I was listening to an On Being podcast this morning entitled “Inside the Mormon Faith”. Mormon scholar Robert Millet was discussing various tenets of Mormonism, and what I found most interesting was his explanation of the belief of reincarnation in his faith. Millet, himself a father of six children, stated that as a Mormon, he has approached parenthood in a slightly different way from the way most non-Mormon parents do. Whereas many religions view the birth of a child as nascent creation—a blank slate to be moulded by the parents, Mormons profess that a child is born into a family having an already formed personality from a pre-birth existence. In essence, it really turns that whole “nature versus nurture” on its head. As parents, we are more akin to caretakers or shepherds than to shapers of personality.
I found this belief not just thought-provoking but humbling. There has been a lot of discussion around our house recently about how as parents we can foster a sense of gratitude, or appreciation, in our children. Talk to any parent of a teenager and the conversation invariably touches on how teenagers today are self-absorbed and think that the world revolves around them. As a parent of a young adult, my wife and I often feel that we have somehow “failed” as parents because we are not witnessing a sense of gratitude in someone we raised. Intuitively I know that this is a universal concern of parents around the world, but I still can’t help but feel that we’re the only ones dealing with this.
As a parent, your primary concern is that your child is healthy and safe, but beyond that, there are certain values that you hope to instil in your child. One of the parenting traps that many of us fall into is to prioritize the feeling of self-confidence in our children; however, it quite often comes at the cost of a child’s expression of gratitude and appreciation. Despite our best intentions, we as parents might be doing a disservice to our children in that people who grow up with a low “gratitude quotient” tend to experience more issues related to addiction, be under more stress as adults, and are more inclined to be socially isolated, all of which have a detrimental effect on a person’s well-being.
So, if gratitude is so important to future livelihood and emotional development, how can we nurture this quality in our children? The more I read about this issue, the more I understand why our “coercive strategies” to make our children more “grateful” can end up backfiring. Most of the literature from child psychology identifies four common problems. (1) The “or else” strategy. This really comes down to a thinly veiled threat whereby parents warn their children of negative repercussions by saying things like, “You better write a thank you letter to your grandmother, or else you might not get a present next year.” (2) The “grass is always greener” strategy. Every parent is guilty of this at some point when we say, “Why can’t you be like Emily, she’s always so polite and appreciative.” (3) The “great scales of indebtedness” strategy. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “I just drove all of your friends to the mall and gave you some spending money, the least you can do is say thank-you.”? (4) The “bribing” strategy. This is the one I’m most guilty of, where I attempt to literally “buy” appreciation when in fact, all I’m doing is attempting to manipulate someone into being grateful.
Is it even realistic to expect that our children openly express “gratitude” while living in a society that tends to reward individualism at the expense of the community? Even the technology today, like smartphones and iPods, allows us to travel around in our own little bubble where we think we are each the centre of our own universe. Instead of endlessly complaining about this, I decided to work on a concrete solution rather than be stuck in the problem. As a means of addressing this issue in my life, I’ve drafted a few strategies to bring gratitude back into our family life. (1) “Be a role model of gratitude”. This all boils down to “do as I do” and not “do as I say”. Simply things like writing thank-you notes, taking time to show my appreciation when someone goes that extra mile for me, and treating my partner with the respect and appreciation she deserves, will go a long way to setting the example of the behaviour I’d like to see reflected back. (2) “Take the focus away from consumerism-based rewards”. It’s time to bring back the value of “time spent together” as something to be cherished rather than always trying to “buy appreciation”. (3) “Practical age-appropriate participation”. I think we can all agree that we tend to value something easily received less than something that we work harder to achieve. I read a great article on the Today’s Parent website about how as parents, we should be fostering gratitude in our children by involving them more in our interactions. For instance, we can expect that younger children help tidy-up after dinner, teenagers babysit a younger sibling without expecting to be paid, and our older children, who may have moved out of the family home, to bring over their contribution to the meal when they come back home for Sunday dinner. I really feel like I’m in uncharted water here, and I’d love to hear back from all you parents about what has and hasn’t worked in your families.
