I nearly lost a good friend to heroin.
For awhile, I did lose him. I watched him move from weekend drinking and the occasional joint to the ubiquitous cocaine of the bartending scene. Even then, he was still the man I knew and cared about. And then, while I wasn’t looking, suddenly he was someone else.
He vanished; the lights went out.
There was this husk of the person I loved with a flat affect and no will for anything but heroin. As he pulled away from life, I saw less and less of him. I thought I saw him one day, and it was all I could do not to burst out crying.
He was a good man. He was from a loving family. A series of events collided leaving him discontented, and for him, heroin seemed like the solution. He’s since gotten clean and is healthy, happy. I heard from him this Christmas, and he seems to be at peace.
I lost another friend a few years ago to a much more socially acceptable drug.
We had been close friends in college. We supported each other through bad dates, difficult professors, car trouble, late night existential ramblings. We supported each other through eating disorder recovery. We supported each other through all the changes that happen as you move from adolescent to would-be adult and are trying to start a life.
And then, when I wasn’t looking, suddenly she was someone else.
She became immersed in her spiritual path. And that’s the right response to difficult times, right?
She became hollow. She became a shiny, hollow, affect-less shell of who she had been before. And everything was wonderful.
All. The. Time.
When I tried to say to her that it wasn’t okay for her boyfriend to leave her on the side of the road in the middle of the night, I wasn’t trusting the process.
When I noticed obsessive compulsive behavior returning and asked if she was still taking her medication, I was being negative. She needed to accept herself, flaws and all, why couldn’t I accept her too? It was okay that she spent hours vacuuming and had to check and recheck and recheck the doors before going to sleep.
When I noticed her weight dropping off again and asked if everything was okay, I was the bad guy, for always bringing up problems instead of looking to the good in everything.
If I shared something difficult I was going though, I got a sour half-smile and a change of subject as if I hadn’t said a word. Everything is great! Everything is wonderful. Just smile!
When I said that I wouldn’t feel comfortable spending time around her boyfriend if he was screaming in her face, I was told that “everything happens for a reason” and I should focus my energy on the things that were good about their relationship so they could increase.
When I said that I couldn’t stand up at their wedding, that I loved her, but I couldn’t bring myself to endorse a marriage that was already abusive, that was it. That was the last time she spoke to me.
It hurt, but the friend I cared about had been gone for a long time anyway. She was just a giant smile and spiritual platitudes.
And hey—now I am being the bad guy—because spiritual people aren’t supposed to judge each other. We are just supposed to smile and hug and say it’s all good.
(Sometimes it isn’t all good.)
I hadn’t thought about this much until recently. I’ve noticed this again, among many friends and acquaintances in the yoga community. I see, often, a large division over this issue.
There are those who look at positivity, at santosha, at basic human goodness and say that we must always look to the good. Spiritual people need to be shiny, happy people. Yoga teachers shouldn’t say anything bad. Good people are always good.
Spiritual bypassing at its finest.
Then, there are those who are fed up with that; angry, bitter about betrayals in the yoga and spiritual communities. The narcissistic pats on the back need to end! Let’s overthrow the cult of positivity and sit snarking along the edges and licking our wounds instead.
Where is the middle way here? When faced with life’s difficulties, many of us do seek out a spiritual path. Spirituality—whether through yoga or Buddhism or any other path—has the potential to be true, heart-healing, world-healing medicine.
It also has the potential to be just another fix. Like many medicines, it has the potential to do more harm than good.
A spiritually rich life is not one that only contains sunlight.
Part of me felt incredibly sad as I wrote about my friend. Okay, all of me. As I remember all of it, it hurts my heart. If it had been heroin, or cocaine or alcohol or gambling—or even just the eating disorder—some kind of confrontation or intervention might have been easier. If there was some tangible harmful thing to name and put a label on, I might have said, “Hey, we need to talk about this.”
But how can you intervene in someone else’s spiritual life?
The thing is, I believe in basic human goodness. I believe in finding joy and contentment in our lives. I am—overall—a positive, optimistic person. The hardest part in all of this is the kernels of truth. I love hugging my friends. I do smile at strangers. I believe having a spiritual path is important; it’s good medicine for where we are hurting. But even good medicine taken the wrong way is lethal.
I read an article by one of my favorite elephant writers the other day. Ben Riggs wrote in his article on Sitting with Suffering:
We have refused to listen to our suffering. We have refused to look within ourselves. The first noble truth asks us to develop an appreciation for suffering through mindfulness. This is the practice of shamatha or peaceful-abiding. We are not trying to figure suffering out or fix it.
If we are to have rich, full lives and a genuine spiritual path, it isn’t going to be a shiny, flawless picture.
It is a beautiful chiaroscuro; it is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope. We contain multitudes.
True contentment isn’t pretending everything is great when we are in pain. Numbing out as not to feel pain is what drug addicts do. If we want true healing and a mindful life, we need to listen to our suffering. We need to look at our joys and our sorrows equally. True contentment means acceptance of the present moment for what it actually is.
Maybe as we are honest about these things, honest with each other about what’s going on in our lives—even the difficult parts—we will begin to break through this false ideal of constant positivity and instead develop true compassion:
“Someone needs to encourage us not to brush aside what we feel. Not to be ashamed of the love and grief that it arouses in us. Not to be afraid of pain. Someone needs to encourage us: that this soft spot in us could be awakened, and that to do this would change our lives.” ~ Pema Chodron
Maybe, together, we can encourage each other to feel all of what life has to offer us. Maybe that will change our lives.
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