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The Zen of Recovery
By Mel Ash
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Mel Ash
All rights reserved.
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HI! MY NAME IS ...
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Mel. I'm an alcoholic, a survivor of an abused childhood and a Zen teacher. I was born to angry people in an angry house in an angry town on the edge of an angry time. I once believed with all my damaged being that I had caused all that anger, that I was to blame and not even worth the killing. These days, I get angry only when I think of the stolen years of my life. I'm learning how to turn my anger into compassion and to see the anger of others as suffering. I've miraculously learned how to not turn my own anger into self-destructive actions and self-hatred. The things I've learned how not to do now outnumber the things I've learned how to do. Oddly enough, I am a more fulfilled and confident person as a result of all this not-doing. But learning how not to do took years of doing.
That I am even here to write these words is a miracle and a story in itself. That I can call myself a Zen teacher is beyond my wildest dreams. In the details, my story may be different from yours, but like different plants in the same garden, we've all grown, twisted from the same poisoned soil of suffering and watered by the same rains of compulsion. We're the same, you and I, we alcoholics, addicts, abused children, compulsive eaters, gamblers, anorexics and bulimics, sex and love addicts, co-dependents and so on. The world may see us as the dregs of humanity, but we're not so different from the first people to whom Jesus chose to minister. We are the broken heart of this world and we, unwillingly, become its reflection. We are the front line of human suffering and the advance troops of spiritual desperation and revolution. We are human beings and deserve nurturing gentleness. What most of us got was a kick in the ass. Many of us would agree with The Clash when they sing, "I wasn't born so much as I fell out."
I know you, reader, and you know me. I've seen and heard you in a thousand meetings. Thank you for saving my life. This is my gift in return, a bitter-tasting one, for the most part, but it's the only gift I've got to give, the only thing I own that is truly mine. This is my story, my drunkalog. Now it's your story, too.
I fell out into this life on January 20, 1953, the same day Eisenhower was inaugurated and ushered in the cultural mind-set of the fifties. The world war was behind and the sixties lay ahead. It was in this seeming lull that the real war was fought on the innocent battlefield of my young soul by my parents. It was in this deceptive interval that the seeds of disease were planted in my life by a schizophrenic culture. It would be three decades before I could even begin to understand what I was.
My father, just back from the Korean War, was not pleased when the doctor who delivered me said I looked like a little Korean. I guess the doctor was wiser than we knew. Little did I know at the age of a couple of minutes that a strange religion from Korea would one day help give me the self-worth my world had relentlessly sought to destroy from the time I was born.
Just as for most of us, both my parents were also products of dysfunctional families. My father came from a broken home where he had been severely beaten by his own father and abandoned to the dire poverty of the Depression. My mother's father, a pharmacist, died relatively young, most likely of addiction. (In those times, addiction and alcoholism were rarely diagnosed or admitted.) My mother's mother was in and out of mental institutions, repeatedly subjected to electric-shock treatment. For both my parents, twisted role models became the norm and were passed on generation to generation without question. Questioning people's realities is at best a dangerous business, especially if they're your parents. Somehow, I knew that something was very wrong.
Today, years into recovery and removed from my parents, I'm finally beginning to replace my own anger with traces of compassion for their situation. Instead of reacting to this world with wonder, my parents responded with bitterness and lowered expectations. Any intimation that things were not what they seemed was drowned out in angry screams or pummeled into silent submission. This was to be their children's only legacy, but their children went crazy in ways that ultimately freed them from their ravenous emotional past. Their two older children had been set, as Alan Watts says, as human traps, rigged to catch ourselves through recovery.
We grew up with virtually no connection to our cultural heritages. We were definitely a nuclear family, constantly in meltdown and always spewing poisonous fallout. Our relatives had all been banished for imagined slights and offenses. I can't recall my parents ever having any close friends, and even the casual ones were soon driven away, condemned and blamed for not conforming to my parents' warped agenda and skewed worldview. We were repeatedly told how awful everybody was, that we were not to associate with them. Later, this would apply even to our own young friends, treasured teachers and, finally and most horribly, to our own deepest feelings and identities. The circle closed in ever tighter. More and more options and vistas were closed.
Everything in this world seemed suspect, subversive and unworthy to my parents. How could their children, mere babies, ever hope to live up (or down) to their standards? In one way and one way only: death. Either death of our innate worth and unique selfhood, or a later spiritual and physical death through the diseases of alcoholism, addiction and child-abuse-survivor syndrome. Only by totally screwing up could we ever hope to fulfill our parents' expectations that everybody else was no good and they were the sole possessors of the truth. Now, as a recovering adult, I know the awful truth they held so tightly, and I reject it unconditionally.
Finally, one awful day when I was an adult in my twenties, my father attacked me with his hands in my own home. I had refused to die and struggled toward wholeness and my own identity. This was the ultimate affront and I had to be sacrificed on the altar of his idea of how this world should be. If I lived and was happy with my life, that meant his entire life was a lie, a failure. The very last time I ever saw him and confronted him with the reality of my pain, when I was in my thirties and in recovery, he wished me an early death and my mother cursed my sons, hoping they would go crazy.
I can never change or erase the facts of who I am and the gruesome inheritance I was given. As a survivor of an abused childhood, I am in many ways different from other people. I will always react differently from others and I will constantly struggle to fend off the programming I received so early on. A person who has had a limb severed can never grow it back like a lizard can, but can learn to live with it and find ways and devices to function normally. I can't grow back a normal childhood, and I can never regain that part of me that was denied and ripped away. Like the handicapped person, I must find tools and tricks to function normally.
The emotional and verbal abuse I suffered was constant and unrelenting; it was the very air I breathed. There was no escape for a young boy who had never been told that escape was possible. I reacted to this closed world by doing artwork. I believe now that deep inside I knew my world was messed up and I could escape only by creating another one through art. My reaction to destruction was creation. Bill W. says that we seek transcendence through our diseases. This is why only a spiritual prescription can arrest the progression of our denial and diseases. Too young to drink or drug, I sought transcendence and escape through the medium of my art. I attribute any talents or gifts I might have today not to any god or quirk of genetics, but to my desperation and innate childhood wisdom. I had to vent and express myself; I had to survive.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the corner, staring. For me, it wasn't ten minutes or even half an hour. I had to sit for hours, totally disproportionate punishment for any childish transgression, or risk being hit. That I can sit still, stare at the floor and meditate for hours today is totally beyond me! I still find it hard, somewhat like taking my medicine, only this time self- prescribed and wholesome. In many ways, I suppose, that early punishment was my first introduction to Zen practice.
I have an extremely vivid memory of my sister and me, huddled and hiding behind a shallow rock wall, listening in dread to our parents screaming and breaking things inside the house, blaming everything on us kids. "They're your goddamned kids!" and so forth. We were sure we were the cause of our parents' misery. We shivered and shook. Our world grew smaller and darker. We had only each other.
I was told daily that I was no good and would never be as smart or hard- working as my father. My mother was always telling me I was letting them down, that they had sacrificed everything for us ungrateful kids. We learned to fear the crunch of my father's tires entering the gravel driveway when he returned from work. Instead of a happy welcome, it meant our mother would be running to the door to give the report on how awful we had been and how he'd better do something about it. He always did.
I escaped deeper and deeper into art. Comic books became a separate reality for me. Superheroes became my surrogate family. They lived in a world where evil always perished and the good always triumphed. The violence and physical confrontation bothered me, though. At an early age, I always identified with those who were injured or hurt, even the villains. Their suffering was in a very real way my own. To this day, I can't take the life of even a mosquito, feeling in my very cells that to cause any harm is the worst thing we can do. This is not some kind of high-flown and abstract ethic but a very real physical revulsion to any sort of violence. Only later on did I extend my nonviolence to my own injured self, identifying those actions of my own that furthered the destruction started by my parents and culture.
In 1963, one real-life hero was assassinated and a comic-book one was born. I was ten years old and picked up a copy of Marvel Comics' Strange Tales. Inside was the story of Dr. Strange, a totally new kind of superhero. It was fate, karma or the luckiest sort of coincidence that landed Dr. Strange in my life that portentous year. Here is his story:
Steven Strange was a handsome, famous and wealthy surgeon. He lived only to make money, enjoy fame and date beautiful women. If someone couldn't afford his fee, he'd refuse to perform the operation. He never volunteered his talents for charity work, even when it might mean a cure for a disease or saving someone's life. One night, Steven Strange had a car accident on the way home from a party. He survived but was left with nerve damage to his hands that meant he could never operate again. He refused others' help, too proud even to consult, saying, "I must be the best ... the greatest ... or else ... nothing!"
