meditation

Non-Negotiables: The Foundation for Everything Else

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. - Stephen Covey

Last week I wrote about a yoga retreat I attended last fall and one of the big lessons I took away from that weekend: the necessity of starting where you are.

The second big thing I took away from that weekend was the concept of “non-negotiables.”

The teacher, Seane Corn, talked about how in her life there are a handful of things that are absolutely non-negotiable. They are not things that are nice to do, when there’s enough time, money, space. They are not things she does now and then or when in an emergency state. They are daily doings. Every day (more or less) practices. They are the core things that sustain her, allow her to stay sane, centered, and most importantly, to do her life work and serve others.

And if they go by the wayside, shit starts to fall apart, quick.

For Seane, they are: asana practice (the physical practice of yoga), meditation, prayer, good nutrition, sleep and therapy.

Many of us might look at that list and think, Well, that would be nice. If I could do yoga every day, cook perfectly nutritious meals and the extra hour or two each week to go to therapy my life would be… someone else’s life.

What about those of us with kids, really demanding jobs, rough travel schedules, ill health, or a spouse or a kid with ill health, mental illness, financial issues, no time? What if our “non-negotiables” are showing up to work, feeding our kids, taking care of our sick parent and paying the bills? In other words, what about the rest of us?

The thing is this: the circumstances of your life don’t exempt you from being a human being with physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs. Ever. No human on earth is an exception.

But we forget this. We are so caught up in doing our lives that we forget who we are, all the time. The non-negotiables are all about remembering who we really are, daily, so that we can help others do the same. It’s really that simple. Could there be anything more important than that?

“Remembering who we are” can sound squishy and privileged, but it’s the exact opposite. Remembering who we are is the underlying mission of all good self-help, spiritual and religious texts since the beginning of time.

It is the real purpose of yoga (not to have a nicer ass or be really bendy) and talk therapy and meditation and creative expression and relationships.

Remembering who we are is really about remembering who we are not. We are not the big job, the alcoholism, the failed marriage, the sexual abuse, the cancer, the mother, father, the various roles we play as parent, child, wife, friend. We are all those things but they are not who we are. Who we really are is timeless and perfect and whole already. Who we are is “the diamond in the shit,” as my friend and teacher Zoe Wild puts it.


We are not human beings  having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


(Side rant: The thing I loved most about Seane’s workshop is how not woo-woo it was. While in the past decade we seem to be churning out yoga teachers by the hundred-thousands and it’s all very pop culture to be carrying a yoga mat around and practicing “mindfulness,” Seane was doing her thing long before all that. She’s a New Jersey girl with a foul mouth, a fierceness and urgency in her delivery, and a passion for social justice. Her shtick is that this work – the business of twisting our bodies, balancing chakras and deepening our awareness – that some of us get to do on the mat is an utter gift and it’s our responsibility, our duty in fact, to carry that work into the world. To raise the collective vibration. Not so we can all ohm and hold hands and hug while we sip coconut milk lattes, but so that we can save the earth and each other in a very real way. Hunger. Child prostitution. Poverty. Violence. Addiction. These are the things she tackles.)

Hearing this concept allowed me to solidify my own non-negotiables, and more importantly, gave me permission to have them. I’ve also taken notice of the myths we have about a concept like this in observing myself and talking to others about it.

For the record, my non-negotiables are: prayer, recovery (meetings), physical activity (I must sweat), alone time, creative time (usually writing) and sleep. The recovery process has laid a good foundation for this type of thinking because I’ve learned without staying sober, everything – like, every single thing – will fall apart. The starkness of that has forced me to prioritize, but I’ve also learned that being “sober” isn’t just the absence of booze. It starts there, but also includes emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, which is where the other non-negotiables come in.

Before I got sober I would have told you “me time” was one of my non-negotiables, and my version of “me time” was going out and drinking and shutting the world out (or being at home and drinking and shutting the world out). But real non-negotiables don’t have downsides, which I cover below.


So here’s the deal with non-negotiables. 

  • THEY ARE NOT LUXURIES. It is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Women, especially a lot of the moms I know, feel like they’re pampering themselves if they “take time for me.” BULLSHIT. Buuuuulllllshiiiiit. You must take time for you. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself; it’s selfish not to. When I don’t take care of myself the version of me that other people get – especially my daughter - pretty much sucks. I repeat: it is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Okay?
  • THEY'RE NOT COMPLICATED. Non-negotiables are almost always very, very simple. Difficult, maybe, but not complicated. For example, it’s difficult for me to sit down and write most of the time, but it’s never complicated. It requires a pen and a paper or my computer and some attention (the difficult part). It’s definitely difficult for me to run some days. Never complicated. They are the building blocks for your foundation on which all else can be built. James Altucher, one of my favorite nutty writers and thinkers, covers his version of non-negotiables in what he calls The Daily Practice. He attributes all his failures and successes to whether or not he's follwing his Daily Practice (He is great and funny, I recommend.)
  • YOU HAVE TIME. You do.
  • THEY BELONG TO YOU. Your non-negotiables are yours. They don’t belong to your partner, your kids, your co-workers, or your mom. Your list might involve them (e.g. time with your children) but I would argue you could explore that part of the list. Is time with your kids or partner really part of your non-negotiable list, or is it something you put on because you feel guilty if you don’t? I love and need to spend time with my daughter but she’s not on my non-negotiable list. My list – and your list – is about filling up your own tank, putting on your own life preserver. Your list belongs to you.
  • THEY ARE NOT SELFISH. This is related to all the points above, but worth stating on its own again. It is not selfish to take care of yourself.
  • THEY ARE DAILY (OR CLOSE TO DAILY) PRACTICES. These aren’t things we do only in an emergency. I have a good friend Matt, who when he was going through a really rough period, got into meditation. It helped immensely, along with other things. A few months later he came to me feeling like shit again. I asked about the meditation, and he said he had got away from it when things got better. This is so common; I do it all the time. But it’s funny, right? And so indicative of how we live. We only pay attention when we are in an extreme state of despair or discomfort, and then the second we escape that state we go right back to what we were doing before that got us to that point. Hellooooo, wine *raises hand*!

Which brings me to my last point.

  • REAL NON-NEGOTIABLES HAVE NO NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS. Aside from the perceived side-effects of opportunity cost and possibly disappointing others by taking the time, real non-negotiables don’t have a down side. Even if they cost money (e.g. travel). Real non-negotiables are not about pleasure, although they can be pleasurable. They are about happiness (what we often confuse with pleasure as Mark Manson so defly points out). You might say sex is a non-negotiable – and perhaps it is – but I’d challenge you to examine what it is about sex that you need every day. The connection with another human? Physical contact? The stress release? Maybe it’s sex, but maybe what you need is to feel your body. I don’t really know. But I’d stretch to say that if we really dig down our real non-negotiables don’t rely on other people. They may involve them, but not rely on them.

That’s it, lovelies. Consider your non-negotiables. Write them down. Commit to them. Take them so seriously. You are amazing. I love you.

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

If you missed part one of this, where I talk about the necessity of starting where you are, it’s here.

Our Relationship with Alcohol and Playing Small

Happy Friday, lovelies. There are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately and I wanted to share. The first is about our “drinking” stories. Our relationship with alcohol.

Since I started to talk about my story, a lot of people have come to me.

Most recently, a woman messaged me on Facebook and said, “I don’t know if I have ‘a story’ but reading your words makes me want to look at my own issues.”

My first reaction was, of course you have a story.

I was referring to her life story; she was referring to her drinking one. Either way, it gave me pause. She’s not sure if she’s got a drinking story ‘big’ enough to qualify her bringing it up. A lot of messages I get are like this. Women who don’t see themselves in the image of what we’ve labeled ‘addicts’ and so they question the fact that they’re questioning themselves in the first place. Because once you say, “this might be a problem,” well then what the fuck does that mean? We’ve made it quite weird as a society to talk about our relationships to drugs and alcohol, and it keeps a lot of people quiet and alone (raises hand!). I often wonder what my path would’ve looked like if I knew more women growing up, or in social circles, at work, wherever, that didn’t drink and talked about it as openly as we would, say, our food choices, or our preferences in bed. Not something we need to make unsolicited statements about constantly, but when asked, or if it comes up, or if we feel like talking about it, it’s on the table and fair game and not something we have to save for a special, anonymous group.

A big part of the reason I started talking openly about it is because I want women (or men, I like men too!) to reach out to me, to feel like they can explore the topic without labeling themselves anything. To say, “Hey, this is sort of freaking me out, what do you think?” or “I don’t know what it means exactly, but this is how I’m feeling.”

And another reason – an even bigger one – is that I had this idea that people who didn’t drink must really, truly, not be very happy. Like not really happy. Like it must be always a little less shiny and fun. Sort of boring, or at least less exciting.

I saw being sober as either a choice made based on religion (in which case, no thanks, because you were probably highly judgmental and closed-minded) or a consequence of being an addict who spun out of control, and so you were forced into it.

Either way, I didn’t want it, and I didn’t know anyone who did.

