“The descent into addiction actually comes quite easily. It is the journey back that is difficult.” This line comes closest to describing the ride along as if a hitchhiker experience that author Charles Bynum takes the reader on in his book entitled The Other Side of Hell. Although I am a rapid and voracious reader, I found it breathtakingly difficult at times to keep turning the pages, as much as I wanted to. There was so much pain that the author was exuding as if from his pores, as the personal became the universal. I needed to take breaks along the way, to come up for air. Even as a therapist and addictions counselor for decades, I had never heard such raw and real descriptions of drug use and prison life.
Is there anyone who hasn’t felt a myriad of emotions, sometimes simultaneously that were tidal wave overwhelming and they sought desperately to staunch the flow? For Bynum, the ‘solution’ at the time, felt like drugs; meth in particular. Thus, he had immersed himself in despondence and depravity the likes of which he might never have imagined.
Depression and anger were two states of mind that enveloped him in darkness. The book begins with his frustrating dialog with his psychiatrist who seemed rather condescending. It continues with naked honesty about every step along the way. He had resisted the guidance initially and was ‘hell-bent’ to prove that what he was doing wasn’t the cause of his suffering, but rather, he felt he was at the mercy of external forces and people. Bynum embodied the classic definition of insanity of doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. His choices; whether conscious or unconscious led to jail time. Behind the clanking prison doors lay redemption via the concept of here and now, in the moment mindfulness, rather than mind-full to overflowing with all of the beliefs he held onto that were holding on to him. Meditation became one key that unlocked the internal prison doors.
Wisdom came in the form of his first cellmate named Ray. Very much like the character of Socrates that Dan Millman writes about in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Ray offers his perspective, in an unfolding, sometimes gentle, other times firm way. Ray helped him to see that he indeed had choices; the proverbial love vs. fear conundrum. He had the opportunity to become a monster or the man he wanted to be, when encountering another inmate who he felt dissed him; learning that he could be at the mercy of the anger or could master it. He transcended the rage that had been fueled by his belief in his own victim-hood and became a victor over it and a thriver as a result of it. Although he was still literally behind bars, experiencing de-humanizing treatment, he embraced his humanity and freed himself.
A major shift took place toward the end of the book, that belongs on the shelf of anyone who is in the addiction, mental health or law enforcement fields. He had been at odds with his idea of what/who God is and came to a sense of peace about it as an unfolding concept. He refers to spiritual practice in a way that resonates with me. “Spiritual practice is whatever you have to do to accept things as they are.” Surrender to what is became a theme in the second portion, as he opened his journal for the reader to peruse.
Bynum now gives back by speaking with others in recovery, as well as veterans with PTSD.
Although he would tell you that he doesn’t have the answers tied up in a nice, neat little package for anyone, what he has gleaned from the tour through the inferno, offers good guidance for anyone locked in the prison of their own making. It is possible to ascend to the heaven of our choosing, as a result.
“What a liberation to realize that the voice in my head is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
If you are at all like me, your mind is a busy highway filled with vehicles of all makes and models, cutting each other off, attempting to get somewhere sooner, not wanting to be late. Horns honking, dodging and weaving. Sometimes the passengers are wearing seat belts. Sometimes they are playing it fast and loose with the rules of the road. Safety is not foremost in their minds. My heart races, and not in a good way, as I consider that scenario.
Another image that comes to mind is that of the idea of a sink piled high with dishes that threaten to tumble down onto the floor as soap bubbles rise up and cascade over onto the counter.
Neither of them are pleasant to contemplate and yet, here I sit, tapping away at the keyboard, as the words describing them are twisting my stomach, because they are my current ‘reality’. According to some sources, we experience something averaging 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day. One right after the other and some overlapping, I imagine. Some delicious and delightful and some dreadful and outright terrifying. Capturing them and then setting them free, are my intentions. First, I need to be aware that they are there. Consider the image of an iceberg with the majority of its mass beneath the surface of the water. The remainder that we can see, tips above the waves. Remember that it wasn’t the tip that sank the Titanic; but rather that which the captain couldn’t see.
Breathing deeply as I contemplate the iceberg thoughts that sometimes haunt me. Blessedly, I don’t verbalize many of them. Filters are a wonderful thing to have if one wants to maintain relationships and stay out of jail. I do my best to allow them to pass through the Three Gates:
- Is it kind?
- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- And a bonus: Will it improve on the silence?
The witnessing presence is one I am learning to cultivate. It hangs out with me on occasion and is a comfort when it arrives. It reminds me that all is well and that I need not obsess over thoughts that don’t serve. I have begun engaging in mindfulness meditation and find that it eases the way and allows for more smooth flow of inner traffic.
I marvel at all of the miracles, overlapping soul circle connections, meant-to-be interactions and delightful surprises that pop up like so many wildflowers on a green expanse. I am tempted to roll around in them, laughing my joy to the heavens. I do that symbolically on a daily basis. It is what gets me through at times when life gets lifey and the world is too much with me. As I am typing these words, I am simultaneously listening to the clamor of construction outside my window, soothed by the sonic sweetness of Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens who reminds me to listen to the winds of my soul and understand “where I end up, well, I think only God really knows.” Such an interesting juxtaposition. I could be annoyed and distracted by the rumbling of trucks and beeping backup noises…a cacophony. I have learned to shut them out and immerse in the music instead.
