Item One: Not on Fire

This is taken from a 2013 post on my old site Not This Song–and yes, thinking about those affected by the Northern California wildfires is what reminded me of it.

We hear plenty about the importance of practicing gratitude. There’s a big emphasis on it in most spiritual traditions, and addiction recovery philosophy reflects this. It’s not uncommon for a mentor or friend to suggest making a “gratitude list” at regular intervals or whenever troubled. And don’t try to tell them there isn’t anything to put on it, because that won’t fly. If you lost your right arm today, they’ll tell you to be grateful you still have your left one.

Some people start with the basics if they’re having trouble coming up with things: their senses, the food they ate today, being in recovery. Others use methods such as the alphabet list. That one can be fun, especially when you have to give details: A, I’m grateful for apples because they crunch so nicely. B, I’m grateful for bunnies because they are so soft. It can get ridiculous, but hey, at least you’re thinking of something else for a few minutes! My favorite phrase I’ve heard when I find it hard to begin, though, is “Start with the fact that you’re not on fire and work down from there.”

I have to admit that I still feel a little defensive squirming sometimes when a person is recommending any type of gratitude practice to me. A part of me takes it to mean that they think I’m being ungrateful and spoiled; that they are judging me. It’s something I am working on, because it’s really not fair to others when I take what is usually a kind gesture and mentally translate it to them saying “Suck it up, whiner!”

Defensiveness aside, gratitude has come to mean a great deal to me. Where I used to think of it as a sort of Pollyanna self-improvement thing, I now see it as a vital part of my recovery as well as a vital part of living with my mental illness. I don’t practice gratitude to become a better person, or to live more fully. Those are bonuses. I practice gratitude these days because I have no fucking choice if I want to live. 

For me, gratitude is the opposite of self-pity; it’s my best weapon against self-pity and what goes with it. Self-pity and all of the excuses it created nearly killed me, and it can still kill me as surely as a bullet if I let it run unchecked. I’ve written before about the magic of learning to feel true and tender compassion for myself in a way that still honors the need to avoid dangerous self-pity. This process clears enough room in my spirit for gratitude and its close cousin, acceptance.

Gratitude flows more organically for me lately, although I’m sure I could benefit from making lists frequently. It tends to be accessed as a natural result of playing Whack-a-mole with my self-pity whenever it tries to crop up. I have to find other things to dwell on, different things to talk about with others, and in doing so I become someone who notices and acknowledges good things more often.

Philosophers call this idea the via negativa: defining something by saying what it is not. We don’t always know where we want to go in life, or what the best path to take is. Sometimes the best we can do is have a clear vision of what we don’t want. This vision can be one of the gifts of addiction or our other demons. The vision can take us to new attitudes, goals and ways of living that we could not have imagined for ourselves, because we never had the tools or experiences to do so.

This is why I’m willing to do certain things, even if they feel awkward or silly.  Why I’ll continue to work the different aspects of my program and try to get better at practicing all of the spiritual principles involved. I don’t know exactly where they will take me; I just know what they’ll help me avoid. Today, that truly is enough.

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

So there I was, one warm summer day, sitting at a table in the lounge of the neighborhood counseling center. Beside me lay a stack of paperwork I should have been working on between sessions, and in front of me was my tiny, ancient laptop computer. “How’s it going?” one of my fellow counselors asked, walking in with their own stack of paraphernalia. “Terrible,” I replied. “I’m surrounded by a large band of orcs and I’m wielding a minus-20 cursed axe.”

I got an odd look, can’t imagine why.

The really old version of Nethack I was playing was, at the time, one of my favorite relaxations. One of the simplest of dungeon crawlers, with all rooms, objects and monsters made only of characters available on a common keyboard, it was a game requiring lots of imagination. I was an @ sign, monsters were mostly letters, objects were punctuation, etcetera.

I started playing it in college, and I guess I have a pretty good imagination because I was really into it. The rules, and the random nature of the dungeons, sometimes allowed odd things to happen. For example, there were “stores” where you could buy weapons and potions, but you’d better not steal or the shopkeeper, written to be amazingly strong, would kill you. But, if you had a scroll of teleportation, you could load up with goodies and escape.

Anyway, my situation with the orcs that day was the weirdest one I ever got into. Here’s how it happened (because I am sure you’re dying to know, given that you can sense a metaphor coming afterward.) My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and regenerative abilities, but I was only wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased when I found an axe, and picked it up.

Now, it’s wise to be cautious of weapons one finds in this game, because some of them are cursed. But I didn’t have a scroll of identify to show me the exact characteristics of this axe, and I was impatient, so I typed in the command to wield the weapon. Descending the stairs to the left dungeon level, I found myself surrounded by the letter O. Orcs. They were all around me, and it was impossible to move. There was nothing to do but fight them.

Now, orcs are not all that strong in this game, which is why they exist in such large groups. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I would be better off with my dagger after all. Trying to switch, I saw the dreaded message “You can’t. It appears to be cursed.” A cursed weapon can’t be dropped, and since only one weapon can be wielded at a time, my dagger or anything else was now unavailable to me.

