For the first three and a half decades of my life, I tried super hard to find happiness outside myself. If I could just get with the right people, afford the right stuff, and be seen in the right places, with just the right amount of a buzz or high, I’d clinch it! But all I did was fuck up my life — and others’.
I was smart as measured by standardized tests, landing jobs, or publishing stories, and good-looking enough for a mostly-successful seduction record, but dumb as a stump in terms of emotional wisdom — so I just wanted to die. Life hurt so badly! (See my lengthy addiction memoir for details galore.)
Attaining happiness is never an easy quest; every day we have to bushwhack through pretty much the same undergrowth of FOMO, discontent, victimhood, and boredom as well as self-inflicted criticism, shame, and pity to arrive beneath the open sky of awareness. During a pandemic, such as is in full swing as I write this, the way gets even thicker and swampier — doesn’t it? Surely, we think, we’re missing out on some better life we ought to be living!
Now, I may be getting on in years, but I have recently met, both in person and virtually, some folks my age who are still every bit as lost as teenagers. For decades they’ve repeated over and over the same cycles of addiction — one with booze, the other with codependent romance. They have yet to step off the merry-go-round of “I know best,” so they keep finding themselves back at square one.
In early addiction, all of us believe our heads. Our thinking tells us it’s a fine idea to _____ (shop, starve, drink, “fall in love,” etc.), and we trust that thinking. Little do we suspect that our brains have been hijacked; we’re caught in a loop of stimuli and the reward centers they trigger.
Later, once we become aware of our addictions, we try to temper them with resolve and decisiveness — say, by swearing off drugs or getting married or moving. We’ve noticed the pattern and, darn it, we’re not gonna do that shit anymore! I see this so tragically among pregnant addicts at a rehab center near my home. These women will hug their distended bellies and say, “I’ve lost three kids to the foster care system, but I’m not losing this one! I am SO DONE with drugs and alcohol! And I’m gonna get all my babies back, and we’re gonna be a family…”
By this point, they’re usually too overwhelmed with emotion to go on. No one could be more sincere. No one could want and yearn and hope more fervently for what they’re saying to be true. And yet I know, sitting in that circle, that chances are they will use again, and they will lose this baby, along with all the others because addiction always wins — short of a miracle.
Half that miracle is god — a power greater than ourselves that empowers us to accomplish what no human will can bring about. The other half is the inward miracle of letting go — ceasing to believe what our brains tell us, trusting instead what others have to teach us, and learning to listen for direction from our deepest hearts, from the goodness in our core that’s connected to all life.
The rest of recovery — including that daily schlepp toward happiness — comes down to 1) expanding the range of this miracle, 2) mapping our thought paths, 3) revering our consciousness/spirit, and 4) odd as it may seem, making friends with all those misguided inner voices.
- Once we let go of the precept that our own thinking is superior, we can try what’s worked for others despite doubts it can work for us. We work the 12 steps in depth with a sponsor. When others tell us they initially choked on the word “God,” didn’t want to do service work, and dreaded sponsoring people, but now these things are the mainstays of their happiness, we try doing what they did to see if we’ll get what they got.
2) We begin to realize we are not our thoughts — we entertain them. Or maybe it’s better to say they entertain us! That is, they enter stage-left, tap-dance a while before our awareness with urgent banners and songs and imperatives, and eventually exit stage right. We learn to watch them without getting snagged, knowing they’re impermanent reactions to stimuli more often than realistic assessments of what is. Practicing meditation hones this skill.
3) We begin to realize that we’re not our brains or bodies — we inhabit them. We’re all spirits that, for whatever reason, have chosen to incarnate and play a role in the unfolding of the physical world. Ultimately, our mission is to help each other by taking actions rooted in love and compassion. As one Near Death Experiencer was told, what matters is not what you do each day but what wake you leave behind, whether each person you meet is left a tiny bit happier by the encounter — because every other being is a part of you.
4) The same love and compassion we extend outward, we learn to offer ourselves, generously steeped in humor. Humor is the taproot of true humility, which is indispensable to a happy life. Did I wake up this morning anxious, dismayed by the state of the world, worried about the same dumb shit I always worry about? Yup! That’s me — failing to be grateful that I’m not trapped in some war-torn, starvation-ravaged country or suffering some vast pain or grief. Yup, it’s just me and my buddies insecurity, envy, fear, and vanity, hangin’ out and doin’ what we do! Come on, gang — let’s toddle into our cozy kitchen and get some luscious tea!
I often don’t see how I deserved to be guided to my first AA meeting, but I’m the one who said, “I can’t do life. I give up. Teach me.” And the rest has unfolded like a wildflower in the mountains.