“You are all perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” ~ Suzuki Roshi
Recently, I was speaking with a man, of about 40, who was suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
He was telling me that his life had gotten so bad that before coming to treatment he and his girlfriend would lie in bed and fantasize about dying. They weren’t talking about suicide or how they could end each others lives. They simply wanted to disappear. Life had become too intense and the suffering was overwhelming. They had gotten to a place where all of their attempts to alleviate their suffering only made the pain more-&-more unbearable. He would swear off alcohol and drugs, only to wake up the next morning saturated in shame and guilt, wondering what happened the night before. His life was a vicious cycle. He was getting high in order to escape the shame and guilt of not being able to stop getting high. He described it as hell.
When asked what he meant by “hell,” he began by describing the frustration associated with a life that is governed by an addiction. He specifically mentioned the powerlessness and unmanageability he experienced every morning when he woke up and the first thing to cross his mind was getting high. I saw the sadness in his eyes. I asked him about this sadness, and he said, “Well, I knew that I was going to have to do things, things that I didn’t want to do, to people I loved. I was going to have to lie, steal, and manipulate people that I cared deeply about, just to satisfying this craving. I was going to have to hurt people, and I did not want to, but it was as if I had no other option.”
I could hear it in his voice, there was a soft spot—a sincere and loving space, something original and un-touched by his addiction that was looking for an opportunity to express itself. So, I pressed on. He told me that his lifestyle went against everything he ever believed. That in order to live the way he was living he had to discard his morals. I asked him if he felt like these morals were something he was taught by his parents or religion, or if it is was something more innate—a knowing that is not learned, but self-existing. He said, “Oh, I just know that it is not right to be dishonest or violent…It feels wrong. It just doesn’t feel like I am being myself. That is how I know I am a good person—when I am doing bad things I don’t feel right. It feels like I am a good person doing bad things. It makes me feel gross.”
Then he asked me what I thought. I said, “It doesn’t seem like you have a problem with drugs. It sounds like you have a problem with just being yourself. It seems that at some point you mistook the ego for being who you truly are. This misunderstanding created a whole host of problems: insecurity, fear, depression, and anger. Then you started self-medicating these problems with drugs and alcohol. But this made the problem worse. You had to be a certain kind of person in order to continue getting high. You had to be someone who was willing to step over anyone and everyone in order to get what you wanted. But you weren’t. You are a good person. So, your ego pretended to be the nasty thing it had to be in order to get the fix it needed for the problem that it’s very presence created.”
He said, “I want to believe that. I know I am a good person…a loving person, but I have done some terrible things. It gets to a point where the bad out weighs the good. It makes me wonder, you know? You do bad things for long enough, you feel terrible for long enough, and you start to forget who you are…you start to forget how it feels to feel right. I remember being a good person, but I have forgotten how to be that person.”
We sat quietly for a minute, then he continued, “But just the other day, something happened. This time it had nothing to do with drugs. Someone asked me if I could do them a favor. At first I thought, sure, but then I was overtaken by what I wanted. The football game was about to start and I wanted to watch the game. They had all day to ask me this, but they waited until the game was starting. So, I told them no. I felt exactly how I felt a few weeks back when I was doing things I didn’t want to do in order to score some dope. So, I got up and did what this person asked me to do. When I was finished I was walking back by and heard someone say, ‘I knew he’d do it. He is a good person.’ Man, hearing that made me feel good. It reminded me of who I use to be, before the drugs. And it reminded me of why I wanted to get sober—so I can become that person again.”
I asked him to tell me a little bit more about how he felt when he heard that guy say he was a good person. “It made me feel great. It gave me hope that I could become that person again.”, he replied. I asked, “You could actually feel something when you heard that person say that, couldn’t you?” He said, “Absolutely!” To which I replied, “You felt it, not because you use to be that person, but because you are that person, right now. And it is so important that you take the time to notice and appreciate that fact. Not even the darkness of your addicion was able to destroy your basic goodness. All the terrible things you’ve done, all the people, including yourself, that you have hurt, and still at the core, you are a good, loving person. Reconnecting with that voice of authenticity is what it means to get sober. That is what it means to wake up.”
The heart of awakening is present within each and every human being, because it is what each and every person truly is. Regardless of how far down we have gone, that authentic inspiration is still present and operable. A good heart is indestructible. It is the ground from which we all emerge. The spiritual path is about reconnecting with this soft spot and working with the obstacles that prevent it from inspiring our daily lives. At the end of the day, we are all basically good people, but most of us are too timid to share our basic goodness with the world. Out of fear, we keep our hearts hidden behind a thick shell of armor. So, as Suzuki Roshi said, “We are all perfect, and we need a little improvement.”
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