Posts Tagged ‘pema chodron’

April was a bitch, and so was I. For much of it I felt as if I was in a communication black hole and this was intensely distressing. A glimpse into the last few weeks:

  • Text messages and emails from friends were never received
  • Posts on professional and personal Facebook pages vanished without a trace
  • I received some surprisingly harsh criticism of my book – was called cruel and inhumane – and could honestly not understand why
  • I anticipated giving a much-dreaded talk to an audience of my peers, for which there were many unknowns
  • We had house guests for 3 weeks, all of whom spoke a language I’m studying but in which I am not fluent, meaning it was never 100% clear if we were understanding one another
  • A friend with whom I was developing a workshop severed our relationship with nary an explanation, just a pseudo-spiritual quip

At the same time, wonderful things happened:

  • Those same house guests were people I love deeply and felt lucky to spend time with; I enjoyed sharing many quintessential New York and American experiences with them
  • I began working with a wonderful business coach and started to take the next steps in building my business, one of which is getting comfortable with public speaking (oh, and the talk went fine)
  • Several clients experienced important breakthroughs in their work with me
  • I received an email from someone who had read Drinking to Distraction and was helped by it
  • A woman I met at another nutrition talk I gave decided to stop drinking as the result of a conversation we had (and now has several weeks sober!)
  • My parents spent an enviable 10 days in Paris and had the time of their lives
  • I spent a weekend with my beautiful sister and nieces, who just adopted a 10-year-old miniature poodle
  • I made a wonderful new friend of the no-BS variety
  • A friend with whom I was developing a workshop severed our relationship with nary an explanation, just a pseudo-spiritual quip (think I dodged a bullet here)

Though my formal meditation practice waned during the month of April – all of the “not knowing” drove me away from my practice rather than toward it – I was intensely aware of the ups and downs as they occurred. But I felt a greater allegiance to the stressful aspects of that time – the ways in which I, ME, MYSELF was suffering. I experienced a form of anxiety that was deeply physical – feet feeling as if they weren’t touching the ground, stomach in knots, zero appetite (beyond rare for me), a light-headedness that at times felt as if I might just lose it altogether.

Uncertainty is something I continue to grapple with. Intellectually, I get the concept – I might even be able to speak on the topic with an air of confidence and comprehension. But the actual experience of uncertainty – not being sure if someone has understood me, not knowing whether I did something to bring about a negative outcome, not having exclusive access to the cocoon in which I hide – can be distressing to the degree of questioning my sanity.

I heard myself say more times than I’d like to admit (using both my inside voice and my outside voice), “I could really go for a drink right now.” The degree of discomfort uncertainty provoked created a deep desire to obliterate myself and completely disconnect. One morning I even found myself chugging a kombucha (something I already had mixed feelings about due to it’s 0.5% alcohol content) wishing it were a fizzy cocktail.

I went to a handful of AA meetings and couldn’t stop crying. I felt drawn in by the copious one-liners and promises of peace. I have always left the door to “the rooms” open. Though it has not been part of my recovery so far, as I approach 7 years, I am more than willing to incorporate the fellowship if that is what I need to maintain my sobriety.

But while I feel desperate for that level of certainty, I’m also suspicious. I wonder if the solution is finding more certainty or becoming better at tolerating the uncertainty. This is a question for anyone who regularly attends meetings, particularly those who have also used meditation to support their recovery.

As I have settled back into my practice, I have also been rereading some of my favorite dharma books. Not surprisingly Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty was my first stop. On turning arrows into flowers, she writes:

Devaputra mara involves seeking pleasure. Any obstacle we encounter has the power to pop the bubble of reality that we have come to regard as secure and certain. When we’re threatened that way, we can’t stand to feel the edginess, the anxiety, the heat of anger rising, the bitter taste of resentment. Therefore, we reach for whatever we think will blot it out. We try to grasp something pleasant. The way to turn this arrow into a flower is to open our hearts and look at how we try to escape. We can use the pleasure-seeking as an opportunity to observe what we do in the face of pain.

Where I go from here I don’t know yet…cue the uncertainty-related anxiety. Do I begin to incorporate the AA fellowship into my sobriety? To try to find like-minded others on that ill-defined path of recovery, meditation, and meetings? Trust that there is so much more to the program than the catchy phrases and free coffee?

Will the pain of not knowing drive me to wake up or go to sleep?

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“To Be or Not To Be”

At some point, perhaps years before the night of my book party, alcohol and drinking began to occupy an increasing amount of my mental real estate. During the workday I eagerly anticipated cocktail hour. Or I perseverated over where to purchase a bottle of wine on my way home from work. Among my shopping criteria were selection, price range, and distance from my condo. But most importantly, how frequently or recently I had purchased from a certain place. I feared becoming recognized as a “regular” so I rotated my patronage accordingly.

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Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:


“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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So, let go, so let go

Jump in

Oh well, what you waiting for?

It’s alright

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

So, let go, yeah let go

Just get in

Oh, it’s so amazing here

It’s all right

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

~ Let Go, Frou Frou


It’s been more than three years since I began the Drinking to Distraction blog. I remember setting it up the morning after Thanksgiving, my boyfriend asleep in the other room. I was still in Boston then. “Hello world” was the automated first post. I’ve written more than 100 since then.

What I have shared on Drinking to Distraction has always been first-person narrative. “Here’s what happened to me, maybe you can relate?” I never did get over the nausea of hitting the publish button after I had revealed some very embarrassing or personal aspect of my life: my obsession with alcohol; my cowardice; my fears, selfishness, and small-mindedness.

At times I attempted to write in the voice of someone else: quirky Jezebel-variety snark or a more philosophical tone. But whenever I did that, the posts fell flat and went nowhere. My friends might have read them; my mom probably printed them out and added them to her binder. But they didn’t really touch people’s hearts.

On the other hand, when I wrote ‘Why bother?’ gets a firm answer, Have I told you lately that I love booze?, Meditation, medication, and where I’ve been lately, Practicing imperfection, or the most popular one ever, Can we break free of the perfection prison?, something different happened.

These posts were unilaterally preceded by what I would call a total breakdown. As I was writing them, I cried, I thrashed, I felt desperate. I felt physically weak, as if I had hit bottom and just couldn’t fight the truth anymore. I typed them as I might scrawl an S.O.S. message in a bottle: PLEASE SEND HELP! And somehow, after clearing away all of the bullshit, by cutting through to the purest of emotions and struggles, I helped both myself and a few others.

You might imagine that once I noticed the potential beauty in such a breakdown, I would attempt to stay there. But you would be wrong. While I might dwell in it for a short while, my defenses soon take over. I try to distance myself from that vulnerability. I resist it, try to outsmart it, mistakenly thinking I can access such truth and harness that power without feeling the freefall. But I can’t.

I have yet to embody the bravery necessary to stay in this brokenhearted and open state with any regularity. In general, I know what I need to do: to practice meditation every day and to stay deeply in touch with the genuine heart of sadness, to build compassion for myself and for others by observing without judgment, by noticing how I feel and remaining curious. But sometimes I’m just too terrified.

Since I launched Eat to Love about two months ago, I have struggled to find my voice. Rather than the recovering alcoholic (quack?) who supports her non-AA recovery through meditation and writing, I feel compelled to sound authoritative, to portray myself as the registered dietitian who has her healthful shit together, who practices what she preaches, and has something to say that hasn’t already been said 8000 times before. I try to resist the regrettable trend of putting a number in my blog post titles – “Do these 10 things in the next 60 seconds to make your life 100 times better” [GAG!] – but then I give in.

I know that the things I fear revealing about myself are exactly the things that uniquely position me to be of real help to people: My experience with quitting drinking, my own dieting history, my day-to-day struggle to stay in the moment, to become more comfortable with discomfort, and to deal with my anxiety without medicating with food, Bravo TV, or neurotic thoughts. To share these things in a meaningful way, I know I have to go to that fearsome place of vulnerability, openness, and heartbreak. While I haven’t yet figured out how to stay with what Pema Chodron calls the soft spot of bodhichitta, if history is any indication (and if I can manage to keep getting my butt on that cushion), I suspect I am heading for another breakdown of sorts where I can’t help but face the beautiful truth.

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It is difficult to describe how much I love “Orange Is the New Black,” the new Netflix original series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time in a women’s prison. I binge-watched the 13-episode series over the course of several days, such that when I was forced to leave my apartment, I had the vague feeling that I needed to watch my back and carry a shiv made from a Gillette Venus.

In the series, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a WASP-y Smith College alumna who 10 years earlier sewed her rebellious oats by dating international drug cartel employee Alex (played by Laura Prepon), is serving a 15-month sentence for having one time transported a suitcase full of drug money. New to prison, Piper, who recently became engaged to conventional Larry (Jason Biggs) and was working with her best friend on a line of high-end bath products to be sold at Barneys, feels understandably like a fish out of water, a debutante in the ghetto. Initially, she can only see the differences between her fellow inmates and herself, but soon their similarities begin to emerge.

What drew me into the series were the no-holds-barred belly laughs – picture Piper avoiding shower-floor foot fungus by crafting slippers out of maxipads because she can’t yet purchase flip flops from the commissary. But what hooked me were the flashbacks depicting the stories of Piper’s fellow inmates. Between the lovably crass punch lines (a used tampon sandwich, for example, or the ‘tit punch’), the series highlights the story behind each character, her humanity and suffering. Like the character of Janae Watson, who had a promising track career but whose ability to outrun the boys meant that none of them ever caught up to her; when a guy finally did show her some interest, he turned out to be a criminal, and she landed in prison after the two of them robbed a store and only she was caught (waiting for him to catch up).

The juxtaposition of my assumptions and stereotypes about women in prison (or anyone from whom I might feel “different”) and the very familiar emotions and traumas each character experiences set me back on my heels. In the series (as in real life), though it can be easier to put a person in a little box with a label on it, something usually happens – a revealing word, a moment of vulnerability – to signal that there is a vastness, a range of emotions and experiences, that I don’t know about. These glimpses into the individual back-stories reminded me of this Cleveland Clinic video that poses the question:

If you could stand in someone’s shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, would you treat them differently?

Many of us have the tendency to see ourselves as the protagonist, the hero or heroine, in our own story, while everyone else plays a range of supporting roles. Stepping back even a little allows us to see how flawed this approach is, to see our interconnectedness, our interdependence, or as Thich Nhat Han says, our inter-being. Since we can’t know for sure the back-story of every stranger we encounter, what if we were to imagine him or her as having experienced similar joys, losses, and traumas as ourselves; and from that place, perhaps extend him or her a little more kindness.

In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes:

It’s said that when we make this commitment [to care for all beings everywhere], it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, and then do our best to never harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.


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Recently, as part of Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, we learned about the lojong slogan “3 objects, 3 poisons, 3 seeds of virtue.” The three objects are things we want, things we don’t want, and things we ignore; the three poisons passion, aggression, and ignorance; and the three seeds of virtue freedom from passion, aggression, and ignorance.

In delving deeper into this slogan, contemplating it and reading Chogyam Trungpa’s and Pema Chodron’s thoughts on the topic, I recognize how my drinking covered all of these bases. I used drinking to hold on to pleasurable experiences way past their expiration date; I never wanted the party to end and I thought it couldn’t end as long as I kept drinking. Other times I used alcohol to try to change the way things were, to counteract feelings of anxiety and fear, to replace them with the joviality and good times I thought were to be found in the bottle. Last, my drinking allowed me to zone out, to disconnect from issues that needed attention – a relationship that was hurtful, an unsatisfying career.

This is not to say that alcohol is inherently poisonous; but the way I used it was problematic for me. That kind of self-awareness has helped me to see how I engage with the different aspects of my life. It’s also shown me that while all three poisons are present at different times, I tend toward one in particular: aggression, or as I think of it, resistance.

From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, my mind is constantly resisting the way things are. “I should have done this…or that,” “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I wish I were more…,” “I wish…,” “If only…,” these are a constant refrain, like elevator muzak that has been playing in the background so long you almost don’t notice it anymore. Sometimes I even hope that things will turn out differently in a movie I’ve already seen or one in which I know the ending; I spent the majority of the film Titanic hoping there would be some twist that saved everyone.

In Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron writes “resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time.” She also writes about how the 3 poisons provide fertile ground for change, a rich source from which we can pull self-awareness and gentleness, and can open up to the much wider possibilities life has to offer.

As I write this post, I feel immense confusion as to what to do with my life. My severance period is about to end, I’m completing a small business course that I took with the hope of starting my own nutrition counseling and writing business, I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing the Drinking to Distraction book, and I have the outline of another book I would like to write when the first is completed. I feel at once exhilarated, overwhelmed, frightened, capable, and bereft of the stamina needed to take the next step. My tendency toward aggression makes me resist this confusion; I have a strong drive to exorcise it, oust it, banish it, even if that means making a decision that I haven’t completely considered, or reverting back to a professional plan that seems more of a sure thing.

My challenge, if Piver, and Chodron, and Trungpa are right (and I know they are), is to hang out in that confusion long enough to really experience it. To drop the story about how my life will end up in the shitter if I made the wrong decision. And to feel my way toward the next step, and the next, and the next, knowing I can change course at any point. First, I must give up the fight against reality. This is the way it is, for now. Resistance is futile.

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For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with self-doubt. I felt there was something different about me, something not quite right. While other children seemed confident in who they were and what they wanted, I was never quite sure of myself. As a result, I became very interested in and curious about others, how they felt, how they knew what they knew.

To some extent, I still navigate the world in this way. I ask people a lot of questions about how they handle day-to-day events, relationships, and feelings. I bounce my thoughts off of trusted friends and family members, hoping to find myself somewhere on the continuum of “normalcy” and to triangulate my way toward a sense of certainty and rightness. Still, I don’t quite trust my intuition and my own goodness.

The concept of basic goodness is foundational in Buddhism. In contrast to original sin, Buddhism holds that humans are essentially good, clear-seeing, loving, and compassionate. In Ocean of Dharma, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

The Buddha discovered that there is something in us known as basic goodness. Therefore, we don’t have to condemn ourselves for being bad or naughty. The Buddha taught what he had learned to the rest of mankind. What he taught then – twenty-five hundred years ago – is still being taught and practiced. The important point for us is to realize that we are basically good. Our only problem is that sometimes we don’t actually acknowledge that goodness. We don’t see it, so we blame somebody else or we blame ourselves. That is a mistake. We don’t have to blame others, and we don’t have to feel nasty or angry. Fundamental goodness is always with us, always in us.

When I first learned about basic goodness, it was difficult to think of myself in this light. As a life-long self-doubter, it was easier to see the basic goodness in others than in myself. I still struggle with it.

This past weekend I took the refuge vow to formalize my commitment to the Buddhist path. I took refuge in the Buddha as an example of a human being who attained enlightenment. I took refuge in the dharma – the truth – the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of reality. And I took refuge in the sangha, the community of practitioners who are all on their own lonely paths but who are also there to support one another.

As part of the ceremony I was given a Tibetan name – Champa Wangmo – which can be roughly translated as “maitri (or loving-kindness) lady.” The Acharya who named me explained to those of us taking the vow that in his experience, we grow to embody our refuge names over the course of a lifetime. While I am sure I will be figuring out the meaning of this new name for many years to come, I have some initial thoughts.

Maitri has been described by Chogyam Trungpa and other Buddhist teachers as an unconditional friendliness, toward others and especially toward oneself. Maitri has also been described, most recently by the wonderful Susan Piver, as an antidote to self-doubt. This is not about countering doubt by beating my breast and proclaiming all my wonderful, lovable qualities. And it’s not about “managing” or forgiving myself for being scared or petty or small-minded. I’m beginning to see it’s about opening to myself with the same sense of love and welcome that I have for others.

Since taking the refuge vow, my thoughts and emotions have gone technicolor. My doubts and fears feel magnified, and I have an increasing sense of groundlessness. I have reached out to friends and family to talk through my concerns, for some consolation, for someone to confirm me, but the feelings haven’t changed. After a few days of confusion, I realized this is exactly what I signed up for.

In practicing maitri or loving-kindness, I am practicing turning toward all of the scary, uncomfortable feelings with softness and a sense of welcome. I think this is the practice of my lifetime. And it’s all good, basically.

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