He became a drifter, a human derelict and a hopeless alcoholic, living near the waterfront. One day, he overheard two sailors talking about the Ancient One, a mystic who could cure anything, it was rumored. Dr. Strange made it somehow to the Ancient One's monastery high in the snowy Himalayas of Tibet. The Ancient One refused to cure him, saying, "I cannot help you, for your motives are selfish." He told Strange that he might find the cure within himself. Strange was of course outraged but couldn't leave due to the winter snows. During his enforced stay, he became aware that one of the Ancient One's disciples sought to kill and usurp the master. The disciple put a spell on Strange that left him silent whenever he tried to warn the Ancient One. The only way to defeat the evil disciple was to become a student of the Ancient One and learn his mystic ways. Over the course of his apprenticeship, Strange gained wisdom and humility, as well as great powers, defeated the evil disciple and swore to protect the world from the forces of darkness. He found out later that the Ancient One had known of the evil disciple's intentions all along, but it was too late for Steven Strange, the selfish surgeon. He had become Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, sworn to protect mankind with no thought of reward for himself.
This story affected me profoundly. Dr. Strange didn't use violence to defeat his enemies and didn't kill, usually showing even the most demonic opponent the error of his ways. Although Buddhism was never mentioned and creator Stan Lee in his book Origins of Marvel Comics denies any specific Asian religious knowledge or influences on his work, it was apparent to me as a child that something very different was happening here. Dr. Strange was often shown meditating in the full lotus position, floating off the ground, a third eye in his forehead throwing out mystic beams of light. By doing this, Dr. Strange could enter other dimensions and realities.
Given the extremity of my situation, other realities were definitely a desirable option, so I started meditating like Dr. Strange, hoping to escape into other, better realms. Much to my disappointment, nothing happened. No beams of light. No levitation. Nothing. But I kept on trying. And I kept on following the monthly adventures of Dr. Strange. Even now, I still subscribe to his monthly comic-book dose of pop art wisdom.
Years later, when I became a student and teacher of meditation, I realized that having nothing happen was the biggest happening and relief of all. To be able just to sit quietly was more powerful and miraculous than anything in any comic book. But that comic book literally saved my young life and gave it hope and meaning, planting seeds of possibility in the cold soil of my childhood. This was my first exposure to anything remotely resembling Zen, and it remains the clearest teaching I've ever received: Self-transformation is possible, and reality is not what we've been told. Violence turns on its user and only selflessness can save both ourselves and this bleeding world.
I clung desperately to these ideas during my preteens. While my parents slept off their fights, I meditated in my bedroom, serene and without self, patiently waiting for the third eye of wisdom to open. My parents had tried to destroy my selfhood and empty my small soul. Thanks to Dr. Strange, I took control of the process. Yes, selfhood was painful and reality was only suffering. I sought to empty myself of all feelings and ideas in order to attain some kind of undefined superherohood or untouchableness. Childishly, I had stumbled onto basic Zen concepts. Cartoonlike, I practiced.
The next year in our school library I saw a picture of somebody named Buddha sitting like Dr. Strange on the cover of a small book, The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, by E. A. Burtt. I took it home and read it. It was a revelation, a confirmation of all that I believed and felt deep in my bones. It was Dr. Strange, but full-blown, by and about a real person. The ideas were thousands of years old. I clung desperately to the ideas expressed in the book: that things don't exist in and of themselves, that this world is somehow a dream that we can awaken from. When I was being beaten or yelled at, my mind was busy denying the reality of all that I was experiencing based on my naive understanding of the Buddhist dharma. It might have been naive and it might have been mistaken, but it saved me.
Buddha kept emphasizing the existence and role of suffering in human life and how it's caused by our deluded minds. Like my father's slap, this woke me up. I had always known this stuff. For the first time, somebody was telling me the truth and teaching me a way out. I no longer felt so weird and isolated. I began meditating even more seriously. "No teacher, no method, no guru," as Van Morrison sings, but just because I had to do it. Later on, alcohol, drugs and self-loathing became more expedient as my early spark of hope was extinguished, but that is later on.
Excerpted from The Zen of Recovery by Mel Ash. Copyright © 1993 Mel Ash. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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