I am one of those people who hires a contractor to tile my bathroom remodel and ends up with a spiritual guru in disguise with whom I end up having daily, hour long conversations about life as he grouts and I make myself comfortable sitting on our shiny new Kohler commode which is conveniently sitting just outside the bathroom. I always find spiritual gurus in the the least likely of physical bodies. I think they like to hide like that, not drawing too much attention to themselves spreading light and wisdom in small doses. Not every spiritual guru can write a best seller and appear on Oprah.
I believe that everything that happens in your life, happens for a reason. That what you need to learn the universe conspires to teach you. At first, the lessons are easy enough, even pleasant to learn. We’re given the opportunity to learn, with joy, how to live our lives with more integrity and love. How to grow, accept, love and understand ourselves. How to accept, love and understand those around us. How to function in the world around us peacefully. How to not waste our lives living in distraction. How to not run away from the “places that scare us.”
Now you might choose to put on some headphones, you might choose to look the other way, you might choose to distract yourself, you might even choose to doubt the messenger because he doesn’t have a MD from Harvard Medical but rather a Certificate of Completion from Lincoln Technical Institute but the message will come. We do have free will. In fact, we are so free that we can choose bondage but we do not have the freedom to slow down the universe. Our learning fuels the momentum of the universe. It’s your choice to listen the first time or wait for the 2nd or 3rd or 4th time but I can tell you from experience, that each subsequent time the lesson will try harder and harder to get your attention in a more sobering form until finally you are whacked over the head with it. One way or the other, we will learn what we need to learn. Even if we have to learn it through suffering.
So when this seemingly “average joe” walked into my house several years back I was not expecting to be schooled in the root of addictions and learn my first Buddhist principle. I wasn’t even aware that I needed to learn about them. I was not an addict…. Well, there was the little, tiny, itsy bitsy Lorezapam pill or two… or sometimes two and a half… or if absolutely necessary three, I had been taking for about a year or so to get to sleep but EVERYONE takes something to sleep these days. And my doctor was prescribing it. So, that makes it legit, right?
“Ah”, he says to me. “Why did you get yourself into this situation in the first place?” I was describing how I was going through withdrawal symptoms during the day. Forgetful, anxious, feeling off and that I needed to get off these pills.
“Because I needed my sleep, and I wasn’t sleeping.”
“No”, he countered, “You just didn’t like feeling tired. It is uncomfortable and you just don’t like feeling uncomfortable and the minute something didn’t go as planned, the minute you were uncomfortable, you reached for something to fix it. That is the root of all addictions. Not wanting to feel what you don’t want to feel Not wanting to feel bad.” SNAP! and then….. lightbulb.
Schooled. The Lincoln Tech way.
The Buddhist take on addictions is that they stem from our naive belief that they will provide an escape from what we don’t want to feel. At least that is the hope. It is the grasping at this hope that makes a short term pleasure a long term hell. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. Can’t bear it. Don’t want to even try. We feel we have to soften it, buffer it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. We think we are being kind to ourselves in our attempt to self-soothe when in fact, we are just covering up the problem. Ignoring it. Not being present or mindful of what is going on, of what the universe is trying to tell us. We are acting like an absentee parent who thinks buying things makes up for their lack of presence in the child’s life. Except we are both the parent and the child.
When I started to have trouble sleeping, I didn’t even stop for one moment stop to understand why I wasn’t. What was going on that was out of balance in my life, in my body, what was this “not sleeping” trying to tell me. I just wasn’t sleeping and I didn’t like it so I reached for something to fix it. Quick. Hope in a bottle. Because I couldn’t stand it for one more minute.
But feeling like you cannot stand one more minute of ” it”, whatever “it” is for you, doesn’t mean you can’t. You can, actually.
What do you do when you feel uneasy or uncomfortable. What do you do when you meet your edge? Lately, for me, it’s been Pinterest or obsessively fiddling with my iphone – checking weather, email, messages – it is a palm-sized portable distraction device. I also online “window” shop. A lot. I must have 6 open shopping carts right now as I write this. (I need another pair of boots like I need to get called to Jury Duty.) Before that I was obsessed with Words with Friends. Ah, the internet… a world of distraction. I saw a New Yorker cartoon that struck home. There was a man lost in the desert, dying of thirst. One signpost read,
” Internet ←”, the other “Water →”. He turns and heads toward the left.
We can use anything even if it isn’t really “bad” for us as an escape. I don’t think they will have any Pinterest Recovery Meetings anytime soon at the communtiy center but nevertheless, I am escaping from being in the hot seat. From the edginess that comes when I feel what I don’t want to feel – lonely, bored, confused or lost and drifting. Those feelings can get pretty heavy. I want some resolution and I want it now. I want to do anything but sit down and feel what I feel when what I feel isn’t so nice. I want distraction.
Pema Chodron said, “As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution, we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” This is our main addiction. Our addiction to resolution. That we can and should always find a fix to our problems. That if there is a problem than something is wrong and someone, somewhere should fix it – and hurry! We have so little tolerance for discomfort, for things going wrong but luckily for us we have many ways to distract ourselves from feeling what we don’t want to feel. This world is full of ways to distract ourselves. Hold on, I’ll google some of them now….just let me check my shopping cart at Zappo’s first….
