Sharing the Load, Permission to Feel, & Impermanence

I’ve struggled to come up with three things to post today. It’s one of those days when the weight of the world feels heavy on my shoulders. I am grateful to know that I don’t have to shoulder that weight alone.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s okay to not be okay and to give myself permission to feel the things I feel without judgement. I am grateful to the teachers who have taught me this lesson in life.

Everything in the universe is impermanent. The only constant is change. Things won’t be like they are right now forever and I am oh so grateful for that.

Don’t Bite the Hook

Feelings can be so intense. This morning I was supposed to take my son fishing on a charter out of Menemsha harbor. I woke at 6:30, made coffee, prepared lunch and snacks, and got him up for the adventure. We walked down to the appointed meeting point, the Menemsha Texaco, arriving at 7:50. Plenty of time to grab an extra snack and a T shirt for the boy who was wearing a sweatshirt with nothing underneath in August. Plenty of time to catch the boat.

My wife had made the arrangements and we’d been told to meet at the Texaco. As the clock neared 8:00, the time to shove off, I started to wonder where everyone was, when the owner of the boat was going to show up. I knew that I should have started asking questions but my social anxiety got the better of me.

They will show up I kept thinking. It’s island time. No big deal. Until I saw the boat pulling away and said, “we just missed our boat.” That’s when the woman who organizes the trips emerged from behind the Texaco and said, “I’m sorry, we were waiting for you.”

I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t have a cell phone to call the captain. Apparently he didn’t have one either because when I offered mine she didn’t respond. A friendly man, said he’d radio the boat but the news was not good. The captain wasn’t coming back. The woman said, “we’re just getting started, how could I have avoided this?” I suggested that perhaps a sign, clearer directions to the boat beyond meet at the Texaco, and perhaps making a call out that the boat was leaving might be helpful.

Mr. Grey and I started walking home. And then the feelings hit.

Failure. Shitty father. Idiot. Dumbass. You fuck everything up. You let down the ones you love the most.

The same feelings that I used to have when I was drinking. Only now there isn’t anything to numb the pain. No escape hatch. Just have to sit with them.

My son is more forgiving than I am. He asked me to take him fishing when we get home. And I will. And still, I have a hard time forgiving myself.

I know that in the grand scheme of things missing a fishing charter is nothing compared to being the drunk dad that I once was, destined to die early in life. And yet, I still feel like I failed today.

I’m going to try to shake this off. I’m going to offer myself metta — loving kindness. I’m going to do my best to let go of this. As Pema Chödrön says, “don’t bite the hook.”

It’s Okay to Question…and Even to Challenge

dogma |ˈdôɡmə|
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true

I have a long standing distrust of organized religion. I grew up going to Catholic school. The Catholic’s had all the answers, and they were entirely sure that they were the only ones who had the answers. In my daily religion classes, I learned that Protestants were not true Christians, that Jews had missed the message, and we didn’t talk about Islam. I learned that there was “one catholic and apostolic” church. I learned that all other religions were “less than” Catholicism. And while I wasn’t in a practicing Catholic family, I eventually received the Sacraments and was confirmed when I was in 10th grade, even though I am confident now that I really didn’t believe.

Now, in 1986, a new house was built on the vacant lot next door and Norman moved in. Norman was a born again, fundamentalist preacher who had two kids and a wife. He drove a Mercedes (which was really odd for anyone in Taneytown, MD at the time). His wife was an attractive lady and I always had the sense they should be on PTL. Continue reading

Find Your “Why”

He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how. — F. Nietzsche

Twenty-eight years ago, I was attending high school at a small Catholic school in a small town in Pennsylvania and we had daily religion class. Religion class was something I’d always dreaded from the time I started attending Catholic school in the fourth grade up until 1988, when religion class suddenly wasn’t about “religion.”

In the final two years of high school, the religion class curricula focused on real issues rather than ancient biblical text and stories of some rabble-rouser preacher who claimed to be the son of God. In 11th grade the main topic was that of finding meaning in life as related by two Holocaust survivors. In 12th grade, the topics were to social justice and a study of marriage and vocations.

The text for our 11th grade religion class consisted of Night by Elle Wiesel and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Both books detail the experiences of young Jewish men who were taken captive by the Nazi’s and who survived the concentration camps. Night was short and we read it first. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the book because it was over-shadowed by our study of Frankl’s book, which we studied from approximately October to May of the year. Continue reading

Conversations and Connections

As I drive down Maryland Route 140 from Westminster toward I795, the sun sets in the rear-view mirror.  For years I tried to let the sun set on my youth.  I felt out of step with the world growing up in rural Maryland.  And in a lot of ways, I was out of step with the world.  But now, I’m finding that venturing back to where I grew up is not as painful as I might have imagined it.

I’ve just had an amazing reunion with a very special teacher, one who saw something in me and helped me set my life on a better path in high school.  Through the miracles of technology, we have been reunited and have kept up with each other over the past 8 years or so.  We met one other time, before I went off the rails. Continue reading

Finding a middle way

“As we seek balance in our meditation practice as well as in our lives in recovery, one of the things we have to look out for is this tendency toward extremes.” (1)

When I first started to contemplate the 12 steps, I struggled mightily with language that I perceived as evangelical.  If you’re anything like me, you may have struggled with specific words too, perhaps God and Him.  I counted the number of steps that talked about something related to God and came up with 6 that used these words.  I gave Step 12 a pass even though I thought spiritual awakening sounded a little too much like being saved.

