Long before I set out on a spiritual path of recovery, I felt some sort of kinship with some great beyond. Even as a child who had little interest in Sunday school and no discernible relationship with God in a religious sense, I prayed all the time. I prayed out loud before I went to bed and I prayed in the writing of my journals and I prayed under my breath during difficult times. I felt loved by some Creator, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant.
I was always a fan of the mystical and magical, even the downright superstitious, poring over astrology and numerology books and learning about intuitive healing. I loved mythology and the great big metaphors of life. I saw metaphor and meaning in everything. I loved getting high because it gave me that profound connection, false as it was, with nature, with other, with self. Music was transcendent, as was film and literature. Ridiculous and dramatic, certainly, but I sometimes cried when looking at pieces of art in museums. Something in me would come alive and squirm to the surface, the earthbound silly matters of human interaction would drop, and a richer plane erupted and negated all else. I think it’s what you might understand if you have ever wept tears of joy.
This, I believe, is The Story, capital T, capital S. It is The Story that tells the truth about the spiritual condition of humanity, the inevitable limits of knowledge, power, and control, and the absolute mysterious wonder of being alive inside a body, while being so much more than a body (and so much more than a mind.) It is about the transcendent and divine and ineffable and arising. It is the oldest story in the world.
Many today don’t like to believe The Story and think instead that, since the much needed Enlightenment, we finally came to know better than to abide by anything beyond reason and rationality. I like reason and rationality as much as the next guy, and I have great respect and reverence for the achievements of the Enlightenment, especially in the realm of philosophy and science; but I also don’t want to throw out the mythology and spirituality that existed for thousands of years prior and that dwells, I believe, deep inside each and every human being, whether they want to admit it or not, whether they want to break it all down to chemical reactions or not.
One may use reason and rationality to transcend suffering, but that has never worked for me (and the truth is that spirituality might be the most “reasonable and rational” choice of all, since it seriously works and is seriously true and takes some of the edge off of meaningless misery.) There is always something bigger than what my mind can figure out (my mind, in fact, can get me in a lot of trouble) and I don’t experience it in my mind, anyway. It’s in my chest and heart and hands and stomach, and it’s the great beyond I’ve known since I was a kid.
You can find it through religion, but you don’t have to. It’s there anyway. It is in the mythology that dates back to the Sumerians, and it is in nearly every story since, somewhere. Good and evil as a living, realistic duality isn’t just a random made-up idea. Such arrogance of our secular society to throw out thousands of years of oral and written tradition, that, despite many flaws (humans are irrevocably flawed) refined humanity and spirituality to its perfect point in terms of goal-worthy livable principles. (Good and evil dwells in all of us on some scale – perhaps there is a roadmap to transcend being corrupted by the darkest depths…)
Surrender, faith, humility, acceptance, gratitude, forgiveness, love, and service take the cake as The Story’s Top Five (ok, eight) manifested spiritual principles. Live life by these principles in an earnest and wholehearted way, and prepare for connection and meaning. Easier said than done. I live a lot of my life caught up in the story, lower case. We all do.
I can easily spend my days angry, resentful, blaming, worrying, in self-loathing and self-pity, weaving tales that may or may not be true, comparing, criticizing, controlling, setting conditions and rules, refusing to let go, refusing to set down my sword. What a pain in the ass it is to live in such a way, even if it seems justified or necessary or helpful or true. Some anger is justified, sure. Sometimes we understandably feel sorry for ourselves or down on ourselves, and we need to just feel that for a while. Sometimes we build great defenses because, when we were children, they kept us safe. But when the default becomes all the little stories inside the stories inside the story, there is no protection, just a nightmare. I do not recommend it. (Apparently alcoholics are pros at the story – no wonder we drank!)
My opinion on the way through and out of the stormy experiences and icky thoughts and emotions is to allow them, to understand they are universally human, but to counter them with the spiritual plane, The Actual Story. To not stay stuck for days, months, years in the fury and worry (which believe me, we can do. I am sure you have some long drawn out scenario of a wrong done to you that you still can’t release … no? Good job, spiritual master!)
