By Kevin Griffin
Renewal is built right into 12 Step programs, and it’s a foundational aspect of meditation. Every meeting ends with the admonition, “Keep coming back,” a reminder that the process of recovery isn’t about passing the finish line, but about living life “one day at a time.” Recovery isn’t about attaining some state of pure spiritual bliss, but of learning to face life’s challenges without running to a bottle, a drug, to food or sex or gambling.
Of course, the initial step of getting sober or abstinent is difficult. At that point, “keep coming back” might be all we have to hang on to. Maybe we’re nuts and it feels like we can’t handle it, but those simple words tell us that it’s going to get better. And it does. Our addiction is healed. When that happens, a lot of other great things will often follow: our relationships get better, our work life improves, our emotional state brightens. It all takes work of course, and often years of showing up, but once we’re clean and sober, we start seeing the improvement and that inspires us to keep going.
But life doesn’t stop. The First Noble Truth in Buddhism, the Truth of Suffering, says that life is difficult, that there are ongoing inner and outer struggles. A new year is often a time to confront some of these struggles. The holidays are often stressful and may trigger underlying addictions, so that when January 1st comes, we’re ready to renew our inner and outer spiritual work.
This is, of course, a cliché, the new diet or exercise regime, the New Year’s Resolution; and the rest of the cliché is that the resolution doesn’t last long. But if we are committed to a spiritual path, resolution and renewal of commitment is something that happens year round. And it’s not that we’ve “failed” when we have to renew our commitment, simply that the Truth of Suffering, which says that everything is impermanent and ultimately unsatisfactory, is operating.
The first step in renewal is honesty: I’m backsliding and I need to get it together. The second step is forgiveness: it’s natural that I backslide, so I don’t have to beat myself up, just get on with my renewal.
This past year I lost 17 pounds through a program of mindful eating. This morning I found that I’d gained 3 pounds over the holidays. Time for renewal. Before I lost the weight I rarely weighed myself, not wanting to get the bad news. But one of the things I learned in mindful eating is that I have to stay current with my weight or it slips away. I didn’t want to weigh myself today; I thought, “I’ll just wait till after the weekend when I can get my eating straightened out again.” But I did it anyway. Then I thought, “It’s natural that I gained weight over the holidays, and I know how to lose it, so I don’t have to worry or beat myself up.” At the same time, at the corners of my mind were the whispers, “You’re piling it on; you’ll never be able to lose that weight.” But I knew that voice, the voice of failure and self-hatred, and I put it aside.
After forgiveness comes the commitment: I’m going to renew my mindful eating program. So I reviewed in my mind some of the basics that I’ve used to limit my calorie intake without creating a binge/purge cycle.
Keep coming back doesn’t just work for addiction. It works for meditation, too. One of the most basic meditation instructions is “keep coming back to the breath.” On the moment-to-moment level, keep coming back is how you meditate: first with mindful honesty that the mind has wandered; then with forgiveness, because, after all, that’s just what my mind does; then, renewal, bringing my attention back to the sensations of breath again.
Keep coming back applies to my daily practice as well: I keep showing up on my meditation cushion each day, whether I feel like it or not, and whether it seems like it’s working or not.
Both meditation and recovery take longer than we want them to. Especially for an addict who wants instant gratification, the slow process of healing our lives and the gradual process of deepening our meditation practice just don’t seem to work. We can’t see the results quickly enough, so we don’t think anything is happening. But real change takes time. This is one of the reasons we keep track of how long we’ve been sober. We gain perspective over the years, both by watching our own progress, and especially by watching that of others in the program. They might not notice the incremental changes in themselves, but we do.
As I meditated this morning for the last time in 2009, I felt anxious and started worrying about the future. I have a new book coming out and lots of teaching planned, and I started obsessing about it all. Then I caught myself and thought, “What other perspective can I bring to this?” and I swung to an absolute, “It’s all empty, nothing really matters” view. That brought a feeling of sadness and negativity. I caught that and realized how unhelpful that was. So I asked myself, “What would be a Middle Way,” and I thought of appreciation. My life is wonderful. I have had incredible opportunities and success in my life; I have a wonderful family and home; my work life is very satisfying. Ahh. . . The renewal of sanity.
This is the most important ongoing process of renewal that I do, trying to keep myself from falling into negative mental and emotional states. All my other work, my program, my spiritual practice, mindful eating, my relationships, exercise, making music, and the rest, is really about maintaining emotional balance. Ultimately, if I’m not happy, what’s the point of any of it? When I feel myself going in a painful direction, usually anxiety or depression, I remind myself to “keep coming back,” first to the most basic thing: mindfulness of my present-moment emotional experience. This doesn’t mean trying to fix anything or do anything about it, just be present with it, trusting that mindfulness itself will begin the healing process. Once I’ve grounded myself in the present moment experience, I can begin to address the causes and conditions behind the current state. Is there something I’m doing or not doing that’s creating this negative state? Is there some skillful response I can bring, or do I just need to “rest in awareness” of the mood?
Staying in the present moment with all my experience is the most fundamental “coming back” that I can do. Life happens here and now. Ultimately my addiction was an attempt to run away from reality. So, my recovery means not just coming back to meetings, but coming back to life.