"Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself."
~ one translation of a line from the Bhagavad Gita
At this moment, I could not agree more. It's that, and then it's also more, and more. I'm here at the Kripalu Yoga, Meditation and Addiction Recovery Conference. Each year this community converges for a week of brave, compassionate fellowship and personal work. I'm honored not only to assist, but most definitely even more so to participate.
I'm not a flowery writer. My style probably echoes how my mind works- in fits and starts, with sometimes just not the right word. And usually, there's a bit of a bite in there. It's just how I roll. So, I appreciate the starkness of the above quote- however uncomfortable it made me feel a few years ago when I first saw it.
I've been thinking about the practice of turning inward and toward suffering a lot as I've been writing more, whether on a blog, or in a writing group, or in a journal- and feeling into my voice, learning to write about these things. It's been a great inquiry. When I was a kid, very sensitive, quite emotional, a young budding addict, my mother used to say, "You need to get a thicker skin." What I eventually learned that this really meant was that she was uncomfortable meeting me where I was and teaching me how to be resilient. How does a child gain emotional intelligence? But that was where she was, and so I've needed in adulthood to recover my sensitivity and develop compassion- not only for her, but for myself. And I think that sensitivity and compassion are skills that help me consider deeply what I write about- and how. But they came in time, through steady effort and a willingness to let go a little into creative flow.
Pretty much across the board, when I listen at 12-step meetings, I hear people in recovery reporting feelings very early on of being "not quite right" inside or feeling "different." Though the specific circumstances vary, I can say that yes, that was my experience. I felt and saw and knew that the adults in my life were not well regulated. We had lots of joy in our household- I'd hate to make anyone think our family life was all bad- not at all. But somehow, even those moments of joy were punctuated by a sense that This is not real. This will end very soon. The other shoe will drop.
Around the ages of 7-9, a series of personal and family traumas set our home dynamic on its end. My mother began her slow decline into her addiction and from about 1982 to 1999 her disease worsened and eventually took her life. My parents bounced off each other- unable to find the comfort with one another each desperately needed- until 1989 when my mother finally jumped ship. The years in between and even after the split were hard- for a lot of reasons that are too complicated for this post (that's a story for another day, or maybe my sponsor).
It's not a very comfortable way to live- not for long, anyway. Just like wearing those itchy sweaters my 11-year-old niece hates, staying in an uncomfortable place- without tools- can make you feel that your skin is on fire. Welts break out, panic sets in, and you'd do anything- just about anything at all- to get out of that situation.
I found alcohol pretty early- at the age of 13, I figured out how to sneak wine coolers to school in a thermos and skim liquor off the top of the bottles in my parents' cabinet. My mom never noticed the incremental amounts of wine that disappeared from the large grocery-store jug of white zinfandel (horrors!)- and so I got away with it. I'd sneak out, or go to a party under the auspices that the parents would be there only to return vomiting uncontrollably. My mother would later cover for me since she knew the rage that would follow once my dad found out- so then she had the dirt on me, and round and round we'd go. That was the psychological backdrop for my habit- but moreover, alcohol made me feel warm and relaxed in a way nothing else did.
But this is not meant to be a drunk-a-log. We know what happens when people are substance abusers: relationships suffer, often-preventable accidents happen, health, employment status, and finances are ruined, and legal consequences ensue. I didn't have all of those yet, but enough had happened over my 25 year career of binge drinking (and later daily maintenance drinking) to finally give in. I surrendered on September 1, 2012 under a starry sky, calling out to the universe to please take this away from me. I can't say I've really looked back, ever- but I've had to look deeper and deeper to stay on this path. That's the way it works- once you commit to recovery it has to be complete (read: not perfect). Otherwise, as my teacher and mentor Nikki says, in the way only she can, "you may be dry, but you're still a miserable asshole."
Over time I've learned to sit with more and more discomfort and with greater and greater ease. If it weren't for the principles of the 12 steps: rigorous honesty, open mindedness, willingness (or at least, the willingness to be willing), humility, surrender, trust, dedication, introspection, devotion, consistency and service; along with the practices of yoga (sitting in meditation, with a mind that is open and a heart that knows the way, embodying steadiness and ease, breathing in the present moment, self-study and compassion) there's a decent chance I wouldn't still be sober and those other "not yets" would begin to materialize.
To "tolerate the consequences" of being myself, I had to first be willing to look. I thank the god of my understanding every day for the teachers who came before me- and before my sobriety date- as well as those teachers who still guide me today, for showing me through their lives and through their wisdom how to hold myself in compassion so that I could take that first look, and then a second, and a third...
(Part 2 coming... stay tuned.)