So I've decided to be someone who’s out there in the world – a woman, a mama, a lots-of-things – living a big, whole life – who’s willing to talk about the fact that she doesn’t drink anymore - and more importantly - share why, and what it's like this way. It's not a secret. I don't think it should be.

(Sidenote: I read an interview once with an author talking about the process of writing her first book. The interviewer asked how she came up with the topic for the book? She said she'd searched and searched for the book or the person that was going to save her from herself, the perfect words that would help her through her own struggles, and while she'd found a lot of words and a lot of folks who touched on bits of it, she couldn't find the whole story, stated exactly how she wanted, anywhere. So she wrote the book she needed to read. It's like that.)

Which brings me to my next point: something my friend asked me a few weeks ago:

Do you think anyone has a healthy relationship with alcohol?

Yes. Sure.

I don't think everyone needs to stop drinking and I don't think alcohol is categorically "bad." At all.

I don’t care if you drink. I don’t care if you drink around me, and in fact, please do if you want to, because it makes me feel weird when you stop being you around me.

I am not anti-drinking.

I’m anti-hiding-from-ourselves-and-each-other.

I’m anti-shame.

I’m anti-let’s-pretend-that’s-not-happening.

I’m anti- anything that is fucking up your life and keeping you from being free.

I’m anti-playing small.

*************

So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. 

Keep talking. Keep reaching. Keep on playing big.

Love, Laura

Oh, also, I’m on day 12 of Oprah and Deepak’s 21 Day Meditation Challenge and it’s getting so much better. YAY

What Meditation Really Looks Like (I Hate Oprah and Deepak)

I need to get something off my chest. I have to call myself out. I have to tell everyone that I've been kind of lying to, or even sort of lying by to withholding. I have to rat myself out because today it just has to be said.

Here it is:

I HATE MEDITATING.

Like,  I loathe it. I hate even the thought of it. When I'm doing it, I hate it 99% of the time. The other 1% of the time my ass falls asleep and I think the blood to my brain gets cut off, so I forget how much I hate it for that second.

I don't like it at all.

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but today kicked off one of Oprah and Deepak Chopra's 21 Day Meditation Challenges.

Oprah and Deepak 21 day meditation experience
Oprah and Deepak 21 day meditation experience

I saw it everywhere - in my inbox, on Facebook, in text messages, Instagram, everywhere. People I  respect and admire and who are my teachers like Gabrielle Bernstein and Pema Chodron and Mastin Kipp were blasting out reminders yesterday and today to Join! Be a part! Love! Hug! (Groan.)

I even sent texts to people yesterday with the same info, like I was giving the FYI to join, that I'd be doing it (obviously, DUH!).

But then today looked something like this:

  • 5:15 am - Alarm goes off. Hit snooze.
  • Repeat above unconsciously every 8 minutes until 6:45. Fuck off all intentions to wake up early and meditate and write.
  • 6:45 - Roll out of bed, annoyed, and already a little behind.
  • 6:46 - Drop to my knees to say, Hi, God. Can I get some help today? Please? Cool. Thanks.
  • 6:47 - 7:54 - Do the morning routine with my daughter, which is incredibly organized for me,  but far from "organized." Success is: we both leave the house clothed, she eats something that's not the leftover cupcake in the fridge, teeth get brushed, she has a lunch she won't throw away, and I remember the keys and will not be locked out later. We both suffer a little every day.
  • 8:03 - We pull up to her drop off lane at school and she cries because her ski pants were still wet from the night before, because she peed in them mid-ski. Cars are honking and I'm trying to tell her it's ok, that she'll be able to play in the snow tomorrow, and please get out of the goddam car.
  • 8:04 - I drive away successful. She is not tardy today! She's been tardy 16 times since November, I found out Friday. 15 of those are on my watch.
  • 8:05 - 9:12 - Commute to work. Try to find zen on the train, but fall asleep instead.
  • Start Monday. Negotiate with the parts of my brain that are at work, and the parts that are elsewhere, which is about 94%. Ask some of that 94% to please join me here, now. But the tug of war has already started and I'm agitated and battling myself at about a level four. Level five has tears. I breathe deeply. I exhale. I close my eyes. I plot my to-do's, I write them down, this helps.
  • 10:47 - The school nurse emails and Alma isn't feeling well. I toss out my plans to go to a noon meeting or the gym to fix myself.
  • 12:18 - I go to pick her up.
  • 1:20 - We are home. She watches a show, I retreat to the bedroom to work.
  • All afternoon - I pivot between work and me baby, resenting both.
  • 3:50 - She comes to hug me and presses her hands against my face and I'm suffocated by the smell of POOP. I jerk back and scream, What the hell?! And she says, well, we ran out of toilet paper. (She's right. We did.) I say, NO EXCUSE, and I start to run the shower, but she won't get in, she's screaming at the top of her lungs, so I strip down and drag her in with me. Because this is what we do. We do what works.
  • 5:14 - I get a meditation reminder from fucking Deepak and Oprah and decide maybe this is a good time, before I try to do anything else, before I make dinner, because maybe I should hit the pause now. Like my snooze button.
  • I tell Alma I'm going to meditate for 20 minutes, and what is she going to do? She says, watch a show. Perfect. I put on a show.

