Everywhere I lurked as a newly sober teenager I was besieged by conflicting messages of how to succeed. If someone needs my help I must always pitch in, but when a villain from my using days rings, I can never call them back. Blindly comply if I’m asked to speak at a meeting, but listen to those who have more time under their belts. Take care of myself first, but stop being so self-centered. Wait, what? It felt like a game of red light, green light with the highest possible stakes. I played the game with sorry results for several years and carried a pit in my stomach that I’d later regret not disturbing. For some reason I protected the pit. Perhaps you know the feeling. I knew meditation would help, but I just couldn’t do it. I was reclaiming myself, forging ahead. There was no time to sit.
Public opinion shouts about an emphasis on balancing finances and eating a balanced diet while mumbling into a corner about spiritual stability. There are shortcuts to wealth, known to thieves and confidence men. There are winks, nudges and nods for skipping lines or avoiding fines. Surgery can make us thinner and family names can project us winners. For all of the human ascensions we embark on, there remains no shortcut to individual awakening. There’s no price tag on finding inner peace—I can’t barter my way to owning a new assurance in my own consciousness. The only way I know is the route I have traveled. Like most things in my life, I was determined to do it my way, in my time. Perhaps my trailhead marker will look familiar.
By nature I’m rebellious in mind, but calm in body. I’m a brooder, a dreamer of fiction and not of acts. The places my imagination goes are not safe to chase in form without alcohol. Some of my fondest memories involve a younger me in the woods behind my suburban home talking to wildlife and some man in the breeze named God, routinely asking for reassurance and security, for who knows what! Less people meant less fear. More solitude meant more safety. The hysteria that bubbles inside me is part of my identity, like the familiar lump of a skin mole I fondly caress while planning it’s bloody excision. A sick feeling of unwell is somehow locked in my native wisdom. It’s always been my tempest’s composer and true companion. Morosely, I empathize with a feral animal fighting recklessly in a catchers noose. Even as a child I felt it, but simply didn’t understand. The hazards of my narcissism breed a hissing band of hecklers for whom I write every line of dialogue. It was a red light I ignored growing up.
Facing myself finally sober, I describe my search for balance as a rubber band being stretched. Wincing with eyes closed as I draw it thinner and thinner, hoping to break it, hoping it won’t break. Making my outsides appear serene isn’t so complex. Show up on time, smile at people and don’t have public meltdowns. Making the insides serene...I must have missed that chapter. Allowing the peace in is too much to dare hope for. How could I search for inner peace without disrobing and wandering a dusty footpath alone? If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. Doing it right means going to the opposite extreme. Red light. I cannot end up silent in a cave studying koans. The uncertainty of giving up control is a horrifying notion.
Whenever I pondered meditating, my justifications echoed brashly back, drowning out the simplicity of advice freely shared. Advice as quaint as sitting consciously or breathing with awareness, stoked my skepticism. For a touch of context, this was the early 1990’s, before the World Wide Web. Clinicians were referring to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its third edition, DSM-III-R (in 2018 we’re up to DSM-5) and pharmaceutical companies were using lists of psychiatric symptoms to sell more product. I was being torn between two captors. Were my problems rooted in my mental health, a simple pill pop away from resolution? Or did I need to stop whistling in the dark and face my inner fears?Good fortune led me away from psychiatric doctors. I was beginning to trust myself.
Upon realizing I would actually have to change myself, I hastily looked for ways to change as painlessly and quickly as I could. Buy a self-help book… great I’ll get five. Do my best at work…no problem I’ll work the extra hours to show my commitment. In trying so hard to prove I was changed, I skipped actually changing. My habits were taking shape. All of the things I was doing were merely acts to show others that I was “recovering” like a good student. It was a vailed attempt at changing, that in retrospect was a step I needed to take. My only reference of meditation was Central Himalayan men in robes (picture Doctor Strange aka Benedict Cumberbatch colliding with infinite power in Nepal, for readers who aren’t sure of my reference). Although, I also think some 1970’s cults were still spouting about transcendental meditation. It was enough to scare me off.
My timid thinking was so black and white that I dismissed the notion of balance every time I even heard the word. “Not now, I’ve got to stay sober first,” I thought while longing for what other people talked about in the far-off sense. Somewhere inside I knew it was work I wasn’t willing to endure. Sitting in the lotus position seemed so submissive. Sitting in a room of people all desperate for someone to tell them how to change and relax seemed like I was part of the problem of the world. Am I adding my name to the list of disciples who blindly mimic those around them? There is a judgmental aspect to my perspective that never stopped me with recovery from alcoholism and addiction, yet shot down any hope of exploring stillness. I’ll talk in front of high school auditoriums, go to prison outreach groups and confide in felons, but there is no way I will sit like a lazy loser on some smelly pillow with a stranger and expose my tender neck for their feasting. Red light.
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle hit American mainstream bedside tables at Oprah’s urging when I was about ten years into recovery. Much to my shock, a well-known television character was speaking directly to me, and I thought I had been invited by secret handshake into a deeper level of spiritual development. If Oprah was talking about the importance of inner balance and staying in the moment, it was time to get on board. It was the push I needed to go about getting still on the inside. On a whim, and by stroke of luck, I was introduced to author Anthony de Mello’s little book The Way to Love. At this point I had reclaimed my existence, was living out my career dreams and slaying life. The thing missing was a congruence of my outer and inner worlds. Another of his books, The Song of the Bird, fed my intellectual urges to understand everything I experience. Ultimately, it was his words that helped me focus on my breathing, instead of just breathing. I began sitting still in my moment, no longer just any moment. I found myself shutting down the rambling nonsense factory inside my mind long enough to see value in the void. Green light. I could get used to this.
Realigning with the now is the aspect of meditative practice I find most beneficial. Imagining myself sitting exposed at the edge of a forest, I close my eyes. Relaxing my shoulders, I breathe in deeply through my nose filling my belly with fresh air. I exhale and block out any rustling temptations. Over time, the trees can entangle me in their roots, a wolf can drag me away for dinner, but right now I’m here. Right now I’m safe. In this moment I am delighted by the freedom of breathing. If I can relax here, at the edge of the dark woods, I can do it anywhere. It’s no longer a personal torment to feel balance, but something I make time for. Upon rising, I make time to put my back to the trees and abandon my senses, inhaling the trust of life.
Turns out meditation became my protective companion. A sniper awaiting his call. The same way my tumultuous panic overtakes reason, I am now equally equipped to neutralize my homegrown bullshit with a centering reset. It’s as simple as it seems difficult for me. I’ll take my direction from all directions these days, which includes listening to myself. Do I still run red lights? Of course. I still curse and I still dislike yoga. Those are outside things that I am comfortable with on the inside now. How you expect me to act and what you expect me to say is just not anything I think about anymore. Nurturing my own soul back to health has given me appreciation for others. Scars and disfigurements are invitations for compassion in a way I didn’t know I’d ever feel. The weakness I called serenity in others was a challenge to overturn. Attempts and setbacks are just as valuable as successes. My greatest motivation is hope.
As I write this, my outsides and insides are in harmony. A visiting writer’s piece is due four thousand miles from home the same week I’m collaborating on a meditation workshop in my neighborhood just a short walk away. Both things I never would have admitted I wanted for fear of rejection. Both goals I would have hijacked with negative self-talk except for a trust in my own direction. Like rowing a boat, complicate forward, simplify back. Pulling back is always how I find my answers now, in the now.
Andrea is a directionally challenged expat who no longer needs to huff shoe polish to feel alive. Today she focuses on cultivating the positive impact of living a balanced life. As the creator of Alpha Omega Zen (AlphaOmegaZen.com) she collaborates on noncommercial interests with cool folks around the world. She is the author of 25 Years, One Lesson. You can follow her on twitter @25Years1Lesson