“Pick me up and throw me where you will. Wherever I land I shall keep the god within me happy…” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I’ve heard many stories from people in recovery dealing with obstacles, some so severe I wondered how they were managing to stay clean and sober. Some had lost their homes to foreclosure. Some were laid off from work. And some had even lost children to illness. In every account, the same statement reappeared at the end of each share, “But I didn’t drink” or “I didn’t pick up”… “no matter what.” These people were living proof that something profound had taken place within, a spiritual awakening. Though the external reality of their lives were constant and difficult, there was a wise and directing consciousness beneath what they presented. This consciousness was impenetrable- although their lives were shaken, they were far from broken.
Recovery is spiritual awareness. People become aware of the divinity within and make a decision to honor it on a daily basis. Outside circumstances such as death, divorce, and financial problems cannot influence the spiritual life within. Many people in AA refer to this idea as the “98 Burn”, a statement made on page 98 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book text which states “job or no job, wife or no wife…burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” While our world may be shaken or everything seems to be crumbling down around us, we must acknowledge the god inside us, unfazed, smiling, and always willing to direct us towards the next step. Stability, healing, and recovery depend not on what happens to us but on the reckoning and daily practice of honoring the divine life within.
Periodically, I like to meditate on a couple of things that help restore and elicit a sense of gratitude. It constitutes a period of contemplation evoking powerful emotions of joy and a state of thankfulness. First, I think of a difficult or frightening moment in the past I eventually overcame. I think of how, by great fortune, I was spared of the worst possible outcome of the event. For example, I once slammed on the breaks right on time in traffic avoiding a fatal collision with an 18 wheeler. Or I was called to cover a different unit on the day I was scheduled to see a patient who had been caught with a shank in his cell. On both such occasions, I was spared and I didn’t have to be. Many people die everyday from such unfortunate occurrences. I like to think that the time I’m given beyond these moments are added bonuses that I should embrace and do as much as I can with the “complimentary hours.”
The second thing I contemplate on is recalling all the people I’ve known, both directly and indirectly, who are battling or have battled serious life conditions such as terminal and chronic illnesses, addiction, severe mental health issues, homelessness, incarceration, abuse, and other forms of prolonged suffering. I think of how if there is a universal good that exists in the world then perhaps these people serve a great purpose. Perhaps, through divine wisdom they are the ones chosen to bear it for now so that I won’t have to.
As macabre and dark as it can appear, surprisingly these two exercises cultivate a genuine kind of gratitude where the effects are immediately felt. Suddenly, the coffee tastes fresh, people become more loving, and the possibilities endless.
It’s surreal to think of how a thing, a substance, sometimes so small, sometimes invisible or pleasantly deceptive to the human eye can utterly destroy a life. Sometimes, these things appear to be beautiful in their rawest form. A swaying cocoa plant or a vibrant poppy add beauty to the fields they inhabit. It’s astonishing and at the same time unfathomable to accept the reality that these beautiful ornaments of nature-once they are separated from their original form and ingested-have the capacity to enslave and obliterate a person on every conceivable level.
I think of these beautiful intricacies of nature in their true essence…I think of the lives that were once whole and later became separated from themselves and the world because of addiction. This helps me understand that there is an objective and guiding principle pervading all living things: Nature and people thrive and are at their most beautiful in their wholeness, and this should never be tampered with…
Man envies every least deserving thing. He strives and dies for the things that should always be allocated at the background of reality. The promotion, the size of his home, his bank account, the attention given by others, where his kids go to school, where he dines and gathers- all take center stage and consume the pathway to his purpose. And nature which seeks to teach him how to live, how to be happy, is altogether ignored, kicked away like an orphan who incessantly begs for loose change and crumbs. He seldom ponders the trees that show him how to weather the inevitable storms, to stand strong through the turbulence, to accept harmoniously the place it’s been given, and to fall gracefully when it is time. It’s tragic that we often fall prey to the erroneous escapes of life’s struggles-the pill, the powder, the bottle, the dollar, the relationship, etc- through self medication and yet, often ignore the guiding example of nature. Nature stands still, stoically, through both the pleasant moments and drudgery of existence. It doesn’t rebel nor complain about what should or could be… it stands and exists in perfect harmony with what is and what has been given. If you’ve run out of answers, if there’s no more ways to escape left in you, switch your focus to bringing nature and life center stage and lessen your priorities on those things that hinder.
We fall into trances…asking what seems to be broad existential questions regarding meaning and purpose. A man in dire straits who engages in self reflection may at some point ask himself “why is this happening to me?” If he would just remain still he would discover that he need not go far externally or into his mental faculties to find the answer. Most times he snaps out of his contemplation due to desperation and attempts to find the answer from the outside, missing the chance of finding the answer right there in front of him. The answer he seeks can most times be found within his question. So if he asks “why is this happening to me?”, the correct answer will likely be “why, this is happening to me!” Though we may find it unlikely or even quite a strange response, it is one of the few answers that will prompt him to action. Another matter to take note of is if the one asking the question already possesses the answer during or prior to asking, it is essentIal to ponder who is it that does the asking. Surely, it is the same one who answers. This points to the strong likelihood that divine guidance resides inside man.
I often emphasize the present moment as a way to get clients away from the worries of tomorrow and the misfortunes of yesterday. However, sometimes there’s too much pain in the present to tell anyone to be mindful of the “now.” Sometimes, there’s too much pain to paint anyone a pretty picture… it invalidates the experience and you render yourself useless no matter how good your intentions may be. Any variation of getting people to look on the bright side of their circumstances can broaden the gap of what stands between their surrounding darkness and hope.