Now, the fun really starts.

I put a pillow down and shut the door to my room. I go to find today's meditation in the app and see an Instagram notification and dive into an Instagram rabbit hole for about seven minutes before I regain consciousness and remember the task at hand. Then a call comes in for work that I answer. Then I get a text from a friend who just came out of surgery. Then I remember Alma has homework. Then I remember: MEDITATION. 

I open the app, find Day 1, sit down and close my eyes, assuming the position.

Oprah's voice comes on, welcoming me to the journey. Cool.

The recording suddenly stops. I open my eyes and grab my phone. Another work call. Inhale, answer, talk, work it out, go back.

I start over. I listen as Oprah does the intro, then Deepak takes me through today's mantra.

Alma turns the iPad up to full blast in her room, then screams for me.

I ignore her.

She comes in, grabs my hand, drags me into her room and asks me to buy a game.

I say unkind words and walk out.

I hit play, again. Restart.

A minute or so in the thing happens that usually happens when I sit down to meditate and my mind fucking EXPLODES.

My brain releases every to-do and distraction. Every thought I've had for my entire life and a few more.

My body starts twitching.

My brain says, GOD, you suck at this. Seriously? You're a YOGA TEACHER. WHAT THE FUUUUUCK. Stop this right now. Sit up! STOP. Stooooooooooooop.

And I remember everything I've ever learned from every teacher I've known and I say to my brain, I see what you're doing and I call BULLSHIT. Now please, please darling, get out of the way.

More twitching.

I get lost in a spiral of thought, pew! Like a pinball! Pew!

One thousand monkey squirrels on adderral dance around.

One hits my eyelids and forces them to snap open, STOP IT, YOU'RE MESSING IT ALL UP!

My legs twitch and bounce.

My butt loses circulation.

I shift and stretch my neck.

It has been about three minutes.

You get the point.

What Meditation Really Looks Like

Meditation for me does not look like this:

Or this:

Gabrielle Bernstein. Love her. Hate her so much right here.
Gabrielle Bernstein. Love her. Hate her so much right here.

But more like this:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

And this:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

And then this:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

And then:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

And then probably this:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

And then, finally, total despair:

Photo credit:  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

But, I will do it again tomorrow.

I wanted to post this to say:

  1. If I've ever told you I love meditating, I was lying, and I'm sorry if I made you feel dumb because you don't love it.
  2. If you feel like you're doing it wrong, you're not.
  3. If you feel like you don't have the time, or the right spot, or the right life, or too much chaos? Me too.
  4. I'm going to do it again tomorrow, and I need you to do it with me.

Why? Why would I do it again tomorrow? And why do I want you to join?

Because I've learned in the past year that when I'm pushing against something really hard, when I meet up with resistance this strong, I need to face it. Because it's the one thing - literally the one thing - that every spiritual teacher from the beginning of time swears by and agrees on and I'm going to assume maybe they're on to something.

Because that same part of my mind that tells me I can't meditate told me I couldn't live without drinking, and it was so totally wrong.

But I wouldn't have known that if I believed my brain.

Because maybe, if I can cultivate the ability to sit with myself for one minute, I can do it for another, and another, and all that might lead to a lifetime of hanging out with myself as a compassionate friend, versus being with myself as an enemy.

Maybe.

I don't know.

I still hate it.

But I'll try again tomorrow.

Will you please, too? Pretty please?

Day 3: Gratitude is The Attitude (Groan), Pumpernickel Swirl & Interrupters

I'm doing the Gabby Bernstein's "May Cause Miracles" 40 Day fear cleanse based on A Course in Miracles. If you want to join along, email me at admin@lauramckowen.com or find me or on Instagram where I'm posting about it daily. 

My attitude clearly sucks these past few days. I literally groaned when I listened to Gabby's voice saying, "Day 4: Gratitude is the Attitude."

