Five steps to a healthier life; ten ways to be happy in your old age—these days the universal pursuit of happiness seems to have come down to following the enumerated summaries of experts.
I’m done with that. Ever since I left Al-Anon meetings, I feel done with the 12 (or five or ten or eight-fold) steps to liberation.
When my daughter was in the grips of an extreme drug addiction which took her to the very bottom, I consulted many experts and followed many steps in seeking recovery—mine and hers.
In the end, I realized that everybody has their own description of what’s wrong and everybody has their own imagined solution to the problem. But nobody (at least of the many experts I consulted) considered that what was happening might be exactly what was supposed to be happening—that maybe nothing was wrong and nothing needed to be fixed.
It’s true that she was afflicted with a disease that might have killed her. It’s true that some forms of treatment and spiritual practice could and did help us. But there was no easy solution, no guaranteed roadmap to recovery.
Mostly, this challenging situation simply had to be lived through, with as much loving acceptance as possible, until it was done.
As I deepened in acceptance of myself and of my daughter, I also realized that no one knew or loved my daughter as much as I did, and that this love was the best and only life-line that I could offer her. I was able to take what felt true from every expert I consulted and every path I followed, but in the end the only thing that mattered was to listen to the love in my own heart and never to betray the bond of love I shared with my daughter.
Though I set boundaries and refrained from enabling, I never closed my heart (even though that meant tolerating many moments of intense emotional pain, shattering disappointment and stabbing heartbreak). I never broke off contact with my daughter, even though this was advised by many experts.
My daughter knew I loved her unconditionally and that she could count on me whenever she was ready to come off the streets.
She was one of the lucky ones—she came back.
For seven years now, she has lived a clean and sober lifestyle and is a wonderful mother to two young children. However, on the way to sobriety, she was kicked out of numerous drug treatment programs and relapsed more times than I can count.
For awhile, in her attempt to get clean, she followed an Amazonian shamanic path. She got clean in her own way, just as I found my own path by breaking free from the experts’ advice on how best to help her.
I was talking recently to a friend who helps families care for the bodies of their loved ones after death. She broke with all the conventional ideas and expertise about how to treat dead bodies when her own six-year old daughter died suddenly in an air bag accident. The hospital was about to send the girl’s body to the funeral home, but my friend protested.
She let her mother’s heart lead, and demanded to have the girl’s body given to her, so she could care for this child’s body after death, just as she had before her daughter’s birth and for the girl’s six years of life. She had to fight with the hospital, but she won that right—and has gone on to help other families to trust their own hearts in finding how to care for the bodies of departed loved ones rather than submit to the experts of the death industry.
Whatever the challenge—a drug-addicted daughter or son, a dying or dead child, a failed relationship, or your own terminal diagnosis—I urge you to stop and listen to your own heart.
What are you being called to do for yourself or for a loved one? Get professional advice, but then let it go. It doesn’t matter what everyone tells you should be done, or what is the expected and conventional thing to do.
Forget the experts on this disease or on that life crisis.
Just stop. Listen to your heart. You know. No one else does. Listen and then follow the heart’s wisdom. Stay true to that. Only that will bring the satisfaction of having done the right thing.
Trust the unbroken, unconditional, indestructible love that lives within you, as you.
Susan Thesenga has been a spiritual teacher for forty years. In 1972 she and her husband founded Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison, Virginia, where they still live and work. She is the author of The Undefended Self, a summary of steps on the spiritual path, and of Love Unbroken: From Addiction to Redemption, co-written with her daughter Pamela about Pam’s ten-year battle with addiction and the unusual path to recovery they both followed.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise