Posts Tagged ‘Alcohol’

I was a born power walker. With long legs and an East Coast sense of urgency, walking fast came naturally. It was my exercise of choice, preferred mode of transportation, and an early foray into meditation.

The year I moved to Boston, I must have logged 1000 miles walking around what I came to know as the Charles River treadmill. The wind in my hair, the chop of the water, the intersection of Boston and Cambridge, and the energy of the other people – walking was exhilarating. Yet something was missing. I longed to run.

I ran in high school but never well. On the track team, there were two options: long, slow distance or short, fast sprints. I had neither the lithe physique that lends itself to mile after mile nor the thick muscular set that could set the school record for the 100-yard dash. The category in which I would have excelled – slow, short distance – did not exist.

Since my inglorious high school track days, I gave running a try once or twice but it never stuck. I always started off way too fast and burned out before I’d gotten far. This was discouraging and physically painful and inevitably cut short any long-term change.

My memory of running was one of discomfort and inadequacy. I couldn’t run fast or far so I wondered ‘why bother?’ Yet, as runners passed me on my daily walks, I yearned to follow them…to break free of what had become a predictable stride and risk falling, failing, or simply looking stupid.

About 2 years ago (during my second year of not drinking), I decided to give running another chance. At first, I could barely run a mile, and that was on a treadmill, notoriously easier than pounding the pavement.

It was the middle of July and Boston was sweltering (in retrospect, starting to run at that time of year seems analogous to quitting drinking right before the December holidays, but you have to start somewhere, right?). When I tried running around my beloved Charles River loop, I was dripping with sweat and wheezing like an asthmatic before reaching the Arthur Fiedler head, not more than half a mile out. Once I couldn’t run any further, I stopped to walk and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I began to run again and tried to make it to the next milestone.

This went on for months. Run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. In time, I could run to more distant milestones before needing to stop and walk – the boathouse, then the softball fields, then the Museum of Science.

Sometimes I got cocky or elated and ran so fast so I had to stop after just a few minutes. Other times my legs felt so wooden and heavy, I walked more than I ran. Occasionally, running felt effortless, poignant, and meaningful.

Running this time around was different than previous attempts. Whereas in the past I was acutely aware of being the slowest, this time I focused on the fact that I was running at all. I developed a curiosity about the experience, what emotions it brought up and how I felt before, during, and after a run. I realized that slowing down allowed me to go further, continuously, and to gradually work up to a faster pace and longer distance. By focusing inward, I began to view each step as a choice.

This is how running prepared me for meditation. Choosing to do something that is inherently uncomfortable and at the same time challenging and rewarding is intriguing. Practicing such discipline, even when it isn’t convenient, particularly good, or fun requires staying in the moment.

Much like I choose to put one foot in front of the other while running, in meditation I choose to focus on one breath and then another. The pleasure of hitting my stride and feeling like I could go forever is very similar to how I feel when meditating (at least sometimes).

I’m still a very (read: VERY) slow runner. For every 300 runners who pass me along the Charles, I might pass 1 person, but he’s usually tying his shoelaces…or he’s a statue. The first mile is almost always uncomfortable. But once it’s behind me, something shifts and some space opens up. My breathing settles down, my legs remember what they’re supposed to do, and I loosen up physically and mentally.

The running journey, like the meditation journey, continues to be a choice – one step (and breath) at a time.

image credit

Read Full Post »

If you were an American girl growing up in the 70s and 80s, you probably read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Judy Blume’s quintessential coming of age story focuses on the sixth-grade Margaret, as she deals with boobs, bras, boys, and first periods. Because Margaret’s Christian mom and Jewish dad choose not to bring her up in a particular faith – instead offering her the option of finding her own way – Margaret becomes obsessed with her relationship with God, exploring the faith and religious beliefs of those around her and having a series of conversations with Him that begin, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.

As a girl, I also took my relationship with God very seriously. I prayed every night on the silver and blue crystal rosary given to me by my Nani. She told me it contained a drop of holy water that had been blessed by the Pope himself, and I kept the beads under my pillow.

After listening to a particular homily, I took care not to just ask for things in my prayers. Instead, I thanked God for what I had, for the health of my family, and to care for those less fortunate. I went to church every Sunday, was christened, attended CCD (Catholic religious education), received first communion, and was later confirmed.