I saw things as absolutes.  Black and white.  On or off.  Binary.  And I was repulsed.  All I wanted was to stop drinking, I didn’t want to fall down some rabbit hole and become a holy roller.  People told me that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular.  I heard incredibly stupid things, like, “you can make a light bulb your higher power if you want.”


I’ve written before that I didn’t struggle so much with the concept of a higher power, but with undercurrent of fundamentalist evangelicalism that I found in the steps.  And I declared that I’d start looking for an alternative.  And I did.

I read the book Dharma Punx by Noah Levine.  Noah Levine leads a recovery program called Refuge Recovery, and I thought this book would be about how he came to form the program.  Spoiler alert!  It’s not about that.  In fact it talks a great deal about his experiences with the 12 steps and does not diminish them at all.  It also talks about his spiritual journey to Buddhism.

I’m going to level with you, while I enjoyed the book and initially gave it 4 stars on, upon further reflection I’m not sure it’s as good as I first thought.  But, it did open my eyes to some things.  And as Amazon will do, I got suggestions about other books to read, which brings me to the book I’m currently reading, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, by Kevin Griffin. This book is not a reinterpretation of the 12 steps in Buddhist language, rather it is a discussion of how the steps relate to Buddhist practice and I’m finding it immensely helpful.  While I’m not a Buddhist, there is a lot in Buddhist teachings to which I relate.

In a few short sentences, Griffin manages to sum up exactly what my problem with the third step has been.  He writes, “Language is always an issue in spiritual teachings. First of all, as I’ve talked about, these teachings are trying to explain something that goes beyond language; words are only an attempt to represent reality, they are not reality itself.” (2)

Over the years, I’ve struggled with the rhetoric that comes out of religious leaders.  And in most cases, I’ve turned my back on it, because it never really resonated with me.  It felt accusatory.  It felt dangerous.  It felt false.  Even if there was a grain of truth in the teachings, something in them made me react viscerally.  I think now that it is exactly that the language does not match my understanding.

Much of the language in the Big Book feels didactic.  Many times, I hear language at meetings that makes my skin crawl.  How is it that well meaning people who have a great deal of faith manage to make my skin crawl?  Well, I think it comes down to balance.

See I believe in a healthy debate.  I believe in healthy skepticism.  I believe that there is good reason to doubt.  It’s not that faith is a bad thing, but when I feel that something demands blind faith, that’s when I recoil.  And yes, sometimes I feel like that’s what I hear at meetings and find in the text.

Griffin writes, “With too much faith, we no longer question anything. We take everything at face value so that the nuances of ancient poetic and mythic teaching are taken literally and lead us to rigid, irrational, and destructive beliefs.”(3)  Griffin goes on to tell a story of a time when he followed a mystic around the country on nothing but faith.  And that at some point, he lost his faith in this mystic and everything fell apart.  Interestingly, Noah Levine has a similar story in Dharma Punx.    Just as it’s possible to have too little faith, it’s possible to have too much faith.

Often times, people like me, get accused of not having enough faith.  We are told things like, “become a yes man, and just do whatever your sponsor tells you to do” and “when you stop questioning everything, then you’ll know what true sobriety is.”  Wow.  Just wow.  What a way to turn someone off in a heartbeat!?!

But I get it.  Too much thinking can also be dangerous.

Griffin addresses this too:  “With too much wisdom, the hindrance of doubt comes to dominate the mind. There is an unwillingness to accept anything that is not before your eyes or that can’t be “proved” through science or logic.  […] This particular attitude is very common in our contemporary, Western, materialist culture. It has the effect of narrowing possibility to that which has already been known or understood. There is no room for imagination or discovery.” (4)

As with most everything in life, the answer often lies somewhere between extreme faith and extreme wisdom.  The answer is in the middle path.  I’m coming to believe that there is a middle path that allows me to live in accordance with the 12 steps without trusting too much in faith.   As Griffin writes:

Balancing Wisdom and Faith means keeping an open heart and an open mind. Not closing ourselves off from the unknown, from possibilities yet unexplored; and not seeking quick fixes or supernatural solutions to our problems. Life is a mystery; the mind an enigma; the possibilities for spiritual growth endless, if only we are willing to explore. As human beings we have amazing abilities to think, to feel, and to experience wonder. Step Three sets us firmly on the path of freedom, connecting us to the great mysteries of life and the heart. Our job is to keep opening to the mystery, with joy, gratitude, and bright attention. (5)

(1) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 84). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(2) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 73). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(3) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 75). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(4) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 75-76). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(5) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 84-85). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.

Leaning In to “The God Talk”

On Twitter, I’ve been fairly open about the fact that I’ve had some concerns with “the program” as of late.

In meetings, I’ve said things like, “I’m not sure this program is right for me,” or “I don’t have a problem with a Higher Power, but I do have a problem with what the author wrote,” in reaction to readings from Daily Reflections.Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 5.26.28 PM

Over the past few days, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I think I’ve come to terms with what’s been niggling me.  It’s true that I don’t have a problem believing in a higher power, or a God if that’s what you call it.  I actually attend church on a relatively regular basis, though I will confess that there are things about it that get under my skin.

What I have been struggling with is that I feel that there is an under current of fundamentalist evangelicalism in some of the AA literature that I’ve been reading.  There seems to be a notion of “being saved” by a power greater than me — a notion of redemption.  And that is exactly what doesn’t sit well with me.  I posted this to StopDrinking on Reddit last night and got some good feedback.  A few people suggested that perhaps I was reading too much into things.  And maybe I am.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have never bought in to the idea of being saved.  I believe too strongly in the idea of freedom of will and in personal responsibility to accept the notion that a higher power can “save” me.   Continue reading