Usually we regard the middle as undesirable. Average? Who wants to be average? Ask any parent to describe their child. No one says, “yeah, Joey is average. He is your run of the mill average Joe. We’re hoping he becomes a tile contractor. That’s the dream.” The admission test to the gifted and talented program in my school district has an average participation rate of 87%. That’s right, every year, approximately 87% of the parents of all 4 and 5 year olds in my school district believe their child is not only above average but in the top 3% of all students. The hell with average. Average sucks. We learn from the beginning that being in the middle is no place to be. Certainly no middle child ever said, “Yep, middle child here. It is awesome! Life below the radar is just terrific.”
We avoid the middle way because it is so uncomfortable. It is kinda boring. The middle translates into emotions like loneliness, boredom, ambiguity, melancholy. We find it hard to relax with those feelings so we are always reaching for something else. We need to go left, we need to go right. We want to escape the raw discomfort of the middle. But when we can finally allow ourselves to rest in the middle, to accept that this is a perfectly fine place to be, a place we all experience, we can simply acknowledge that this is just is how it is sometimes. We can learn how to let being in the middle be ok. We can learn how to not judge the middle as right or wrong. We can learn how to rest with the feelings that we don’t like to feel and stop struggling against them. To experience them as nonthreatening.
So I’ve been struggling with those middle feelings a lot lately. My kids are growing up and don’t need me as much and will be gone in a few short years. My role is lessening but I still don’t have complete freedom to do as I please. My deep sorrow and grief of losing my husband has loosened its grip and I’m free of its constant choke hold. I’m sort of drifting with no clear port in sight. I’m right smack in the middle and not enjoying it one bit. I’m in transition, wondering what the next chapter of my life will hold? What’s next? Where do I go from here? I have no reference point. I don’t see any landmarks.
I know why people hold onto grief, I know why people hold onto and create drama, I know why people are always looking for the next thrill, the next good time. Why people are always trying to keep “busy” with unnecessary activity. Why we distract ourselves with so much crap. Because the middle ain’t no picnic. It is restless. It’s an itch dying to be scratched. Left or right, good or bad – anywhere but the middle please.
But I’m not scratching and I’m not slopping on the Benedryl cream. I’m staying with the itch. Staying in the middle. In Buddhist’s terms, I’m choosing the way of the warrior. (Thinking of yourself as a warrior helps!) I’m choosing the way of not seeking for alternatives to cool my desire for resolution, for something to comfort me. Distract me. Cracking open my laptop, busying myself with busy work, even using my thoughts to distract me – daydreaming. I’m choosing not to fill the void with something, anything else. I’m choosing to look directly at my uncertainty, my ambiguity, my restlessness for some direction and seeing what it’s all about. Seeing what is there to learn here. As Ryokan said, “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”
I’m giving up the chase because I realize there is no resolution on the other side. There is no end to the chase. That resolution isn’t my birthright. That sometimes, hell, most of the time, the middle is where we live. Good old boring nothing to do nowhere to go. Yep, it takes a warrior to hang out there.
Reason 142 why you should try meditation.
Practicing staying in the middle is practicing staying in the present moment. It takes discipline. It takes distancing ourselves from our old habitual ways, our usual ways we use to escape from the hot seat. From being alone with ourselves, from being alone with our boredom, loneliness, our thoughts, our pain in whatever form.
Meditation practice helps in this way. It helps you just stay put, just be there.. alone. Feel it, whatever it is, completely and not push it away. Invite it in instead of hanging an “out to lunch” sign. It’s a discipline that helps us face what we don’t think we can stand to face. Helps us live with the ambiguity of life with all its ups and downs and painful middleness. Our edges. It helps you relax with them and have compassion for ourselves. It helps us remember that we are worthy of our care and love. It helps us practice not jumping up and grabbing for something when we reach our edge. It helps to relate directly to how things are, not how you wish they would be.
Meditation, my friends, is your friend.
Boredom, restlessness, anxiety, lonelieness are not problems in themselves. They are not in need of solving. When you realize this, when you accept this, you stop looking for alternatives. You stop seeking for ways to comfort yourself from them. You start relating to how things really are and you stop grabbing and grasping for things that could never bring you anything but momentary relief. You finally get, after the 2nd or 3rd or gazillion time of trying to escape that you always end right back to where you started. Right back in the middle. And once you are brave enough to face those places you’d rather not, they become less daunting. Each time, they lose their power and might. They become less itchy and you don’t reach for the Benedryl quite so fast.
Not reaching for those things that distract you from feeling what you don’t want to feel is actually easy. Not grabbing that drink, that laptop, that pill, that cigarette is actually easy. You just don’t do it. Easier actually then going to all the trouble of driving to the liquor store, perusing the shop for your favorite brand of vodka or what have you, driving home, opening a bottle, getting out a glass, pouring a drink, plopping in an ice cube or two, raising it to your mouth and repeating as necessary. It is easier but it is incredibly uncomfortable.
I am not minimizing the destructiveness of the alcoholic or drug addict’s actions and consequences. I am not comparing their impact to those of my Pinterest addiction. Just pointing out that addiction is a universal condition: problems with drugs and alcohol are simply different symptoms of the same condition or an extreme example of what lengths people will take to avoid suffering. With being uncomfortable. Never underestimate our intolerance for discomfort. Never underestimate how much hope we will place in a bottle.
In the end, whether it is an extremely destructive addiction or merely an extremely disruptive one, you don’t actually have to “do” anything to stop any addictive behavior. To stop, all you have to do is nothing. Just sit. And learn to be ok with being uncomfortable.
(This one comes to you courtesy from the Buddha in disguise who is master at the art of tiling and the art of living and who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.)