Addiction: Those Who Bear Witness

This week, I wanted to take some time to talk about the struggles that family members endure when dealing with a loved who is suffering from addiction. In situations when there is substance abuse, those closest to the one struggling are the ones who shoulder the financial and emotional burdens. Mothers, fathers, children and spouses are most often the ones who deal directly with the chaos produced by the disease, but it can also be grandparents, employers, and friends. Whoever takes on the role of caretaker for the addict, they are sure to experience feelings of confusion, hopelessness, anger, and guilt. Unfortunately, these emotions are often the very things that the loved one in active addiction uses to manipulate the family member in order to continue their alcohol and drug use. Without help, family members may end up making the situation worse by enabling them to continue their substance use without consequences.

So what are we talking about when we in the recovery community talk about enabling? Enabling I’ve witnessed over the years can run the gamut from allowing an adult child to use drugs and remain in the home, to actually buying heroin for the user, fearing that this is the only way to keep them safe. The tricky part of enabling is that sometimes enabling and love look very similar. Most parents would be willing to do anything to keep their child from having to go to jail or deal with the devastation of  bankruptcy, but every consequence that an addict receives can bring them closer to finding recovery. When an addict is continually rescued, their sense of reality becomes even more warped than it already is, allowing them to believe that they are exceptions to the rules that everyone else in society has to follow. It also allows the person addicted to continue to live in delusion. They can make themselves believe that a drug addict is only someone who lives in a cardboard box and sells themselves for their drug, not a clean-cut guy with a polo shirt and a new IPhone bought by their parents.

In my years working with family members whose loved one is  suffering with addiction, two things seem to offer the most relief: The first is learning that they are powerless over their loved one’s addiction. This means understanding that they did not cause the addiction, they can’t control the addiction, and they cannot cure the addiction. The relief comes in realizing that they no longer need to walk on eggshells around their loved one because there is nothing they can say that is going to make them start using, and there is nothing they can do that will make them stop. This doesn’t mean that there is no effort to help their loved one, it means they realize that without professional help, the addiction will continue to worsen on its own. I know for sure that the best thing family members can do for their loved one is to get them high-quality treatment and counseling.

The second crucial step for family members to take is to get support and counseling for themselves. Often times family members become so focused on the person in addiction that they neglect their own internal lives. They become isolated and alone, feeling that if they seek support they will be judged, blamed, or rebuffed. Whether support is found in Al-anon, Nar-anon, or their local church community, it is imperative that family members find a group that can help them navigate the uncertainty and confusion that accompany the disease of addiction. When parents ask me what to do to help their son or daughter who is in treatment, my answer is always the same: The best thing you can do for them is to work on yourself. Addiction does not exist in a vacuum, there are always environmental factors at play, often unacknowledged addiction and co-dependency in the family of origin.

There are so many of us who have watched loved ones battle the disease of addiction. Sometimes the feeling of powerlessness and grief is so intense, you wonder if there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of families healed and reassembled through the process of recovery, all of whom felt at one time as if the end was near. With each client that I counsel and work with, I always try to remember that there is part of them that wants recovery, though it may be hard to see underneath all the lies, anger, shame, and despair. My job as a counselor is to fan the flames of change, and to see the person before me as who they truly are, not who they have become in their disease. I have never met a hopeless case, and I hope I never do.

Lastly, I want to say happy  birthday to the best mother in the world, Linda Browning. Mom sacrificed time and money in order to help save my life, and without her and my father, I would not be here today. Mom instilled in me a love of reading, compassion for others, and most importantly, faith that there is more to this world than what can be experienced with the five senses. She is a wonderful example of someone who practices spiritual principles as a way of life and continues to be an example that I look to for how to live my life. Happy Birthday, mom. Love you.


Consider The Monkey

This evening I invite you to take a look at the video below and read about the monkey’s St. Kitts Island. I present this as an invitation to consider that addiction and alcoholism are less about choice and more about a set of combined conditions that come together in those suffering from addiction, making it almost impossible to stop using without help in the form of treatment.

The conditions that create addiction are genetics, environment, trauma, and co-occurring mental disorders. In my experience, the best possible treatments for those suffering from addiction include medical interventions, trauma informed counseling from therapists trained to recognize addiction as the primary disorder, and recognition for the need of ongoing support from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, and Refuge Recovery.


*The green vervets were introduced to St. Kitt Island as pets in the 17th century when they were brought over with slaves from Africa. The wild vervets had developed a liking for alcohol in the form of fermenting sugar cane in the fields of the rum-producing island.When they spotted a drink that had been left unguarded or unfinished, the monkeys would sneak down from the trees, jump on the tables and start drinking. They were tasting the drinks to see which ones they liked.The drunk monkeys phenomenon has become so common place that there is now research being done on the monkeys to test the effects of alcohol on primates with interesting findings related to human alcoholism:

A controversial research project that involves giving alcohol to 1,000 green vervet monkeys has found that the animals divide into four main categories: binge drinker, steady drinker, social drinker and teetotaller.The vast majority are social drinkers who indulge in moderation and only when they are with other monkeys – but never before lunch – and prefer their alcohol to be diluted with fruit juice.Fifteen per cent drink regularly and heavily and prefer their alcohol neat or diluted with water. The same proportion drink little or no alcohol. Five per cent are classed as “seriously abusive binge drinkers”. They get drunk, start fights and consume as much as they can until passing out.




A View of the Opioid Crisis From the Front Line

In light of headlines both national and local regarding the Opioid Crisis, I wanted to take some time to discuss my thoughts on the matter as an addiction professional. I believe that it is important that those of us who work in the field share our experience, as well as possible solutions. From my perspective, these discussions should be free of partisan politics, and undertaken with the utmost humility, realizing that viewing a problem from multiple perspectives is surest way to find solution. Also, I believe that it needs to said that anyone who says they have a 100%, surefire-solution in regard to treating any addiction is probably selling snake-oil. Addiction is multi-layered, complicated, complex, and unpredictable. But we do know that there are treatments that work well, though not necessarily for everyone. My belief is that we need to figure out a way for people to have access to the most successful methods of treating addiction, and that means we as a society are going to have to find ways to make treatment affordable to all who suffer from addiction, not just the ones who can afford expensive treatment.

According to a U.S. News and World Report article, dated April 19, 2017, the government approved spending of $485 million dollars to combat the opioid epidemic.

“The grants are targeted at training for health professionals, technology and support for prescription drug monitoring programs that aim to prevent abuse and identify patients who may need help. Price said the grants also can be used to promote the use of overdose-reducing drugs such as naloxone.”

All of these measures, while positive, will barely put a dent in the problem. What concerns me is that there is no mention of how to help pay for expensive drug and alcohol treatment and therapy, both of which are proven effective in the fight against addiction. The article states that a large portion of the money will be used to help train professionals. Again, this is a positive step, but there are thousands of trained professionals ready to help those with addictions, and the problem is we are not connecting people with these addiction professionals. Right now, in middle Tennessee, there are probably hundreds of empty beds and chairs at many quality treatment centers. And there are thousands of suffering addicts who would love to be receiving treatment, but cannot afford the high cost of these treatment centers. The sad part of this scenario is that there are people today who will die from addiction, who would take the help if it was offered. In Tennessee, we have Hope Scholarships funded from the lottery to help people go to college. Why can’t we provide grants for those who are seeking treatment? Why can’t the alcohol industry pay into a system that it consistently drains of resources by contributing to DUI’s, accidental deaths, spousal abuse, health problems, and the prison system? Instead of the tobacco companies paying for ineffective public service announcements that shock people with graphic depictions of former smokers, how about they contribute to a scholarship fund to help people have access to good addiction treatment? Jack Daniels spends millions to run commercials depicting their quaint, folksy approach to making whisky. Unfortunately, whisky doesn’t make most people more friendly and down to earth, so they can pay into the fund as well. It is estimated that 1.6 billion dollars in drug money is seized each year. Forget the War on Drugs, put this money into drug and alcohol treatment and you could greatly reduce demand for the drug cartel’s products, decreasing criminality and creating a movement that would produce a more stable, safe and productive society.

With the $500 million dollars earmarked by the government to address opioid addiction, you could pay for drug and alcohol treatment for roughly 50,000 individuals in an outpatient setting.  This is nearly the same number of people who died from opioid overdoses last year. And I know this truth from working in addiction treatment for fifteen years: The effect of quality addiction treatment and therapy is cumulative. The old aphorism is true, a rising tide does lift all boats.

Lastly, a key in reducing the opioid crisis is early intervention. This comes from educating people about what addiction looks like in its early stages. Rarely does someone begin with heroin or opiates, there is a trail of evidence that the disease of addiction leaves long before the person is using so called ‘hard drugs.’  Early consequences from any drug and alcohol use, including marijuana, must be recognized. Parents, educators, judges, and politicians cannot dismiss heavy drug and alcohol use as part of adolescence, and we as a society cannot sweep addiction under the rug, afraid of the stigma that comes with it.

Last year I spent six months trying to provide quality alcohol and drug treatment to prisoners in a medium security prison outside of Nashville. I knew that inmates had access to drugs in prison, but I had no idea how rampant drugs were in the prison, in particular Suboxone, which according to inmates, is the most prevalent drug inside. The most disturbing aspect of working in the prison was the apathy and complicity I saw from prison officials and government employees. It was known by everyone that drugs were rampant in the prison, but the solution was to  post flyers that warned about the dangers of drugs. Repeatedly, I tried to get treatment for those that needed it, and repeatedly I was denied. It seemed that what was most important to the officials at the prison system was that they could say that they were providing addiction treatment, even though they did almost nothing to support me in my efforts. I say this, because from what I have witnessed, the best thing the government can do is provide the needed money for accessing treatment, and leave the facilitation of drug treatment to counselors, social workers, therapists, and medical doctors trained in addiction.

In no way do I think I have all the answers to the opioid crisis, nor am I under the false belief that we can ever totally eradicate addiction. But I have lost dozens of friends and clients to the disease of addiction, so much of my passion is fueled by the lives that might have been lived were it not for the disease. I believe that it will take a movement to address the opioid and drug crisis in this country, and the movement has to begin with those of us who have lost loved ones to the disease.


Tolstoy’s Confession

Continuing with my thoughts on those writers and books that have deeply influenced the way I relate to the world and those I counsel, I’ll be writing about the most famous Russian novelists from the 19th century, Count Leo Tolstoy. Though I am a great fan of Tolstoy’s most famous works, his later writings on spiritual conversion are some of the greatest contributions to the idea that man must live a life of purpose, in accord with spiritual principles, independent of the prevailing culture of narcissism and materialism.

In his book, A Confession, written when Tolstoy was in his 50’s, he talks about how by the time he’d reached middle-age, wealthy and famous, he suffered from severe depression and unhappiness which caused him to contemplate suicide on a regular basis. “My life came to a standstill. I could eat, breathe, and sleep, but there was no life. I had come to a precipice and could see clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction.” Tolstoy talks about the internal struggle, as he tries to make sense of how he can be so unhappy when he has all the material wealth and recognition that a man of his era could acquire. This state of mind is one that I am all too familiar with, spending the majority of my career serving middle and upper-middle class families who are not struggling financially, but none the less find themselves in the storm of addiction and dysfunction. These families often come to treatment more confused than any other population.

As Tolstoy tries to heal himself, he begins searching for something he might have missed in his education. Inevitably, this leads him to a reexamination of different religions, especially the prevailing beliefs in his culture. Tolstoy eventually came to the conclusion that spirituality was more about the way a person lives his life, rather than what a person believes. This idea, that spirituality is about action and not belief, is the core message of recovery. Early along the spiritual path, a person is invited to “bring the body and the mind will follow.” An old-timer, one of my teachers in recovery, used to repeat  a section from a poem by William Blake that points to this idea:

I sought my soul, my soul I could not see.

I sought my God, but it eluded me.

I sought my fellow-man found all three.

In time, Tolstoy realizes that while God cannot be proven through the intellect, God can be felt in the heart, in the eyes of the people that he encounters on a daily basis. Tolstoy states that what he found was not something new, but something that was lost, the joyous part of himself that existed in childhood. This is what good therapy and recovery are about, uncovering the original or authentic self that has been lost in the darkness of addiction. In the end, Tolstoy found his later years to be his most satisfying. “Thus, I was saved from suicide. When and how this changed occurred, I could not say, but gradually the passion for life returned to me. And strange to say, the love of life that returned to me was not new, but quite old. It was the same love that had sustained me in my earliest days.”

After his awakening, Tolstoy continued to write such seminal works as The Death of Ivan Ilych and Resurrection. Tolstoy used the royalties of his later works to pay for a communal farm and transport a persecuted religious sect to Canada where they could worship in freedom. Tolstoy also wrote one of the best daily meditation books ever written, A Calendar or Wisdom, which compiles the sacred knowledge of all major religions and great philosophical thought. My mother gave me this book early in my own recovery, and I still cherish the spiritual insights compiled by Tolstoy.

When I first encountered Tolstoy’s Confession, I was violently anti-religious, blinded by my own prejudices and locked in an existential loop that caused me to see life as pointless and absurd. Reading a brilliant man like Tolstoy talk about his spirituality and conversion gave me the first glimmer of hope that I could believe in Divinity without descending into fundamentalism, extremism, bigotry, and ignorance. Leo Tolstoy was not only a visionary novelist, but also a visionary spiritual seeker, one whose wisdom shifted the trajectory of my life, insisting that I confront my own spiritual poverty.




Kurt Vonnegut: Holy Atheist

I’m continuing with my tribute to the written word, those books and authors which have deeply influenced and taught me over the years. This week, I wanted to write about the novelist who carried me through my teens and early twenties, Kurt Vonnegut. Most people can remember their first kiss or the first time they saw the ocean. These moments are seared into our memory because they shift something in us emotionally, creating a sense of true wonder. I remember with absolute clarity the first time I picked up Siren’s Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. I was a sophomore in high school, sitting in a classroom with a teacher who seemed to have lost interest in teaching about ten years prior. He must have been especially tired that day, because instead of instruction, he told us to pick a book off the bookshelf and read it for the next forty-five minutes. I grabbed a beat-up paperback copy of Siren’s of Titan, finishing the book before the school day ended, feeling like I had discovered a great secret about the world which was hidden behind the existing status quo of small-town Western Kentucky, a place where I’d felt different and unusual ever since my family moved there.

If Siren’s Of Titan gently nudged my conscience toward the numinous, reading Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s masterpiece, resulted in a genuine spiritual experience. As many know, the book focuses on Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II. The character was based on Vonnegut’s own experiences, when he watched in horror as the entire city burned to the ground following its bombing by allied forces. In the book, when Billy Pilgrim’s character is witness to the death and destruction rained down on Dresden, he dissociates himself from the graphic scene, separating from the trauma by imagining he is on another planet where he shares a room with a beautiful woman who provides nurturing love to his wounded psyche. Not that I had ever experienced anything on par with war-induced PTSD, but I had been using my imagination to escape reality since I was a young child. Whether I was dreaming of what it would be like to be a Jedi from Star Wars, or imagining how it would feel to talk to the prettiest girl in school, I understood what it felt like to wish that you could escape from a reality that didn’t live up to the promise. In short, when I read Kurt Vonnegut, I didn’t feel alone. I knew that my people were out there somewhere.

When I was twenty years old, still trying to figure out who I was, I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak at a small college in Lexington, Kentucky. This was around 1993, not long after the Iraq War, a skirmish that I remember produced a lot of patriotic fervor. (Picture Whitney Huston singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl) I remember Vonnegut up at the podium, speaking to a crowd that looked especially conservative and buttoned-up. He told the audience that rather than feeling a kinship with the American soldiers, those he considered his brothers were the Iraqi prisoner’s of war, men obliged to die in a war commissioned by an egomaniacal dictator. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room after his statement, but Vonnegut was uncompromising in his belief that war, and the killing of human beings, should not be glorified under any conditions. I sat there smiling in stunned silence, knowing that I wanted to be the kind of man who spoke his mind regardless of public opinion, even if it meant alienating yourself from the crowd.

Surprisingly, Vonnegut was also a big fan of the Recovery Movement, a fact that I found helpful when I had to face the facts of my own addiction. I’m not sure if Vonnegut was an alcoholic or not, but it seems he may have checked out a few meetings along the way. “Alcoholics Anonymous gives people an extended family that’s very close to a blood-brotherhood. They talk about real troubles that aren’t spoken of in church. They hang around (AA) because they’re looking for companionship, for brotherhood and sisterhood, for an extended family.”

For a self-avowed atheist, Vonnegut talked about God a lot. After reading a biography about him few years ago, I came away with the impression that the things he saw in war prevented him from being able to resolve the problem of a loving God in a world of tremendous suffering. But whether or not he believed in a deity, he did believe in saints: “A saint is a person who behaves decently in shockingly indecent society.”

Vonnegut knew the truth: we’d all be better off if we focused on being decent, rather than perfect.


Victor Frankl:The Gift Of Perspective

Because the written word has been so important to me, and since people often ask me about book recommendations, I thought I’d take a few weeks to write about some of the most influential books I’ve read, especially those that opened me up to the inner journey. I can remember times in my late teens when I would put books I loved underneath my pillow so I could have them near me while I slept. If that sounds a little weird, it probably was, but that’s how lonely I was and how much I longed for connection. Another gift of great books is that they taught me to view the world from multiple perspectives, helping me understand that others human beings and creatures had an interior life as well, making them worthy of compassion and respect.

One of the first books to have a profound impact on my life was Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” As I’m sure many people are aware, the book chronicles Frankl’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II. Frankl developed a new school of psychological thought based on what he learned from the horrific struggle, then went on to influence many thinkers of the last half of the twentieth century. One of many observations that Frankl made about human behavior was that when the prisoners of the camp lost their purpose they began to lose hope. Those who believed they had a reason to live, whether it be family, religion, or love, could somehow endure the unendurable.  So many times working with people in their addiction, it becomes apparent that they have lost purpose and passion, leaving them to cling to intermittent periods of sensual pleasure to make life bearable. When the drug finally loses its ability to deliver on its promise, the addict is nearing the last stage of the disease.

Another powerful lesson from the book comes from the perspective it gave me in regard to suffering. Even now, as I reflect on the words of Frankl, I’m struck by how petty most of my problems really are, as well as how little time I devote to the practice of gratitude. There are times when it seems like the human brain creates problems out of boredom, that there is almost an addiction to worry. It is easy for me to sit on my couch and talk about the greed of corporate billionaires or politicians, but what about my own greed? What about my greed for comfort, for attention, even for spiritual insights? Frankl talks about how grateful he was if he could find a piece of meat in the watery soup they served in the concentration camp.  This is what he says about gratitude, a version of which can be heard around 12 Step Meetings: “Pain from problems and disappointments is inevitable in life, but suffering is a choice determined by whether you choose to compare your experience and pain to something better, and therefore feel unlucky and bitter, or to something worse and therefore feel lucky and grateful!”

For me, the most impactful part of “Man’s Search for Meaning” came from what he saw happening after the camp was liberated. It speaks to the destructive nature of both unresolved trauma and smoldering resentments. This paragraph has stayed with me for twenty years: “A friend was walking across a field with me toward the camp when suddenly we came to a field of green crops. Automatically, I avoided it, but he drew his arm through mine and dragged me through it. I stammered something about not treading down the young crops. He became annoyed, gave me an angry look and shouted, “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed—not to mention everything else—and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!” Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

I experienced significant trauma in my late teens, obviously nothing like Frankl, but it affected me deeply. Unfortunately, for many years afterwards, I projected that pain externally, which impacted those around me in ways I probably don’t even realize. But when I read “Man’s Search for Meaning,” my thinking began to shift. I could no longer claim ignorance, and had to admit that if a man who was a tortured by Nazi’s didn’t justify resentments, neither could I. Frankl stated that the greatest of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances. Though he sets the bar very high, I am grateful for teachers who expect greater things of me than I sometimes expect of myself.





Nothing New Under The Sun


“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine.” So begins a verse from the Book of Proverbs that is estimated to be at least five-thousand years old. Likewise, the Buddha, who roamed the earth 2500 years ago, also warned against the use of intoxicants by stating: “Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.” 

 Are these just the antiquated warnings of ancient killjoys or is there wisdom in questioning why spiritual teachers warn about the dangers of mood altering substances? Ask anyone who lost a child to the opiate epidemic if warnings about drugs are overblown and I’m sure you’d get a straight answer. At the same time, I know that most people in this country can socially use alcohol and marijuana with no adverse effects. Should these people have to give up their glass of wine with dinner because about ten percent of the population have the propensity for chemical addiction? I don’t think so. But I do believe that part of the problem is that we don’t tell the truth about how alcohol and drugs affect our society and our bodies, leading to a warped sense of reality, where friendships are built on Budweiser, and Bob Marley’s cancer had nothing to do with his marijuana use, despite the fact that smoking increases the chances of skin cancer by fifty percent.

Here are just a few statistics about crimes related to alcohol and drug use from the Bureau of Justice: Victims of violent crimes said they believed there attacker was under the influence of alcohol and drugs 36% of the time. It’s estimated that perpetrators of sexual assault are intoxicated 38% of the time. Two-thirds of domestic violence incidents occur while the abuser is intoxicated. Again, I am not saying it is the only factor, but to ignore how much alcohol and drug use contributes to violence and crime is negligent at best. I know that most people convicted of partner abuse are mandated to some type of anger management class, but unless they are referred to drug and alcohol counseling as well, there will be very little improvement.

Alcohol and drugs impair the healthy functioning of the super-ego, that little Jiminy Cricket inside all of us that is in charge of executive functioning and decision making. When it is impaired or put to sleep by intoxicants, actions which were once considered taboo or dangerous, become possible and actualized. For those suffering with addiction, the repeated deterioration of their moral compass leads to guilt, shame, and crippling self-hate. When clients tell me that before they got sober they’d look in the mirror and not recognize themselves, they are rarely talking about their physical appearance, they are talking about the things they did while intoxicated, and the things they did to get intoxicated. Anyone who has ever wanted to put their fist through the mirror understands what I am pointing at.

Again, I am not a crusader against the use of alcohol and drugs, nor do I think its time to revisit Prohibition or declare another failed War on Drugs. But if we have decided that tobacco companies must tell the truth about the dangers of their products, and restaurants have to disclose calorie content in their food, why does the alcohol industry get to paint such a pretty picture about the use of their products? What if when you sat down on your favorite bar stool there was a sign that said:


Would signs like these keep an alcoholic from drinking? Of course not, addiction is far too complicated, and I haven’t met someone yet who stayed sober long-term because of fear. But I often tell my clients to finish the story when they talk about what they love about their addiction. Telling half the story is not the whole truth. I was taught that lies of omission didn’t get their own category, they are full blown lies.

I’ll turn to Thich Nhat Hanh, who says it much better than I do, a modern spiritual voice, speaking to our time, our culture.  “One could believe that if you don’t smoke or drink alcohol, you will not have any happiness at all in this life. This kind of advertising is dangerous; it penetrates into our unconscious. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show how this kind of propaganda misleads people.”


Vallecitos: Dwelling In The Valley of Compassion

I just returned from a seven day Buddhist-Vipassana meditation retreat at Vallecitos, located in the mountains of New Mexico. The scenery and landscape were breathtakingly beautiful, and the people at the retreat were very kind and supportive. It was a much needed vacation for the mind and spirit, helping me to recharge the batteries and come back ready to continue to serve my clients, friends, family, and community. The retreat was silent and free from all forms of technology, making it possible for those of us attending to focus only on our  internal experience and whatever nature decided to put in front of us. Our teachers were outstanding, one of whom was Dave Smith, an old friend of mine, and one of my favorite people in the world. Early on they set the theme of the retreat as compassion, both for others, and for the self, even those parts that we tend to reject or demonize. In Buddhism, compassion is not arbitrary, nor is there a scattershot approach to who or what is deserving of kindness. I left the retreat feeling very open-hearted, almost a little raw. It’s a state of consciousness that can be a little frightening, especially when it seems like the whole of our society is coiled up like a snake, ready to strike at anyone who holds a different opinion or way of living. I’ve been to many retreats, some of which have been life-changing. The challenge has always been how to remain open-hearted when the clinging ego tells you that if you stay that way, the world will give you more pain and suffering than you can bear.

The day the retreat ended and my smart phone picked up reception, I felt a pang of anxiety as the pings and buzzes of the machine began trying to get my attention. I thought about leaving the phone off for one more day, but decided it wasn’t realistic since my wife had to pick me up at the airport later that day. When I arrived back at the hotel I checked my messages as I ate lunch, one of which was a former co-worker and friend whose voice sounded strained on the voicemail. I called her back and she told me that a former client she knew I was very fond of had died of an overdose while I was at the retreat. The news hit me hard as I felt the reflexive urge to retreat from the pain; but because of the mindfulness practiced on retreat, I made the decision to allow the grief to simply do what it needed, meditating on the unimaginable pain that his family must be experiencing. Then I focused on the gifts that this fellow traveler had given me in the three months I worked with him, including a desire to work with men who are suffering in prison. Then I thought of what one of the teachers at the retreat chanted each night: “Knowing that all conditioned things are impermanent is the key to lasting happiness.” It is a teaching of the Buddha that I am still a long way from internalizing.

It was time to get to the airport. I called Uber for a ride and was picked up by a smiling Frenchman who barely spoke any English. Seeing I looked exhausted, he grabbed my bags from me and gently placed them in his trunk, inviting me to sit up front with him in the air conditioning. Out of the blue he began telling me about his life, something that happens to me quite a bit and makes me feel very grateful. Able to remain present, I gave the man my full attention as he explained what brought him to New Mexico from Paris. He told me that his wife was from the area, then said he wanted his daughter to learn English in the United States. As he talked his eyes began to well up with tears. When I asked him what was wrong he told me that he was a single father because his wife had died in a car crash a year ago. As we drove, he talked in detail about trying to make a living for his daughter and expressed how difficult it had been since the death of his partner. When he was through talking, I asked him about the details of his wife’s death. At first he stated that she’d been killed by a drunk driver, but after a few miles he turned to me and told me that he’d been lying. “She took her own life. She was addicted to alcohol and pain pills.”

I hadn’t told the man I was an addictions counselor, but for some reason he felt like he needed to tell the truth about his wife’s death. I experienced deep compassion for the man, especially for the shame he carries over his wife’s death. It saddens me that we still live in a society that makes people feel like they have to cover up deaths related to the disease of addiction because on some level they know that people think that alcoholics and addicts do it to themselves or deserve it. When we reached the airport, I thanked the man for the service he provided and told him what a good man he was and how his daughter was blessed to have such a caring father. He shook my hand warmly and showed me the photo of a beautiful six-year old girl who will grow up without a mother because of the disease of addiction. The Frenchman beamed as he showed me the picture, causing me to see clearly what it means to love unconditionally.

I’m back home now. There are two dogs next to me on the couch and my beautiful wife is across from me twirling her hair the way she does when she’s trying to figure something out. There seem to be risks to leaving the heart open, but I am trying to take the lessons learned in New Mexico back here to Tennessee. The more I let these truths from the meditation retreat sink into my bones, the more I am coming to believe that these risks are illusions. I think it might be a piece of what the Buddha called Right-View. Whatever it is, I hope it remains.