Sunday Sermon [Redemption Song]

Hola mi Gente,
I usually post this around this time of year… it’s a Thanksgiving tradition of sorts on this blog. Sometimes, when I think this too self-indulgent, or passé (I am a walking cliché, it seems), someone will send me a message usually beginning like so: “I read your blog and I never comment… ” (LOL!) And it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.

Redemption Song

C11-713225My life is my message

 

The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. And believe me: my life has been pretty much strange. Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning for me, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning.

On one level, my development as a person of the Puerto Rican diaspora was marked by holidays that were always an opportunity to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, we Puerto Ricans — or at least my family and the community I was raised in — subverted the mythical (actually genocidal) Thanksgiving and give it their own meaning. And as humans, that’s what we do best, we create meaning.

Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.

However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was on this day twenty-seven years ago that I experienced the first of a series of awakenings that would drastically change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and it often happens that it falls on or near Thanksgiving Day. A couple of weeks before that fateful day, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk (it’s not easy to jump off that damned bridge), I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong Nor’easter wind knocked me back on my ass to the pedestrian walkway. I saw this inability to take myself off the count as the ultimate failure which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.

I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing that White Lady, Heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, condemning myself to chase drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. In fact, I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.

And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was so miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense — an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my pain and despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.

If you are wondering, I fed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor, motherfucker.” This occurred in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, whatever the reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be “assistant suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away. I called after him, letting him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die. And, I thought, I could do nothing right.

That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that cold, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from New York City’s infamous jail, Rikers Island, for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.

I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death, and many challenges, but also contains an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know from personal experience that even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from socially constructed or self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. To a degree, we all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.

No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly. I try to live a life centered on compassion for others, personal growth, self-actualization, and passion for social change.

On that day, twenty-seven ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself for me today. These past few years have been challenging. A lot of that has to do with being unemployed. At one point, I almost lost all my property in storage, my cellphone had been cut off, I was living with my sister… well, you get the idea. Yet, I still managed to maintain some measure of sanity and actually find some serenity. In the midst of all my problems, I never picked up a drug and was even able to find some measure of happiness. It’s a happiness independent of any person, place, or thing. On the surface I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, depressed, disgusted — I can be experiencing any number of attachments — but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

On that day twenty-seven years ago, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in experiencing complete obliteration I became open to something more than my small self. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as the void was in reality my innate and boundless potential as a human being.

I am genuinely grateful. As I said before, I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection (the full catastrophe!). I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift — probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song — a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-seven years ago. Today I woke up and I am… here… and for that I am most grateful.

May you all have as much to be thankful.

My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…

Labels: Addiction, Freedom, Hope, Hungry Ghosts, Recovery, Redemption, Self-actualization, Substance Abuse

Excerpt: … after being released from New York City’s infamous penal colony, Rikers Island, for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.

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The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step Two]

Hola mi Gente,
Many people take issue with 12 step fellowships, calling them cults and ineffective. I don’t care to debate that here. I don’t know if the following will get you clean, but it is what helped me recover and it’s a set of principles that continue to guide my evolution as a human being.

These posts are best read in order. My take on the first step can be found here.

Faith and our Deepest Experience

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We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
— The Second Step, Narcotics Anonymous

 

As most who read these pages know, I am an addict in recovery. I’ve been clean (yes, clean, not sober!), one day at a time (sometimes one breath at a time), for going on more than 26 years. What follows is a narrative of my journey toward wholeness. I don’t know if this will work for you, but if you were to ask me, this is how I got clean and recovered my life. My story is extreme and you might find it hard to identify with some of its elements. All I ask is that you try to identify with rather than compare my story. As they say in the rooms: listen to the message and not the mess.

I believe all people, regardless of whether they are addicts or not, can benefit from a rigorous application of the 12 Steps.

So take a thorough First Step and what happens? We’re stuck in a bad place. I mean, c’mon now, coming to the full and painful realization that my way of doing things was fundamentally fucked up wasn’t a revelation that filled me up with spiritual joy. Furthermore, my bottom had me staring at some very harsh consequences. The last time I took a drug or drink, I was in detention and looking at a possible 15-year prison sentence. Talk about despair.

But years before I got to that mess, the first time I read this step, I literally walked away from Narcotics Anonymous. My understanding of the core principle of this step, faith, at that time caused me a lot of discomfort. I am not a religious person, nor do I believe in a patriarchal God-in-the-sky. To make matters worse, as I continued reading down the steps, I kept seeing the “God” word and the phrase “Higher Power” and I decided then that it was bullshit.

Consequently, I went through the five worst years of my life. The second issue I had with this step was the implication that I was insane — restore us to sanity. Years later, when in desperation I came back to NA, I did so with a more open mind. But I still had major issues with this step…

My sponsor at the time suggested that I simply commit to keeping an open mind and to make this process a personal search. The beauty of Narcotics Anonymous is that the fellowship doesn’t demand you do anything. There are no “thou shalts,” no “shoulds.” As part of taking this step, my sponsor suggested I do a close reading and learn the terms. One of the first things I liked about the step the second time around was how it starts, “came… ” and then, “came to… ,” then, “came to believe… ” In a very real way I was finally coming to my senses — I was awakening. The opposite of despair is hope and I came to understand that hope is what the Second Step offered me.

Faith was a harder score to settle, but there are enough agnostics and even atheists who are recovering addicts because the Twelve Steps allow for a kind of spiritual democracy. You do not have to believe in anything, or join any religion. You do not even have to apply the steps. They are simply suggestions and since whenever I followed my own suggestions, I usually experienced tremendous suffering, I figured it was time for me to listen to some alternative proposals.

There are many different meanings of faith. At one extreme, there is the more common understanding of faith as blind faith, but that’s just one way of looking at faith. There are degrees of faith. In fact, we all have daily moments of faith and belief. We have faith, for example, that when we turn on the faucet, water will flow. We have faith that our car will start, or that a toaster will work. We also have many beliefs. We believe, for example, that we have a personality. Actually, many of us believe we are our personality, though, scientifically speaking, there’s no brain center that organizes personality. Your personality is a set of beliefs and quirks that you constructed in order to operate in the everyday world. Similarly, scientists have faith in reason and logic to solve problems.

Shit, some of us believe that if we shove money inside of hole in the wall (as many of us did in the 1980s when we copped reefer or heroin), a bag of dope will materialize. LOL! I’m not kidding. Back in the day, the way you copped drugs was that you’d stick your hand with your money in a hole and a hand with bag would come out. I had complete faith in that transaction.

So early on in my recovery process, faith for me had to mean a temporary suspension of disbelief. What that means is that I made an agreement with myself to keep an open mind. Sometimes faith can mean trust. I came to believe that the spiritual principles of hope, freedom, and willingness would restore me to sanity. And believe me, by the second time around, I knew I was insane.

I have been studying human behavior for over a two decades now, and the best definition of insanity I have come across is: doing the same actions and expecting different results. Even an infant knows better not to stick his hand in the socket after the first go-round. But as adults we oftentimes commit the same behaviors — especially in the area of relationships — expecting different results.

Sometimes faith can mean trust in a teaching, or self-confidence. As a Buddhist, my Higher Power is the Dharma (The Law), a clearly defined set of ethical and cognitive principles. In sports, a group can develop faith in their ability as a team to overcome extreme odds. In that same way, I came to believe that the fellowship and principles of Narcotics Anonymous could restore me to sanity. Why? Because I was seeing people in the fellowship taking back their lives. People all around me were helping heal themselves and one another. I have been to NA meetings where a particular individual cried in despair because she couldn’t pay her rent, then see her cry in joy once again several months later because she was able to pay her rent.

Initially, my Higher Power was the group. I came to believe that what I couldn’t do alone we could do together. Like a team. Eventually, my spirituality would evolve and I would come to embrace Buddhism as my path. The historical Buddha didn’t make any claims to divinity and his last words, as he lay dying (of all things, food poisoning) were, “… be a lamp unto yourself.” What that means to me is that ultimately, you must walk your path. It means that sayings, scriptures, or instructions alone will not save you. Ultimately, if you want to awaken, to come to your full realization as a human being, you must walk your path — whatever that path entails.

And that’s what the second step helped me begin. It helped begin to walk the walk, trusting in my experience that I could be restored to sanity by a power greater than myself. The Second Step helped me come to a different understanding of faith, one that wasn’t associated with dogma or religion. I wanted a faith that encouraged and emphasized love and respect for ourselves as a foundation. I wanted to experience a faith that uncovered our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart. The faith I came to know as part of my recovery process and that I describe in this post does not require a blind faith or even a belief system; it is not necessarily connected to a God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith I speak of is not a commodity we either have or don’t have — it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.

My name is Eddie and I’m recovery from civilization…

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, please consider helping me out by sharing it, liking me on Facebook, following me on Twitter, or even throwing me some money on GoFundMe HERE or via PayPal HERE so I can keep calling it like I see it.

Resources

Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break and try something new, it just might save your life…

Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website

Narcotics Anonymous: Official website

Books I have found useful:

Allione, Tsultrim (2008) Feeding your demons: Ancient wisdom for resolving inner conflict. (click here)

Ash, Mel (1993) The Zen of recovery (click here)

Chodron, Pema (2005) When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times (click here)

Griffin, Kevin (2004) One breath at a time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (click here)

Z., Philip (1990) A skeptic’s guide to the 12 Steps (click here)

Note: The featured artwork is by Ben’h Usry.

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step One]

Hola mi Gente,
I realize there are many people who see the 12-step movement as a cult, as misguided, or as a failure. That’s fine. I have no interest in debating the merits of NA/ AA or in trying to convince anyone to join. What follows is my experience as someone who’s been free from active addiction for 26+ years. I do, however, believe anyone can benefit from practicing the principles that form the foundation of the 12 Steps…

Every first Sunday, I will post my attempt to translate these principles for the general public. Also, if you’re suffering, please know that there is hope after dope… There are links to resources at the end of this post.

Stopping the War

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We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
— The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous

 

I was once told that these spiritual principles were as a bridge back to life. What I didn’t know then was that this bridge is built on the very bones of those who came before me. This series of posts is an attempt to honor that lineage.

The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every NA step begins with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and that contradiction in terms perfectly described my state of mind.

Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action — it is an experiential approach. Every step involves growth, exploration, and some measure of action. I think people who have never attended a meeting have misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships.

People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands and deepens as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…

There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the First Step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in twelve-step fellowships. The act of admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, at one point in my life I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. But that admission and $2.75 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it is worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step, acceptance, that I was then able to make changes in my life.

The more NA meetings I attended, the more I heard my own story being told by others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my addictive behaviors. On the other hand, it took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.

Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. At least that was what I told myself. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life corrected themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of using intravenously, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. The irrefutable truth was that no matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.

Imagine a machinery part that was made to perform only one action, or to move in only one direction, or in one specific way. No matter how much you oil that part, no matter how much you try to make it more efficient or move faster, it will still perform how it was meant to function. If a part was meant to move back and forth, for example, no amount of lubrication will make it move sideways. Similarly, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. My will was fucked up, meant to move in a specific direction and no exertion of that will could bring about lasting change. In fact, my will often brought more destruction.

Simply put, I came to the realization that if I wanted to change, I needed to develop new tools, to come to terms that will alone wasn’t getting it done. And what that really meant for me was that in order to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.

The First Step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero (or errant knight), most heroes begin reluctantly, clumsily, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their ordinary lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself — my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step freed me to begin my quest for self-knowledge and transformation.

Admitting to powerlessness was a long and slow process; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. Instead of willfulness, what I needed was willingness. It’s part of what is often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.

The common misconception about the first step for those who have never tried to apply it is that it is defeatist. The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. Powerlessness is not uncommon, in fact, and if we open our eyes, we realize that we have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. As we Northerners brace ourselves for a cold winter as I write this, I understand completely that I can’t stop the snow, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that preparation is a lot better than trying to control the elements. Another thing we have no power over is how others act or think, yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. Oftentimes, we don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.

The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender. You have to take refuge.

As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In reflecting in this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of my life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.

I was also confronted with the insanity of an obsession that led to compulsion and how my fight would be futile until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you, or an aspect of yourself, will always lose.

Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little relationship to reality. There were countless times during my active addiction, for example, that I would experience a blackout. A blackout doesn’t entail being unconscious or comatose. In a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life — while conscious.

A blackout is similar to what I imagine a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one time-space continuum and the next, you’re somewhere else and what’s horrifying is that you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time coming out of a blackout, I had a whole house-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (I was at an engagement party) and that kind of pissed a few people off. I once emerged out of a blackout in a different state and different year having lost track of several days. It happened during an extended New Year’s Eve celebration. Several days later, I woke up in a strange house, sleeping next to a strange woman and I had no inkling where I was or what day.

I used to laugh and brag about that (it’s still funny on one level) but it was a horrifying experience. Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I rationalized, it was that other people were too stuck up or rigid, and besides, I know that bitch at the engagement party wanted me. Perhaps you may have never experienced this extreme form of powerlessness, but have you ever had a situation spiral out of control to the point that you were at a loss?

Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees — from hopelessly addicted, being confined in institutions, and even close to death — and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that?

More than anything, I realized as I became clean did the inner work, that I was addicted to insanity. If my life was going too smoothly, or things were going my way, or I had too many successes going on, I would find a way to sabotage that. I would pick a fight at a bar, or destroy an intimate relationship, or simply disappear. I didn’t know what it meant to have a measure of serenity or consistency in my life. I didn’t know how to cope with that.

Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. The problem was that I just could never stay stopped. It was never hard kicking a habit. But addiction, I soon learned, was not merely about substance abuse. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 after having been released from a Rikers Island jail for exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat.

I would say that’s unmanageable…

However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability manifests in our lives. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re being a little self-destructive or even slowly killing ourselves (cigarettes anyone?), suffering needlessly, or causing ourselves or our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the compulsive need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived it makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places, the places that scare us.

Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. For example, in my job search one of the things that help keeps me sane is that I realize I have no power over outcomes. I cannot control how other people behave, or the decisions they make. My power is in the effort that I put in to my job search. Anything else, I have no power over that.

Addictions like to migrate. One might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the inner work, applying these principles in all your affairs, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but a way of thinking.

Eventually, I began to conceptualize the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that while you can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, please consider helping me out by sharing it, liking me on Facebook, following me on Twitter, or even throwing me some money on GoFundMe HERE or via PayPal HERE so I can keep calling it like I see it.

Resources

Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break, and try something new, it just might save your life…

Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website

Narcotics Anonymous: Official website

Allione, T (2008) Feeding your demons: Ancient wisdom for resolving inner conflict. (click here)

Chodron, P. (2005) When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times (click here)

Note: The featured artwork is from Ben’h Usry.

Redemption Song

Hola mi Gente,
I usually post this around this time of year… it’s a Thanksgiving tradition of sorts on this blog. Sometimes, when I think this too self-indulgent, or passé (I am a walking cliché, it seems), someone will send me a message usually beginning like so: “I read your blog and I never comment… ” (LOL!) And it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.

Redemption Song

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My life is my message

 

The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. And believe me: my life has been pretty much “strange.” Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning for me, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning.

First, there is the glossing over the very real consequences of colonialism, the mythical version of Thanksgiving creates a fairy tale out of land theft, betrayal, brutality, and genocide, functioning to erase the very real and traumatic experiences of entire indigenous nations. This whitewashing and outright erasure of indigenous history is not only inhumane and oppressive to indigenous people, it is also unfair to all U.S. citizens who stand to learn from a rich and equally tragic history.

On another level, people of Puerto Rican descent have traditionally taken US holidays and used them as opportunities to express our own cultural identity. For example, Puerto Ricans will eschew the traditional holiday fare of turkey and potatoes and substitute lechon and pasteles, Puerto Rican culinary staples. If we do cook turkey, we cook it pavo-chon-style — a turkey prepared in a manner that makes it taste like lechon (pork suckling). Also, the holidays are always a chance to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, Puerto Ricans subvert the mythical (actually genocidal) Thanksgiving and give it their own meaning. And as humans, that’s what we do best, we create meaning.

Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.

However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was on this day twenty-six years ago that I experienced the first of a series of “spiritual awakenings” that would drastically change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and it often happens that it falls on or near Thanksgiving Day. A couple of weeks before that fateful day, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk (it’s not easy to jump off that damned bridge!), I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong Nor’easter wind knocked me back on my ass to the pedestrian walkway. I saw this as the ultimate failure which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.

I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing that White Lady, Heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, condemning myself to chase drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. In fact, I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.

And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was so miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense — an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my pain and despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.

If you are wondering, I fed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor, motherfucker.” This occurred in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, whatever the reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be “assistant suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away. I called after him, letting him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die. And, I thought, I could do nothing right.

That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that cold, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from New York City’s infamous jail, Rikers Island, for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.

I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death, and many challenges, but also contains an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from socially constructed or self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. To a degree, we all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.

No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly. I try to live a life centered on compassion for others, personal growth, self-actualization, and passion for social change.

On that day, twenty-six ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself for me today. The past year has been one of the most challenging for me in a long time. A lot of that has to do with being unemployed. Today, I will most likely lose all my property in storage, my cell has been cut off, and I’m living in… well, you get the idea. Yet, I am for the most part happy today. It’s a happiness independent of any person, place, or thing. On the surface I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, disgusted — I can be experiencing any number of attachments — but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

On that day, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in experiencing complete obliteration I became open to something more than my small self. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as the void was in reality my innate and boundless potential as a human being.

I am genuinely grateful. As I said before, this past year, as with all years, has been a challenging. I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection (the full catastrophe!). I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift — probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song — a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-five years ago. Today I woke up and I am… here… and for that I am most grateful.

May you all have as much to be thankful for.

My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…

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Sunday Sermon [Sh!t Happens]

Hola Everybody,
I had the pleasure attending the 10th Annual Citizens Against Recidivism Awards dinner and being around some very powerful people . It is an important function because it is about those who have been incarcerated recognizing the accomplishments of formerly incarcerated visionaries, bridge-builders, researchers, and advocates.

Too often, we only hear about formerly incarcerated people when we do something wrong. We never hear about those who have returned to their communities to create organizations, organized for social justice, address violence, and have given of their time to make the world a better place.

Personally, I feel honored to have been a recipient of the advocacy award. Further, I am honored to be part of a group of people who have emerged from the ugliness and dehumanization whole and full of light that they share freely.

When Shit Happens

10-23-16_-sunday-sermon-shit-happens

 

When I was a much younger man, I worked with a group that loved to play pranks. Of course, I was a leader of that pack. While visiting one of my friends, I got in into my head to order a truckload of sand and have it sent to my other friend’s home across the street. My friend’s father had a lawn that he loved more than his own son, and that upped the wow factor up a few notches. My accomplice/ friend upped the ante even more when he suggested we change the order from sand to fertilizer. Pure genius!

We made the call, put in the order for a truckload of fertilizer, and gave our friend’s address across the street. We sat by the window and waited…

A while passed and we saw the truck pull up to our co-worker’s residence and then something happened we didn’t plan for: the driver dumped the fertilizer right there on the lawn!

This took the prank to a whole other level. We were beside ourselves with laughter. The sight of our co-worker’s mother running out and then his father and the ensuing argument was priceless. Then our friend came out, looked around and it hit him that he was being pranked. We could see the look on his face!

I know, I know, it’s fucked up, immature, and yeah, it was wrong, but we were young, and dumb. Shit happens all the time. The Buddhists have a pretty cool teaching story/ metaphor for this truism.

Imagine you’re having a beautiful day at home with your spouse. All of sudden, out of the blue, you realize someone has dumped a truckload of shit on your front lawn. There are four realities to this situation:

  • You did not order it. It’s not your fault.
  • You’re stuck with it. No one saw who dumped it, so you can’t call anyone to tow it away.
  • It’s filthy and offensive, the aroma fills your whole house. It’s almost impossible to endure.
  • No, I didn’t order it.

In this metaphor, the truckload of shit on your front lawn symbolizes the traumatic experiences that are dumped on us in this life. As with the truckload of shit, there are four things to know about the tragedies in our lives:

  • We did not order it. It’s not our fault.
  • We’re stuck with it. No one, not even those who love us most, can take it away (though they try).
  • It is awful, it destroys our happiness, and its pain fills our life. In fact, at times it feels as if it almost impossible to endure
  • No, I didn’t cause it.

Taking into consideration the above realities, there are several ways we can respond when shit happens. The first way (and this seems the most popular) is to carry the shit around with us. Some of us put the shit we’re handed in our pockets, and in our baggage. We even put some down in our pants. What happens is that some of us quickly realize carrying shit around leads to the loss of many friends. Even your best friends don’t like the smell of shit.

“Carrying around shit” is a metaphor for falling for the seduction of depression, anger, or negativity. This isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s a natural and understandable response to adversity. But our loved ones disappear because it equally natural and understandable that our friends don’t like being around us when we’re so depressed. The smell of shit often gets worse, not better.

But there is another response we can choose. When we find that we’ve been handed a truckload of shit, we can acknowledge the tribulation, sigh, and then get to working. We can bring out the tools and shovel the shit into our wheelbarrow, wheel it and dig it into our garden. This hard, exhausting, and often very difficult work, but deep down we know there’s no better option.

Some days, we can barely fill our barrow. But the fact that we’re doing something about the problem helps lift us out of our depression. Every day, we dig into that shit, and the pile begins to get smaller. Sometimes it takes years, but the time comes that the shit on your front lawn is all gone. In addition, something else has happened. The flowers in our garden are bursting out in a riot of color all over the place. The sweet perfume wafts down so that your neighbors and even people passing through smile in delight.