But I took notice, and just started writing. Pen to paper. I started to make a list of things I am grateful for. No editing, just the first (17) things that came to mind:

1. Alma 2. Coffee in the morning 3. The 'interrupters'* 4. My job - that I have one, that I can support myself 5. Candles 6. My new home 7. Living by the sea 8. That I stayed sober one more day 9. Breathing - the yoga kind 10. That I have ways to heal myself 11. My sponsor 12. My grandmas - both of them - who are both sick 13. AA - that I have a place to go 14. Today - that I was able to wake up early 15. Our capacity to change and choose 16. Quiet 17. Fucking music - duh!

By the time I reached 17, I felt an energy shift - a bit of lightness.  It's not that I'm against gratitude, of course, but sometimes - and especially lately, maybe because of Thanksgiving and too many 'internet wisdoms' - it feels saccharine and fake to proclaim "GRATITUDE IS THE ATTITUDE!" Maybe my ego is just resistant as all hell right now as I'm working through these daily practices.

Point is, sometimes we're feeling it, sometimes we're not. But there's great purpose in practicing it with intention regularly, because just like prayer, yoga, or showering, it needs to be a regular practice. "You can't stay clean on yesterday's shower." Thank you AA, for yet another overly simplistic but profoundly true aphorism. <3

While I was writing this morning about today's lesson, I thought of two things.

First, when I was in my early 20's and working for a .com start-up, I had two co-workers and friends: Jeff and Mark. Jeff and I dated for a while on and off - my first lesson in the 'don't poo where you eat' mantra of dating in the workplace. Mark was an ultra-smart Princeton grad, sensitive, funny, tall and warm. Jeff was a goofy but very cute mid-western boy, a bit out of his element in Boston, but wide-eyed about it, too. The three of us palled around a lot, and when Jeff and I stopped dating and I was bumming about it, Mark said to me one day,

"Jeff is striving to just be ok. Not great. Not better than average. Just ok. I don't see you with someone who is striving to just be ok. He's like white bread and you're pumpernickel swirl."

It's probably important to say Mark wasn't trying to be with me. He had a girlfriend he was crazy about and there wasn't any magic between the two of us. He was just pointing out what he saw as an obvious observation. You're this; he's that; you can do better than that. He wasn't even being mean about Jeff - they were good buddies. Dudes can talk like that. But I never forgot it. Just striving to be ok. Huh.

The second thing that passed through my mind this morning were these lyrics by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the song "Please be Patient with Me."

"I'm this apple, this happening stone when I'm alone my blessings get so blurred at the sound of your words"

We need to intentionally think about gratitude because our blessings get so blurred.

The interrupters: Anne Lamott talked about how at some point in her recover process, she had developed relationships with so many people who were invested in her sobriety, that she couldn't just disappear anymore. If she went off the radar for more than a day or so, she'd get calls or people would show up at her house. She called them the interrupters.

I've experienced this twice in the past two nights - both nights that I wanted to drink and was *this* close to actually doing it. The first night, I was out with my daughter for dinner and contemplating whether or not to order wine - reasoning back and forth, back and forth. I knew the waitress was going to come to the table soon and I wasn't sure what would come out of my mouth. Then, the first text rolled in from a girl I recently met in AA. "Hey, how're you feeling today?" Then, my phone rings - a newcomer who'd recently relapsed and when she asked me for tips in early sobriety I said to pick up the phone a lot, call people, even if it's a practice call and you have nothing to say. Then, another text, from Holly. Then, another text from a guy, also in the program. All at once. Then! And this is the best part. As I'm ping-ponging in my head and responding to these texts I hear Alma's voice come into focus,

"Mama. Maaaama. MAMA!"

"WHAT!"

"Look at this." She puts the pat of butter in my face. "It says AA."

I laughed. Seriously? Seriously?! Fiiiiiiiiiiine. FINE. Not today.

butter_question
butter_question

Then, last night, we had some time to kill because I had left my keys with someone at the office and needed to wait for my landlord to get home. I was agitated all day and my mind starts ping-ponging again. I take Alma to Super Cuts to get her hair trimmed because she's looking orphan-like and when I walk in, there's newcomer girl.

A wants to go to dinner so we go to a pizza place and my mind is still all haywire and getting louder by the moment. We sit, I contemplate, take a deep breath and look around. Right across from me, in a busy restaurant with a zillion faces I don't know, is a guy I know from the program. He smiles, I smile, and I just shake my head.

Today I woke up sober.

You Can't Do It Alone. Ultimately, Only You Can Do It.

