My first rebellion was at fourteen, and it was all about sneaking out and getting transformationally high. I wasn’t trying so much to be a bad girl (no weird piercings and black lipstick for me, and barely even a fuck you to my folks) as I was trying to connect and feel at one with the world. No joke. Drugs and alcohol were a sort of spiritual experience in the sense that everything seemed to click for me when in that space of perfect chemical bliss – there was nothing to fear, nothing to seek, nothing to judge, just complete and total acceptance of myself and the moment. It was that Perks of Being a Wallflower “we were infinite” kind of sensation, and yet David Bowie and a ride in the car weren’t enough; I could only get there under copious amounts of booze and drugs. Such spirit was lost on me otherwise. Emptiness, meaninglessness, anger, and fear were the feelings du jour when sober. Later, when I began practicing yoga in my mid-teens, I got little moments of that connected state; in the sweaty asana room, my head pinned to the floor, I would feel that everything is OK, everything is Love feeling, but it was far more fleeting and not nearly as flooring as substances. So on and on I went, seeking “connection.” By sixteen it was like trying to grab a feather in the wind. By eighteen, it was gone.
Eventually I had to cut that shit out, the drinking and drugging. It turned on me and went from evoking a (false) sense of connection to establishing complete disconnection, misery, and despair, not to mention began jeopardizing the logistics of my life in terms of work, school, obeying the law, and relationships. That rebellion was over. I had to find a new one.
I began the search. The process. The path. A way to find that peace I felt at fourteen, blowing smoke. It was a jagged freaking line. Eighteen to twenty-five, a hot up and down sometimes happy mostly wretched mess. Periods of sobriety, periods of relapse. Periods of seeking the proverbial external fix. Straight A’s, boyfriend, size 2 jeans. Sex, cigarettes, clothes, car. The emptiness followed me, tried to kill me. Suicidal fantasies, thick at twenty-four. Spirit crushing obliteration with any and all substances that would alter my dark mind. My goal was to be so close to death that I couldn’t feel one thing. Close-to-death-high chasing is terrifying, especially when you wake. Then: an actual awakening.
Along this rocky road of learning to live and searching for truth and connection, my values have gone back and forth and up down, and what I believe to be important has sometimes varied. What I hold dearest to the very center (faith, spirituality, God, whatever you want to call it) has in essence stayed the same but has expanded in its own right (as I believe is the point.) My faith has at times been ineffable, ill-defined, very clear, sometimes blind. It sometimes felt extremely far away. It was always more or less without dogma, without boxcar-tight religiosity, without approval or disapproval. It has grown to feel very warm and safe and, mostly, near. It is still at this very moment, moving, changing. It is even larger than it used to be.
I wouldn’t say that I “found God” at twenty-five in a white light magic sort of way. Really, all I did was surrender to some concept of a Higher Power that I created myself. It then grew into a comforting presence to which I sporadically felt connected. It was enough. I kept my idea of God simple: an unconditionally loving benevolent force in my life, both inside of and all around me that was carrying me through the shit storm of early sobriety and my about-face to reality. I did not try to over-explain it or figure it out. I just believed in it. I had to confront so much stuffed down suffering, it was overwhelming. I could not do it without faith. Suffering gave me faith. It has never left. Despite this faith, I was still convinced that the real answer lied in fixing me on some psychological and emotional level.
I spent a good chunk of my mid to late twenties rebuilding my internal world at the psychological level. It was lost on me, a healthy sense of Self, and it was essential to erect it. I had to cultivate true self-worth and unconditional self-love and acceptance to counter the vicious voices that told me incessantly that I was worthless, etc. This was work, and it was worthwhile, however nebulous and far-reaching it sometimes seemed. And it stuck. For a few years I pulled away from the world and tended to my inner wounds, learned to have boundaries and take care of myself. That was my priority, “selfish” as it might have seemed. It was highly necessary and life-changing, and it came in layers and levels. At first, I had to learn how to feel painful feelings (anger, grief, fear) without losing my mind or self-destructing; eventually, sitting through such discomfort became easier (still not easy.) To show up to a career every day, when the buzz of that alarm clock felt like chimes of oppression. To stay in when exhausted and completely drained. To take walks and eat well and call and ask for help. To fail and fall and get back up. To allow crying without meanness. To sleep deeply. To say no. Basic self-care, a boon, but not something we all know how to do. Learning this was essential and helped me broaden the path.
It wasn’t, however, “enough,” this self-care/psychological shifting work, or the actual solution, in the sense that it did not always nourish and sustain me on the larger levels, on the deeper un-earthbound levels that I could not understand with my mind. In and of itself it did not provide abounding connection to others and the world at large. Such psychologically searching also kept me stuck in stories – especially past traumas and the whole family system shebang.
I also spent a good amount of time studying and reading books on everything from literature to art to history to philosophy to science. (I am by no means even close to being a scholar in any field.) The little that I learned was often eye-opening and worthwhile and sometimes very nourishing and connected to my spiritual quest, but in and of itself the knowledge did not create happiness. Nor did a plunge into all things political and cultural on the entirety of the spectrum. I would never reject knowledge, and I still seek it daily, but it can sometimes spiral me back to a place where I think some specific thing is right and therefore the other thing must be wrong. Knowledge was helpful, but it only got me so far.
The faith stuff was bigger, despite me grumbling about this truth. God is larger than dualities and human ideas, in my humble opinion. I imagine the very cosmos itself would laugh at us all right now, bickering on Facebook about American politics. (Indeed, it probably is.) Faith, however one defines it, is often seen as the way of weakness, and I wanted to be strong, self-sufficient. My mind still wants to have it all locked down and figured out, under control. It wants to know, know, know. It does not like pausing, trusting, allowing. It wants to stay angry or separate or right about certain things.
Luckily, I grumble no longer, not about the power and largeness of my faith and its magnanimity. I have also learned to not feel ashamed or embarrassed about my faith. It has transformed my entire life in a way that words do not do justice. It is an experience of Spirit. Something so precious need not be justified, but it also need not be hidden and secretive. I have hidden my beliefs at times, depending on who I am with, knowing I have certain friends who reject all things God and believe faith to be stupid. I respect their atheism and quite honestly understand it – however, it is very much not my path. There was a time when I thought it was uncool to believe in God, and it still is quite uncool to certain people; but I have learned by now that coolness (and worrying what other people think) is silly and boring, and I would much rather be happy and filled up with joy, goodness, and love. I rather be a light than a cynical vampire.
Over the past year and more specifically the past few months, my faith has deepened and my capacity for forgiveness has expanded, and while some of it simply came to me, I also pay attention and practice. I make daily choices. My heart wants joy and connection, not judgment and separateness, and I keep hearing the same message as the vessel to take me there: love others deeply, forgive others everything, and go help. Forget. the. rest.
In widening rings, we expand.
Along this spiritual journey, forgiveness is an area I have struggled with the most (and what maybe we all struggle with the most), of both others and myself. It can be extremely difficult to let go of anger and resentment that feels justified (and that probably was at some point.) Anger, though sometimes a healthy and necessary human experience, can be seductive enough to stay longer than is necessary. It likes to really get in there and tell the same story over and over and over. It likes to crawl back, even after you’ve made an attempt to forgive. And what happens when we hold onto such anger? It hardens our hearts. Closes us off. Turns into toxic resentment that leeches real happiness. It creeps into other relationships. It makes us feel high, then guilty. It can be very easy to justify anger when dwelling in the psychological and emotional realms. Knowledge and the whole I’m right, you’re wrong field is its close friend. You might say that anger is rather close-minded. Childhood trauma, while unbelievable painful and deserving of healing, can easily morph into a lifetime of resentment at your caregivers and family members and an unwillingness to accept imperfection and move on. Again, possibly justified, but who would really want to live there? I rather be free. What is the antidote? It is what every great spiritual master (Jesus and Buddha in particular) taught, under various terminology: lovingkindness, radical acceptance, forgiveness, atonement, amending, surrender, unconditional Love.
I do not know if such an experience of forgiveness can be rushed. It would likely be inauthentic or shallow. I do believe that if we do not do some level of feeling and processing our darker, painful emotions, they get stuffed down and wreak havoc on the spirit. Jung wrote of the shadows in all of us that deserve a voice, and that it is by looking at the darkness that we increase our light. I don’t think I could have gotten to a place of honestly desiring to forgive until I felt how deeply full of rage (and grief) I was and said it out loud, wrote it out loud, cried it out loud. It is helpful to seek support in a therapist, counselor, or trusted friend to release honest feelings without shame or harm. But then… onward.
If you pay close attention, you will see the difference between healthy release and morbid, stubborn wallowing. I don’t feel so inclined to plunge into my past and excavate traumatic experiences as a way of healing. I know what happened, and I know what to do now. I know where real solution lies. And I feel less need for armor and defenses, for I think I actually believe now that nothing real can be threatened. (Beyonce said that, but not first.) I can keep taking care of myself, obviously, but the path has shifted, and the shift has gone to love, forgiveness, and service, no matter what.
I do sometimes wonder though – no matter what? How much can I love others? And all of them? What about those justified resentments? What about toxic people, the emotional vampires and narcissists? The ones that drive me crazy, for whatever reason? What about our global planet, all the horrors inflicted upon it? I honestly don’t yet know the answer. Rebellions often appear to be daring acts that create something new, not rely on what’s been done.
I do know that the heart is inclined to close out of self-protection, but that little grows from that place. An open heart is a risk, but one worth taking, and if I do actually believe in loving fully, what else is there? Love without conditions, is often the sentiment. But this is work that takes practice – it is not often my instinct. Some of my favorite literary writers commented on how empathy can work backwards: we shut down and hate those that remind us of our pain, our humanity. I notice how I can harden, close, act unkindly, judge and hate. The smaller part of me loves the idea of brick walls to keep out bad guys and villains. But some higher part of me knows that is not the way, that vulnerability and profound, weighty, large love is bigger. Damn it, I think it is. Self-protection is of course a healthy choice to a degree, however that may be defined. But we need not armor ourselves so greatly, nor can we, and we can love our enemies deeply (maybe the more dangerous ones from a distance.) Most great teachers of love and spirit call upon this sort of work: we will not hate our enemies and let such hate destroy us. We will not be governed and closed by fear. We will forgive and try to understand.
It is not an easy walk, nor is it a very popular one, and I fail at it a hundred times a day. But I believe in it so fiercely that I will simply keep trying. To love what I am inclined to hate, to forgive who I think deserves anger, to understand what I proceed to judge, to help when I want to retreat and shut down, (to attempt) to be a channel of peace – I think this is about as punk rock as it gets these days. Love above all else is tough, is gutsy, is a radical cause. Sign up.