcomers who are facing down a drug or alcohol recovery, but definitely is a process for those of us with long-term recovery. We can face the feelings and embrace the cravings and follow them to greater growth and the things we really want that are never found in the kitchen.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Science of Gratitude

In the past few weeks gratitude has been a regular topic in meetings. And when a personal struggle is mentioned the recommendation is often, “Make a gratitude list” as a way to shift one’s perception.

When I was getting sober in Baltimore I used to hear this from the old-timers: “Make a gratitude list and start with, “I am not on fire.” That works. 

But it’s also true—as with much other good newcomer advice, that we get too smart and we demand fancier solutions. So maybe when we hear "gratitude list", we might roll our eyes (even just on the inside) or think, “I know, I know” but not actually make the list.

Now science—neurobiology, in fact-- is our new truth-telling sponsor offering that same advice. The leading trauma clinician and researcher, Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.
speaks to the neurological role of gratitude in healing trauma and in shifting perception. He calls it, “States and thoughts of appreciation.”

Van der Kolk says this about using gratitude lists: “States and thoughts of appreciation take our system into coherence. Hence gratitude is healing.” By coherence he means the alignment of the Vagus Nerve (running stomach to brain), which we now know, plays the central role in regulating our emotions and aligning perception, feeling and behavior.

An interesting medical side note: all of those ancient beliefs about where the center of knowing existed always said “in the gut”, hence “gut feeling”, were quite accurate as they understood the role of the Vagus Nerve—long before it was named and claimed.

So when your sponsor says “Make a gratitude list” take it as medical advice. You could save a co-pay, and even see some physical complaints resolve by simply, putting pen to paper and starting with:

 1. I am not on fire.

Read more about Bessel van der Kolk:

Read more about gratitude, sponsors and recovery in "Out of the Woods--A woman's Guide to Long-term Recovery."