Category Archives: Spirituality

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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Gratitude: Take This Action Now to Speed Your Recovery

gratitude1“In our daily lives, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy.” – Albert Clarke

Thanksgiving Day, 2015

As light is to darkness, so gratitude is to addiction. Gratitude chases away addiction. It’s hard for addiction to thrive in the presence of gratitude. While gratitude is not a magic cure-all, it functions like a deep breath of fresh air to the soul.

Whether or not you are reading this during the Thanksgiving Holiday, my invitation/challenge is the same: some time today or tomorrow (it seems to work best in early morning or later at night), sit down with your journal and write down ten to fifteen things you are grateful for. Be specific. I have more to say about this task, but before we get to that, listen to what Alan Cohen has to say about this:

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw on its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything. This is the most powerful attitude to adopt, for there are blessings in everything.” – Alan Cohen

As you think about the ten to fifteen things you are grateful for, be sure to list one or two things that have been hard … things that you would not have considered blessings at first. I will guess that you have had a few “blessings in disguise” this year. What are they? By thinking about the unfolding of your life in these terms, new perspectives can emerge that can really help your happiness — and your recovery.

gratitude2

“If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.” – Harold Kushner

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” – Helen Keller

I love that last quote by Helen Keller! Practicing gratitude, even in the midst of the difficult things in our lives, strengthens us. It helps us to learn contentment, a state of being that addiction robs us of.

So get out your pen and paper (or computer), and make the list. Maybe set a goal for making a list like this once a week, or several times a week. There was a time I did this every night. I did this for a period of several months. It was really helpful, but I found that doing it every night diminished its power. I think it works better if we do gratitude lists once a week or every few days. If you haven’t been doing this regularly … please start! It will change your life.

“Gratitude is a form of wisdom. It is patient, loving, hopeful, and rigorously honest. It denies nothing, and it overlooks nothing. It looks reality full in the face and says, ‘This is true, this is me, this is my situation, and I have the opportunity to build from here. This is my starting point, and I will succeed.” – Phil Humbert

 

 

 

How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”

memories
Coming to terms with memories of past trauma is a core challenge for many people
— and especially for people in recovery. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more hopeful I am about the prospect of healing in this critical area of life.

Bessel Van der Kolk is medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In a really helpful interview with Krista Tippet in the On Being radio show, he makes the intriguing observation that, while most of our memories change over time (the details get fuzzy, the meanings we make of them change), for some reason, intense traumatic memories stay fixed.

By the way, if you doubt that memories change, just get together with your siblings some time, and start reminiscing about your experiences when you were kids. You will likely notice how differently your siblings remember things that happened than you do. It’s not that they have the same memory as you, but from a different vantage point … they often remember the same “event” very differently, with different details. It might even seem that there were two different events that happened, like you existed in parallel universes.

Over time their memory of that event changed, as did yours. The memories just changed in different directions. It’s likely that if you had captured the event on video camera in its entirety, you’d find that it happened differently than the “exact memory” either of you had.

Why do our memories change … and what does this mean?

Why is this? Why is it that our memories change? And why is it that traumatic memories don’t? And what can we do to “heal from” — or at least come to terms with — these traumatic memories?

This is important because unresolved early life trauma is often a key piece of the addiction puzzle. Many people develop the habit of reaching for what becomes an “addictive” substance or behavior as a way of coping with pain that stems from early trauma. As life goes on, experiences trigger that old pain, and we in turn keep reaching for that old addictive substance or behavior as a way to cope with the pain. Dealing with that unresolved trauma is essential if lasting recovery is going to happen.

Recent brain research offers some interesting insights about memory that may help us understand how healing happens. The most significant is this: Our brains are not computers that file “memories” away in a certain place on a hard drive.

Our brains do not retrieve memories …

our brains reconstruct memories.

They do this by taking fragments of data that we might think of as impressions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are located in various parts of our “brain” (note that neurons are not always located in our head) and then pulling them together to create a memory.

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Learning from your addictive thoughts

thoughtful reflectiveSome time ago, I listened to a podcast about recovery and spirituality by Krista Tippet, on what was then called “Speaking of Faith (now it’s called “On Being“). In the interview – which unfortunately is no longer available – she talked with a Native American leader and healer about his recovery from alcoholism. He talked about the importance – in his own recovery, and with others that he works with as a healer – of what he called “listening to your addiction to find out what it has to teach you.”

My colleague Mark Laaser at Faithful and True works with a similar idea when he talks about the important spiritual question of “What are you thirsty for?” as part of recovery. The way he talks about it, this question has to do with the deep needs and longings of our soul. We get pulled into addiction in its various forms, because the feeling we get from the addictive substance or activity fills a need. It soothes something that is agitated, excites something that feels dead and empty, makes us feel valued and significant, etc., etc.

Laura Chapman recently wrote me about an article she wrote with Lance Dodes about “The Surprising Value of Addictive Thoughts.” Here’s what she says about the article:

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Grief: The Missing Emotion

mourningPeople often turn to addiction as a means of coping with trauma and stresses in early life. This is true of all addictions, but it’s especially true of sex. People turn to addictive substances or behaviors when the trauma and stress of their lives are overwhelming. This often happens for kids when they don’t learn appropriate coping and self-care from their parents and other family members.

One essential practice we need, in order to deal with suffering, is to grieve. We tend to think of grieving as something we do in response to death, and don’t think of it in association with other struggles and losses in life. But grieving is necessary for dealing with any and all losses … and suffering almost always carries some aspect of loss. Many men I work with have to go through a time of grieving a variety of losses they experienced growing up: nurture they needed but didn’t get, broken promises, the loss of safety and security because of verbal and physical abuse, the loss of innocence because of sexual abuse, and the loss of friends and loved ones because of divorce, relocations, and death.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Addictive behaviors and substances are a way for us to deal with suffering and loss without having to mourn. Continue reading

10 Things You Must Give Up to Move Forward in Recovery

movingforward

Here are 10 things you must give up if you’re going to progress in recovery:

 

#1 Letting the opinions of others control your life

It’s not what others think, it’s what you think about yourself that counts. You have to do exactly what’s best for you and your life, not what’s best for everyone else. Everybody has opinions, and many people are not shy about sharing them! But that’s all they are: opinions. These other people don’t know you and your life the way you do, and they have their own blind spots, issues, and dysfunctions. Not only that, but they have their own agendas in sharing their opinions with you, which might not match yours.

#2 The shame of past failures

Your past does not equal your future. All that matters is what you do right now. What’s done is done. You can be forgiven, and make amends if you need to (and if it is safe to do so). But too often, people simply stay stuck in guilt and shame without doing anything about it. It’s time to forgive yourself, let go of shame, and move on.

#3 Being indecisive about what you want

You will never leave where you are until you decide where you would rather be. Make a decision now to figure out what you want, and then pursue it passionately. If you are getting stuck because your dream seems too big and unrealistic, take it back a step or two and think about an intermediate goal or desire. Most people get in indecision, because they focus on things they want to do or have. If that’s happening to you, focus instead on the kind of person you want to be, and move in that direction.

#4 Procrastinating on the goals that matter to you

There are two options in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or to accept the responsibility for changing them. Recovery means taking responsibility not simply for your sobriety, but for your life. When we don’t engage with life (which is what procrastination ultimately involves) we drift and put our recovery at risk. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now. If you are procrastinating, chances are you are thinking too far ahead or are dealing with perfectionism. Just take things one step at a time.

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What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

beleiveThe Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.

Coming to believe is a process

In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.

Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. Continue reading