With the winter solstice come and gone, those of us who live in the northern hemisphere can now expect increasingly longer days and shorter nights. I can fondly remember how much I looked forward to this time of the year as child—a prolonged escape from the confining classroom, a vast swath of unstructured time, and of course, the prospect of presents to unwrap.
But something happened along the way—I grew up, and more importantly, grew away from myself. As an adult, I have come to associate the month of December with scheduling commitments, commercialized-induced angst, and frazzled families. December demands our attention, so it’s bitterly ironic that this is the time of year we are least attentive. When we were children, we lived in the moment and seemed to roll with whatever came our way, the scraped knees, unicorns, and sugar highs. But now that I’m an adult, December has become a time when I look back and survey the year that was, and anticipate, sometimes with dread, but usually with blind optimism, what lies ahead. Overall, the one thing I seem hell bent on not doing is keeping as busy as possible so as not to focus on the now.
This year, more than ever before, I’m fighting my natural inclination that whispers to me to step out of the now for the endorphin rush of expectation around the corner. I’m reminding myself that renewal, growth, and serenity are the gifts that are found when I slow down long enough to let my life catch up with me. There is an invigorating sense of peace that comes whenever I learn to be comfortable with where I am now, especially when every nerve ending in me is screaming to turn away. As the poet Mary Oliver has said: “Ten times a day something happens to me like this - some strengthening throb of amazement - some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
Mary Oliver's words awaken me, as they attune me to the idea that being attentive even in the darkest time of the year, fortifies my soul. The darkness of these winter months is not something to retreat from, but rather, something to be embraced. Even amidst the darkness, our silent companion—the moon—illuminates hope is ever present. Metaphorically, darkness envelops us and dulls our visual sense. But as one sense is dulled, the others are heightened, and with distractions removed, clarity arrives.
I’m learning to accept that by staying present in the periods of darkness in my life, I in fact am blessed to see what really lies around, and inside of me. Darkness shrouds and isolates us from much of the pain in our lives, a byproduct of our interactions with others gone astray. Our jealousy, resentment, anger, and irritation cannot thrive when we sit alone and endure our darkness. All we are left with is our truth, and our truth is that we are governed by our fear—our fear of abandonment, worthiness, and forgiveness.
By disentangling all the ancillary emotions and seeing my fear for what it actually is, I step into my present and get a glimpse of how this is the doorway to my future. When I no longer turn away from the discomfort of my own darkness, I take ownership of my life, and in so doing, clear a passage for authentic connection with others. We are reminded by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, that darkness is what opens us. “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
So as this year draws to a close, I invite you to spend less time looking at the year behind you and composing the New Year’s resolutions that lie ahead. Instead, look around, and inside where you are right now. By really seeing yourself, you open the possibility to see others for what they really are too. I’ll leave the last word to Elizabeth Gilbert. “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow - this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
Whether I attribute it to something gone haywire in my orbitofrontal cortex, misaligned or misfiring opiate and dopamine receptors, or even the sexual violence incurred in my childhood, the answer always comes out the same--I am an addict. Being ensnared in an active addiction is a tortuous death spiral, a soul-sucking spiritual thirst, a cantankerous craving, an insatiable seduction, but most of, an anxiety-fueled obsession that’s all about self-negation.
I’m coming up on 18 years of being clean and sober, yet I’m ever so vigilant of how tenuous my sobriety can be. The longer I go without a drink or a drug, the more susceptible I am to getting lulled into complacency. It’s a daily reminder that while I’m going about rebuilding my life after drugs and alcohol, that snake called addiction is just off in the distance, slithering and snarling, waiting for me to take those first steps into the doorway of denial.
How can I describe what addiction is to someone who isn’t an addict? In my mind, the closest anyone has ever come to capturing the entrancing enticement of addiction is Dr. Vincent Felitti when he said: “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.”
I used to think my struggles with addiction were all about my craving to fill an insatiable void inside me. I’m only beginning to understand how mistaken that thinking was. Addiction has more to do with what I’m trying to avoid than it does with any void inside me. In fact, I no longer subscribe to the belief that, like the hole in a doughnut, we all have an empty space inside of us that desires to be filled. It’s self-defeating going about your life thinking you’re in some way broken, or walking around with this aching cavern in your soul that screams out to be filled.
We are indeed all “whole”—The real issue lies in what, and whom, we permit to fill those crevices inside us. We’ve all been given limited space to work with, so if you want to welcome more joy, love, and forgiveness into your life, you’ll need to make space for it by purging some of the anger, hate, and self-pity from your life.
For years, I’ve wrestled with what recovery is supposed to look like. Are we ever really recovered from an addiction, or are we treading a path of recovering, of which we are given a daily, and sometimes hourly reprieve? Alcoholics Anonymous has held dominion over the recovery field and its 12-step offshoots for decades. And if you follow their direction, there is no such thing as cutting down, only cutting out. It feels almost blasphemous to second guess such a rigid direction that has managed to keep me sober this long, but I wonder if given the resources, support, and self-knowledge, if more addicts would internalize less shame, and thus have a better hope of recovery were a less stringent program in place.
This brings me back to the idea that addiction, a universal human condition, is simply a matter of not making space for other people and things in your life. Sometimes the volume is just turned up too high, and we fail to see the need to purge toxins from our soul. And these can take many forms—friends, family, substances, and behaviors. So how do we go about burrowing into our addictions and making room for goodness to enter our lives? It starts with getting honest with yourself and admitting that someone or something is standing in the way of you feeling whole. Next, you come to the realization that the addiction is merely a symptom to a much deeper problem in your soul. All the alcohol, drugs, shopping, work, and sex you use to numb your problem, in time, will no longer soothe the discomfort in you that can’t be silenced, only unearthed. At this point, you’ll need all the help you can get to fortify yourself to keep pushing through when its ever so easy to slide back into numbing and denying. Here’s when you’ll have to rely on the easiest “most difficult” thing in the world--forgiveness. You don’t have to be the person you were, but if you want any hope of wedging that addiction out of its foothold in your soul, you’ll need to find forgiveness for yourself and those who may have hurt you. And finally, once you’ve cleared that toxic space inside you and you’ve allowed joy and love to take its place, you’ll have to take responsibility to fight like hell to keep that addiction from slithering back in.
I’d like to leave you with beautiful words of Naguib Mahfouz: “The problem is not that the truth is harsh but that the liberation from the ignorance is as painful as being born. Run after truth until you’re breathless. Accept the pain involved in re-creating yourself afresh. These ideas will take a life to comprehend, a hard one interspersed with drunken moments.”
Like so many other people I know, the holiday season is by far, the most difficult time of the year for me. Seeing the stores and promenades decked and hollied, a shopping frenzy all around, and mountains of candy and baked goods, doesn’t fill me with Bing Crosby-esque joy, but instead, taps into all my insecurities, inferiority, and stirs up memories of troubled childhood Christmases.
I intuitively know that these feelings are not really “rational” in that it’s been many years since I’ve left that dysfunctional birth family behind, and since then, have crafted a beautiful family with my loving and supportive wife. But every year, I can feel myself tumbling back into that dark place in my heart yet again.
I decided to try something different this year—Instead of obsessing over the holidays that lay ahead, I would look back on all the growth that’s come to me this past year. Just like Mick Jagger intones: “You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need.”
I’m no Zen master sitting on remote mountaintop emptying his mind so that there is nothing there, but the present moment. But, I do aspire to live a simpler life—one in which my motto is to “get out of my own way, and let what falls in front of me be the way.” This is much easier to profess than to procure, but it’s a path that always welcomes me back. As with every change you want to see in your life, you must first start with a change in your mind. Simply “wanting” the change is not enough—you birth the change in your life by consciously rewiring your mindset, and by believing that just because it’s always been, doesn’t mean it always has to be.
I came across a really helpful exercise that I invite you to try by Roz Savage, the inspirational writer and speaker, who just happens to be the first woman to ever row solo across three oceans! While in her early thirties, and to all outward appearance having everything going for her, Roz was living a life of internal disquiet—feeling claustrophobic and somewhat rudderless. She knew she needed a change, but she was uncertain what that change should look like. Sound familiar? I think we can all relate to having that empty hole in our core at some point of our life.
So, in the words of Roz Savage, here’s what she did. “Everything changed on the day that I wrote two versions of my own obituary. I imagined that I was at the end of my life, looking back and thinking about what I did with my time here on Earth. I wrote two versions – the one I wanted, and the one I was heading for if I carried on as I was.”
The second I read that, something in me shifted. For one, I was terrified because I could see myself lying on my deathbed surrounded by those dearest to me, but all the while secretly knowing that there was an ache in me that I would take to the grave unfulfilled. But more importantly, I was shaken awake by a sense of hope that I, alone, still have the chance to write that life that I want. The only thing in my way is fear—and when it comes to living in fear, I consider myself an expert.