Your fruits and vegetables are nearly bursting with ripe fullness. In addition, the fruit is so sweet, you can’t possibly buy anything like it at the local supermarket. We share those gifts freely, even with strangers, without planning to, or expecting anything in return.

“Digging into the shit” is a metaphor for welcoming the tragedies of life. It is work that we often have to do alone — though for deep shit, we might need some assistance. Some trauma needs to be addressed skillfully and we don’t always have the right tools. But toiling in the garden of our solitude, day by day, lessens our pain. When we have lived through tragic pain, learned its lesson for us, and toiled, then we can put our arms around another experiencing deep loss and say softly say to them, “I know.” And they will realize that you understand. It is here that compassion begins. We can show them the gardening tools and offer them encouragement. But if we haven’t grown our own garden, this is a hidden gift we cannot offer.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step 6]

Hola mi Gente,
Today: my continuation of the series on the 12 steps.

Willingness

06-09-16_ The 12 Steps [Step 6]

We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
— Step Six of Narcotics Anonymous

The readiness is all.
— William Shakespeare

 

I believe that the concept of willingness is one that isn’t given its rightful due — especially when it comes to relationships. Willingness here not being the narrowly defined ego-will we might think of when we think of “will” or “will power.”

Willingness is important enough in everything we endeavor to do whether it be spirituality, self-improvement, learning, relationships, etc. Our willingness or lack thereof, is key in all our activities.

I remember reading somewhere, or someone telling me (I forget which), that it was not enough to believe, that there had to be a willing to believe. At that time, I was a bit confused about this, “Does this mean willpower?” I asked myself. This was during my early process of attempting a relationship with myself, which I will define here as my spiritual journey. Over time, I have come to understand willingness differently. For me, willingness entails two important components. One is surrender, the other acceptance.

Surrender/ Acceptance

By surrender I don’t mean hopelessness or humiliation, or “giving up.” Surrender, in this context, is knowing, in a very deep sense, that the concept of total control is flawed and ineffective. Surrender in this sense is clearing the way to create an open space and preparing myself to be in more harmony with the world. Realizing that there are aspects of my life over which I have no control, I can become ready to be changed by surrendering to this truth. In surrender, I become ready (willing) to be changed.

That makes all the difference…

I can be wrong, but my own experience has shown me that love — true love — is about change, about transformation. It is about the willingness to let go of character traits that hold us back. It’s only when we try to control the process that it eludes our grasp. I could be wrong, though.

But surrender is not enough. We have not arrived at true willingness unless it contains another ingredient — acceptance. When I accept the truth of surrender I am already changed, I am more in line with nature and the universe. I can’t force family harmony into my life, but I can become ready to be harmonious. I can’t make a lasting love appear for me on command, but I can become ready (willing) for such a relationship when the opportunity arises.

Willingness is what I look for most in a relationship. It’s more important than looks or attitude, or sexual prowess — all of that is meaningless without willingness. When I first read internet profiles on dating sites that go on at length about the qualities being sought, I am completely, utterly amazed. Sometimes it seems that some of us are looking for “The One” who will fit our wish list of qualities. Here’s my Christmas wish list, Santa! It’s as if we’re still little boys and girls buying into the fairy tales of perfection

But my question to you is really quite simple: are you ready to surrender? Are you truly willing? Are you willing to become completely vulnerable and naked? Because what I am striving for is to become ready — not perfect, nor to satisfy a superficial list of ego needs and wants. So, my question for you is…

Are you ready?

My name I Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

The 12 Steps for Everybody [Step Five]

Hola, mi gente,
Every month, I dedicate a post to one of the steps of Narcotics Anonymous. These posts are by no means intended as extensive exploration of recovery. They are merely brief expression of my strengths, hopes, and experiences culled from my ongoing journey toward recovery.

Step Five: The Heart of Kindness

05-25-16_ 12 Steps [Step Five]

Step Five: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

 

Recap time!

First, we explored what I call the “Recovery Cha Cha Cha” — the first three steps that serve as the foundation to recovery and freedom from addiction. Step 1 (here) confronted me with the major contradiction in my life: how I managed to feel powerful when, in fact, I was powerless and needed help.

Step 2 (here) challenged my grandiosity. I have heard it said that addicts are egomaniacs with low self-esteem and I couldn’t put it any better than that. My low self-esteem pushed me to inflate my ego, but all I ever felt inside was emptiness and feelings of worthlessness.

Step 3 (here) helped me see that my efforts at control were in actuality ways of sabotaging myself. Ultimately, I can only take responsibility for myself leaving the rest to my Higher Power however I defined it.

Lastly, the Fourth Step (here) gave me the gift of self-knowledge. By reviewing in detail my fears, desires, thoughts, motives, and actions, seeing how they created wreckage, I was better able to uncover the patterns of behavior that sabotaged my efforts at living with a measure of sanity.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and I can still remember the ritual Saturday confessionals. We would tease our friends and cousins if they took too long in the confessional because we all knew that meant there was a lot of sinning goin’ on. LOL Still, the feeling of catharsis that always accompanied a confession was always refreshing. Always, the priest listened quietly and no matter what you said or admitted to, it was taken in stride, with no judgment. The message, at least for me anyway, was that no one was ever truly beyond redemption.

As much as I dreaded the Fourth Step, the Fifth Step was the scariest for me. Shame was acting as an obstacle against my journey to freedom. In Step five, we are asked to bare our soul to our Higher Power (as we understood it), ourselves, and another human being. Reveal all, put it all out there, and take the risk of coming face to face with our shadow and dragging it out into the open.

Secrets and shame are two of the hallmarks of the cycle of addiction. Many of us come from families in which addiction was a way of life. Throughout our developmental years and beyond, many of us feared outsiders would see us and our “horrible” families truthfully, so we developed coping skills that developed into strategies of denial. Step Five, people, was my first taste of true freedom. And recovery isn’t about putting down a drug or a drink — recovery is about freedom from active addiction.

Period.

Still, I can’t possibly share my most shameful secrets with another human being, I thought to myself. Surely, no one has ever done the despicable things I had done. I was stuck at Step Five for sure. Eventually I came to learn an important truth, and I feel this applies to anyone, not just addicts. When we try to carry the load alone, we suffer needlessly. And in an unconscious manner, in seeking relief from that load, sometimes we will accuse even our loved ones and friends of the very character defects we are desperately attempting to conceal. Psychological relief never comes from confessing the “sins” of other people. Everybody has to come to terms with their own.

The practice of confessing, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another person is not new; it’s an ancient spiritual practice, in fact. And religion is by no means the sole advocate for this principle, contemporary Western psychology has long ago acknowledged the value the profound need every human being has for practical insight and knowledge of their personality flaws.

After much thought, I decided to share my Fifth Step with a Jesuit priest who was a recovering addict himself. This priest, who I will call Eddie, was one of the kindest persons I have ever met. And he was far from the stereotypical clergyman. He sometimes cussed, for example, and he smoked cigarettes. Most of all, like many truly spiritual people I have met, he had a great, evolved sense of humor.

As I began sharing my Fifth Step with Father Eddie, he just listened. He was present, listening to everything and I felt there was no judgment. In fact, he kept nodding as I read off my list and sometimes sharing that he had committed some of the same acts himself. At other times, we would laugh together at some of the things on my list. Eventually, I was able to share fully, without holding back, and all the fear and shame seemed as if it were being washed away. I felt accepted and unburdened. Most of all, I felt relieved of the “burden of self.”

The first great insight during the sharing of my Fifth Step was that I wasn’t as unique or terrible or horrible as I thought. Yes, I had committed many wrongs, but I wasn’t the only human being to commit those acts, and being held in the cradle of kindness — in the heart of the heart of kindness — I came to know my first taste of true freedom. The 12 Steps aren’t about formulating ideas about freedom, they compel us to act on the practice of freedom. The 12 Steps are experiential exercises, action steps, taken toward personal and communal liberation.

Taking Step Five freed me from the chains of my shame and secrecy. I realized that I was a good person at heart and being freed from a repressive morality, I was able to become a moral agent in my life. Most of all, you have to understand, the Steps are about compassion, not punishment. The Steps can be the start of cultivating loving compassion toward ourselves. Personally, it was liberating to discover that my very vulnerability, that uncomfortable sensation of being exposed, is actually the bridge to deeper connections to myself and others. It’s called emotional safety, and what that means is dropping the shame and the sham and committing to being as translucent as possible. And now, all these years after my first Fifth Step, emotional safety and genuine intimacy is the norm among the circle of my dearest friends.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…