I have been in recovery since I was nineteen, and it basically took me until about yesterday for this to become startlingly clear: in general, do I want to live mostly in the story or The Story? Do I want to live clouded with justified resentment and self-hatred, or do I want to live with acceptance and forgiveness and gratitude? Do I want to have a yeah but for every situation, (which I can feel creeping up in me as I write this and also in what I assume many readers could say, shaking their fists – yeah, but what about this!) or do I want to have a foundation made of Truth, and only fight the battles that absolutely need my might? (For which, trust me, there are few.)
I am as stubborn as a mule on this stuff. My thinking totally gets in the way. My toughness and sense of justice and defenses and need to be right. my story. Because I could hand you several tomes on all the suffering. I could fill oh so many ears with why my suffering is still valid. But jeez – to be or not to be in forever pain? – that is the question!
This does not mean ignore suffering. I am a big believer that we must slay the dragon, go into the belly of the beast, look closely at the chaos before we can move through. You can’t sugarcoat life. Examine it, feel it, suffer suffer suffer – then awaken.
I write this with a sense of confidence, but I am also aware of all the embedded paradoxes and nuances and how one must come to find the spiritual world, or God, or The Story, on their own time and also over and over and over. And over. Spiritual awakenings are not forced, nor are they done once and voila! but daily, each morning, each hour, each breath, each time we choose to look beyond and above the little woven yarns of our hurt to what is so much larger and truer. Some wake up as children; others after a long life lived. There’s no contest and no timeline.
When I was getting sober in my mid-twenties, I had a giant reservoir of emotions that I had neglected and medicated and eating disordered away for years, and they demanded my attention. I couldn’t just “spiritually bypass” years of grief and depression and buried rage with a bunch of faulty gratitude and forgiveness. Even when you try this route, you find it doesn’t work. It’s inauthentic and you won’t be changed. We’re human. We need to let the feelings out in some kind of way. We need to be kind to ourselves. Spirituality, like recovery, or like anything we are working on really, is a jagged line. Little improvements with plenty of failure and back to square one agains, all the while slowing moving ahead and up.
I had to allow the feelings as much as possible, and I still have to pretty regularly. I sort of had to become a child again, given endless permission to cry and complain and feel so sorry for myself. It isn’t pretty, the sloppy tears and waves of rage and below that, deep sadness, but I believe it’s necessary for the third degree wounds. To meet our suffering with compassion and tenderness, not guilt or shame or judgment. (There is also a supreme difference in feeling the trapped emotions versus toiling in endless indignation and thought over them.)
If you’re on the spiritual path with an earnestness to surpass the suffering and the earthbound story, it will come. One day you do wake up and you’re not so angry, and your heart feels fuller and more open, you feel cleaner, and there’s more peace in you. And I think we just keep doing this. Over and over and over. Up up up. Down again. Up.
Building a life on humility and acceptance and forgiveness is, I believe, the most courageous human act, and it takes work and consistency. It can be annoying. It can, at first, feel like giving up or failing, being weak. I guarantee it is a strong and mighty bedrock. There is so much faith and trust in it, so much richness. It is choosing to say, the world is goddamn scary – I’ll forge ahead in the light anyhow!
Arrogance and resentment are cheap and unstable. They make for a terrible, dishonest, flawed foundation. They also feel and look like shit. They tend to tumble into outright destruction of self and others. We usually grab hold of them because they’re fast and easy and work in the moment. Learning to live a life built on spiritual principles takes time and patience. And it isn’t that sexy. (Or maybe it is!)
It took me a good five to six years of sobriety and work in the recovery and spiritual world to get to that place where I could have deeper and lasting forgiveness for the “big offenders.” It took me five years to stop saying, “yeah but they did this” and own my part, through and through, and sincerely and honestly want to amend my part. (We all have parts, 99% of the time, even if your part is just clinging too tightly to the story.)