I had a pretty surreal experience one Friday night this summer. One of my ex-colleagues was moving to Austin, and he was having a going away get together in Boston. Like so many social events, I said I'd go thinking, "I'll just go and not drink and it'll be fine and fun and a good way to practice this - no big deal." And then, as the event draws nearer, I got anxious. My mind flip flopped like a fish between going/not going/going but drinking/drinking before and not drinking there/that's crazy - just don't drink!/go with someone sober/no, that sucks, just drink if you want to drink/I don't want to miss out/I'll feel like shit if I drink/he'll be pissed if I don't go/I have to protect myself first/fuck it, I want to party!/fuck it, this isn't worth it/who will be there that knows I'm not drinking?/who will be there that doesn't know?/it's just one night/what's the point?/GAH.

I went for a run that afternoon just before I had to get ready to go – or not – and my thoughts were so loud I actually stopped a few times, bent over, put my hands on my thighs and squeezed my sweaty eyes shut. Please, JUST. SHUT. UP.

Sounds exhausting, right?

It was. It is. Utterly.

I decided to go. I got ready, my mind growing more and more squirrely as I put on my mascara and tried not to look at myself in the mirror too closely. I drove to the train station and actually bought a bottle of wine on the way. I got on the train, took a seat, and put the bottle of wine between my legs. I had an empty Starbucks coffee cup in my purse, which I’d just rinsed out with old water from a water bottle in my car in the parking lot. I sat there – the gorgeous, warm, glowy light of the early evening sun bouncing off the insides of the train car – my knees up against the seat in front of me, feet dangling down and swaying as the train jigged and jagged on the tracks, like pendulums.

I looked at my phone. I could call someone. I could text someone. I paused.

My brain was in an epic tug-o-war.

I texted a friend: “Can you talk? I’m in a state.”

I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.

She responded: “In 20 I can. You’ve got this.”

I took a breath and closed my eyes. Just wait.

The train approached Lynn, then Chelsea. Next stop, North Station. I still hadn’t opened the bottle.

Friend: “Do this meditation. It stops your brain.”

I played the meditation. I sat there fucking meditating on the train with a wine bottle between my legs. The slightest, tiniest crack of space opened.

We arrived at North Station and I walked off the train. I called my ex to hear Alma’s voice and we spoke for a second, but I do not remember what about. I grabbed a slice of pepperoni pizza and I glanced back at the train schedule. In two minutes, there was a train leaving for home. I ran for it, ditching the bottle of wine in the trash with a thrust of anger mid-stride.

I rode the train home feeling about as crazy as I ever had; like I had just walked to the edge of a cliff and hung over but somehow managed to pull myself back up – all adrenaline. I drove home, walked to the beach and took this picture.

2014-11-04_18-10-14
2014-11-04_18-10-14

It took me hours to come down from that train ride. Although I felt like I’d won that particular battle, I was exhausted with how difficult the war was. I didn’t feel like I’d done it myself. What if my text went unanswered? What if I hadn’t heard Alma’s voice? What if there hadn’t been a train leaving back at just that moment and I had more time to think? What if, what if, what if. It all felt too fragile.

But yet, I did do it. I had one experience where I made the decision to not say ‘fuck it’ first. It was something. It was something.

Start Before You Are Ready

After that experience, I said to my friend, “I can’t write about this stuff until I’m on the other side. I don’t feel like I have the right to.”

She called bullshit on that.

And she’s right, I realize. If everyone who had something to express waited until they were out of the muse experience to express it in whatever form, art would suck or not exist at all. We’re never really out of any experience; the path just changes shape as we grow, or don’t.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradoxes of recovery.

par·a·dox (ˈperəˌdäks/): a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.

Life in general is full paradoxes, but they feel especially pronounced and profound in the sobriety journey. Things that seem ‘logically unacceptable’ and counter-intuitive but nonetheless co-exist simultaneously. Thinking through and more importantly, experiencing these paradoxes, underscores the complexity of “getting it.”

I have five of them written down on this piece of paper next to me.

The first: You can't do it alone, and ultimately, only you can do it.

People said to me early on: ask for help. I nodded, yes, I do, ok, I will, I am. But I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't know how to ask for help - not really. I also didn't want to because that meant all kinds of things: admitting I needed it, being honest about how I felt, hearing what someone else had to say when I didn't really think anyone knew better, shedding light on my darkest shame. But also, I just literally didn't know how. Call people? I don't call anyone. I answer my mom's calls because she worries when I don't. I call my ex because we’re raising a child together and there are logistics. But I don’t call people just to talk. And every day? No.

During my worst drinking - and most people will say the same - it was a lonely, solitary show but I didn't really realize how alone I was. I could ask for favors to get myself out of the latest self-imposed tragedy like a lost phone or a car left somewhere miles away, but I could not ask for real help because the truth made me choke. The real truth was unavailable even to me because it was buried under layers of denial.

But I’ve realized through watching others and trying to do it all myself and failing (a lot) both what help looks like and how to ask for it. Sometimes it means calling. Sometimes it means getting on my knees or sitting in a closet at work, closing my eyes, and breathing until I can hear myself breathe. Sometimes it means showing up to a meeting against my will. Sometimes it’s saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel fucking crazy” to the first person who picks up. Often times it means saying no – even when it disappoints people, even when I think I should be able to say yes because I’ve always said yes (this is another paradox about selfishness, coming later).

The flip side of this – the ‘only you can do it’ part – comes into play in the one million moments where only you can decide whether or not to drink. No matter how many hours you spend on the phone, in meetings, under surveillance of other people, or asleep, all of us have to venture out into the world solo. Save the bubble of residential treatment programs, we have to go to work, eat lunch, run errands, get on airplanes, stay in hotel rooms, go to parties, walk or drive home and pass by liquor stores and bars and a zillion other places where we could drink. We can’t hide from life (without being very unhappy). So while we can set ourselves up to stay sober, there are a million opportunities to drink. Every other week my daughter lives with her dad, and on those weeks, nobody is watching me. I could drink every night if I wanted to and nobody would have to know. A lot of times I did.

So, a big part of my path has been recognizing that in some situations, I am going to want to drink more than I will want to be sober. No matter how wonderful/proud/clear/hopeful/lucky/peaceful I’ve felt sober, there will be moments I forget all that and I’ll want to say ‘fuck it’ and drink. In these moments, I have to choose - just me. It’s not up to God, or my sponsor, or anyone else. I choose.

This is tricky because it makes it sound like we always have a choice.

From a pure physiological standpoint, when one is caught in the active cycle of addiction and our brains are going haywire, the impulse to drink (or whatever) is as strong as if you were actually in grave danger or starving to death. And once those signals are triggered in the brain, it is very, very, very hard to stop it. (This is an ultra-simplistic way of describing a very complex process.) When you’re in this kind of spiral and the “train has left the station”** it does not feel as if there is a choice. And, in the very late stages of alcoholism or drug addiction the person might actually need the substance to survive.

But physiology aside, the mental and emotional factors that weigh into the decision to drink or not, are complicated and slippery. There are a zillion angles on this, but my mind often goes to something Augusten Burroughs wrote in “This is How”:

“To be successful at not drinking, a person needs to occupy the space in life drinking once filled with something more rewarding than the comfort and the escape of alcohol. This is the thing you have to find. The truth is that people who cannot stop drinking are people who, however guilty they may feel and however dire the consequences, have become so addicted to the drug and the experience that they prefer it to the remainder of their lives. While they may truly want to be sober, they want to drink more.
Taking a drink is the opposite of powerlessness. It is taking firm, decisive action to terminate a state of sobriety that feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. It may feel like one is powerless because it’s frustrating to be unable to authentically want the thing you really want to want. But don’t."

Feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will make us feel in the present. This is pretty powerful, particularly when sobriety is new and uncomfortable and unsettling and shitty. It takes faith that forgoing short-term satisfaction will yield something more satisfying in the long-term. It requires believing other people who promise it’s worth it. It means enduring feelings that feel impossible to endure because you never have. It means digging real deep, daily.

All this to say, recognizing there are moments when I will want to drink more than I want to be sober - but that they pass - has been key and also a product of painful experience. I had to wake up for the Xth time on both sides of the decision tree to feel both outcomes. I have to accept that every day is a new day and just because I didn’t want to drink today, doesn’t mean I won’t want to tomorrow. I have to own both my personal power and my powerlessness over what happens after I drink.

I have to accept that I cannot do it alone, but ultimately, only I can do it.

Re: Stacks

Tonight I returned to Baptiste Yoga Studio in Cambridge for the first time since July 10. I remember the exact date because it was the last day of a 40 day bootcamp that I did there earlier this year. With the exception of a few days early on in the 40 day experience, I was pregnant and did not know it. When the 40 days were up I was so relieved that I didn’t have to return there again - not until I was ready at least - because holy hell was that a rough ride. I remember thinking it was much harder than I thought it should have been, and having been semi-regular to the practice I thought I knew what to expect. But physically, mentally, emotionally, it was just really tough. I threw up a couple times during morning practices, and I blamed it on the heat or dehydration or the night of drinking before (NOT part of the program). I also cried more times than not, which was equally surprising. I’d cried before, during practice or at the end while lying in shivasana, from the mere release of letting go whatever it was that I’d been dragging around. But every single time? I’ve come to learn since then that yoga can have that effect - through releasing your physical body you often tap into and unlock emotional stuck points and memories you’ve been storing. At the time, though, I just thought I was a mess, and in many ways I was. I mean, I was pregnant and I didn’t even know it. Nevermind anything else, my body was busy trying to build a human and I was dragging it through grueling 90 minute practices in 100 degree heat every single day. Not kind.

