A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with William Alexander
Let me offer you two autumn fragments from a larger story, many seasons long.
Fragment One—I had just begun working with the idea of using Buddhist principles in dealing with the dilemmas of long-term freedom from addiction, this process I now call Ordinary Recovery. I wanted to check it out with people whose understanding of both the problem and the solution was greater than mine. To that end, I visited with Don Hewlett, the program director of Fellowship House in New York. Fellowship House is a rehabilitation and ongoing care center established by the Hazelden Institute. Don, a former Franciscan monk, is a man of remarkable energy and compassion. We talked at length-weaving theory, story, and opinion-about the pitfalls faced by recovering addicts and alcoholics in the haste and jangles as this bloody century hobbled to an end. Although Don and I are from very different backgrounds, we are both active in spiritual practices that include an emphasis on silence and periodic retreat. And as our talk and storytelling that day went on and afternoon shadows lengthened, we discovered a deeper shared understanding of grave obstacles to simply trying to live an ordinary life in such difficult times and circumstances. We agreed that, although our concern was for addicts and alcoholics, it's an ordeal for anyone just to have some sense of connection and heartfulness in such mean times. It was somber talk. Not long before I had to leave to catch a train, and after a silence that had stretched comfortably for several minutes, Don said, "You know, what we all need is an altar on every street corner."
Fragment Two (One Year Later)—At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, there is a small chapel with a striking and mysterious Earth Altar. When I first saw this altar, on the day of the Feast of St. Francis, I could not approach it. The larger cathedral was filled with several thousand people, many of whom had brought animals—dogs, cats, screeching parrots, mice, snakes, and gerbils. Just outside the great bronze doors of the cathedral were a full-grown male elephant, two llamas, a goat, monkeys, and myriad other creatures awaiting their dramatic procession to the high altar. My own overstimulated "monkey mind" chattered in fractious harmony with my animal mates. I stood outside the little chapel, hidden away behind the high altar and breathed deeply, centering and quieting my mind. I entered it, away from the high energy of the great cathedral, with a mind of awe and wonder. As I approached the altar, I recalled Zen monks approaching their altars, robes whispering, bare feet slipping on polished floors as incense swirled, while the dharma hall became preternarurally quiet and attention was focused on the figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, seated eternally, flanked by flowers, bowls of water, candles, and brass incense holders. I remembered, as well, the words of a Greek Orthodox priest who spoke of the "otherness" of the priest as he approaches the altar. In this small chapel was not alone. Zen and Orthodox priests crowded behind me. The Earth Altar sang its earth songs.
The light was brilliant; it shone on the altar and shone from within it. Edges blurred. I stood in the stillness, absorbed in the creative power of this little place. Nothing stirred. Sound faded. I was content and at peace. I felt right-sized. I needed to go after too few minutes. My son Willie was sharing the pulpit with the dean of the cathedral that day and I couldn't miss it. As I left, I glanced back briefly and saw a hand-lettered sign haphazardly attached to the iron-grated lattice-work door. It said, "An Altar is a Place of Transformation."
We are building an altar at every moment. Every moment can be a moment of transformation if we can learn to live voluntarily. When the rush of traffic has your brain in a swirl, build an altar at the corner. When you are angry at your spouse, build an altar in the kitchen and breathe, in and out. When you see the devils, transform them. As you read on you will see how it has worked for me and for others and how it can work for you. There are altars at every turn when you know how to look for them.
As times change and the spiritual focus shifts, there are many recovering people who, like me, are looking for a more meaningful spiritual practice. Buddhist practice, Anglicanism, and AA are not the same, but they are not different. They share a common ground of awareness of suffering and the relief of suffering through persistent spiritual practice. Ordinary Recovery is just such a practice.
In a wonderful and paradoxical way, the gift of addiction is the possibility to walk the path of freedom from addiction. If I were not an addict, I could not be free. Everyday life is the forge of freedom. Long-term freedom from addiction is not something that takes place outside of everyday life or only in Twelve Step meeting rooms, therapists' offices, or in occasional conversation with other recovering people. The freedom offered in Ordinary Recovery is not about "not drinking" but, rather, about the discovery of one's deep humanity. In Ordinary Recovery, imperfection is revealed and its delights are savored rather than despised. In the life of Ordinary Recovery, there is no self-disparaging talk of "defects of character," but, rather, a dedication to self-discovery, warts and all. Compassion is born from the ashes of isolation and recovery is happening in every moment. "One day at a time" includes Wednesdays.
William Alexander is on staff at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota, where he teaches meditation and leads workshops on Ordinary Recovery.
Excerpted from Ordinary Recovery (Shambhala Publications, 2010). Click here to purchase the book from the publisher.