It took a period of time where I had to assume the world was full of haters and I was a lover and then realizing, we are all haters and lovers.
It took looking very closely at “toxic people” and wanting to throw them all out of my life, finding allies who had the same worldview so I could feel justified in disliking eighty percent of people, and then realizing it was a bunch of bullshit and just resentment disguised as self-protection. (OK, yes, there are dangerous people we have every right to walk away from and should walk away from. I ain’t no Pollyanna. But there is a difference between a true blue sociopathic narcissist and someone who is rude and self-absorbed and annoys you on social media. As Danielle LePorte explains, have an open heart with a big fucking fence. Pay attention and listen to that gut.)
It took being offended by the world before I realized none of it was personal, and it was my life to live with as much joy and celebration as possible, regardless of politics or family circumstances or my dress size or social status or income or hair color or time sober or romantic life or blah blah blah.
It took understanding that the people who I resented the most, I actually loved the most, and missed the most, and wanted to connect with the most. And even if we couldn’t connect in the way I wanted to on the earth and in the day to day, we were connected on the spiritual plane in a form far greater than personality quirks and miscommunication. Sometimes much of the forgiveness lives inside a parallel universe.
It took (and takes) deep investigation into God and the spiritual world, and then practicing what I learn out in the real world. Which sounds simple and is absolutely the greatest challenge. I can be quite forgiving and empathetic when tucked up in my bed reading spiritual books and hearing some inspiring podcast or in a meeting where we’re all oozing gratitude. How do I carry this out into the world, where everyone everywhere is making mistakes all the time? My date flakes on me, my friend won’t forgive me, I hate my job, I’m full of fear and anxiety, I don’t like myself, I’m plagued with depression, I can’t sleep, my family member is sick, social media is hell, the news is hell, the world is on fire?
What do I do?
First, I get caught up in the story. He did this and she did that and this is unfair and why me and oh god and I hate everything and what’s the point and if only –
– then, pause.
Then, maybe a prayer on my hands and knees.
Maybe, I tell someone about it who I trust. Maybe I write about it.
Then, maybe it shifts and I come back to that through line of faith and acceptance and eventual forgiveness and amending. I listen to that Story. I try to hang out there. Then, I do it all again. All the time. Over and over and over.
I recently made amends to someone I have known and loved much of my life, who I have also resented and blamed much of my life. I saw so clearly the story and The Story duking it out. She did this and she’s like this and it caused this to happen and it isn’t fair and it could have been this way and she thinks this of me and I’m like this and on on on my mind did spin. But there was also: I love her more than I could ever say we are exactly the same she has hurt like I have she seeks like I do she is innocent and loving and loved and precious we are the same and we love each other and we are doing the best we can. The rest is just filler and doesn’t matter anymore.
So I hung out there a while. And it felt so much better. And even when my mind tried to creep in and morph it back into a story, the forgiveness was divine. The Story wasn’t louder, but it sure was a much prettier sound. To let someone off the hook, when it’s long past due – what a gift. What a spell-breaker. The oldest Story in the world.
I still do this, mind you – get all locked up in the story and resentment, the defensiveness and walls, the blaming and self-pity – all the time. We cannot transcend being human, and such locked up-ness is quite human. The difference, I suppose, lies in the awareness and the willingness to get out of it and tune in to what actually matters and is a more refined Truth. To extract a functional meaning from a seemingly endless array of life interpretations is a choice, and it is a choice to extract a joyful, unshakable, devoted to love one as opposed to a meaningless, arrogant, perpetually armored to the cruel cruel world one. Armor gets old. It’s heavy and rusts and pierces into the skin. Why wear it when there is so little to fight? There is so often no there there. No real story but The Story.
But, you know, thank you to all the little stories for leading me back – over and over and over – to the One I’ve loved to hear the most and trusted the most since I was a kid, praying in journals and in my little bed, crying at songs and books and paintings, for crying out loud.