What also charms me are the treasures that show up as messages from the Divine. My friend Paul Dengler, who is a Forrest Gump impersonator (among other things such as being a singer songwriter, performer, writer and artist.) shared a concept with me that showed up in conversation he had with a friend of his. He calls it ‘accidestined’ and defines them as “those things that seem random, but are really part of a larger plan.” I still meander back and forth between the idea that all things are pre-ordained as if written by an unseen hand on a parchment that we unroll or if we are given a blank sheet of paper ourselves on which we inscribe and describe our days. Somewhere in between lies free will and a handy eraser. We agree that our meeting was like that. We connected nearly two years ago at an outdoor music festival and bonded instantly. It turns out that although he lives in the Nashville area and I am in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, he grew up 10 minutes away from I make my home now. How cool is that?
When I was a teenager, my best friend Barb, her mother Stella and I climbed into the car for a road trip from Willingboro, New Jersey to Doylestown, Pennsylvania where we went to the Polish festival at Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine. It seemed to me at the time that it was on the other side of the planet when in fact, it may have been 90 minutes away. Now it is practically in my back yard, a mere five miles or so away. It is one of my go-to places to sit and meditate and commune with Mother Mary. She was a nice Jewish girl too, so we have that in common.
Yesterday my iphone froze up. I couldn’t even turn it off, so I hightailed it over to the closest AT&T store. I had a sense that there was a reason for it and I would likely have an fun encounter as a result and naturally I did. I walked in and with a bit of dismay, saw a bunch of folks waiting to be seen. Sighs turn to smiles, as I noticed my friend Julie Druzak sitting with one of the techs, getting to know her new phone. We hugged and chatted a bit and acknowledged the serendipitous timing of our meeting. Although I needed to wait for likely another 30 minutes, I also got to watch (several times), a video of a young woman/fashion designer who got the surprise of a gorgeous dress to wear to an awards dinner, created by someone she profiled on her fashion blog. That was followed by a little girl whose family was planning her birthday party. Her handy grandfather crafted a beautiful doll house and her culinarily talented grandmother baked her a cake that I’m sure tasted as good as it looked. I could have been growly and impatient, but instead, realized that if I had to wait, I might as well make it pleasant. I vicariously enjoyed the adventures of Kayla who called herself a ‘technista’ (conjunction of techie and fashionista) and Zoe, the beautiful birthday girl surrounded by her loving family. Both of these scenarios were actually ads for the various products that AT&T were selling, but the relational element added a nice touch.
What if each moment of the day played out like that? What if we are always at the right place at the right time to connect with the exact right people for the adventure of a lifetime?
Twenty five years ago, what was merely a seed kernel of an idea, called Living Beyond Breast Cancer,that was cultivated in the mind and heart of Marisa C. Weiss, MD, a radiation oncologist, became a dynamic, expansive event in Philadelphia’ the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ and ‘Sisterly Affection’. In 1991, she sought to bring together support and information for her patients who had received diagnoses of breast cancer. Knowing that she had medical knowledge, but not first hand experience, she went directly to the source..her patients themselves.
Five years later, Jean A. Sachs, MSS, MLSP, the organization’s first executive director (now chief executive officer) added her passion and dedication to the mix.
Fifteen years ago, yoga teacher Jennifer Schelter brought her inspiration to the team for what was once called Yoga Unites For Living Beyond Breast Cancer and has evolved into Reach and Raise. Back then, 150 gathered on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to raise funds as they lowered and raised their bodies on their yoga mats.
I found out about the event via a high school friend named Abe Morris. His wife Andi is not only a survivor of breast cancer, but indeed, a thriver who has gone on to take her experience and empower others. A few years ago, I joined other intrepid yogis and yoginis on a blustery and rainy May day as I stretched both on and off the mat. The experience became a chapter in my book The Bliss Mistress Guide To Transforming The Ordinary Into The Extraordinary, called Mammogram Mambo and stressed the importance of breast care.
Then, in 2012, on a considerably more hospitable day, I returned to the steps and went even deeper into the practice; writing about it for Beliefnet in an article called Yo-ga Adrienne! which was a nod to the cinematic character Rocky who had dashed up those same steps.
On May 15, 2016, I joined a group of hardy souls once again on a day that nearly mirrored that first time I went. Clouds scuttled across a steel grey sky with the occasional sun-burst initially. Layers of jackets and coats covered clothes more appropriately suited for a warm studio than a gusty inner city out door venue. Rainbow hued mats covered the area, like so many beach towels, awaiting reclining bodies to lie down on them. As I scouted out my space, I decided to remain on the lower level, rather than traverse the steps which were more exposed to the wind.
The day began with Alexa Fong Drubay getting us giggly with the bubbling over power of Laughter Yoga. Warmed us heart and soul and set us in high spirits for the rest of what was to follow.
I meandered around, soaking up the energy that permeated the space, through the smiles and hugs of those who were stretching, laughing, hugging and chatting in anticipation. I had the chance to connect with Jennifer who was garbed in a grey winter coat, that matched the sky, and with kirtan artist Yvette Pecoraro whose lovely voice wafted over the crowd of over 2500, during the class that Jennifer led.
This was done with grace and humor. The focus was on living our dreams, without hesitation, even if we tremble at the thought of it. Many who were there had the opportunity to renew or perhaps, for the first time, establish theirs, following their diagnosis or that of someone they love. Some of the asanas (poses) were meant to reflect that. I looked at the heart opening poses as allowing me to bare myself to all that I want. I viewed the balancing poses as a way of showing me that even as I may sway and sometimes even topple over, I can still regain my composure and stand once again. I was grateful for the supportive postures: tree and Lord of the Dance, being done my placing a hand on the back of the person next to us. Jennifer asked us to hold in our hearts and minds, the image of our deepest dreams.
The end of the practice had us lying in Sivasana , as Yvette offered her exquisite new song called We Are One, accompanied by the sweet voices of The Philadelphia Boys Choir. I could feel the sun peering out, melting away the chill and sealing in my deepest heart’s desires. As Yvette declared at the beginning of her musical offering…and so begins the love.