I just started reading Love Your Enemies by the Buddhist scholars Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. I decided to pick the book up because I had heard an interview with Sharon Salzberg on a weekly podcast I enjoy called On Being. I was intrigued by Sharon’s explanation of why breaking the habit of anger towards your enemies can invite happiness into not only your adversarial relationships but your overall wellbeing.
I first became aware of this philosophy when I was participating in group therapy for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse at The Gatehouse, here in Toronto. When a person suffers horrific trauma such as sexual abuse, it’s not unusual for this individual to get “stuck” in a cycle of hatred for, and fear of the perpetrator(s) of the abuse. Over the duration of the 15-week program, It was amazing to witness that all of us began to let go of that anger towards our abusers, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the feeling of release was palpable. I had never realized that by holding onto that ensnared anger, I was closing the door on any possibility of healing that would come from forgiveness of myself and my abusers.
I don’t claim to be a religious person, but I am actively cultivating a spiritual foundation based on what Buddhists refer to as “mindfulness”. One of the great ironies is that by learning to be compassionate towards my “outer enemies”, it inevitably involves self-reflection and slowly unravelling the things that I need to let go that are standing in the way of my living a fuller life.
Buddhists believe that anger is heat or energy, so learning to harness that negative energy and redirect it for positive growth offers me the possibility to move past the feeling of being “stuck” in my negative mindset.
So, how do we get “unstuck” from our anger? It all begins and ends with learning to be mindful, and through this mindfulness, we discover that we are all interconnected. When I begin to release my anger towards others, I start to step away from “myself” and move closer to “you”. It’s in this connection that my healing exists. It sounds so easy, yet our entire western upbringing programs us to believe that our growth and success comes at the cost of someone else’s. We are trained to spot the differences between one another, rather than to embrace the similarity. The news and media much prefer focussing on “what went wrong today” than on stories of forgiveness, joy, or love.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the gift of time. I’m learning to practice self-compassion by permitting myself time to transform 47 years of thinking and behaving in the same, limiting way. I’m still guilty of beating myself up because I foolishly believe that I should be “further along” on this journey. My therapist is fond of saying, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” One of my favourite passages from the AA literature is, “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve read or heard that phrase in 12-step meetings, and still, I’m struggling with learning to use it as a lens to frame my thinking.
What I’m really working on right now is learning to “quiet” my noisy inner chatter that fuels my hyperactive personality. I’ve always been a tightly spun bundle of nervous energy; I have two speeds, full tilt and off. It’s precisely this hyperactive energy that allows anger to deeply root itself in my life. Whenever I face discomfort, frustration, or anger, I have a tendency to keep busy so that I don’t have to deal with those feelings inside. The Dalai Lama says that so many of us are actively trying to pursue happiness, when all we really need to do is to slow down and let happiness catch up to us.
I believe there is a lesson for me in learning to slow down, face my anger, and acknowledge the trauma I experienced in my childhood instead of simply running away or burying it deeper inside. I heard a fantastic interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who expressed this philosophy so beautifully. When asked how he copes with pain, anger, and grief in his life, he responded: “I say to the bad times, I will not let you go until you bless me.” What I can take from that is every enemy I encounter, every obstacle before me, and every trauma in my life can be a lesson or an opportunity for growth.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I view the crisis that I am working through in my life not as “me falling apart”, but as a clear manifestation of “me falling back together” to become the person I was always meant to be. One of the keystones of my recovery has been my relationship with my current therapist. I know that just mentioning the word “therapist” makes many people cringe, and to be perfectly honest, I used to be among that group. Almost everybody I know over 40 has been to or is currently working with a therapist. Even though this is so pervasive, it’s something we as a society are still very reluctant to discuss. Since I’m being open on this blog about everything else unfolding during my year of transformation, I thought it might be insightful to share my thoughts on “How I Selected My Therapist”.
Dr. Abraham Maslow, the creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once said: "All the evidence that we have indicates that it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse towards growth.” This is a terrific place to start because I believe that for therapy to effective, the patient/client has to first buy into the concept that he/she is willing to work towards “health” and “growth”. That may seem inanely obvious, but speaking from experience, I spent many years checking in and out of therapists’ offices precisely because I was not “ready” at that time to do the work needed to get healthier.
