Some Lessons Ain’t Easy

I’ve had a tough few days with my mirrors.  I’m not liking what I see in them.  It’s not because I’m hung up on the effects of aging.  It’s because the mirrors are showing me what I am projecting on other people.  And that has caused me to stand back and see myself for who I really am.

 

Projection, in psychological terms, is a defense mechanism people unconsciously employ in order to avoid difficult feelings or emotions. It involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than dealing with the unwanted feelings ourselves.

 

One of the benefits of relationships is that they serve as mirrors that allow us to see these projections.  Two traits are inherent to projections: that we are frequently unaware of our own projections and that all of us employ them.

 

Because projections come from the subconscious mind, they literally blindside us.  And that was the case for me this week.   I saw myself mirrored back.

 

I was out at a major home improvement store with my girlfriend.  She is very aware of the problem I have with a person close to me who is continually embroiled in conflict.  It’s kind of like crack to him.  As my girlfriend and I walked up aisle after aisle looking for staples for my staple gun, I became more and more frustrated with not being able to find a clerk to help with our search.  Nearly a half-hour went by, and my frustration turned to anger.  So I approached the manager and vented at him.

 

Though my girlfriend was standing in line, she could overhear me talking with the manager.   When we got out to the parking lot, she told me how uncomfortable my anger made her feel.

 

Of course, like many of us, I began rationalizing my behavior, saying that I never attacked the character of the manager and that managers need to hear from customers about stores issues so they keep their customers and…

 

Well, she wasn’t buying it.  In fact, she turned it around on me saying that I was doing the very thing that I found objectionable in my close friend.   Ouch!

 

Talk about being T-boned at the intersection of Unawareness and Projection Avenue.  I had been motoring through the morning on my defense mechanisms:  first projection, then rationalization.

 

As a life coach, these kinds of realizations strike me as especially painful because I feel I should be beyond them.  After all, I’m very aware of the concept of projection.  But the truth is that I am often unaware of my own projections.  Knowledge is not necessarily awareness.

 

And that is why relationships are the most powerful driving force to self-awareness.  They help us to see our projections reflected back to us.  What we don’t like about ourselves, we project onto other people.  It’s little wonder we see some people as our enemies.

 

Relationship expert Guy Finley says that people we perceive as enemies are like angels in disguise.   They are in our lives as mirrors that show us the things we need to change in ourselves.  When we notice the behaviors of these difficult people, and they upset us, we are reacting to things in ourselves that we don’t like.   His practice when dealing with this issue in his own life is gratitude.  Silently, he says to the imagined enemy, “Thank you. I didn’t realize that about myself.”

 

I remember from my early days in AA an old-timer who would say time and again, “If you spot it, you got it.”  It took me ten years to realize the truth of that.

 

God is the master teacher.  Experiences, even the so-called negative ones, are lessons.  When the cast of characters changes in our lives, but that same troubling issue keeps resurfacing, it is clear that it is not the other person but ourselves that is the source of our suffering.  God, however, is keenly aware what lessons are crucial for our development, and he will not let us move on from the lesson until we have mastered it.

 

Though these lessons ain’t easy, they are the ones that hold the greatest potential for our personal growth. My home improvement experience turned out to be a self-improvement experience.

 

May I, and may all of us, have the humility and the courage to honestly see ourselves in the mirror of other people.  It is in those moments that we have the greatest opportunity for change.  When that happens, we will begin to truly admire the person we see in our mirrors.

 

 

 

The Glories of Gratitude

I first heard the phrase “develop an attitude of gratitude” in an AA meeting I attended in my first year of recovery.   My immediate reaction was “Isn’t that sweet.”  Then I dismissed it as one of those pathetic AA expressions.  Even though alcohol had totally kicked my ass Rodney King style, I was still carrying around with me this false bravado that placed me above gimmicky expressions.

Then, a few days later, I heard my sponsor say that he was “cultivating an attitude of gratitude.”  I stifled a gag and thought, “Hell, they’ve gotten to him to…although I like his word choice better.”

Here I am nine years later cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  What the hell happened to me?  Sobriety.  It works wonders—even on fools like me.  Yep, I’m kinda a gratitude junkie now.  I even got my girlfriend using now.  Before we turn off the lights at night, we take turns saying our gratitude out loud to each other.  I get a body rush of good feelings hearing each other go through the day, honoring the things that our Higher Power had blessed our lives with.

Gratitude softened me to life and strengthened my connection to it.  I was sleeping better and walked through my days with a heightened sense of appreciation.

About a month into it, the control freak in me raised its condemning head.  Alcoholism may really have a genetic link.  I thought of my drunken ancestor staring gloomily into the cavefire growing more and more irritated with his tribal homebuddies.   (In the picture above, my tribal ancestor is on the far left.)

“How long is she going to go on tonight?  That’s her seventh gratitude.  She’s like a gratitude relay runner who never passes the baton.”

With the patience that 10 years of sobriety can bring, I said to her, “You know, it might be better to just keep our gratitude to our top three for the day.” Realizing that I was sabotaging what I had created (What a surprise for an addict!), I decided to soften my comment with, “That way we can…uh…go into a little more depth.”

Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with a girlfriend who laughs easily about herself and has taught me to do the same.  Just after the “more depth” comment, we both burst into laughter.  Yes, one of my most enduring gratitudes is for her.

Bill W. spoke of gratitude in the 12 x 12 suggesting a “genuine gratitude for blessings received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek.”

Many times Bill W’s name has come up in my gratitude.  It’s like a verbal hug to Bill and to all my fellow travelers who have helped to “relieve me of the bondage of self.”

If you don’t already set a time aside during each day to practice gratitude, consider Bill W’s words.  Consider spending a few minutes in gratitude with your partner before turning the lights out.  Life can become pretty chaotic.  When it does, my girlfriend and I occasionally need to remind ourselves of the commitment we have made to each other by saying, “Let’s do some ‘tude.”

If you’re a single traveler at this point in your life, try writing in a gratitude journal before lights out.  When life grows dark, it will be a great way to realign your thoughts and heighten your awareness of just how blessed your life really is.

Well, night night to you, my fabulous fellow travelers.  May your path be illuminated by the radiance of God’s grace.

A new way of seeing life

Life has changed dramatically for me in the last three months. I haven’t won the lottery or become Time magazine’s Person of the Year.  And my spiritual life coaching practice has yet to take off.

Yet, I am experiencing a happiness about life that I have never experienced before. I’m so excited about it that I want to share it with you.

And it’s yours, too, free for the taking.

It began a few months back while I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  One of Tolle’s recommendations for a more joyful life was to “see the divine in all things” and to feel it in yourself.

The idea stuck with me for a while in all its glory but faded like a sunset. Then, while reading Adyashanti’s book Resurrecting Jesus, I came across a quote by Thomas Merton: “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.”

Bam! The lights turned on again. Merton’s quote reanimated Tolle’s words about seeing the divine in all things. And that light has remained radiant since.

Like undergoing Lasik, I’m seeing life with a clarity I haven’t experienced even during the “pink cloud” days of my sobriety. Its effect has transformed the way I see and react to life.  And my friends and family have experienced a ripple effect from this shift as well.

How has this shift in seeing expressed itself in my life? Simple: I’m excited about life.

By seeing the divine in all things, I’m no longer battling life. I’m finally able to put into practice the Big Book quote about “living life on life’s terms.”  Amazingly, this is true even during the moments when I would normally pick up the sword again to fight against what my ego perceives as threats.

I accept life now. Fighting life was what fueled my alcoholism. By fighting life, I was fighting God.  It’s not surprising that I sucked at life.

When I see the divine in all things and feel it within myself, I form a very deep and intimate connection with God through life. In this deepened relational state, I feel in sync with life as it unfolds…even the experiences that I perceive as negative.  All experiences are lessons for my ultimate good and growth.

By seeing the divine in all things, I also see people differently. As children of God, we each have the spirit of God in us just as a drop of ocean water contains the essence of the ocean. I now see people as divine beings first and their roles second.  Whether it’s chatting with someone in the line at the grocery store or dealing with a DMV agent, I am in contact with God.  How can this truth not be transformative—and exciting!

I invite you to adopt the idea of seeing the divine in all things. Consciously look for it in all things—at work, at home, and at play—in all the things that you do today and in all the people you come in contact today.  Look for “the divine shining through.”  Look at life through this new pair of glasses.   I would love to hear from you about what you see!

The connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.

My Story

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It was nearly 10 years ago that a Big Book quote came true for me: “Someday the [alcoholic] will be unable to imagine life with alcohol or without it.  Then he will know loneliness such as few do” (BB 152).

It may have seemed to others that my life was like a Lexus, but inside I was really a rusted out AMC Pacer.  I was on the brink of bankruptcy after my business partner lost all our working capital in the stock market. My reaction was to descend deeper into abyss of my drinking.

I was literally a fall down drunk. Despite tearing my rotator cuff and then later breaking seven ribs in two drunken falls, I was too prideful to seek out AA for the help I desperately needed.  Although I knew I was an alcoholic, I could not tolerate the stigma of being labeled one.

With my wife set on leaving me, my friends having abandoned me, and my credit card debt reaching $60,000, I lived a life of loneliness and despair that few non-alcoholics experience.  In agony, I finally reached out to my alcoholic sister who encouraged me to attend an AA meeting.  It is through AA and the grace of God that I got sober and remain so after 10 years.

So this blog is really my way of giving back to a program that literally saved my life.  Like many of you, the 12 Steps were my portal into a spiritual awakening.   Sponsorship keeps me involved in the program, but I continue to hunger for more inspired texts like the Big Book to nourish my spiritual growth.   I have read many, and a year and a half ago I went back to school to become a Spiritual Life Coach.  Through this blog, I hope that I can share some of the spiritual truths that have brought a wonderful sense of joy and contentedness to my life.

Recovery Step 13

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As you know from My Story, I owe my life to AA.  Its fellowship was like a loving hand that lifted me out of the deep trench I had dug with my blackout drinking.  Because of AA, I now have 10 years of sobriety.

To me, the Big Book is an inspired masterpiece.  Yet, Bill W. never intended it to be the last word on spirituality and personal growth.  Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, Bill W. wrote the letter “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine.  In it he says, “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our malady.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.  He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. In response, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction.  Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth.  In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages.  With their encouraging presence, I have turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that created seeming insurmountable obstacles to my own happiness and potential.  Through this blog, I will be honored to share some of the insights and lessons I have learned that will help you to experience more moments of bliss on this earth.