Learn

“Suspend your judgment, and every being has something to teach you.” – Qui-Gon Jinn

One of the greatest mistakes that can be made is to reject something out of hand, without any consideration. More often than not we pass judgement on others before we have gotten to know them, we decide on an issue before we have all the facts. As a result we deny ourselves an opportunity to learn something new. We close our minds.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” – Desiderata

Another mistake is to not try new things. To blindly follow one way and ignore all others deprives us of the chance to further grow in our recovery.

Evolve

I am a strong believer in the precept “take what you need and leave the rest”.  To place labels on myself is to make a statement “this is who I am”. Who I am actually changes constantly. There is no definitive “I am”. We are not who we were yesterday and we will not be the same tomorrow. Our lives are bombarded constantly with information. With every experience our perception of the world changes and sometimes our view point can change dramatically. The way I viewed my own life, spirituality, God and recovery five years ago is very very different to the way I view it now. I have no doubt it will continue to evolve.

As I change, so do my needs.

Sometimes the main challenge is to sift through the information and decide what to take on board and what to reject. The beauty of a practical philosophy for life is that we embrace the chance to learn and try new things. We adopt what works and drop what does not in the now. Dogma and doctrine does not bind the Jedi.

Everyone has heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. It is true that with age we become wiser and more set in our ways. We are more judging and skeptical. Fortunately most of us also accept that we don’t know everything, the problem is we are often reluctant to change. However change we must.

Listen and Learn

The fellowship of the 12 steps program is a thing of beauty. I can sit in a room and listen to complete strangers tell their story and share their hope and dreams for a sober life. Every story is unique and carries a message. Every person who speaks adds to the collective experience in the room and contributes to the recovery of others. We all listen with open ears and open hearts. We may not agree with everything that is said, but we listen, consider and decide what to take from the share. Every share is an opportunity to learn.

The truth is we never stop learning and very often the most valuable lessons come from the most unlikely places. My children for example have taught me more about empathy, compassion and tolerance than I thought possible. They also taught me to be a kid again. Friends, companions and co-workers teach us in ways we often overlook. The fellow alcoholic in the 12 step meeting teaches me a lot, especially to never forget. Sometimes I also wish I could be the person my Dog thinks I am. Pets are a gift. They teach us to be gentle, kind, loyal and attentive, to love unconditionally.

Share to Keep

It has taken a long time for me to realize that I don’t know everything and that we never stop learning. Old dogs can learn new tricks. I have also come to learn that everyone I encounter in my life leaves an imprint on me in someway.

We should never ignore “even the dull and the ignorant”.  I also often wonder if everyone who has enters and leaves our life was meant to. That some sort of serendipitous fate exists that brings souls together for their mutual benefit and growth. When that soul benefit is gained they move apart.

I learned so much about myself during my years of active alcoholism and I learned more during recovery. Every experience has made me the person I am today. My role now is to continue to learn from every angle but also to share what I’ve learned along the way.

So I will share what I think I know and if someone suspends their judgement, hears me out and benefits from that then it’s all been worth it.

Training is Life

 

Training to be a Jedi is not an easy challenge, and even if you succeed, it’s a hard life.” – Qui-Gon Jinn

Life is Suffering

Life is hard and so is recovery. Our daily practices, applying principles and proactively working on self improvement all take effort. Change was never meant to be easy. It can be damn hard. Sometimes it can take everything you have.

The Jedi had a training program which included years of Temple Study in Lore, Ethics, History and Diplomacy as well as physical and martial arts training. There were long hours of meditation and light saber combat. The Jedi student was assigned to a Jedi Knight who acted as mentor and teacher. The apprenticeship lasted as long as was required to satisfy the Jedi Council of the Jedi’s competency. There were also trials the Jedi student had to pass. Training continued for life and Jedi rose in rank as they demonstrated mastery and skill. The Jedi also realized that even after hundreds of years of dedicated training they had not learned everything there was to know.

In recovery there is no graduation day or total mastery where we claim a cure from alcoholism and the problems of life. We may be recovered and strong in our sobriety however we are not immune from life. We can never truly rarely say we are cured and then return to drinking assured that we will be able to drink normally. There is always doubt, we might relapse back in to alcoholism. We don’t know everything and we never will. There is always more to learn so even the wisest and most experienced old timer never stops learning. If one is wise he will not grow arrogant and drink again.

To claim “complete mastery” over any subject and announce that there is nothing more to learn is fool hardy at best, dangerous at worst.

The Best School in the World

I like to say that the only alma mater that matters is the “school of hard knocks”. After years of formal study and training in various professions my greatest life lessons have come out of the hard experiences in life. The let downs, the disappointments and rejections, the failures and falls. The Buddha said that life is comprised of 10 000 joys and 10 000 sorrows. We shed a torrent of tears in a life time. We all experience the suffering of life. The experience makes us smarter and stronger. We learn from our mistakes and our misfortunes. In doing so we grow.

Some of these times in our life truly sucked, they were hard and tough but we got through them and they made us a better person. An old Martial Arts instructor once told me that anyone can wear a black belt. They cost a few dollars but only the person who has poured heart and soul in to their training can claim any meaning to that milestone. Its not the belt, but the pain, suffering and perseverance that it represents which matters. The black belt takes years to earn through dedicated training and application but only a moment to lose through poor choices. The Sensei can take it away at anytime, it is a distinction not an entitlement.

You only get out of life what you put in. Hard work will always pay off in the end.

In the same way I view sobriety. My sobriety is a “daily reprieve contingent to the maintenance of my spiritual condition“. What exactly does that mean? To me it means I must work daily to ensure that I get through each day. My aim is to improve with every day, to rise each day a better person than I was yesterday. I do this through Training and practical application of what I have learned. I know that if I become complacent and drop the ball I may backslide, I can end up back in the hole I put myself in all those years ago.

Daily Practice

My daily routine is a simple one but it does take effort. The benefits cannot be understated. Very often what we most need is routine and a set of goals. The best way to set goals is to break them down. With simple and achievable targets that challenge you, you will progress. Over time you ratchet up the effort a little. Always start slow but be consistent and work to improve.

My daily routine comprises of practices I have adopted from the 12 Steps, the Jedi Path and the Stoics. Feel free to come up with your own program and stick to it for a while, then modify if required to suit your lifestyle, limitations and needs.

Morning

  • On rising, practice a short period of gratitude. Remind yourself of one or two things you have to be grateful for as you come in to this day.
  • Welcome the  day. A new day means new opportunity. Be thankful for it. Every morning I try to greet the sunrise in its splendor. Otherwise I take a quiet moment and imagine the sun coming up over the horizon. I take a moment to contemplate the grand scale of the cosmos and infinite time and to remember that I choose life.
  • Spend a minute as you get ready for work or your days activities to plan the day. Set in your mind or on paper three things you aim to achieve today.
  • Consider the things that may go wrong. Remind yourself that through the day you will encounter people who are rude and obstinate and your plans may get derailed. Resolve not to let them beat you down.
  • Do my daily Readings.

During the Day

  • Do one act of kindness every day to someone. It can be anything, random or predetermined; an offer of assistance or help to someone struggling with a load, giving up my seat on the bus, a simple courtesy such as opening the door. A smile or kind word or an act of charity.
  • Deny myself something nice or practice some form of denial to remind myself not to get too attached to comforts and ease. I practice periodic intermittent fasting on occasion. In addition to reminding myself that food is a precious resource not to be taken for granted I find that occasional fasting makes me feel better. I may decide to leave my jacket at home on a cold day. Run the occasional cold shower!
  • Take a moment to undertake negative visualization. Consider a realistic scenario that might occur which could ultimately change your life or at least make it unpleasant. This could include ill health, unemployment, poverty, ridicule or hate from others, betrayal by friends or colleagues. Imagine yourself dealing with the situation and overcoming it; see yourself practicing acceptance and equanimity.
  • Do at least 30 minutes of exercise or physical training (this can also be in the morning or evening). Remember to have rest days to avoid over training (Stretch / Yoga on off days).

Evening

  • Spend at least 20 minutes in meditation (this can also be during the day or in the morning).
  • Review the day, what went right, what went wrong and consider how I can improve.
  • Journal my thoughts.
  • Take some quiet time, relax.
  • Thank the Force for another day.

Vision

Your eyes can deceive you.Don’t trust them” – Obi-Wan Kenobi “Episode 4: A New Hope”.

What do we perceive when we see with our eyes? Most people would say that what is seen is what exists. That our eyes do not deceive us. Vision is more than just the eyes.

The eye are only one of the five senses that help with orienting the body in space. The eyes project light emitted by “reality” as colors, depth and shapes to receptors in the retina. The receptors then convert the light signals in to electrical signals which are then conveyed to the part of the brain in the visual cortex where they are processed as images and interpreted by the brain.

The reality is that how We perceive something may be different between individuals. Pink and green will appear differently to different people. What I see may not appear the same to the next guy.

A time lag also exists between the moment an object is observed to the moment it is mentally processed and recognized. A bird taking flight from a branch will already have flown by the time we register it.

The stars are light years away. A star we see may in fact no longer exist. The event has not reached us yet. When we look at the Stars we are peering at the past.

Reality is an Illusion

Some scientists now suggest that reality only seems to exist because our consciousness perceives it. If consciousness did not exist then neither would the universe. If a tree falls in a forest but no one is there did it happen?

The nature of matter and energy is largely unknown. Quantum physics suggests that matter is essentially packets of energy at the fundamental sub particle level. That time and reality at that level is nonsensical and chaotic unlike the seeming order of the Universe at the cosmic level.

Physicists point out that at the atomic level resides a nucleus comprised of sub atomic particles that are essentially energy. Each nucleus is surrounded by a sphere of magnetic force in which moves electrons shifting in time and space. Matter therefore is energy which can be expressed in mathematical terms.

When I see something I am perceiving something that is not really there. When I touch something I am not really touching it, I am encountering the electrical tension of the atoms.

Use the Force

The lesson here is we should use our eyes but not to rely on them solely as a gauge of reality. Our eyes can deceive. We should make use  of all our faculties and our intuition to get a true picture.

Unlike the Fictional Jedi it is highly unlikely many of us have Force Powers that give us a heightened sense of perception. There is probably some people who posses “vision”, an ability to sense things that few of us can. Call it the third eye, sixth sense or transcendent awareness.

Scientists have postulated that our ancestors had a “third eye” at the partially dormant pineal gland. As civilization evolved and humans became separated from nature the faculty receded. Most people have some level of intuition and in children it can be quite high. Meditation, prayer and contemplation has been shown to enhance the parts of the brain involved in subconscious thought.

One thing I have noticed in recovery is a growing gradual awareness. I still need my eyes to see in front of me and to interact with my environment but the vision is deeper and sharper. With sobriety comes clarity and a heightened sense of awareness.  Reality begins to come in to sharper focus. We are no longer so easily misled by our eyes as we used to be. We are seeing with sober eyes.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Your focus determines your reality” – Qui-Gon Jinn (The Phantom Menace)

Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation have been shown to improve psychological well-being and reduce depression and anxiety. Prayer while mostly associated with religious practice is also used by people to help them cope with difficult situations or to seek guidance from a Higher Power. Meditation is also often associated with monastic or religious practice but is also increasingly being recommended as a natural treatment to those who are recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, the survivors of childhood abuse and trauma, the bereaved and those with anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is probably one of the most ubiquitous and popular methods used today to address almost any undesired mental state.

Feeling anxious or hurried? Try focusing on the breath and bringing yourself to the moment. Irritated by the driver who just cut you off in Traffic? Be mindful and smile inwardly, do not allow thoughts to cloud the serenity of the moment…Breathe…

Mindfulness, meditation, contemplation and prayer are essentially the same thing but practiced in slightly different ways and each carries a different connotation. At the basic level all are exercises in bringing the mind to the present moment and giving it the full attention that it deserves. Over the next few months we will explore each.

Besides the clear benefits to mental and emotional well-being, mindfulness practices have also been shown to effectively change the brain through neuroplasticity. Research has shown that people who devote 20 minutes daily to quiet prayer or contemplation, meditation or mindfulness will have an effect on the neural pathways of the brain and in time the organizational structure of the brain and the patterns of thought and behavior in a person will gradually change.

Meditation

Meditation is generally accepted as a formal practice of being completely aware through a process of focus on an internal or external source for a period of time. Some people imagine that meditation is a form of relaxation and reverie. Meditation is actually being completely aware of every sensation in the body, every passing thought and the external environment and having no judgment either good or bad to any of it. The body is completely relaxed and the mind is sharpened and aware. Thoughts recede in the background and awareness expands inward and outwards. A sense of joy emanates from deep within as if the body has re-discovered its natural state of being. Through Meditation you are being completely mindful. Although meditation is seen more as a formal practice of sitting in a lotus position and either focusing on the breath or repeating a mantra, Mindfulness is the state that is being achieved.

Mindfulness

You can experience and practice mindfulness in almost any situation and should strive to do so. Washing dishes, brushing your teeth, walking or running, eating food or making love are all acts that if done mindfully becomes an experience in to which you immerse yourself rather than a mindless exercise. Book stores these days are abound with coloring books that promote the practice of mindfulness through the simple act of coloring in pictures.

Being mindful in your thoughts, words and actions is also important as it clears the mind and places emphasis on purpose and in staying calm particularly during times when emotions may be charged. Mindfulness is simply applying focus and attention to the present moment. Our mind often resembles a tree full of chattering monkeys. Meditation, mindfulness and prayer silences those monkeys and puts us in touch with our higher self.

Focus is the Key

Whatever it is you are doing today, give it the full attention that it deserves. If you are conversing with a friend or family member, listen intently and notice their facial expressions, the tone of their voice and their subtle movements. Experience the food and drink you put in your mouth, taste the flavor, feel the texture and smell the aroma. Take a moment to breathe in fresh air when you step outside in the morning and pause to appreciate the sights and sounds around you rather than being preoccupied with distracting thoughts.

Say a short prayer of gratitude or affirmation to center yourself. Take a moment to breathe deeply three or four times and then to scan your body from head to toe allowing each part of the body part of relax in turn. Focus on your breath, count breaths if required and if your mind drifts gently bring it back to the breath and continue for a minute or more.

The beauty with this practice is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime whether you are sitting in a waiting room or waiting for a Bus, walking or even running. The ego would prefer that we remain disconnected from the present and confine our mind in the past or projected to the future, anywhere but now. That is the state that most people find normal, however the reality is that the opposite is true, a state of Zen is the most natural state of being that a human can achieve and it is in all of us waiting to be tapped.

Learn Humility

“You must unlearn what you have learned” – Yoda

The words by Yoda to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah pretty well summed up the Jedi Masters assessment of the young Padawan Luke. Yoda recognized so many faults and shortcomings in Luke but also much hope. The main fear was that Luke would fall in to the same emotional traps that his father Anakin displayed such as impatience, impulsiveness, fear, anger, uncontrolled rage and finally a fall to the dark side. Humility conquers pride.

Yoda knew that Luke needed to be trained from zero as a Jedi ,as Obi-wan Kenobi had not had enough time to coach Luke. Yoda also realized that all of Luke’s perceptions, his biases and beliefs needed to be challenged and ultimately replaced with those that served him better as a Jedi.

Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows” – Epictetus – Discourses.

As an alcoholic I am a painfully slow learner and when I do decide to listen my ego will demand resistance. This is the very nature of denial. For decades I could see the damage that my selfish lifestyle was doing to myself and others but I chose to ignore it rationalizing that I had my drinking under control, that I was not an alcoholic. I chose to believe that I was like any other regular guy trying to have a good time.

Over the years I became convinced that the cost of drinking was less than the pleasure I derived from it despite the constant reminders to the contrary. In the end as the truth became painfully apparent I realized I had been living a lie for a quarter of a century and I needed to relearn everything that I thought I knew, not just about my drinking, but also my life and my very being.

unlearning everything I thought I knew about myself became a matter of life and death.

I had become a stranger to myself, I was angry and disgusted with myself while I hated the world and riled that it was the fault of others not me that I had descended to such a pitiful state. Hitting rock bottom made me realize that the answer lay in complete rejection of self denial, in the admission of my condition as a spiritually and morally bankrupt person. Acceptance of thorough and total honesty and complete and humble surrender to a power greater than myself was the answer.

I was facing a complete transformation, the old “me” died, what old timers call “ego deflation.” I was empty enough to start learning what I needed to learn to start recovery and stay sober. For me unlearning everything I thought I knew about myself became a matter of life and death.

Unlearn to Learn

For most addicts the key to recovery is self-honesty and humility. Those two virtues are essential if they are to admit their disease and start the slow march to recovery. The only way to be open enough to learn is to finally admit that we are wrong in the first place or that we don’t know. You cannot teach someone who thinks they already have the answers any more than you can instruct a rock.

As long as you live, keep learning to live” – Seneca

No matter how hard you try they will resist what seems plain to the rest of us. It is only through adopting an open mind and a humble approach that the “unconscious incompetent” starts to “get it” and begin to learn.

In the Army I experienced the process first hand. Over the span of 140 days Drill Instructors will meticulously and expertly identify character flaws and faults that require removal and through discipline encourage the traits and behaviors that are useful to the recruit. At first the body is motivated by fear and the “shock of capture”, while the mind may be less convinced, but in time the correct mindset is achieved and a soldier is produced. This is not called brain washing, this is called mental training which is pretty well what Luke got in Dagobah from Yoga.

Adopting another view point in life can be hard if we are stuck in our old ways of thinking. Anyone can pick up a book on Philosophy and read it, understand it and think they have “got it”. The reality is most will refer to their default point of view in no time despite a conscious decisions made to change. The same applied to me in the past, I would adopt an approach, believe I had overcome my addiction and return to drinking with renewed confidence only to be completely humiliated once again. Insanity.

Humans are often not adept at learning and very often a “deflation in ego” is required as Yoda revealed to Luke and as I learned when I hit rock bottom. In order to be Jedi and find your Jedi Spirit you must review your beliefs and values and cast aside that which no longer serves you as a person and as a Jedi. Very often this will be difficult and perhaps even confronting or painful but once you do you will never look back with regret.