TAKING CARE OF THE SELF: Recovery and Addiction
By Melody Swan
I had a tough life growing up as I was a fighter. The diversity and adversity that came into this life was then met with great resistance. I had the “resilience gene.” Many times I won my fights, but many times, I was knocked down, face-in-dirt, only to get up again with fully formed fists. I grew up as an Air Force brat with four brothers and sisters, the middle child, the black sheep. Our family motto: “He who yells the loudest, gets the mostest.” I yelled the loudest.
And I yelled about righteous things. “This is not fair!” I exclaimed, “I deserve to be loved! I need attention and approval!” And on and on. I was a warrior because I lived in the war zone of dysfunctional family life. Emotionally absent and abused mother, alcoholic raging father; my parents, not being able to face their own emotions, shamed me for mine. I did what any young warrior would do: I rebelled loudly and experienced even more suffering.
And then began the escape. In the early years, it was through drugs and alcohol – lots of it. It was the early ’70s and I was a hippie. I hitchhiked around for years consuming massive amounts of alcohol and hallucinogens to ease my internal suffering.
Later, as I was forced out of reckless living, I tried different religions, traditions, workshops, exercises and teachers from every path; therapy; then college, marriage, careers; more religions, etc. I tried anything to be free of obsessive thoughts and emotions – my own inner world of turmoil. But alas, nothing would abate the pain. And so I drank more, seeking relief. Then, finding myself face-in-dirt again, I just drank more.
I would later learn to see that what I was seeking in alcohol was union with spirit, albeit the wrong spirit. “Alcohol in Latin is spiritus,” said Carl Jung. “You use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”
In 1984, I found a 12-step program that began my journey to recovery. I stopped using drugs and alcohol and began showing up for “life on life’s terms.” I found that the spirit I was seeking existed within, right in the very heart of my life. Instead of the escape from my life, I began showing up in the embrace of my life. This meant meeting life as an adult, aware presence. I was asked to meet both the internal landscape – thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences – and the external landscape – people, places and things. The 12-step programs call it “living in the solution.”
In 2001, my firm, Cowgirls Design, was hired as the art director for Mandala. As I designed the pages and read the articles, I began to notice the parallels between the Buddhist teachings and the 12 Steps. Both acknowledge the basic problem that human beings experience in this world (suffering), and both offer very specific teachings for the solution.
When 12-step programs talk about living in the solution, they talk about living in a spiritual solution: out of the problem, out of the bondage of the small afflicted, addicted self and into the broader, expanded truth, the “sunlight of the spirit.”
Twelve-step programs are for addicts, those in afflicted states. They say that addicts are “a little twist off,” that they have a peculiar twist of perception, a “dis-ease” of perception. A dis-ease of perception simply means that we are not at ease with the way we think and feel. This is because we think we are separate, isolated beings, instead of part of a whole. But all human beings live in afflicted states. We are all “a little twist off” and we all have a dis-ease of perception. This is sometimes called the human condition.
Those we call addicts in our culture – those addicted to substances, those who act out – are just those of us who display these afflicted states in larger, more noticeable and painful ways. These outward visible addictions are just a symptom of the core problem: thinking, believing and acting as if we are separate, the cause the suffering. But, there is a solution.
The definition of a solution in chemistry: a homogenous mixture composed of only one thing. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, the solvent. As a metaphor, the “I”, the separate self (the solute) dissolves into the expanded energy (the solvent), sometimes called God, the force, The Great Way, buddha-nature, the field, the universe, emptiness, the unmanifest, higher energy, etc. The result is the solution: the melting of the me of “who I think I am” into the larger pool of consciousness that is the whole truth. It is not really a melting because the sense of the “I” still exists, but is not separate from the larger world of the “we.”
I like the use of the word “solution” over “answer.” The solution is a state of unknowing, a sense of expansion, a feeling of openness, of peace. And in that sense of expansion, many and all answers are accessible. This is actually the true meaning of recovery. Recovering true self, buddha-nature. The deeper meaning of “being sober” is “being awake,” awake in expanded perception. And to be awake in expanded perception takes a living practice. We do not stay in solution unless we consciously apply awareness.
In 12-step programs we say that “it only works when you work it.” It takes vigilant work and practice, the continuous and perpetual work of awareness. This work is not difficult. Nor is it rare. Only the mind thinks it is difficult and rare. It is quite ordinary. We were designed for this. We were designed to do the practice of being present. A wise and inspirational slogan of 12-step programs is “One day at a time.” But we don’t really mean that. We mean, “One moment at a time.”
One moment at a time we practice surrender. We were gifted with the appearance of afflicted suffering, and then given the phenomenon of surrender. I call it “the mother practice” of surrender and it seems to me to be applicable in all traditions. All paths seem to do one thing: enact, empower and effectuate the dissolution of the separate self. All paths seem to be the support for the mother practice of surrender. This is the practice that, above all others, should ride shotgun in the psyche.
Melody Swan is owner/designer of Cowgirls Design in Taos, New Mexico, USA. She has been the art director for Mandala print and eZine since 2001. She also works as an awareness advocate, spiritual mentor and energy healer with a focus on addiction and chronic illness. She can be contacted at email@example.com