A person who has lost the will to live cannot be coerced to reframe or alter the narrative of the crisis. The crisis, be it the loss of freedom, a child, an illness, or abuse, is remedied through a rigorous validation and honesty. Both the sufferer and helper must bring forth an honesty of the situation that conveys the present reality for what it is- painful and seemingly intolerable. Yet, the future must always be accounted for with just as much honesty and responsibility as the present. While the moment may prove harsh, the future provides an infinite amount of possibilities-hope reigns abundantly in the future- hope of less pain and more peace, hope of reconciling the worst acts, the healing of deep wounds, the regaining of freedom, and the refining of one’s character made possible by difficult times.
“I know you won’t understand but in my lifetime I’ve seen the most beautiful thing life has to offer. I’ve seen the priceless battle of broken people creatively changing and overcoming toxic patterns. So beautiful and it’s costs me nothing” -Unknown
They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I believe everyone we encounter is our greatest teacher. The world serves as a mirror in which through experiences and interactions we learn more about the undesirable parts of ourselves we tend to overlook. The people we dislike or disagree with often reveal the characteristics within us we need to change. I’ve often become easily hurt at the indifference and aloofness of others, later taking an honest inventory of my own indifferences, that fearful part that would rather avoid social responsibility. There are people who just won’t change, a world that just won’t relent, and many breaks we just can’t catch… and yet they are all so charitable in giving us the knowledge of what needs to change within us. The world is a vast educational platform and its people are the mentors by which we discover who we want or don’t want to be. Most of us have been hurt beyond reconciliation by the people we love most. But if there’s any good that comes of it, may it be discovering parts of ourselves in others that we vow to change and never repeat.
We go through hell searching for God-the Ultimate Truth. We scavenge through churches, synagogues, study halls, temples, and mosques. We travel abroad, leaning on walls, meditating on mountains, and ceaselessly praying in chapels. We are relentless in encountering The Infinite. Yet, every sincere man knows God eludes him. Not because He isn’t there, but because in the final analysis God dwells in the last place man cares to search- within himself.
I remember as a child before going to sleep, I’d turn the lights off and dash straight for the bed. I’d strain my eyes open, desperately seeking light- that minute of waiting felt like an eternity. I’d initially feel a sense of dread staring into the nothingness of the air, nothing could be seen beyond the opaqueness of the night. In that minute I’d think, “there is nothing, I am nothing.” I was small, consumed by a great void. This terrorized me. But as the minute passed, the darkness faded. Small rays of light dispersed through the room and I’d begin to see. I could see myself. I was put together. I wasn’t so small after all. I could look at my surroundings…my hands, and smile. The wonderful realization about this process was coming to understand later that no matter how dark I had perceived my surroundings to be, the light was always there, waiting for me to grasp it. I just had to hold on and patiently trust it would show up.
On a psychological and emotional level, we lose precious souls because it becomes too dark within. A moment of despair can feel like an eternity where light never comes. We desperately look around. We become restless. We feel small. We say we’re nothing or nothing matters. But the night is only temporary, it was only a reaction to a sudden change we needed to adjust to. The light is coming. It has come. You are awake… you look at yourself. You’re not so small. As a matter of fact, you’re pretty f****** beautiful. You love yourself more, and best of all, you’ve learned to love the night.
In jail food is a high commodity- the currency that defines an inmate’s status. Due to the scarcity and restricted variety, the accessibility of food is based on the level of outside support or cunning ability to persuade or take from others. Food is prisoner’s gold. It is no wonder the the amount of bricks (sandwiches) or dollars in a commissary account greatly impacts the mood and mental health of the inmate. Jail is similar to outside society where power and status are of great value, except in jail, possession and rank is brought to the forefront due to scarcity and deprivation. It was here that I learned deprivation is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it may be beneficial.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned was in simply observing an inmate eat an orange. He was given an extra orange for lunch by a correctional officer. He looked at it and held it alternately with both hands. It was the same way a jeweler would handle an expensive gold necklace or a miner would examine a diamond. He smiled, peeled it slowly, separated it into pieces, laid it into a paper napkin, smiled again, and finally began to eat it. There was a level of gratitude in the process that I had never witnessed before. The inmate and his gold, an orange, submerged completely in the moment-something most of take for granted because we become accustomed to always having. And this applies to most things- our friendships, family, love, our possessions, our health, internal and external freedoms, etc. I have to admit, there was a sense of envy as I watched someone appreciate the very little, grasping to the moment, touching every bit of the orange from its outer texture to the sweetness of taste. I couldn’t remember the last time I had appreciated the little things, the many that I had take for granted. Because of deprivation, this inmate was given the gift of gratitude in which he could touch life and experience the moment at its fullest vitality. He was alive and free. “Who are the real prisoners?”, I asked myself. Most of us have plenty and yet most of us never experience a genuine level of gratitude for what we have. We’re taught to write a gratitude list or recite a few affirmations to boost our levels of gratitude but rarely is it suggested to reach out to a life who is far more deprived than we are. This is the best way to acquire gratitude- to learn it from those who have less. Often, it’s those that suffer greatly that touch life the deepest. It’s those who are deprived that can relish and appreciate without reservation when they finally attain something. Watch and learn through them, because if it’s anything that we more fortunate individuals lack, it might just be the greatest commodity of all- Gratitude.