I also went on a fruit fast diet for a few days somewhere in there. I remember being blindingly tired as well but too stubborn, too frustrated to give in. Was I not listening to ANYTHING that they were saying in the practice? All that stuff about being where you are, surrendering, having some compassion for yourself and your body, letting go and just BREATHING now and then? I wasn’t. In fact, when my mind goes back there now I can still feel the tightening sensation that accompanies holding one’s breath for a very long time.

But that too was part of where I was and part of the journey. Toward the end of the 40 days I decided to try yoga at South Boston Yoga. It was such a breath of fresh air for my mind and my body at the time, to go through a practice that was completely different in every way and it wasn’t hot! Hallelujiah it wasn’t hot in there. My mindset at the time was that it couldn’t be as good or as powerful as Baptiste, because physcialy it just felt so much easier, not to mention the instructor made jokes and laughed and the general pace was just slower and less intense. But it was good enough, and it was so much closer to home, and I just needed a break from all the madness that ensued in that 40 day program for a while. Little did I know that I was cracking open the door to all the other aspects of yoga that until then I’d been unaware of (namely, all the non-physical aspects that I’d heard of buy ignored I just want a good workout blah blah blah). And little did I know that I’d end up in a teacher training program through the first instructor I had there at SBY, and also that, oh, I was going to find out a thing or two about a “good” and “powerful” experience.

I didn’t think I’d return to Baptiste until my pregnant days were past me. If you’d have asked me a month ago I’d have said “no way Jose, can’t do it.” But I started to get inquisitive about it a few days ago and today I found myself checking the schedule and the hesitation was gone, I actually felt excited about taking my pregnant body to class and seeing how it felt. What I discounted was that I would also be taking my pregnant mind to class, too, and the host of things I’ve cultivated through teacher training and just living life in the past few months. Namely, a new well of patience and a some compassion for where I am and also where I am not these days.

And it was so, so great. I found myself comforted by the known sequences and habituation of the practice, the familiar jolly Scottish accent of one of my favorite instructors, the room itself, and even the heat - the heat! It reminded me that change can be ever so incremental, maddeningly unnoticeable until something reminds you of your previous state and you are able to see the contrast so clearly. Oh, so I haven’t been beating my head against a wall? I haven’t been walking in circles for days and weeks and months on end? I can grow and open up and things can change? Phew. PHEW.

Now, it wasn’t all the perfection of yoga practice as we know it. I couldn’t do some things very gracefully and I was slipping and sliding along the mat. But I realized I have a lot more space in myself than I did before. I know a lot more about the meaning behind the poses, anatomically speaking, and I can pick up on a lot of the asanas (poses) which before just sounded like Sanskrit jibberish. All those things are kind of fun and neat. But more importantly I let myself stop when I needed to and congratulated myself for not accompanying those stops with one bit of agression or the self-degredation I’m so good at. And perhaps most importantly I understood why I was there, and that it has very little to do with sweating and bending, and a lot to do with letting go and letting go. At the end of the practice, Gregor (the instructor) said something so profound, and without any contemplation I knew exactly what he meant, and I recognized that last time I was there I would not have. He said (in Scottish brogue, it sounds so much better) "Let your mind be guided by your life, instead of allowing yourself to believe that your mind IS your life." Oh, these yogi people. They’re just full of these gems. I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even pre-meditate these bits of wisdom he bestows on a sea of sweaty, vulnerable bodies. They just roll right off his tongue like an extension of his being as natural as his arm or leg. But to the rest of us, it takes a long time to understand what something like that means, and more importantly, to actually live it.

And here is where I bring it all back to music, again. Laying there in shivasana reminded me of this  song by Bon Iver that I’ve held so close to my heart for months now. It’s the kind of song I can’t hear without feeling a shift in my gut and a little tightness in my throat because it’s just so damn beautiful. And like all good music it bestows a certain feeling of recognition, a shared experience, so that when you think maybe you’re all alone you hear a certain song and go, "Thank God, my hips don’t lie EITHER!" or "No, that’s right, you just don’t know ‘bout me." Or in this case, when Justin Vernon sings  “Re: Stacks” you understand that someone else has found themselves in the midst of something seemingly too tough and that eventually, eventually there is an unlocking and a lift away.