By Garrett Allen
I wrote this article after a year living/working at the Center, where my fellowship included a robust regime of spiritual discipline like Landmark, Vipassana and 12 Step.
I made it a habit this year to join a local Zen Buddhist group on Sundays for their weekly practice. Before we get into sitting and walking meditation, reading from a text or doing personal sharing, one or two people strum a guitar and we sing as people find their seats in the zendo. We sing from a group of songs developed by Thich Nhat Hanh and sung at all of the monasteries in his tradition. One of the songs that has stood out to me most goes like this:
“I have arrived,
I am home.
In the here,
And in the now.”
Sometimes, as my voice is absorbed in the chorus and I look around the room, it feels surreal—the simplicity of the lyrics, the kumbaya spirit. It’s elementary school for adults, a weekend shot of wholesome summer camp vibes for bedraggled and suffering giants. But the amazing thing is that I have come to realize I need it. I need the medicine, the healing, the song, the community. I have found home.
For a long time, I lived in the opposite mood. One of the lines I love from Moby-Dick—there are many—goes like this: “I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” The line is genius. The unceasing itch to be elsewhere, the fascination with the forbidden and off-limits, and the underlying torment.
I could relate. For a long time I too wanted the strange, the extraordinary, the ecstatic, at least on the surface. I lived for three years in Germany, where I felt more comfortable experimenting and exploring myself. I was drawn like a moth to the study of philosophy, whose beginning and whole purpose is to make the familiar seem foreign. I was a natural at that. I couldn’t admit it, but at a deeper level I was always hoping for an emergency air lift, or an asteroid. I felt a constant, unceasing longing, which I perceived as an intolerable loneliness. I was not at home in my skin or at peace with my separate self. Unconsciously or consciously, I was always on the lookout for a trap door, an eject button. An encounter with God. A way out.
This is why entering into living, breathing communities of spiritual practice has been one of the great events in my life this past year, time I’ve spent working as a fellow at the Center. I had always been looking for this kind of healing, tradition, and community, but without exactly knowing it or how to find it. I spent years studying philosophy at universities, consciously dissatisfied with the absence of spiritual practice or spiritual community in an academic environment, but without being able to find a true alternative. In hindsight, I have been led to wonder why I didn’t search harder for them. But at the time I channeled my desperation along other avenues instead, which led both to a traditional “rock bottom”—and to an opportunity for something truly new. I like the way in her books Brene Brown refers to her own “2007
Breakdown Spiritual Awakening.” It is a breakdown but it is also a spiritual awakening.
I had gotten into philosophy in high school because it stood for the truth and a great noble promise: personal healing and just living, together. One and the same. I knew from the beginning that self and other are not really separate, that we are deceived by our small selves. At the same time, I knew that the larger system in which I lived, the social-political system, was obtuse, corrupt, and dangerous. I had learned the hard way. I got into trouble as a high school student, incurring multiple arrests, misdemeanors—minor in themselves but which had huge emotional consequences for my family. The public, official, respectable institution of the law absolutely steamrolled me and my parents in court and in the midst of the chaos the adults in my life couldn’t understand or protect me. I was lost in the shuffle. Again, I didn’t speak up. A shy, sensitive boy who had always been a 5 on the Enneagram, I withdrew, shut down, and threw a blanket aversion over everything popular, official, respected—consumerism, suburbia, materialism, professionalism, the whole godforsaken system. I became an outsider.
Growing up in Omaha, I had arrived at college in Lincoln as a philosophy student, but it quickly became clear to me that what captured my attention and heart wasn’t what I had expected. Inside the classroom I found the familiar lethargy of deadlines and requirements, the limitations of institutional hierarchy, the reproduction of the status quo. But outside the classroom, in a peer group, I found an intellectual community at a scale that allowed participation, and an informal spontaneity that lent itself more readily to genuine discovery and community.
Stanton Peele, one of my favorite writers about mental health and addiction, says:
Beyond any particular phobias that a family transmits to its offspring, beyond any special historical event that affects one generation or another, there is a disability that touches us all in modern Western society, and especially in America. It is a subtle feeling of drift, an assumption we make that many crucial things are beyond our control.
