What I am about to say is coming from my heart.
For almost all of my life, I have lived with anger and fierce, bitter resentment—against people, institutions, circumstances, a God of my misunderstanding.
Alcohol did not relax me or erase these traits. Rather, when I was drinking, I became even more uptight, twisty and less forgiving, with my ever-present anger morphing into fury.
But, just as drinking did not do away with my anger and bitterness, neither did sobriety. They are default modes of thinking for me, traits that, as the Buddhist tradition expounded by Pema Chödrön teaches, I must accept before I can initiate change.
In my sobriety, I am working on accepting myself now—all aspects of my Self. Acceptance involves clear vision and compassion. Vision is to recognize all facets of who I am, and compassion is required in order for change to occur. As Chödrön teaches further, delving into and staying with our hurt without exercising gentle loving-kindness is like warfare against ourselves.
Anger and bitterness still haunt me, even after almost a year of sobriety.
Recently, I have been bitter and fairly angry that my last few essays for elephant journal have not been popular. In fact, very few people have read them.
These essays, however, were written from my head. They feature intellectualized language, obscure metaphor, and a didactic tone that involves more preaching than sharing. Sharing would mean me stating my truth simply and you taking my words in, either to agree or disagree, but on equal footing, with no one talking down to another.
So, as I have been working from ego, fueled by needy bitterness and righteous anger, how can I—how can we—move beyond aspects of our characters that hold us back?
In my sober life of the past 11 months, I have discovered a few new behaviors that truly do help reset my default modes of thinking.
This is not an airy-fairy suggestion for making the world better. While seeking after love may well have that effect, this is a suggestion that can be a down-and-dirty lifesaver.
We cannot give away what we do not have, and without self-love, none of us will have anything to give—that means nothing for lovers, relatives, friends, animal companions. That means we will eventually find it impossible to relate to any living thing on any level, a true and real soul-killer.
So, what is love? That’s an entire discussion in itself. But on a basic level, self-love means that you have your own best interests at heart and in mind. Healthy self-love is not selfish obsession nor is it falsely modest martyrdom at the hands of life.
By cultivating self-love, we make it possible for our souls to stay alive, to live on and perhaps even grow. Self-love makes hope possible. And hope, in turn, makes it possible for us to love others.
Without hope, letting our hearts go out to others would be raw and painful. Love, instead, allows us to reach out with grace and courage, and also to accept others’ love—or sometimes, yes, their indifference, for love may not be returned at all, or in a way we would choose or even in a way we understand.
Love may be a mystery, but it is always a worthwhile pursuit.
When I was drinking, I thought I was protecting myself against change. What I was really doing was isolating myself from the world. Change, however, continued to happen, because that is the nature of this finite realm we call home, the Universe. Change is constant, automatic. Like the breath.
The irony is that while it seemed to me like I was standing still, stopping time in my own “magical” way, my situation was steadily changing, growing worse, day by day. My liver was finally affected, I was grotesquely bloated, and I was unemployable, without income and finally, with only two options—stop drinking, or drink to the bitter end of my life.
Buddhist teachings show us how to live comfortably with constant change, with the “fundamental ambiguity of our situation,” as Pema Chödrön says.
But we need not be Buddhist or even subscribe to any formal religion to learn, minute by minute, every day, that change is life as we know and experience it. How to learn this?
Pay attention. Be as present, as centered as possible, in every second. By noticing the nature of the second we are inhabiting, change becomes impossible to miss.
From darkling and lighter clouds to a bee’s flight path across a field of flowers, the fluid nature of our existence is evidenced again and again, a repeating counter melody wafting through our consciousness, if we will listen.
Learn to forgive.
Forgiveness is the key to compassion, both for self and for others. Just as with love, forgiveness must come first to self before it can be given to others, for we cannot give what we ourselves do not have.
It is that simple, and that difficult.
So how do we learn to forgive, after years of battering ourselves over and over, for both old and new offenses?
First, we interrupt the old tapes playing in our heads with new messages and images. Different methods may work better for some people than others, because we all learn at various speeds and in multiple ways. Positive affirmations are one good way to build new thought patterns, even if almost every fiber of your being squirms when you first write it down.
Yes, please write an affirmation down five times. Then read it and ponder it for a moment. Let it soak into your brain. Pay attention to how your body feels and reacts to this new thought. Here are a few affirmations to try:
I am precious.
Treating myself like a precious object makes me strong.
I am worthy of forgiveness.
I am worthy of goodness.
Some people also can employ visualizations to help them change their thought patterns. A basic, positive visualization is one of a safe, warm light that is Love. Go toward that light. Let yourself be drawn to it, to all the things that matter to you. Go into it. Pay attention to how you feel, mentally and physically.
These are suggestions for a beginning, for birthing a new thought process.
Once new thought patterns have begun to be carved into the brain—and please remember this is not an overnight job, but it must be started before anything positive can be accomplished—then acceptance must be practiced.
I say practiced, because we—none of us—ever will perfect acceptance and a perfect “Now Presence.” But we certainly can work on it every day, every hour, of our lives.
Mindfulness is hard work. Sometimes the voices in my head absolutely scream at me. Anger and bitterness swirl on the outside edges, close at hand, waiting to lay waste to any good thing I have managed to build in my life.
But by cultivating love, embracing change, and forgiving myself and others, then I have a good chance not only of staying sober, but also of creating a life that is finally worth living.
I wish that you—that all of us—will live with beautiful, fierce presence and fully inhabit every minute we are given.
This deeply felt wish is coming straight from my heart—to yours.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum