Inner Work, Personal, Spirituality

Moving On

In 3 days I’ll be moving down the ashram. My apartment is mostly empty and my last day of waiting tables was Thursday. Even though I’ve been oscillating between fear and joy over this decision, the choice to devote myself fully to the spiritual path has never felt clearer. It seems worth noting that I am not doing this out of a desire to feel moral or noble or virtuous, or because I expect life to be easier at the ashram. It’s just that no step except this one makes sense to me based on where I’m at on my path. A life not rooted in spirituality feels not only ridiculous, but impossible. I feel excited to be living in a community where things like sobriety are well understood to be The Standard for healthy living, a place where we are not treating the path like a hobby. I like that I’ll be able to fall into silence if it feels right; I like that I won’t be expected to act like something I’m not. Deep authenticity is one of the fruits of the spiritual path, and it is sorely lacking in most of our interactions.

The evolutionary journey is as such: We are like popcorn kernels encased in cement. The cement represents tremendous ignorance—the things that cause us to create unnecessary harm to other beings and consider certain people to be superior and/or inferior to others. As we evolve, the cement cracks and breaks, and over the course of many lifetimes we become less ignorant. The cement wears thin. Then the time comes when we see that we’re a popcorn kernel; perhaps we’re even exposed to one who has popped. We become aware that our ultimate destiny is to break completely open and stay that way. We are to be light and airy and profoundly different than the kernel and/or the cement.

When you finally realize and accept that you’re a popcorn kernel, you will want to be in a microwave. I believe the ashram—or any other place of focused spirituality—is meant to be that microwave. The energy is as such that “popping” is more likely, whereas in “normal life,” we are more concerned with polishing up ourselves as kernels and rolling around to one place or another. (In reality, there is no difference between a spiritual place and a non-spiritual place, but I digress.)

So, if you will, this move is about me going willingly to that microwave. I do not hope to come back the same, but not because I think there is something “wrong” with me right now. Actually, for the first time in my life, I do not feel defective all the time (though I still do on occasion.). But the conditions of my life here are such that I may remain a kernel for a very long time, never reaching the right intensity of heat to see the process all the way through. Until I do, there will be dissatisfaction and cycles of misery. I will be my own prey over and over again. I will be profoundly more at risk for depression and/or addictive behaviors unless I follow through. By making this move, I seek to fulfill my destiny, which is the destiny of all beings, and that destiny is to know and be God.

Of course, there are no guarantees, and I am reeling in my expectations as much as possible. It’s entirely plausible that nothing life-altering will occur. Either way, I will learn something, for when you are hell-bent on learning, every single step is a lesson.

I have been thinking a lot about how my last post might go, particularly the points I want to put out into the world before I take off. I have no idea when I’ll post again, and some part of me wonders if I will at all. This iteration of me loves writing, and as of right now, it feels completely aligned. But part of this thing is releasing all attachments, including the ones the mind currently labels “good and aligned.” Having the courage to let go of it all is how we discover what is always there, underneath and beyond, timelessly, naturally.

I no longer buy the argument from my ego that I am “supposed to write.” Really, I am “supposed to be” whatever I’m moved to be by the greater consciousness that has been moving me this whole time. I am “supposed to be” what I am. Maybe that will result in writing; maybe it won’t. I feel it is important to relinquish all attachments and expectations of “being like” anything or anyone, or clinging to previous identities that once suited me. When we try to hang on in spite of the way the soul magnetizes us towards things we fear and need, we become trapped.

I have no doubt that this has happened to many creators: At some point, the obligation to create can overshadow the purity of its origin. Suddenly the thing that was once done out of pure soul desire becomes as rote as anything else. No longer do we write, paint, or make music because we love it, but because others expect it of us and the title of “creator” has been built into our ego-identities. There have been phases for me where creativity comes effortlessly and gladly. But when I am just “trying to finish something,” it comes out wrong and I am not delighted by the process of ushering it into the world. To me, this is worse than doing nothing at all.

So I want to say I will write if and when I can, but that it is possible I won’t, and that has to be okay with me. Anything the ego imagines itself to be is just that—an imagination, and not the true Self. We can have delusional imaginations about “who we are” no matter how noble the profession. Some work may benefit the world more and sow the seeds for a beautiful future, but neither identity is more real. This is because Reality does not actually run along a gradient; it is known or it is not. One who knows the Self and does nothing but sit in meditation surely benefits the world, perhaps even more than those who put great effort into making change. This kind of benefit is imperceptible to most people, but it is real nonetheless.

Besides, the fact is that there is no new wisdom. The fountain of eternal knowledge is always the same; the words only flow out through seemingly different minds and mouths. It is no surprise that spiritual masters say the same kinds of inscrutable things over and over again, in part because of this principle, and in part because they know repetition is one strategy to overwrite an existing mental pattern.

Anyone with new answers, a new religion, a silver bullet, or a quick route to self-realization is not being honest (though they may be unaware of their dishonesty). Seeing this, I really don’t know what else to say in this or any post. Is there anything more powerful or wise to say than “Sit with your self until you find the true self”? This has been said over and over again, by so many sages, in so many parables and poems. It doesn’t get any simpler: Sit still with yourself. Find out who you are. All other information is extraneous. When this is known, all knowledge is revealed and suffering begins to burn away. It seems difficult until it doesn’t.

Sometimes writing feels cheap in comparison to sitting in silence, and it is said that some of the best teachers teach by silence alone. Similarly, the Buddha said that it is best to speak only when it improves upon silence, and yet is very rare that the things we say—gossip, grievances, complaints, formalities—meet this standard. And I have to ask, with no solid answer, do my words improve upon the beauty of a blank page? I am not so sure. I do this thing because it happens, but I do wonder: If I were to break through every last illusion, would it also begin to feel somewhat arduous or small?

All of this is to say that I don’t know what will happen, and this is always true. This post has written itself, which means I am okay with it. When our actions become absent of the “doer,” I believe we are on the right track. If things write themselves, they will go into the world. If it feels like pulling teeth, I will resume with mindful non-action, which is actually one of the most useful skills to have. It’s not the same as being lazy, and it’s not the same as checking out or getting stoned. It is just learning how to sit and be. Until we are capable and happy simply being, peace cannot flourish internally or anywhere else.

– lish

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Inner Work, Mental Health, Personal

Lessons Everywhere

I wake up. I remember I am moving to an ashram/retreat center in Texas, and that this is exactly what I need to do right now. I reflect on some of the events that have led to this moment and this decision. I think of the things I have destroyed and the things I have created, of choices that have unfolded into both beauty and horror. On some choices I am still overwhelmed with remorse and shame; on others I laugh and think yes, that was exactly the right thing to do. Most are just a big question mark, like who am I to decide how this whole thing is supposed to go.

Throughout this whole process, I do know I could’ve created less suffering if I’d better understood what was happening to me. It is for this reason that I write. It is for this reason I do not give up on myself, why I stay sober, and why I encourage others to expand themselves by dropping one habit and belief at a time.

On some days, my moods have covered the whole spectrum within a few hours. I no longer believe that rapidly-changing moods are indicative of illness, at least not in the medical sense. Still, this instability absolutely makes life difficult: When you feel differently about something—everything—every few days, it is exhausting and absurd. You just spin your wheels, overthink, and feel like shit about it. With growth, I am happy to say that the worst is getting further away and quieter. With each breath my mind loses the power to drag me into Hell. This is the power of becoming self-aware.

Right now, my day-to-day life feels like little more than treading water. I’m somewhere in between the next thing and yet I feel I’ve (finally) survived the hardest parts of the Big Terrifying Awakening. And I know it would be a mistake to chop this experience up into “phases” and/or a progressive timeline, because life doesn’t work like that. It actually works in no particular way. As soon as we think we’ve got it all figured out, life is sure to dole out a surprise to knock us down a few pegs.

Although I feel a bit like I’m here “just waiting,” I know there are always lessons to be learned. To the true student, every situation and person is a teacher. Life ceases to be split into that which is Buddha and non-Buddha. Therefore I am trying to soak up whatever remaining lessons are in this space where my time is definitely not spent wisely (case in point: Two nights ago I watched 2 hours of Parks & Rec, ate a burrito, and went to sleep at 8PM ). My energy feels pretty depleted overall, and I know it is because my body is not where my soul is moved to be. For practical reasons, I am putting energy into tasks that my soul is resistant to, and this is the arrangement of our entire society. When we do this—fight ourselves—we should expect to feel tired and disenchanted. It makes no sense to believe we can be vibrant if we engage in stagnation.

One thing I keep relearning is how much pain I can create for myself by trying to be both attached and non-attached to people, routines, and things. It’s like standing on an iceberg that is cracked down the middle, my feet slowly drifting apart while freezing water sloshes below. I’m practically doing the splits, hesitating to make a decision about which way to go. If I keep living like this I will be uncomfortable forever.

So often we play this game where we try to bargain with the soul: We want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want to keep our little selves and their comfortable arrangements while also surrendering to the vastness of life and going where this stream moves us. We cannot have both. If we want it All, we can’t have our precious “personhood.” I say this not only for any readers but also for myself, because it is one of the hardest pills to swallow. It usually has to be hammered in several million times in the forms of confusion, anxiety, and cognitive dissonance before we finally accept it: We cannot have both.

This is not a statement about how spiritual growth requires “sacrifice” because “sacrifice” implies loss. There is no real loss here, except of those things you will one day be glad to be rid of: Ego, false identifications, attachments, and neuroses. Rather, it is about soberly accepting that a bird must jump from the safety of the nest in order to fulfill its destiny, that discomfort and insecurity are an irremovable part of this thing.

We don’t get one without the other, and yet we always try to argue with this. In our immaturity, we want safety and growth, vibrancy and security. We want risks with guarantees. Basically, we want the evolutionary experience to be something other than what it necessarily is.

Occasionally I still think I’d like to be a wife and/or mother, and yet to pursue such a course would negate whatever lies for me when I take a step in an unknown direction. I suppose there is still time to choose such a life if it felt right, but there’s also this undeniable pull to teach, to write, to be, and just not get caught up in arranging my circumstances intentionally. It really feels like it is no longer up to “me” to decide what occurs or what I become. Yes this has always been true, but only recently have I begun to actually give up the illusion of control.

My heart could stop beating any moment, and I’m pretty sure the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a huge earthquake. Any number of illnesses could be incubating inside of my body, and no matter what, death is assured for me and everyone I love. These aren’t meant to be depressing statements: They are just true, and when we get totally clear on this fact, life changes. Suddenly, freedom is not a thing to put off. Love and joy are not things to put off. The excuses we use to get out of becoming ourselves don’t work anymore because death is just right there, daring us to blink. We can often accept our “lack of control” in theory, but to actually surrender to what this means brings about an entirely different way of being.

I also often come back to the way intellectual understanding is small, and how consciousness does not get “understood” in this way. I want to bring it back to teaching: Many people accept the teachings of Christ in theory; they go to church and they are kind, but very few practicing Christians recognize that a true implementation of Christ’s word would ensure a complete breakdown of society as we know it… in the end it would be for the better, but it would a breakdown nonetheless. Hierarchies of all kinds would fall, even those supposedly built around Christ.

This is precisely why so many of His teachings have been edited and shunned and “disallowed” over many centuries: If we commoners were to fully realize our perfection, drop our neediness, and accept that we are alive, how might we spend our lives? Would we work for undeserving masters (and by this I don’t mean specific people, but an overall system which drives us into insanity and ruins our planet)? Would we dull ourselves and live the same unfulfilling way day after day?

I don’t think we would. Not for a moment longer.

– Lish

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Narratives, Spirituality, The Ego, The Mind

Expectations & Fears

So here’s a thing that’s happening: In less than a week, I will fly from Seattle to Dallas. I will rent a car and drive to an ashram that is located in a (very) small town. I will enjoy a spiritual retreat—my first ever, actually—and speak with the guru about the possibility of becoming a monk (nun?) and living long-term at this ashram as part of their community.

This was an intuitive, gut decision I made over the course of a few days, though the idea of becoming a full-time spiritual aspirant has been with me for many months. I should probably be clear that I do not care for the notion of spending a lifetime “seeking,” and how that is not what I am seeking (hehe) to do here.

There are several reasons why this feels like the right move to me, but I’m trying to keep my expectations to a minimum. Expectations are cruel tricks of the mind. They immediately create an obstacle whereby acceptance of what is becomes impossible. When we find ourselves disappointed, we can always trace this disappointment back to an expectation that things were going to be different, better, easier, more fun, etc. The grim faces we see everyday can be traced back to expectations: I was supposed to have made something of myself; I was supposed to be married by now; I never thought life would go this way…

Nobody’s life goes the way they think it’s going to go—and that only applies to people who have plans in the first place. More often we just semi-consciously fall into some bearable rhythm charted out for us by society at large, and assume it’ll lead to satisfaction. Strangely, we are surprised to find that this non-strategy often leads to malaise of all kinds. We wake up mid-life and feel we are missing something: Life is in its autumn, and we do not feel ready for it.

It is important to remember that the cultural messages we receive lead us astray time and again, and that the confusion this creates ought to be used as a pointer into the heart. It is only the inner compass that is reliable, and this is only true once we have had some practice following it.

The hivemind never overtly says “you’re going to get the shit beat out of you by life before you even have an inkling of what fulfillment is like.” Instead it says, “you really can escape pain by achieving and acquiring and doing!” Then we get busy without much investigation of the premise. Before we know it, we’re in a trap. This is all very mechanically done, handed down from one generation to the next. We unconsciously teach one another this lie by continuing to buy into it all the time.

I do not mean that life must be endless hardship, but hardship is necessarily a part of this thing, and trying to avoid hardship—or expecting that it should not be there—only worsens our predicament as humans.

So I’m keeping an eye on my projections and expectations about this whole Texas-ashram-guru adventure. I am also keeping an eye on my fears, which are just as life-denying as expectations, though usually more insidious because we tend to keep fears buried deep.

We are all pretty open about our hopes and expectations, but usually stay very quiet around fear. This illustrates the (imagined) power of fear: It silences and suppresses and squishes us into contracted people incapable of authenticity. We don’t like to look at these things, so we just don’t. Instead, we tend to move through life simply avoiding those things that have the potential to strike a fear chord, and this is to our deep detriment. I am happy to see that “challenging fear stories” is now a common thing within personal growth circles. Less fear can only be a positive thing overall, especially because there isn’t anything to be afraid of in reality.

I will tell you my fears, because I think that bringing fear to the surface helps to show how ridiculous and small it is: I’m afraid I will be found deeply defective by the residents of this ashram, that I will be told my ego is so whacked-out and absurd and unconscious that it’s not even worth trying. I think my greatest fear has to do with being too defective even for God: That I will stand before the Ultimate and present my latent darkness (which is inexorably a part of me) and the Ultimate will reject me because of these itchy tendencies, cravings, and judgments. I know this is not even really a Thing because God is that darkness, too. All of my fears are a bunch of nonsense the mind uses because it works on my ego.

I am afraid of coming home with no idea about what to do. I am afraid of stagnating creatively, relationally, and spiritually. I am afraid of not finishing what I started. I am afraid of not living my potential full-time. Then I think, hey, maybe I’m onto something here because fear is one of the mind’s favorite weapons for keeping us in its grips. And I also think, worst case scenario: I get to take four days off of work and go deeply into myself in a place specifically designed to help me go deeply into myself. And I think, get a grip, Lish, you’ve been through it all already, and somehow you are still not only living but generally quite content.

Fear, like everything else, is just something to watch from a place of awareness. What I am describing in the above paragraph is still an illustration of egoic defenses. I am trying to soothe the ego with stories the mind finds more comforting. Ideally we can learn to just see how fear is a big lie our egos use to keep us believing we are these little powerless unhappy and uncreative things. 

The trick with awareness is not to “spin” a fear story into new, different, happier-sounding story. When we do this, we are just covering sad delusion with happy delusion, and the whole point is to be free of all delusion. Perhaps this is why I’ve always had more than a little bit of disdain for “affirmations.” Give me a little credit, Louise Hay: I know when I’m lying to myself.

I’m not trying to put stories on top of stories or to cover negative with positive or even replace fear with love, even though these themes are super popular and even though I’ve probably written and/or will write something to the contrary in the future. The Truth is not a story; it is just the Truth. Truth is not love, or light, or positivity, or anything else. These metaphors may help us on certain parts of our journey, but ultimately, Truth just is what it is.

Having said that, I can keep this all very neutral and to-the-point: I’m headed to an ashram in Texas soon, and I have no idea what is going to happen there.

– Lish

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Addiction, Inner Work, Mental Health, Sobriety, The Mind

Getting Sober Without AA

Full disclosure: As of this writing, I’m “only” 8 months sober. I put that in quotes because—if you’re like I was—8 months might sound like an unfathomably long period of time without alcohol. When you’re regularly drinking, going 3 days feels like a stretch. So, to many sober veterans, 8 months ain’t nothin, and maybe they’d think I should shut my mouth because I’m so new to this thing. But to a drinker who is trying to quit drinking, 8 months feels like forever away. (Also, I know I’m not going to drink again.)

In 2015, when I first googled “Getting sober without AA,” this article by Mishka Shubaly popped up. It’s a great article, the heart of which is this: No one gets to define sobriety for you but you, and there’s no “one right way” to get there. If you give up booze but take mushrooms one weekend, you can still hold yourself in high regard, knowing you aren’t about to fall off the rails. Also: People have really whacked out ideas about what addiction is. I loved the article. I wrote to Mishka about my struggles with alcohol, he wrote back, then I got sober… and two months later I was in the mental hospital experiencing a full-on ego death. (I did not write to Mishka about that.)

Even though I thought (and still think) Mishka is a stunning human/writer/recovery story, the answer to my googled question never really appeared. I knew there had to be people who gave up drinking without Alcoholics Anonymous. Where were they? What did they do? How’d they subvert the demon of alcohol addiction without the meetings?

Basically, I’m writing the post I wish had existed for me when I’d gone looking for it a little over 2 years ago.

Also: The first thing that came to my mind when I asked myself How *have* I managed to stay sober for 8 months? was this: I have no clue.

It’s a miracle as far as I’m concerned, but that’s kinda how I feel about life in general. Then I got to thinking and realized that there have been all these things I’ve done; they’ve just so fully become parts of my regular life that they hardly feel worth mentioning anymore.

  1. Start paying attention to how drinking really makes you feel. With rare exceptions, you are not going to quit drinking the first time you try to quit drinking. Or the second. Or the 20th. And that’s fine! You’re still cultivating awareness about this thing (I think AA calls it “gathering information”), and part of that means you’re still going to drink. However, you know now that you don’t want to do it forever. You can use these times of drinking to consciously notice a) How the body tends to physically reject things like hard alcohol, b) How much harder it is for you to hold your train of thought and maintain an intelligent conversation when you’ve had a few, c) How dull and sleepy your mind feels after even one, d) How your head/stomach/soul feel after a big night out. Bringing awareness to the total lack of awesomeness here did a lot for me. Most beautifully, alcohol genuinely ceased to be enjoyable.

  2. Start paying attention to the ten million stories you (consciously or unconsciously) tell yourself about alcohol. Things like, “it’s fun,” “I need it to socialize,” “I just like it,” and/or “it’s relaxing.” Underneath every single one of these justifications there’s an accordion of self-investigation just waiting to unravel, i.e., Why does the mind interpret becoming less conscious as “fun”? There’s a whole lot of stuff to look into just by questioning the basic premises of your “whys” for drinking.

  3. Journal about all of this. Go to an art supply store and get yourself a rad journal you’re going to want to write in. Pick something that feels new and hopeful, and just get to writing. I’m willing to say it doesn’t even matter what you write, except that you do it. Writing relieves pressure from the mind and allows you to see your own “logic” on paper. It’s you talking to yourself about yourself in the privacy of You. There are highly therapeutic opportunities here, provided you’re able to be honest with yourself.

  4. Check out Hip Sobriety. I’ve never taken one of Holly’s courses, but I follow her on Instagram and I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything on her blog. Holly’s is an amazing story about a woman who once appeared to “have it all,” except that she was semi-secretly crumbling beneath the weight of several addictions. I have more than a suspicion that a lot of us (see: many millions) fall into this category: We’re normal, busy, hardworking people… who kinda just have to poison ourselves into unconsciousness to make it through the stress/confusion/Groundhog’s Day vibe of our daily lives. (Does this ring a “that’s really messed up” bell to you? It does to me.) Holly’s all about getting sober because being sober equals freedom, and about challenging the stigma of addiction so that we can actually be given the chance to survive this totally preventable and totally curable disease. Even though I’ve never met her, I love her, and her work has been incredibly inspiring to me. Along these lines, it doesn’t hurt to just stock up on addiction memoirs, binge on addiction blog posts, etc. This just helps to remind you you are not the only one working on this thing! Not even close.

  5. Do anything else. You heard me: Anything. Else. Okay, maybe not harder drugs, but I mean all those other little things you avoid out of guilt. Things like eating a whole box of macaroni and cheese and a pint of ice cream for dinner? Go ahead and do that. I am not encouraging you to transfer addictions, but to let yourself off the hook completely for every other thing you chastise yourself for. For instance, I ate a lot of cake. I bought an unnecessary amount of tea. I smoked cigarettes. I got Indian takeout (appetizer/entree/naan) and ate all of it in the span of several episodes of Arrested Development. Give yourself a fuckload of credit for dropping the sinister drug out of your life, and take it one step at a time. Giving up too much at once is a recipe for disaster, so just try to be gentle with yourself.


There are a lot more, and when they feel timely, I will of course post them here.

It feels important to say that navigating life sober is still nowhere near easy or comfortable for me. I’m pretty sure I only ever liked large groups of people because in our society, they usually come standard with alcohol. No, I don’t know what to do with my hands except be awkward, and there is no magic pill to snap you into being totally at peace in your sober skin after years of ingesting a dependency-causing neurotoxin. I’m sorry, but discomfort is the name of the game for a while. Luckily, discomfort doesn’t kill—addiction does.

Oh, and guess how much time I spend alone? Almost all of it when I’m not at work. I know this is best for me, being that I’m still in the “spiritual cocoon,” but it does get pretty lonesome. I have always appreciated solitude, but sometimes I step over the line into that bad word, “isolation.” Still, I’d rather risk isolation than try to force conversations I don’t know how to have naturally anymore in situations I don’t feel like myself in anymore.

My point here is this: Don’t be surprised if something bigger starts to shift in you when you give up huge, identity-bolstering habits. “Being a drinker” is probably something you’ve built into who you think you are. Letting that go means your assumed identity will take a hit, and the assumed identity (ego) really doesn’t like this.

BIG, BLARING WARNING: Your ego will use your mind to retain its solidity, and this is not a maybe. It 100% will happen that your ego uses your mind against you. This is when you start to think things like “oh but such-and-such holiday is coming up; I can’t be sober for that,” or maybe you casually envision yourself on a camping trip with, of course, a beer. These are the sneaky ways the mind lures you back to those behaviors which maintain the old identity you’re (rightfully) trying to outgrow. In this case, your own mind is literally holding you hostage. Don’t let it win.

Very infrequently, my mind still does this. I imagine myself some years in the future, drinking straight from a bottle of red wine, blasting Rihanna and dancing in somebody’s living room. This delusional projection is always  a super fun and sexy time. Pretty quickly, I wise up: I see what you’re doing, mind, and it’s back to reality, which is something like me folding socks alone and listening to Rihanna.

The most important thing I want to instill you with if you’re considering giving up alcohol is this: You can get sober and live an amazing life. It will not be without its difficulties, but you can handle them, because you’re incredible and perfect and strong. I know that’s true.

– Lish

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