For my part, I felt this helplessness and impotence, and it was this little group of friends that first gave me emotional intimacy and a sense of agency. We connected through love of ideas, critique, and a search for our own voice. We were unmistakably outsiders and discontents, and were together in our discontentment. At a school dominated by its football program, whose second selling point is its reasonable price for credentialization, our priority was education, and literature. We were there to understand ourselves and to grow into citizens and mature human beings. We wanted to have a small liberal arts education but we were stuck, by temperament and circumstance, at a big state school. Hence, we found we had a common critique of our social status quo, and we discovered our power together.
Since we were inspired by older notions of education and citizenship, we founded a group we called Classic Literature Club. On paper we met once a week, but in practice we lived together in a constant stream of ideas and dreams. We critiqued the university, in its credentialization and instrumentalization of education. We created our own model of education and spiritual growth. We critiqued our society, in its injustice, destructiveness, and emptiness. We dreamed of alternatives. In our clique, we were seen, in our grief and our hope, and mirrored for each other the promise of empowerment. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for but I found some of it in this group of friends who formed a community around our love of ideas, debate, and asking big questions. It reminded me of the crew I had read about in On the Road, an artistic community living differently, wildly, ecstatically. It was my first home.
After graduating in Lincoln and a gap year in Germany, I went on to graduate school in philosophy in Chicago. Based on my experiences in undergrad, I was still basically skeptical of philosophy within academic institutions, but the University of Chicago seemed to have a special department which was more humanistic. Most philosophy departments in the US skew heavily analytic, which means they assimilate philosophy to math. Faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago, on the other hand, were self-consciously different. They were interested in literature, the history of philosophy, psychoanalysis, existentialism. I still didn’t think that academic philosophy was going to be my path, but I thought it would bring me closer to what I was looking for.
In fact, the Chicago department did meet a lot of my needs. The intellectual environment was spectacular, brilliant people studying and teaching exciting ideas, and more great authors and periods of time than I could properly comprehend. I also found pockets of community with individual professors and students. On the whole, however, I was disappointed. It became more and more clear that I was not going to achieve peace and healing through intellectual understanding. At the University of Chicago, philosophy is effectively understood as a purely theoretical pursuit. There is no dimension of personal transformation, nor any connection to social reform or revolution. There are no spiritual practices intended to help you quiet the mind, or to transcend your limited self. Instead, it is a culture centered on thinking, where people live in verbalization and conceptualization. I also struggled to find community with other graduate students who were mostly concerned with getting a job within academia, i.e. becoming professionalized by conforming to the demands of the market dictated by the neoliberal university system. So after my master’s degree I dropped out of the program, though I wasn’t sure exactly where my path would go next.
In the end, I decided: elementary school. Stanley Cavell, one of the great American philosophers of the last hundred years, calls philosophy “the education of grownups,” kind of elementary school for adults. In fact, it is the most elementary truths about ourselves and the world which get covered up from us in the course of routines and habitual lives, and which we need help remembering and rediscovering. I got a job teaching 2nd grade at a German-speaking elementary school in Chicago. It answered my interest in education and developmental psychology. Moreover, I have always been drawn towards working with children because of their curiosity and shamelessness. I am comfortable with them and felt that perhaps, unburdened with years of experience and “knowledge,” they could help me find what I was looking for. Perhaps they could teach me something about myself.
At the same time, I started a romantic relationship, and after a number of whirlwind and pretty blissful months, I decided that at the end of the school year I would move with my new girlfriend to LA, where we landed at the Center for the Working Poor. Over the course of our first year in Los Angeles, however, our relationship broke down, and I plunged deeper not only into personal emotional turmoil, which I was pretty familiar with, but considerable explicit interpersonal chaos. I was desperate to understand what was at this point an undeniable yet inexplicable pattern of chaotic and painful romantic attachments in my life.
I will always remember sitting on one of the couches in the living room of the Center talking with Paul about what was going on in my life. I was six months into a new city, minus my girlfriend; I had recently quit my job as a preschool teacher on the westside; and I was trying to understand not only the messy breakup but the underlying issues that had been with me for years. After peppering me with questions and hearing me out, at some point he said, “Have you ever talked with people who have had similar issues?” I think my mouth must have fallen open. No, I certainly hadn’t talked with people who had had similar issues. I didn’t know they existed. That night I went to my first 12 Step meeting.
In hindsight, I am thankful for hitting rock bottom, because it brought me into the world of 12 Step. Before that, I didn’t know there were “people who have had similar issues.” On the contrary, I had been uniquely alone in my pain and confusion. To take just one example, I remember, more than a year after the end of a previous relationship, confiding my continuing devastation to a close friend, my fear that I would never be able to move on. She assured me, reasonably, that that wasn’t true, but her assurance was ineffectual because she didn’t have any internal understanding of the experience I was in. Most people don’t. But reassurances from people who don’t know firsthand what you’re dealing with actually make you feel more incomprehensible and alone. All of that changes in 12 Step.
What did I find in 12 Step? When I was first getting into 12 Step, someone told me that it is a program of self discovery, and my experience has confirmed that. 12 Step gave me the lens of addiction, which I quickly found I could apply to my romantic relationships, and indeed to experiences in all areas of my life. This lens helped me begin to understand all of the ways I had been using people, places, and things to escape unpleasant feelings and painful experiences. I found a community of people who shared patterns of experience, talking about those experiences vulnerably, shamelessly, thereby creating a container for other people to talk about their experiences and to be held in compassion. I found a living community of people who support each other in meetings, and around the clock on the phone. I came to value the discipline of the program, structuring my thinking where it had previously been unstructured. I found a community supporting a plan and program for daily recovery on a lifelong spiritual path.
At the same time I started working as a fellow at the Center, first part-time and then full-time. Paul had encouraged me, as he has encouraged many others, to try a 10-day Vipassana meditation course and, right at the start of my tenure at the non-profit, I did. It changed my life. In my years in academic philosophy, especially in graduate school, I spent my days in a culture defined by and identified with thinking. The principles of meditation helped me start to get out of my head, and to reconnect with my body, and heart. While the ego is in the future or the past, the body and the meditative mind are in the present, what exists now. Not forever, but now. A Vipassana course is a bootcamp in impermanence, a concept I had struggled to process like many others. The technique of meditation helped me get out of fantasy and obsession into what is real now. And, as this is impossible to perfect, it reinforced for me the value of the concept of practice: doing something over and over, mindfully, and accepting failure non-judgmentally, as part of the process.
Equally important, Buddhist meditation gave me a community to practice with. Much like in a 12 Step group, personal sharing is part of the weekly protocol in the Thich Nhat Hanh Sangha. I’ve come to realize that growing up I didn’t get enough practice sharing my feelings. Maybe it didn’t feel safe. Somehow I got the message that my role in the family was to be a comforter, a peacemaker, a stabilizer, and my own feelings and needs compromised my ability to do that. It is thus very healing to share my experience vulnerably with a group of compassionate and detached peers. Sometimes while I am sharing I have to rub my eyes in disbelief that I have the floor, that they are interested in what is going on for me. And there is no way to exaggerate how healing it is to speak with a group that can hold your emotions. It doesn’t matter what I say—at the Sangha, just like at a 12 Step meeting, when I get done sharing, there is a resounding “Thank you, Garrett.” They’re not angry or reactive. They just hold what I said.
These spiritual communities have brought me home, into what I have always been looking for. Like the strands of the philosophical tradition I found most interesting and spent the first decade of my adult life exploring, both 12 Step and Buddhist mindfulness communities agree that our satisfaction and salvation come from being on the spiritual path, from spiritual growth. They represent an alternative to our mainstream cultural values, our consumerism and materialism. They all maintain that the kingdom of God is within. However, unlike philosophy in its university instantiation, they have embodied exercises that are practiced by living communities. They allow us to connect with our bodies and our hearts in practice. This is important, especially for men in our culture, who we put pressure on to not share their feelings or be vulnerable.
These living traditions provide a deep orientation to life, a structure for living a meaningful life, connected with fellow travelers and within these rich traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. They give you a security, a security I’ve always been looking for, to know that you’re on the path and that you have the tools provided in it: surrender, community, mindfulness. They prize emotional vulnerability, showing up in our brokenness, and having compassion for the ways we’ve been hurt. They support us in accepting our pain and imperfections without fear or shame. On the contrary, understanding and accepting that brokenness is what makes you whole.
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