I loved the fact that the church had an answer for everything. Back then, many of those answers rang true. Love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, blessed are the meek…To a confused and fearful 10-year-old, this kind of certainty was literally the answer to my prayers.

At the same time, I had some questions. Listening to the story of Adam and Eve, I’d narrow my eyes at the people in the nearby pews and wonder, Are any of you buying this? Even with my most strenuous willing suspension of disbelief, it was a hard pill to swallow. But I was willing to overlook it because of the security offered by such dogma.

More troubling to me was the concept of original sin. How could every person, from the time of his or her birth, already be guilty of some grave wrongdoing? And didn’t anyone find it suspicious that only the church (this church and no other) could offer redemption (and while we’re at it, eternal life)? The accuser becomes the savior? Here I learned that I was born bad and would spend my life striving to be better.

As I grew older and more aware, my misgivings with the church extended beyond the story of creation. Other doctrine grated on me and smacked more of a desire to control than to inspire the masses. Masturbation – bad. Sex before marriage – bad. Homosexuality – bad. For a bunch of old men who [allegedly] never had sex, they sure had a lot of opinions about it. And didn’t they realize that people – dare I say, even women – could think for themselves and make choices that were right for them?

Don’t even get my 10-year-old self started on the idea that not all dogs go to heaven! Maybe the church didn’t have the answers after all? At least not for me.

In my late teenage years I stopped going to church, stopped praying to God, and for many years wandered about without any spiritual path. I couldn’t practice the faith in which I was raised and everything else seemed like someone else’s religion.

My lack of spirituality left a palpable void and a direction was unclear. Plagued by life’s uncertainties, restlessness often gripped me and would not let go; I felt the need to be doing something else, to be somewhere else, even to be someone else. But what, where, and who?

One of the ways I dealt with this – and much of what I’ve written about here – was by drinking. It filled the hours and offered me a break from discomfort and fear. When I finally quit, the discomfort was still there but I managed for almost 3 years without medicating it.

Then, about a year ago, I decided to try meditating. I’ve described my initial experiences before and have shared some of the readings I found particularly poignant. Essentially, meditation offered me a way of existing in the world – the same me that felt terribly afraid and directionless – and remain somewhat stable.

At this point in my life, the wisdom I’ve gained from various Buddhist and meditation books – and from my teacher – just makes sense. It doesn’t prescribe who to be or how to live but to find out for myself by asking questions and trying out each teaching to see if it works in my life. Here is a small sampling:

On inherent goodness and ceasing the endless cycle of self-improvement from Susan Piver’s How Not To Be Afraid of Your Own Life:

Remember, we were born without fear and have a natural ability to love. Returning to our inborn fearless state requires unlearning certain things, not acquiring new skills. We don’t have to become daring where we’re risk-averse, calm when we’re anxious, or self-loving if we have self-doubt. Instead we can relax. We can learn how to be who we already are, honestly, unapologetically, and intelligently, embracing everything that’s wonderful about our life and everything that’s a mess.

On being in the moment from Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty:

In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is…’This very moment is the perfect teacher’ is really a most profound instruction. Just seeing what’s going on—that’s the teacher right there. We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom. It’s available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

On having compassion even when it’s supremely inconvenient, from Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You:

In the fifth stage [of practicing compassion], when we generate compassion for the difficult people in our lives, we get to see our prejudices and aversions even more clearly. It can feel completely unreasonable to make a compassionate wish for these irritating, belligerent people. To wish that those we dislike and fear would not suffer can feel like too big a leap. This is a good time to remember that when we harden our heart against anyone, we hurt ourselves. The fear habit, the anger habit, the self-pity habit—all are strengthened and empowered when we continue to buy into them. The most compassionate thing we can do is to interrupt these habits. Instead of always pulling back and putting up walls, we can do something unpredictable and make a compassionate aspiration.

On not fearing uncertainty, from Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

The warrior, fundamentally, is someone who is not afraid of space. The coward lives in constant terror of space. When the coward is alone in the forest and doesn’t hear a sound, he thinks there is a ghost lurking somewhere. In the silence he begins to bring up all kinds of monsters and demons in his mind. The coward is afraid of darkness because he can’t see anything. He is afraid of silence because he can’t hear anything. Cowardice is turning the unconditional into a situation of fear by inventing reference points, or conditions, of all kinds. But for the warrior, unconditionality does not have to be conditioned or limited. It does not have to be qualified as either positive or negative, but it can just be neutral—as it is.

At the end of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, while she’s only begun to figure things out for herself, our heroine receives a sign from God that basically she’s going to be OK.

Though I’m only beginning to learn about Buddhism, I too know I’m going to be OK. I haven’t yet made a formal commitment to this path – though I sense that is in my future – but what I’ve learned has already opened up my eyes (and heart) and helped me to begin again…and again.

image credit

Read Full Post »

If you’re like me, you have a lot going on upstairs. This is not bragging. This is not at all about intelligence; it’s about the moment-to-moment swarm of thoughts that churn through the mind during all waking (and probably most sleeping) hours.

The thoughts that swarm about my head like so many bees are both positive and negative in nature – a seemingly endless array of to-do lists, hopes, fears, aspirations, and neuroses that are sometimes only marginally related to what is actually going on in my life at that time. Like drinking used to do, these obsessive thoughts distract me from the present moment and take away from my experience of what is really happening.

During moments of uncertainty – and let’s face it, life is a series of moments of uncertainty – I gravitate toward negative thoughts.

I can admit that I am generally very uncomfortable with uncertainty. Rather than tolerate it and, in an effort to make my life more predictable, I’ve developed a rather pesky habit of imagining the worst-case scenario (WCS). This is not your garden-variety pessimism; there is a method to my madness: if I can imagine and accept the WCS, then I will (a) be prepared when it in fact happens or (b) be pleasantly surprised when it does not.

That my WCS rarely if ever comes true seems beside the point; rather than being pleasantly surprised by this development, I instead move on to crafting the next WCS. And so on.

Occasionally, I joke that I should write fiction. The negative story lines I craft can be so ornate, so rife with realistic details, they might actually make for some interesting reading. However, the only people who would read this depressing drivel would eventually throw themselves off a bridge, costing me my loyal readership and making this an even less profitable pursuit than it already is.

This is exactly why I started to meditate.

Meditation is all about practicing gentleness and awareness. We learn to place light awareness on the breath and when thoughts inevitably distract us, we label them ‘thinking,’ and gently return awareness to the breath.

When I started to practice, it was very hard to quiet my mind. An endless stream of thoughts distracted me from the breath, but with the encouragement of my instructor, I took each distraction as an opportunity to begin again. Even after 10 months of fairly regular practice, at times my ability to maintain awareness of the breath and my need to label my thoughts as thinking are at about a 1:1 ratio. To illustrate:




What to wear?…(thinking)




Javier Bardem…(thinking)


Drinking coffee with Javier Bardem…(thinking)


While this can be frustrating, it has paid off to keep returning awareness to the breath. Eventually, I have noticed small gaps in my thoughts during which I feel utterly present in the moment…NOW! And, with time (and practice and discipline and gentleness), the gaps have started to widen. This is what brings me back to the cushion each day.

Even when I am not practicing, I have started to notice small gaps in the swarms of obsessive thoughts I experience every day. Occasionally, when I start going down the spiral of a WCS, something happens…I notice a shift, a slight opening…and I realize I don’t have to take the same old route. I come back to the present.

I still have my moments (like all the time), when I become wrapped up in my latest fiction. But more and more, I can step back, notice what’s happening, and mind the gap.

Photo credit

Read Full Post »

Julia Cameron says early in her book The Artist’s Way that before she quit drinking, she thought drinking and writing went together like scotch and soda. Before I quit drinking, I agreed.

I loved the idea of writing and drinking. They were the perfect couple. Pouring a glass of wine and sitting down to the computer or mixing a martini and curling up with a moleskin notebook was just about as romantic an idea as I could imagine.

While I was writing my first book, I procrastinated…a lot. My procrastination stemmed from perfectionism: I was afraid of writing badly and expected everything to come out perfect the first time (the saying “Don’t get it right, get it written” was created for people like me).

So I developed certain rules. My favorite was that I refused to write unless I had 8 or so hours of uninterrupted time and that obviously did not happen often. When it did, I managed to spend most of those hours doddering around my apartment, cleaning, going through stacks of bills, rearranging my library…you get the idea.

The other thing I did to distract myself from actually sitting down and facing the blank page was drink. I convinced myself that the glass of wine was meant to loosen me up, allow the words to flow, to grease the finger joints a little. But to be honest, I wasn’t writing that kind of book. The book I was writing required focused attention, short spurts of writing, followed by targeted research, and more short spurts of writing. Drinking didn’t aid this process; it stopped it in its tracks.

One glass of wine invariably turned into two, which made it difficult to concentrate and hold the thread of an idea. It also made a nap seem like a brilliant alternative to “forcing” the writing process, after which point no writing would get done. How many times I performed this particular fruitless ritual, I cannot say.

There is a saying that goes something like, “Say no to a book contract, you’re sad for a day, happy for a year. Say yes, and you’re happy for a day, sad for a year.” I was sad (and tipsy) for two years, an inexcusable amount of time given the slim volume that resulted.

It wasn’t until I created a strict writing schedule, which included brief periods of writing and specific and achievable assignments, and banished alcohol until the writing was done, that any real progress was made on the book and I finally completed the manuscript. Six months after the book was published (shameless plug), I quit drinking altogether.

Seeing how I used alcohol to deal with the discomfort of writing, it seems ironic that the book I’m now trying to write is about quitting drinking. Facing the blank page is no less daunting. And the personal nature of the book makes the process of translating complex thoughts and feelings into prose that makes sense to readers much more challenging.

I recently attended a week-long meditation retreat for writers, where I had plenty of time to write and virtually no distractions. At first this was terrifying and very uncomfortable for me. But once I let go of any expectation to write well, I was able to overcome my block. And, like returning to the breath again and again – is this not endlessly applicable and analogous? – I made slow, steady progress toward my goal…and got some writing done too.

Read Full Post »

Recently I had a string of days during which I was just cranky. Here’s a sampling of things that were pressing my buttons so you get my gist:

  • I’m cranky that people don’t let others out of elevators or off subway cars before pushing their way on
  • I’m cranky that people walk 4 across on the sidewalk and don’t make room for two-way traffic
  • I’m cranky that the wind in Boston blows my hair into my lipgloss
  • I’m cranky that Rufus scratched the wood table I recently refinished, ate the funny Passover card I was going to send to a friend, and consumed and then vomited a sheet of the lint roller paper, which I have to buy in bulk to deal with the volume of white cat hair he leaves in his wake  [deep breath]
  • I’m cranky that my full time job is taking me away from my “real life”
  • That nothing I cook comes out like in the recipe
  • That I write plainly and not beautifully like in The Elegance of the Hedgehog
  • That after taking a month off from running due to an injury, I can’t run as well as before
  • That I’m getting older
  • That no one makes a good horror movie anymore
  • And that meditation isn’t making me less cranky!

Have you had moments like this? Days? Weeks?

When I was feeling cranky, I wanted nothing more than to feel something else. I wanted to feel serene, composed, and content. But try as I might – and I tried meditating more, running (poorly), calling my Mom, who was also cranky – I could not get myself out of this cranky mood. So I felt bad about feeling bad.

At last, I picked up Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are. Lately, whenever I read this or another dharma-related book, I find some nugget of wisdom that I need right in that moment. Here is what I found that day:

…Buddha, which means ‘awake,’ is not someone you worship. Buddha is not someone you aspire to; Buddha is not somebody that was born more than two thousand years ago and was smarter than you’ll ever be. Buddha is our inherent nature – our buddha nature – and what that means is that if you’re going to grow up fully, the way that it happens is that you begin to connect with the intelligence that you already have. It’s not like some intelligence that’s going to be transplanted into you. If you’re going to be fully mature, you will no longer be imprisoned in the childhood feeling that you always need to protect yourself or shield yourself because things are too harsh. If you’re going to be a grown-up – which I would define as being completely at home in your world no matter how difficult the situation – it’s because you will allow something that’s already in you to be nurtured. You allow it to grow, you allow it to come out, instead of all the time shielding it and protecting it and keeping it buried.

My take: At any and all times, I cannot get away from my buddha nature. So, at that time, I was cranky buddha!

This teaching didn’t make me feel less cranky. But it did teach me that I didn’t need to feel badly about it or add to my discomfort by trying to change how I felt. And I was again reminded of the importance of taking my seat and focusing on the breath.

So each time I am distracted by cranky (or any other) thoughts, I just begin again.

[Postscript: Since I started writing this post, I have become less cranky. In fact, between then and now I have been wistful buddha, hungry buddha, writing buddha, buddha with lost wallet, buddha in love, and any number of other incarnations of the range of feelings and situations we all experience. None of them last and all of them have been useful.]

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 243 other followers

Powered by WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: