It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”
I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.
The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.
Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.
Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.
The Braggart, the Victim, the Innocent
It is not difficult to spot someone with a big ego. Aside from the fact that they are often hiding their insecurities, they tend to let you know, up front, that they are authorities about everything—-kids, relationships, mortgages, the best deals, doctors, schools, books, current events, relatives, religion, social media, even sex.
As an adult, however, I found that egotists come in many, many shades. Or they express their egos in different ways.
As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).
Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.
And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.
In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others
So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.
Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.
That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.
On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.
Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”
Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.
Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.
At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.
The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.
The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.
Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John
Feelings of Worthlessness
I’ve been in a 12-step recovery program for many, many years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people describe themselves, in one way or another, as a “piece of shit.”
Much of this self-degradation comes from the guilt we feel over our behavior when we were actively using: infidelity, disappearances, credit card debt, emotional/verbal/physical abuse, stealing, or, one of my favorites—emotional withdrawal.
Recovery, for many of us, involves taking responsibility for those actions and behaviors. Over time, through meetings, doing the steps, and being emotionally transparent, we learn a better way of living.
We stop having secret lives. We learn to be honest. We start owning up to our faults. And some of us learn to be more humble, especially if we hid behind our arrogance in order to protect ourselves during our drinking days (As someone in the rooms so poignantly said about himself, “I tried to be one step ahead of everybody else so I wouldn’t be hurt”).
But what about those of us in the recovery rooms who have a difficult time believing that we are worth anything? Continue reading
The Realm of the Spirit in AA
The other day, someone at an AA meeting asked me what part I played in my relationship to the concept of God. Several years ago, I came out at as a non-theist, even after thirty-one years in the program.
I became defensive because I believed he was making every attempt, in a non-threatening way, to gently admonish me for my “profound problems with the theology of the ‘Our Father,'” the statement I made at the 12 step table that night. It was clear to me that, in his view, I had not really “surrendered” my own non-theism, even though I have been consistently open about being nurtured, in and out of the rooms, by other people’s faiths, while, at the same time, saying that those sky-god faiths don’t represent my own spiritual journey in the program. Nor do those faiths embody my notion of “The Realm of the Spirit” that I find in Steps two and three.
I would have agreed with him if I believed all sky-god followers to be fools. I do not. However, my experience with human nature tells me that, in any group, there will be some who are really, really naive. And yet, I know many theists who are intelligent, compassionate, and self-reflective. They strive to be good and be of service. They bend the rules when life kicks them in the ass. They often love diversity because they have big, inclusive hearts. Continue reading
Recently, I asked someone I knew if I could talk to him for a few minutes. I will call him Eric.
We walked for a short while. I explained the issue. Then we stopped. I was facing Eric directly as he turned to give what I will call his “verbal position paper” on the topic. He was wearing sunglasses, his face angled upward, his jaw, firm, his body arched backwards at a comfortable level. And then he spoke.
It was clear to me, at that moment, that Eric had total control of the space he was in. I was convinced that his body actually began to stretch upwards, his voice sounding like hot taffy, consonants tapping softly on top of long rubber-band vowels.
I felt I was in a re-run of a 1930s Cary-Grant black-and-white film. Blue-blood, Boston-Brahmin, old-money territory. Continue reading
Learned Emotional Detachment
Now that I’ve got your attention.
It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.
So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.
Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.
The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit. The other instinct is to click into the detached mode and calculate all the possible solutions for the friend. “Have you thought about an online dating service?” “Why don’t you go on a trip, get away?” “I’ve got a single friend; I think you guys would really hit it off.” Continue reading
Diversity of Spiritual Journeys in AA
Some of us in twelve-step recovery programs have never belonged to a religious institution. Some once belonged but have left. Some are still emotionally connected to their religious heritages, even though they do not practice their religions.
There are a minority in recovery programs who have chosen Buddhism, a non-theistic sect. If they are practicing Buddhists they participate in daily rituals: chanting; silent, sitting meditation; or walking meditation.
Others in twelve-step programs have developed a very eclectic collage of practices, values, and beliefs they have gleaned from Pema Chödrön, Osho, Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen, Deepak Chopra, Gurdjieff, among others
There is a vast number in recovery programs who remain attached to their Judeo-Christian heritages and continue to practice their faiths of choice.
Family Screamers, Icy Silence, Sarcasm versus Saintly Calm
I grew up in a family of screamers, duckers, fighters, and scramblers. If that didn’t work, my family withdrew into icy silence.
If that didn’t work, we could always go to plan B: smart-ass sarcasm.
At the same time I was watching the pro-active survival skills of my siblings, I was being taught in Catholic elementary school that saints suffered quietly
They accepted their lots in life with passive surrender. And many quietly walked the gauntlet of martyrdom with angelic resignation, assured of a first-class room in the heavenly kingdom.
In my little elementary school mind, Christ was the icon of emotional stability. He may have thrown the gambling rabble out of the synagogue in a fit of rage, but his life seemed more about waiting his turn in the queue of acceptance and surrender. He was the gentle fisherman, the quiet shepherd. Not the raging truck driver or the sweaty faced hockey player, fists thrashing the air.
In my childhood, adolescence, and throughout my adulthood, I constantly pursued the “key” to sanctity. At one time, I thought all I had to do was go to mass, receive holy communion, confess my sins, and read spiritual books. The world, over time, I thought, would adapt to all the higher spiritual goals I had set out for myself. Or, on my journey to sainthood, I would be above it all.
The Ancient Chinese Concept of Wu
I continue to be mesmerized by the ancient Chinese notion of Wu, which, in the Dao De Ching (Tao Te Ching), is referred to as “nothingness, emptiness, non-existence.”
In Verse 11, Lao Tsu gives us examples of how “emptiness” has an importance:
- The hole at the center of a wheel hub “allows the wheel to spin”
- The space within a clay cup “allows the cup to hold water”
- A doorway enables us to walk through to another room
So, my friends, the Dao is telling us that a doorway and the hollowed-out space of a cup may appear, at first glance, to have no value. But we all know that a cup is made to “contain” liquid, that a doorway makes it possible for someone to pass through it. Continue reading