Tag Archives: unconditional love

Vulnerability

The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting.  She’d tracked me down because she was curious.

“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them.  I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere.  How do you do it?”

I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her?  How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn?  I can’t.  But that’s okay.  Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.

Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.

Costa Rican girls

Unsafe but unworried Costa Rican kids

In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger.  Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law.  By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle.  Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands!  Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.

If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones.  Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger.  Rejections hurts.

That’s why we drank!  Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama.  Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us.  When that happens, we hit bottom.

It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts.  We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics.  If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles.  Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.

So who, then, is this new person?  This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?

It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.

Now, we can be hurt.  We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime.  If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god.  But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough.  fire-suitWe need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits!  So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves.  We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear.  The goal is to be accepted.  We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.

The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness.  In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.

So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over.  Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice.  My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer.  Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.

Pain.  Pain.  Pain.

But here’s the thing.  Every time, god has been there.  Every time, god has loved me through it.  And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less.  It won’t kill me.  It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal:  I will love again.  I’ll show up for my siblings.  Cancer won’t haunt me.  And I will never forget my loved ones.

cristins-cookiesI find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom.  I can begin to risk pain knowingly.  Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance.  Sure, I’d like it!  Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen.  But what’s the worst case scenario?  Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again.  And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”

Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation.  I am all I have to offer.  This life’s the only time I can do it.  God, I know, has my back.

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PS: Happy birthday to me, guys!  Thanks for 22 years on the 29th!  🙂

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What Alcohol Did; What god Does

Pain happens, starting when we’re young. In our efforts to evade it, we suppress a whole array of feelings, turning away and denying them. But like an ignored roommate sharing the small apartment of our psyches, the pain lives on. It doesn’t grow up. It stays the age we were when the trauma happened. Countless negative beliefs systems sprout to position it – that we’re not good enough, that others will reject our true selves, so we need to strategize to please them.  We try.  Again we miss the mark and endure more pain, the rabble of negativity within us creating a ceaseless inner shitstorm.

It sucks – the shitstorm does.  Our psyches can become a hellhole.  In AA, we speak of the shitty committee.

Shitty Committee

click to enlarge

What Alcohol Did for Me
The first time I got wasted, alcohol shrank that entire tornado of pain and fear so small it could fit inside a harmless little bubble and float off somewhere in my mind’s periphery – totally irrelevant.  Hey!  I was fine, you were fine, and if someone didn’t like us, fuck ‘em. My psyche’s protective walls fell away so the world opened up as a land of plenty, beautiful and safe. Life was so damn easy!  Cocaine tripled that effect*, adding an intense interest and delight in all things.

I wanted that feeling again.  And again.  Addiction promises a shortcut, an escape from ourselves. It’s that hope, that sweet anticipation of GOOD STUFF that lures us every time to jump on it again. Something as simple as a red notification number on Facebook can trigger a spurt of anticipatory endorphins in our minds – this is gonna be good! This cheesecake, this big sale, this cocaine porn winning horse remodel facelift romance booze is gonna lift me right out of the bad stuff, set me on top, make being me so smooth!  Dopamine levels surge, causing us to “forget” all the pain in our lives.

“Thus addiction… arises in a brain system that governs the most powerful emotional dynamic in human existence: the attachment instinct.  Love.”  Gabor Maté is writing here of opiates, but the same principle applies to all drugs that impact our dopamine levels – including alcohol.

sunshine1That first perfect, blissful high is, in my opinion, reminiscent of heaven.  Literally.  Hear the story of anyone who’s had a Near Death Experience (NDE) in which they went to the Light, and they’ll tell you they were permeated by an ovewhelming Love, a brilliance so powerful it left no room for anything bad. The Light is the unfiltered energy of Love that is not incarnate, not trapped in a limiting body; it is whence we originate, what powers us here, and what we’ll return to. And it’s a memory of bliss for which we hunger desperately as we trudge through the difficulties of being human.

So what am I saying?  That consciousness from a brain artificially flooded with dopamine resembles consciousness in heaven?  Yep.  ‘Fraid so.  That’s why many addicts sacrifice their lives in pursuit of it.  Un/fortunately, our brains respond to such bombardment by curtailing both production of and receptors for dopamine, so life without using more becomes increasingly hellish – and that change persists for years.

What god Does for Me
…is not as fast or dramatic, but it works: god gives me the self-compassion to heal my own wounds.  The message of the Big Book is love.  In the rooms we’re surrounded with it as we dare to take that First Step, to admit openly, “You guys, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!!”  From that humility, we tap an “an inner resource” – god as we understand it – which begins to edge out ego as our guide for living.  The more love we accept from god, the more we have to offer others, and vice versa.  For the first time, we can love imperfect people from the standpoint of our own imperfection.  In other words, as working the steps gradually teaches us compassion for others, we also develop it for ourselves.  We become conduits of the Light.

“You have to feel it to heal it,” my cousin and I like to say.  In scaredgirlmeditation I go in looking for that little 9-year-old Louisa who was so blighted by shame, and I ask her to tell me where it still hurts.  I feel it, too; I grieve with her; I comfort her.  You don’t have to do anything, I tell her. You can just be you, and I’ll love you.  I can promise her this because my god has promised it to me. At the core of Al-Anon, ACA, and SLAA, named either directly or indirectly, is the healing power of self-parenting. That’s the nexus of change.  We can play both roles, loving and healing our past selves.

Today my inner little girl is pretty happy.  She got banged up rather badly in my recent break-up, but she’s convalescing well.  We share an open world infused with goodness – because I perceive god in all I encounter.  At times I do experience bliss – basking in the beauty of the mountains, laughing myself loopy with sober friends, or witnessing the miracle of my sweet son. It’s not a cheap bliss, either: it’s the real McCoy, earned through hard spiritual work – that freedom I once faked temporarily with alcohol and drugs.  And like heaven, it’s all about love.

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Watch This:
Here’s a simple animation that depicts volumes about addiction in a brief 4.5 minutes.  Strangely, watching it makes me cry.

I’m guessing Andreas Hykade, the film’s German creator, knew addiction well. It’s not by coincidence that our protagonist is a kiwi, a flightless bird.  We all feel like that – denied the soaring others pull off.  Neither is the grating step-by-step sound effect accidental. Real life is one step at a time and arduously incremental compared to the smooth bliss of intoxication. Even the images’ barren simplicity reflects the stark focus of addiction. An animation teacher at Harvard, Hykade chose a simple line drawing over every state-of-the-art visual effect at his disposal.

NUGGETS

Kiwi addict

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So many of us never escape that final darkness.  If you have, take a moment for gratitude.

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* Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, p.153

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Compassion – the best thing you can do for yourself

“Think of others as you would have them think of you.”

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Self-centered like me?  Love others.  Got problems?  Give it all you got.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but practicing “love and tolerance” (p. 84) for all brings enormous spiritual, mental, and even physical benefits.  What I think about you inevitably colors the attitude I have toward myself, which in turn shapes my experience of life. We can know this based on anything from having lived it to abstract theories of quantum physics telling us the universe is made of energy.  What you dish out is ultimately what you get.

Years ago I recognized myself in a share by my friend, Andrew K..  He told about a time near his bottom when some friends Door peepholestopped by to see him.  From the upper story of the split-level where he lived, he silently crept down the stairs as the friends went on ringing and knocking.  Cautiously he peered out through the peep-hole to see them standing on the front slab exchanging conjectures about him.  What did they want?!  Whatever it was, he couldn’t handle it.  He just didn’t have it in him. Pleased at his evasion, he retreated oh-so silently up the stairs.

Andrew contrasted the story with his experience around Step 7:  “The more I judge you, the more I’m sure you’re judging me, so I actually experience that judging and judge myself.  And on the flipside, I’ve found that the more I let you be you and maybe even love you for it, the more I assume you’re okay with me, and so I’m okay with me.”

Our culture of scarcity encourages us to hoard love, but spiritual axioms teach the opposite.  The doors of the heart need to be oiled daily so that they’ll open even for strangers who “don’t deserve” our love and the very people who irritate us, as well as those in our inner circle.

We do pour out love toward a certain class of strangers all the time.  Yesterday during my ballet class, babyfor instance, we could hardly keep dancing for all the affection we were flooding through the studio’s big storefront windows.  With Halloween a week away, neighborhood retailers were holding a “Safe Trick-or Treat,” so the sidewalk featured a constant stream of bumblebees, superheroes, and characters from all kinds of stories.  Dressed as a dolphin, a woman handing out candy stood with her back to us, so the children would pause facing the glass, where we could see them perfectly.

Our teacher couldn’t help interrupting herself again and again.  “Oh my god, it’s Princess Leah!”  We all looked, and what I saw almost overwhelmed me.  She stood about two and a half feet tall in a flowing tunic, the classic dark buns on either side of her head slightly askew.  Tentatively, knowing what she was supposed to do, she approached the dolphin woman, her eyes staring up with a mix of trust and caution.  People flipped her off.  They called her a fucking bitch.  They judged her as a slut or a failure or beneath their concern — not yet, not yet, mind you.  But in her future.

Tiny Princess Leah was only doing her best, as she will throughout her life, and as will the Incredible Hulk who followed her with his impossibly muscled little green chest.  Already, they’re being taught who to be and how to get stuff.  We find it natural never to judge them (greedy little schmucks!) for what they “ought” to know or do.  To love them freely is ingrained in our culture.

Just for today, what if you practiced seeing the toddler in every person you interact with?  The spirit within that person is exactly the same.  Or what if you tried calling up a “legitimate” feeling of love – a glimpse of your loved one’s inner beauty or a sleepy kitten snuggling against you – and purposefully grew that energy in your chest like an expanding sun until it shone on every sight, sound, and experience?  Commit to loving.  Keep it like an inner homefire that must never go out, not even when fear tries to snuff it or anger tries to blast it from you.  Hold onto it as your homage to goodness, and practice radiating what it generates in all you think and do.

Sun

This under your sternum.

What you’ll get is a world transformed by love.  Today I notice small gestures of love from others that I used to discount as empty manners.  I joke with strangers about the dumbest shit, and to me our shared laughter rings out more beautifully than church bells.  I’ll never be some spiritual giant.  I wrestle daily with a shitload of fear.  But love is god’s power, and I’ve found that channeling it actually lends me power over fear: I sense an active energy of goodness all around me.  The world will feels safer.  If you’re coming from a place of love and encounter darkness in others – cruelty or deceit – you feel it as the anti-matter of goodwill and respond with mourning more than angry contempt.  The difference is huge.

Finally, when you least expect it, awareness will slip in that you, too, are loveable.  It’s hard to grasp, but in this moment, you – despite everything you regret in your past – are as innocent as you were at Princess Leah’s age.  Society sells you its weird customs and you suit up and give it a shot.  You look up toward life’s unknown with the same mix of trust and caution.  You, too, are vulnerable and unique.  It’s okay to see that with love.

Loving the good in others and yourself will swing wide the doors of spirit so you can breathe, and play, and thrive in the freedom of generosity.  It’s either that, or keep peering through the peep-hole.  You can choose.

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