The thing about fear is that once you voice it—let it out of you—it immediately loosens its control of you. Does it go away? No, but that knot in your stomach begins to recede. Something else that I’ve come to realize is that I can start to unpack, and eventually overcome, any fear that I have when there is something out there I’m even more afraid of. Now ask yourself, is there anything more terrifying than lying on your deathbed having lived a life of unfulfilled dreams and expression?
So now that I sit here and survey the year that was, I know that I haven’t necessarily received the life I wanted, but I have faith that I have received the life I needed. I have confidence in what lies ahead because I trust that screaming feeling inside me that I can no longer silence or ignore. When you discover that passion inside of you, the reason you were put on this earth, you feel as though you’ve uncovered something that’s always been your faithful companion. It’s like the cloud you don’t notice until suddenly it blocks the sun. Find that cloud inside of you, and allow yourself to shine. You’re worth it.
I have been places where I feel that my heart is being cleaved open so that pain can escape and joy flood in. The sensation can come to me on a long walk in the mountains or in the forest, or standing on a deserted beach and feeling the tide roll over my feet, and can even appear under the harsh lights of a hospital room watching someone dear stoically take his last breath. I was reading an article yesterday, when I came across a Celtic expression that beautifully encapsulates what I’ve always thought to be true.
The Celtic Christians believed that there were mystical spaces, called “thin places”, where the veil between the holy and the human is traversed—A place in which the physical and spiritual worlds are knit together, and if we are so attuned, we can transcend the ordinary for a glimpse of the infinite. I’m sure you’ve been in such places jarring with kinetic energy, and simply by your presence, you are in someway changed.
Thin Places are not necessarily sacred places, or peaceful places. I consider them to be places of dissonance, or transformational plateaus. The energy that flows through me is an experience that leaves my heart open—more grateful, more empathetic, and less alone. It’s a disarming feeling of being brought to your own attention, knowing that you are forever changed by the experience.
The moment you walk into any hospital, it is hard not to be reminded of how thin the veil is that separates the physical from the holy. I’ll never forget spending the night sleeping beside my father as he lay in a palliative care hospital—The once stocky frame, now wasted away from the cancer consuming him. At 22, I had little space in my life for religion or thoughts of the hereafter, but holding on to his frail hand, I felt something enter me, and it has stayed with me all these years. Ironically, just three short months later, I would find myself in a delivery room at the hospital holding onto to my wife’s hand as we looked into the squinty eyes of our newborn son laying across her chest. Something flooded into my heart that early morning too—a simultaneous flutter of unquenchable joy tempered by a sense of powerlessness in the midst of the frailty of this innocent newborn.
Barely twenty years old, my wife and I went over to England to get married, and while we were there, we had the opportunity to go for lots of daylong hikes through the rolling fields of Devon and along the cliffs of Cornwall. On one of these walks, we had just finished descending a long embankment, when we came across this magical field of bluebells as far as the eye could see. It was just the two of us out there, but if you asked either one of us, we would tell you something else was present that field. Looking across that vast radiant meadow, I was struck by how big my world had become, but at the same time, I felt completely enveloped by the presence of my new bride’s unconditional love.
As a long distance runner, I spend countless hours crisscrossing the dark deserted city streets and dodging rocks and roots on off-road trails. On a four-hour training run, my mind often wanders to places deep within my soul, and I tap into a deep reserve of strength I believe lingers in all of us. I’ve encountered the mysticism of thin places on a few occasions when I’ve been alone on a run, but for me, the most memorable took place two years ago in the cool morning darkness of rural South Africa. I was taking part in the prestigious Comrades Marathon, an 89km race up and down some of the most unforgiving terrain through the pastoral province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The atmosphere at the starting corrals was electric, and unlike every North American race I’ve competed in, the mood was relaxed, as runners seemed to be soaking up every gorgeous second. Fifteen minutes before the start, the entire field of 18,000 runners started singing the national anthem followed by the most moving rendition of Shosholoza, the iconic folk song that speaks to the hardships endured by the native South Africans and the migrant peoples. Standing in the darkness, and feeling the vibration inside of me brought on by the haunting melody of 18,000 singers, I was moved to tears. I was overwhelmed by a sense of community, an impassioned plea of hope, and the resiliency of the human spirit. The veil separating the mundane and the transcendent had been pushed aside for the briefest of moments—And I will be forever changed by that glimpse of the divine.
Here is the poem I wrote for my wife about our mystical field of bluebells