Checking my inventory, I saw that my cursed axe was rated minus-2, which explained its ineptitude. With no scroll of remove curse handy, I had no choice but to keep hacking away as best I could. Then the letter R appeared. Are you kidding me? A rust monster, now? With every hit, a rust monster makes your weapons or armor less effective. My minus-two axe became minus-three. Minus-five, seven…minus-twenty by the time it stopped. I was now fighting the undiminished pack of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of rusty iron too heavy to lift. But I could not put it down.

Yes, wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Haven’t we all had a response, or a coping mechanism, that is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? One that seems to have become intertwined with our psyche so much that we can’t detach it?

Yes, addictive behaviors are one clear example, and my mind certainly goes there as expected. Having begun to use them, some of us can’t put them down even when they put us in an obvious no-win situation. We swing them helplessly at the problems around us, no longer able to pick up or use a healthier method even if we know of one, unable to accept the fact that our old weapon isn’t working any more, hasn’t been working for a while, and isn’t going to start working again.

But addiction isn’t the only fertile ground for this metaphor–none of us are without our cursed weapons, and these weapons sometimes became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to avoid feelings or situations, avoidance can become our default response and be very difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction to protect ourselves, it becomes our cursed weapon too. If we learned to please people and try to placate them, we find out how such a pattern can deplete our self-esteem and personal development.

As often happens, I’m bashing ineptly at the orc pack of despair and worry that seems to be pressing in on me, unwilling and unready to admit that I am not doing damage to anything but myself. Feeling powerless to stop the pattern, and not being hopeful that a more powerful weapon is available to me right now.

I know my general fears and anxieties are lying to me! I know there’s power I can use. I know! I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I wouldn’t be here without the Thing, whatever it is, and it can help me if I let it.

Whatever you are, help me drop the cursed ax. I’m asking now. Help me lose my fear of the orcs long enough to look at the dungeon floor around me and see that there are scrolls there, including a magic scroll of remove curse. Of grace.

Fear Not?

I chose today’s piece because fear has been clamping down on my creativity lately. Just like any other emotional state, fear comes in both useful and useless varieties when it comes to writing–with the useless kind, my brain freezes or flees into escapist behaviors. So…

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2015)

How much does fear rule your life?

Those who do some kind of deep self-examination are often surprised to see how deeply, widely, and diversely fear is imbedded in their psyche. I don’t think I was surprised to find its presence in some deep places, but it was enlightening to see how much of my daily behavior is fueled by it on some level.

It’s hard to admit how afraid I am. It’s easy to buy into the idea of courage and strength being incompatible with the presence of great fear. It’s easy to forget how different we are from one another sometimes; that something only mildly frightening to one person may be a source of utter terror to someone else.

There’s an old story about two soldiers in a trench during World War I, waiting through the tense hours before a charge. One sits calmly, while the other paces incessantly, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. The calm one makes a disparaging remark about his nervous comrade, and the other replies: “My friend, if you were as afraid as I am, you would have run away a long time ago.”

I am afraid the way that soldier is. Too afraid to pretend not to be, too afraid to carry things off with style. I need to comfort myself with stories like this, becasue when I scratch the surface of my skin hard enough to penetrate the thin layers of maturity and faith I find a sea of fear. I think I need a hundred words for the many different varieties of fear, with their subtle shadings of meaning and manifestation.

If you’ve ever been afraid the way I am, you know that it doesn’t respond to logic. Oh, some fears do, or they can be soothed with emotional support, or by questioning them with cognitive-behavioral techniques. But there are kinds of fear so primitive, so nonverbal, so far beyond any mental construct that our attempts to soothe them feel like trying to send a T-rex to therapy.

One kind is what psychologists call “annihilation anxiety.” It’s what it sounds like: fear of utter destruction, unmaking, nothingness. Its roots lie very early in life–in the stage of complete dependence of an adult figure and the terror that losing said figure’s love would mean destruction–and it’s nonverbal and primal enough that sometimes I don’t even realize it’s come up until I’ve been reacting to it for days.

Primal fear comes up in our old baggage and in new baggage that got influenced by the old. It’s what is operating when we do things in our relationships that just don’t make sense; when our therapist and friends and whoever have a clear, obvious idea what should be done, who should be confronted, who should be left, but the thought of actually doing it is–well–unthinkable.

What to do about it? Oh, you already know what I’m going to say. There is no swift and logical cure for this kind of fear. There’s no cure at all–only the chance to go into remission. To fight the fear to a standstill and wait for it to get tired and take a break. But how to fight something you can’t see, or speak to, or argue with? Can a sword cut darkness?

No, it can’t. Nor can clever words convince it to retreat. There are only two things I can do: first, stop acting out in a futile attempt to drown the fear under more familiar pain. Then huddle close to the fire. Feed the fire, watch the fire, and don’t let it go out, and try not to think too hard about what will happen if it does. Feed the fire of my Self; yes, and the Self, whatever mystic force that is. Everything I am that is not nothingness. Everything I am, and was, and will be, that is the opposite of nothingness.

Strolling With Sewage

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.