I would also like to destroy some of the myths about therapy that are circulating amongst the population who haven’t actually visited a therapist, yet that doesn't appear to stop them from voicing their loaded opinions.
Myth One: “Therapy is self-indulgent.” Reality: It’s self-protective and it will have a ripple effect on everyone your life touches. Myth Two: “Therapy is only for people who have mental health issues, in other words, crazy people.” Reality: Therapy is for people who have decided to dig deep and do the work needed to live a fuller life. Some of the bravest people I know are people who have sought the help of a therapist. Myth Three: “Therapy is all about my mother and father; it’s archeology." Reality: In truth, therapists will generally want a context of where you came from to help ground where you are, but most therapists will agree that solutions are found in our present, not in our past. Myth Four: “Therapy should feel comfortable." It might help to visualize the iconic leather couch shown in every movie scene set in a psychiatrist’s office. Reality: Therapy is challenging and hard work, but it should feel supportive. Instead of visualizing a comfortable leather couch, think more of an Ikea couch, firm but not conducive to napping.
When I finally decided that I wanted a therapist as an active part of my “healing plan”, I faced the inevitable problem—how do I find the right one for me? This is where I think it’s very helpful to be open about therapy because it allowed me to ask friends and family if they had any suggestions of a therapist who would be a good fit for me, and when it comes down to it, who knows me better than the people closest to me? I pooled all the suggestions people gave me and then the selection process began in earnest. Whenever I have a difficult time deciding what I want, I often reframe the question into, “What don’t I want?” When it came to selecting a therapist, I knew I didn’t want anyone too “preachy”; I don’t do well when I’m told what to do. This left only one other option—I needed to find someone who was “teachy” not “preachy”. Someone who could invite me to consider different approaches based on valid and explainable theories.
The next major hurdle was arriving at the methodology I wanted in my therapy sessions. This can easily be determined by calling the therapist and asking him or her to briefly explain the vision of the proposed therapy sessions. At the risk of over-simplifying this, let me touch upon the most common approaches in therapy. If you think your behaviour is in some way linked to your unconscious motivation, a psychotherapist might be for you. If you’re adamant about keeping your mother and father out of this dialogue, then behavioural, solution-oriented therapy is an option. Finally, if your goal is to manifest change in your life by altering your thoughts, then check out a cognitive therapist.
Once you’ve whittled your list down, it’s time to meet face-to-face and determine if you gel with your therapist. What’s the vibe like? This is a relationship that both parties need to believe is viable and potentially fruitful. I want to hear what my therapist has to say about where these sessions will lead to, and what an “ending” would look like. For me, I think it’s critical that my therapist explain issues related to boundaries and the ethical regulations that he/she is bound by. Another relevant factor that shouldn’t be dismissed is whether or not the therapist seeks regular peer evaluation or interaction. If I’m to believe that my life is “a work in progress”, I think it’s necessary for my therapist to be “growing” in his/her practice as well.
Alright, you’ve finally found a therapist, so now it’s time to rock your world, but you may still be harbouring doubts about whether this whole process will actually work. Relax, we don’t need to believe it will work; we just need to have faith in spite of our doubt and uncertainty, that it this process is more aligned with having confidence in ourself as worthy of this endeavour.
During the past three months, regular followers of my blog have been witness to my journey of spiritual and emotional growth as I profess the beauty of my attempting to lean in to my discomfort. When embarking on this public sharing of my journey, I promised myself and those of you who are following along that I would be brutally honest with what is actually going on in my life.
Well folks, I’m struggling at the moment. The cumulative stress and required energy to keep humming along in my recovery has finally taken its toll. Having battled drug/alcohol addiction during my 16 years of sobriety, I’m no neophyte when it comes to setbacks. Over the years, I learned that when I get complacent and ride that “pink cloud” that tells me everything is going great, I’m usually ripe for a rendering of humility.
In April of this year, I fostered the courage to disclose to family and friends that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Although I would never wish to go back to harbouring this secret that manifest in shame, since opening the door to this trauma, my life has descended into utter turmoil, and I’m working tirelessly to get balance back in my family life, work life, and spiritual life. Many of you joined this journey in September when my mental health was improving and optimism began to fill my horizon.
If you talk to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, they will tell you how liberating it is to finally disclose this secret that has been haunting them for most of their life. It’s also common to hear survivors share about how much energy it took to bury that secret and in a sense, live a fractured life; one that the outside world could see, and the real one trapped inside. Today, I no longer need to waste that useless energy concealing my past, but I can’t even begin to describe how draining it is to work through everything that is bubbling to the surface. It’s a feeling of constantly having to keep hundreds of balls in the air, as I discover how to reconnect with a part of my psyche that I had segregated for 35 years. It has a huge impact on my physical, sexual, and emotional identity.
Ironically, it was not until after I had disclosed the abuse in April that I began to have nightmares about the events in my childhood. During the past two months, I’ve been suffering from debilitating night terrors that wrench me from my sleep in a cold sweat. I’m thankful that my wife has been supportive and is very adept at gently waking me from these nightmares. My psyche is so fragile at the moment that the littlest thing can trigger these night terrors like a scene of confinement in a movie, reading about something happening to a child, or even something innocent that a person may say to me during the day. I know that this is just my mind finally feeling able to process the abuse from my childhood, but that still doesn't make it any easier to live through.
As an addict, my default reaction is to dull these feelings with drugs or alcohol, but I’ve worked far too hard and for too long to hold that out as a viable option. That being said, it does not prevent my mind from wandering into that psychological battleground. It feels as though I’m really at another precipice and learning to sit with this discomfort is really the only path available to me. I’m a planner at heart, so here’s what I have proposed for myself: (1) Acknowledge what is happening is real, and that feeling discomfort is not a sign of weakness. (2) Eliminate blame and shame because no solution lies there. (3) Give myself time to process everything, and that means avoid rash decisions. (4) Access my spirituality, which for me means seeking comfort in running, meditation, and yoga.
I can think of no better way to end this post than with this fitting quotation from Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for selfpreservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
When you live in a large city like Toronto, at times it feels as though the world is a cold, inhospitable place. We crowd onto the subway while avoiding eye contact, bury our faces in the newspaper, or tune ourselves out by plugging into our iPod. It’s easy to feel lonely even amidst this horde of humanity.
Underneath this faceless veneer, we all share one thing in common. Our greatest fear is that we will be found out to be a fraud, that others will discover that deep inside, we are not as “perfect” as the persona we portray. For many of us, it’s a constant struggle to reconcile how we really feel about ourselves with how others perceive us. In a world where we are desperate to make connections, it’s cruelly ironic that we suppress the one thing that truly binds all of us and makes us “human”…our insecurities, our vulnerability, our broken bits.
If we buy into the message that the mass media and advertisers are trying to ensnare us with, we start to believe that society today is all about homogeneity and fitting in. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that concept, and in fact, it’s kept us safe throughout human evolution. Where I think the message becomes distorted lies in the assumption that one size fits all, and that individuality ought to take a back seat to a greater need to fit in.
There’s a great quote by American entrepreneur Seth Godin that really speaks to how I’m feeling: “As our society gets more complex and our people get more complacent, the role of the jester is more vital than ever before. Please stop sitting around. We need you to make a ruckus.” That’s where I am at right now; I’m trying to make a “ruckus”. I’ve come to realize that burying my vulnerabilities and vainly following the herd always left feeling isolated, insecure, and disconnected.
In an age of information fuelled by blogs, podcasts, and social media, unlike at any other time in human history, we find ourselves with various media to express “our voice”, to share our story. In a sense, we are all marketing ourselves to the world, but who is listening? By launching this blog three months ago, I started to create a “ruckus” through writing honestly about my struggles with addiction, depression, and issues related to childhood sexual abuse. It’s a very vulnerable and uncomfortable feeling to open myself up to others about the parts of me that I have been programmed to keep hidden from you. We often hear people describe a moment of personal crisis as a breakdown or falling apart. I no longer see it like that. Today, I believe that these periods of crises are not me falling apart, but rather, me falling together.
If I look back on times of my life when I have had the most personal growth or enlightenment, they are invariably associated with me coming through a difficult period a little bruised but definitely stronger. One of the cornerstones in AA that I cherish the most is the belief that in order to keep our sobriety, we have to be willing to give it away. I’ll never forget sitting on a bench feeling completely despondent after one of my first AA meetings. I have no words to describe how utterly lost I felt knowing that I was literally days away from losing everything I held dear in my life. While I was sitting on that bench, a young lady from the meeting sat down beside me and just listened to me and reassured me that things would get better. I had never felt so vulnerable, yet so connected in my life.
So, if I’m going to make a “ruckus” and shake up my life, I will need to be willing to sit with my own discomfort, and to sit with others when they open up to me about their fears. The part of myself that I give away is gratitude, and the part that I keep is humility. We are not so different after all, and our fragile bits might just be our most beautiful offerings to the world.
The Oxford dictionary defines immutable as “unchanging over time or unable to be changed.” An immutable law is a truism that guides your thoughts, actions, and feelings. They tend to stow away in our subconscious, but if we coax them to the surface, we can learn to rely on their wisdom. Learning to tap into them, and trust in their guidance can bring a level of serenity into our life that we never thought possible. Today, I thought I would share my 5 Immutables with you, and I invite you to consider what your immutables are.
1. Adversity is not an obstacle in my path, but rather a stepping stone to catapult me to further growth.
It’s taken me 47 years to figure this one out. Luckily learning to lean in to adversity pays immediate tangible dividends that make the initial discomfort more than worthwhile. I studied Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in school, yet it’s only recently that I discovered I had misinterpreted his premise. I had convinced myself that his theory proposed that “only the strongest survive”. It turns out, I was completely wrong. Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
I’d like you to close your eyes and think about the biggest secret you have; the one that you would be mortified if people ever discovered. It’s the one thing you’ve buried deep inside, refusing to acknowledge it or to let it see the light of day. Well, I too had a secret like that, and I hid it from everyone for 35 years, even those closest to me. When I finally decided to disclose this secret, I learned to embrace my First Immutable, and this adversity became a stepping stone to dramatic personal growth. In essence, I was living proof of Darwin’s theory. As an added bonus…. the best part about being open to vulnerability is that it is contagious. You’ll be amazed how your courage to be vulnerable and honest opens the door for many others to connect with you at a level of authenticity you never thought possible.
2. Self-care is nonnegotiable. I need to carve time out of every day to do the things that make me spiritually, physically, and emotionally healthy.
Just the other day, my wife mentioned to me that she was “jealous of my ability to prioritize self-care in my life”. I had never really thought about it before because it’s become an unconscious routine like brushing my teeth. When I finally decided to get clean and sober 16 years ago, I started training for a marathon with two gentlemen I met in AA. Running became my time to clear out my head and process a wellspring of emotions percolating up to the surface. I credit much of my recovery to my prioritizing time each morning for a minimum of 2 hours of running and yoga. It doesn’t matter what the weather is or if we are on vacation or not, I always start my day off by grounding myself in this self-care ritual. I learned a long time ago that when I don’t feel good about myself, I’m not much use to those around me I care deeply about.
3. “Family” does not only include my relatives; it encompasses everyone in my “tribe” of friends, inspirers, and truth seekers.
I would describe my relationship with my birth family as torturous at best. For years, I beat myself up because I didn’t have the loving connection with my family that I perceived in other families. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned has been to treat my relationship with my mother and siblings with what Buddhists refer to as “benign acceptance”. I no longer have a visceral hatred for my mother or embedded anger towards my siblings; today I simply choose not to have them in my life because I know that I don’t feel healthy when I am around them. My “family” today encompasses my supportive in-laws, my dearest friends, my running mates, and most recently, other adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
4. Negative energy breeds negative energy, so surrounding myself with positive people has a huge bearing on my mental wellbeing.
We all know them, and at times we’ve all been that person before; the “Eeyore” that brings everyone down and spews pessimism in all directions. I’m known for my irreverent sarcasm and ability to bring levity to even the most grim situation. Only recently have I realized that my sarcasm can be just as destructive as another person’s negativity. If I want to be surrounded by positive and engaging people, I need to contribute my positive energy to that environment. This is by far the most challenging of my Immutables to maintain because the second I drop my vigilance, that is the time when I become a negativity vampire. In AA, we have a saying that, “If you hang around a barbershop long enough, you’ll wind up getting a haircut, so if you hang around bars and alcohol, eventually you’ll pick up a drink again.” I guess the same rule applies to those you invite into your life; positive people breed positivity.
5. Identify your "X-Factor" and embrace it! For me, it’s my resiliency.
The last of my Immutables requires lots of self-exploration and honesty. I invite you to take a piece of paper and spend 5 minutes jotting down adjectives you would use to describe yourself. Next, get a red pen and cross out all of the negative adjectives you’ve written down. Now, imagine that the world is facing an imminent catastrophic event and only 100 people can be saved. You are standing in front of the selection committee and you have to sell yourself as worthy to be saved using only one adjective. For me, I am resilient. I’ve faced a lot of adversity throughout my life and I’m still going strong; I’ve managed to stay married for 26 years; I’ve helped raise an incredible son; I am a positive contributing member to my community. What’s your X-Factor? How can you harness it to make your life the greatest it can be?
I have now reached the three-month point of my one-year journey of self-discovery and transformation, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I set out to do, and whether or not I have any regrets so far. In April my life was in complete disarray, as I finally decided to disclose to my family and friends that I had been sexually abused as a child. Thankfully, I have a partner who encouraged me to enter a treatment program, and who continually reminds me that my past does not define me.
After a summer filled with many tears and erratic mood swings, I finally began to feel whole and connected with others for the first time in over 35 years. I had been living a lie; I had been doing everything possible to numb the pain inside of me, not realizing that I was not only numbing the bad things but also building a wall around me that kept the good things out as well. I understood that what I needed most was connection with others, and for the first time in my life, I decided that this connection should be based on complete honesty and authenticity. I launched my blog in September as a way to chronicle my journey through the sea of emotions I was wading through. I began with a few critical rules to guide me: (1) I would be completely honest about what was happening in my journey. (2) Many people cringe when they hear/read of “childhood sexual abuse”. This stigma is a contributing factor in why I, and many other survivors of this trauma, keep silent for so long. In Canada alone, 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused as children, and the statistics are even higher in women. So, by adding my voice, I would be contributing to dismantling that wall of shame. (3) I would share insights into what I’m reading about how to live a more wholehearted, mindful, and gentle life.
What I am most surprised at is the incredible response and feedback my blog has generated. I have received hundreds of comments and personal emails from so many of you. It appears that my willingness to be open and vulnerable has allowed people to share their strengths and struggles with me. I’m truly honoured every time someone reaches out to me, and I’ll never be able to express how important that has been to my state of well-being.
If I were to describe what this process has been like so far, I would say it is like boarding an elevator and descending into the darkness of a bottomless mineshaft. Every time a new emotion or memory surfaces in my life, I’m no longer vainly trying to push it away or bury it. Instead, I’m learning to sit with it and examine what lies behind this feeling, what gives it power over me. It hasn’t taken long for me to discover that fear is fuelling most of these negative and self-destructive emotions. This fear has many masks, be it shame, worthiness, lack of control, or general uncertainty. It’s only recently, that I have come to realize that my greatest fear is that I’m somehow different from everyone else, but ironically, it is my interconnectedness with everyone else that is my greatest strength.
We all struggle, and many of us spend an inordinate amount of energy denying and hiding that struggle from everyone, even those closest to us. By sharing my greatest fear, my greatest shame, with you, I have been shown that my vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather, the essence of my strength and the catalyst of my growth. Author Cameron C. Taylor says this beautifully: “If you take away a person’s struggle, you take away their victory. It’s like pulling a caterpillar out of its cocoon before it’s time. It will never develop into a butterfly.”
I invite you to continue this journey of transformation with me, and encourage you to consider the idea that our greatest emancipation may be found in simply letting go of our fear that we are somehow different. I am by no means a religious person, but I aspire to be a spiritual person. It would be naive for me to believe that fear will disappear from my life, but by acknowledging that this fear is a natural part of life, I can learn to live with it and grow from it. This is the core belief in every meditation practice. We are encouraged to sit with our palms open holding our fear in one hand and our hope in the other. David Richo describes this mindful practice as sitting “in my predicament as a witness, not as a plaintiff or judge.”
I’d like to end this post by once again thanking each and everyone of you for supporting me when I need it most. If you have something you would like to share with me, please leave a comment at the end of the post, or you can email me directly using the link at the top of this page.
For such a high maintenance guy, I live a fairly low maintenance lifestyle. Those who know me can attest to my unwavering, or what some may call stubborn, fixation with routine. I eat oatmeal for breakfast and peanut butter for lunch every day of the week. I’ve had the same hairstyle since I was six, and I’ve been wearing the same brand of jeans for over the 40 years. To an outsider my life may look boring, predictable, and small, but allow me to let you in on a little secret. It’s this predictability that makes me the happiest me I can be.
One would think that the more choices we have, the happier we would be, but that is simply not the case, and lots of empirical evidence supports that claim. There is a direct correlation between the number of choices we have and the expectation we assign to how happy we should be with our eventual selection. Don’t believe me? I’ll share a little story with you to show you what I mean.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been wearing the same brand of jeans for most of my life. When I was a teenager, I was only faced with a few simple decisions when I went to the mall to pick up a new pair of Levis; would I get them in black, blue, or possibly corduroy? Once I made my decision, I was happy and I knew they would fit me fine. A few years later, the process became a little more stressful with the introduction of acid-wash jeans, but thankfully I bucked the trend, so my decision making process remained relatively stress free. Fast forward ten years and all hell broke loose. Now, my trip to the mall means selecting the colour is the least of my worries, as I am now faced with deciding among boot-cut, skinny-fit, button-fly, original (which I swear is not the “original” jeans I wore in high school), 501s, 504s, 514s, …. You get the picture. Now, whenever I leave the mall with a new pair of jeans, I don't feel as satisfied with my purchase because I always think there might have been a better fitting pair out there, but I was just too frustrated to try any more styles on.
When it comes to making choices, I want fewer not more. If I have to spend the majority of my life wading through an endless array of choices, then I am not really free, but rather debilitated by self-doubt. One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned was the simple slogan that greats us in every AA meeting, “Keep it Simple”. I get a lot of strength from drawing on this practice in so many facets of my life. The way I’ve been able to hone this practice is by placing artificial constraints on my choices by blocking out other options that might only lead to increased anxiety. I didn’t realize it at the time, but 27 years ago when I met my now wife, I did just that. I allowed myself to fall in love, and I didn’t weigh myself down by entertaining that there was someone more suited to me somewhere out there. You see, I didn’t settle; I allowed myself to be in the moment and acknowledge how amazing this person was standing in front of me. I may just be naive, but I believe that is why many marriages fail. We allow ourselves to be lured into the belief that something better is out there, and become blind to the beauty that the universe has already put before us.
The Dalai Lama said: “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, Oh yes - I already have everything that I really need.” So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that as many of the people around me are perpetually trying to make their world bigger, and give themselves access to greater and more choices, I’m striving to make my life a little simpler, my choices fewer but more meaningful. It feels like I’m swimming against the current most days, but when I do stay present and acknowledge how great my life is, I do feel more grateful and content that the choices I make are what make me the best me I can be.
Acceptance is a theme that has been running through many facets of my life, and even more so recently. The more I seek solace in the structure I’ve established in my life, the more I realize what an illusion this structure is and how my grasping to this illusion of control is a source of much of the discomfort in my life. No matter how many good habits I nurture, there will always be things beyond my control, and it’s these uncontrollables that manifest in anxiety, frustration, and stress. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, said: “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” I can completely identify with this idea of “condemnation”, as my typical first response is to scream and throw a temper tantrum when things do not go according to “my plan”.
Intuitively, I know that my sense of control is a fallacy, but in actual fact, I live in denial that this universal truth doesn’t apply to me, only to everyone else. I’m quick to give advice to others to simply go with the flow, but for me, the natural course is to attempt to swim upstream and bash my head against every rock along the way. Whenever we are faced with big crises such as job loss, depression, overwhelming anxiety, illness, or trauma, our first battle cry is usually “Why me?” I’m only just beginning to realize that the better response to these crises is to say, “Okay, this happened, so what is it teaching me?” This is a subtle mindset shift, but it can have a significant impact on working through this discomfort.
Learning to be with my discomfort and allowing it to wash over me, is a potent source of transformation and personal evolution. The ancient Romans described this as “amor fati”, which is loosely translated as “seeking virtue in loving one’s fate.” By facing this discomfort head on and actively choosing not to rally against it, we become more in tune with the natural flow of life, but most importantly, we build up an armor against uncertainty that allows us to lean into even greater challenges to come. Buddhists incorporate this into their mindfulness practice, as the acceptance of universal suffering is a mainspring of humanity.
So, how can we suppress our ego-centric why me voice and begin to relinquish illusionary control for the much more healthful feeling of acceptance? If I survey my life and focus on the pivotal moments when I’ve had the most spiritual growth and maturity, I quickly realize that they are the outgrowth of coming through challenge, struggle, or trauma. Life gives us exactly what we need, and often courage, empathy, and/or wisdom are the harvest of uncertainty. Over the past five months, I’ve started to distill this process down to a few basic “truths”. (1) I can’t control everything, so stop fighting and start floating along. (2) Denial and avoidance may be comforting in the short term, but awareness and acceptance pay long-term dividends. (3) Breathe, get perspective, and be kind to myself. Sometimes the answer to a problem comes from the most unlikely of places. (4) If I can’t control the universe and I can’t control most of the things in my life, why would I think I can control or change someone else? (5) Being “perfect” is impossible, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be that much fun.
As I witness the tragedy of Mayor Rob Ford’s life play out on the political stage, I can’t help thinking about my own struggles with addiction and how my life today in no way resembles what it once was when I was in the throws of an active addiction. I thought about what advice I would offer Mayor Ford if I had the opportunity to sit down with him. For me, my strength, hope, and recovery can be distilled into one simple little prayer that is recited in 12-step meetings around the world. Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, penned the Serenity Prayer, and later, this beautiful little prayer became the life-preserver that many a recovering addict has grasped onto to weather the storm of addiction recovery. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When I entered a treatment program for the first time, I was beaten, lacked self-confidence, and most importantly, viewed myself as terminally unique. My first year of sobriety fluctuated from the euphoria of finally stopping the hemorrhaging in my personal life to the wallows of depression as I began to realize the amount of work that was still left to do to make my life better. During this period, I recited the Serenity Prayer throughout the day to help me learn to “sit with the discomfort” of finally dealing with all those emotions I suppressed with drugs and alcohol. Today, 16 years later, I say the Serenity Prayer every morning while I’m out on one of my training runs. This is the time of the day when my "monkey brain" is most dormant, and when I take the time to give thanks for where I’ve been and ask for guidance for where I’m going.
I thought it might be interesting to dissect the Serenity Prayer and parse out its meaning. Regardless of whether or not you believe in God, the opening of the prayer lays the foundation that “serenity”, or peace of mind, is something that is “granted" to me; it is not something that I can simply “take”. What I’ve come to realize, and in effect internalize, is that serenity is only “granted” to me when I’m firmly grounded in gratitude. In fact, I had the word “gratitude” tattooed on my arm to serve as a constant reminder.
The middle of the prayer deals with the internal battle and deciphering between what things “I can change” and what things I need to “accept” as immutable. Whenever my life feels out of balance, it’s usually directly attributed to my inability to “accept” something that can’t be changed. Inevitably, this mentality leads to “stuckness” and blinds me to being “solution-oriented”. If I learn to direct my energies to changing the things that can be changed in my life, my actions become more aligned with empowerment rather than with self-blame.
A critical part of this equation that I was unaware of for the first few years of my sobriety was that an awareness of “what can be changed” only manifests when I operate from a place of “integrity”. Being truthful with myself allows me to turn the lens inward and make an honest assessment of how, and why, I need to change. If you look at what’s unfolding in the Mayor Ford saga, and in every other person with an untreated addiction, all you hear is a constant barrage of “I’m sorry” and “I promise I will change.” The addict really does believe this is true, but until we look at ourselves honestly through integrity, these promises will remain empty and worthless.
The end of the Serenity Prayer speaks of “wisdom”, and it’s this part of the prayer that comforts me most today in my recovery. What a lot of addicts struggle with early in the recovery process is that we need to do the “do things” before this “wisdom” is granted to us. I invite you to bring the Serenity Prayer into your days as both a beacon of hope and a pillar of strength.