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Disturb the Comfortable, Comfort the Disturbed

Words to live by? I used to love this philosophy. Maybe in some sense I still do. But the view and application have changed considerably since I first heard it on a Bob E. speaker tape some 25 years go. Back then, as a fan of Alice Cooper (one of the first shock rockers) and Frank Zappa (the late social commentarian extraordinaire), the notion of shocking people out of their comfort zones was appealing. This is still a popular philosophy among some 12-Steppers.

For example, a 40-something man at a young people’s meeting recently told the famous “chicken-fucker” story to illustrate how sharing one’s defects can foster a sense of community. “As soon as I heard you were chicken-fucker too, I knew I wasn’t alone!” Sure, that kind of “honesty” can be interesting if you enjoy blank, nauseated looks from listeners. In a way this is a service in that we can ease the pain or at least the sense of isolation of those who are disturbed. But as someone who’d never learned to temper my emotions or have proper social boundaries, it was often hard to use such tactics without sometimes being a bit malicious. When we act like that, it’s more of an attitude of pre-recovery wherein we just want to disturb everybody!

That was easy for me, as my childhood behavior was as that class clown always on the lookout for ways to disrupt the teacher as a coping method for boredom and anxiety. Do you remember that kid? What can I say, we didn’t have computers or video games back then.

Later through the 12 Steps, I enjoyed a new acceptance of idiosyncrasies, weird humor and jaded views. In the course of working the steps I uncovered aspects of myself that I’d always been ashamed or unaware of. Step work helped me enjoy being openly not-ashamed. Moreover, I was part of a group where many other young people also admitted to being strange and quirky, yet were intelligent, sensitive and funny too. This made me feel like it was OK to be me for the first time in my life. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a lifelong process wrought with consistent and painful “chunks of truth” that didn’t always want to stay down.

In the preliminary stages of self-acceptance, depending on the individual and their path, it may be easy to think that some superficial levels of insight are profound. And in the early phase of recovery, where our sober community is popping with daily revelations, it can appear that non-addicts don’t have a clue. In the rooms, we call it “comparing their outsides with our insides.” They look comfortable and we feel uncomfortable, so why not shake things up a little? The attitude might be expressed by, “Hey look at me, at least I can admit that I’m an ass. Can’t you?” But to use shallow insight as a tool to gain the upper hand on uncomfortable social interactions is sophomoric 12-Step arrogance. But it’s not limited to 12-Steppers.

For me, it got worse with years of psychology and Zen untempered by real compassion. Combine a smart ass 12-stepper with a holier-than-now Zen-tillectual and you’ve got a reason for Prozac whether you’re the subject or the object. On one hand we’re superior because we’ve overcome addiction and on the other because we’ve found The Way. Add the ability to quote some Freud and you get an insufferable jerk who really knows how to get under people’s skins.

But what happens over time? The 12 steps work deeper, like a spiritual tapeworm burrowing into the core of our self-centeredness. Zen practice eventually (or suddenly) grinds away the sense of intellectually knowing anything at all, let alone everything, possibly leaving a level of doubt that can drive one back to drink, as it did in my case. Pithy Zen-quotes and 12-Step folk wisdom don’t help much when, in a drunken stupor the former sober hero passes out in his puke, trying to watch his breath as the room spins. Luckily, I was able to survive that stage and live to tell about it. Many do not.

These days, back in sober-mode with 12 years clean and another decade of Buddhist practice, I find that my view has changed again. What was often missing back then and what I’ve been trying to develop is the ability to be mindful of the piece from the St. Francis prayer that says, “Comfort rather than be comforted.” It sounds good in theory, but as with any afflictive emotion, it’s easier to take action that relieves our own anxiety than it is to consider the feelings of others, hence the desire to disturb the comfortable. But the more I practice, the more in touch with subtler levels of my own suffering and anxiety I become. Instead of reacting to that, I try to connect with how we’re all suffering, whether it manifests in addiction or something else.

We’re all disturbed on some level. Most addicts have indeed been through some serious trauma and we all need to be soothed, as Dr. Gabor Mate says in his new book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. But those of us who’ve suffered deeply aren’t better than those who suffer in quieter ways on subtler levels. This attitude might come easily for some, but for me it took time to learn it in my guts. Additionally, if we gain some insight from meditation and/or other practice, we can also develop sensitivity and the responsibility to use that insight to foster kindness and compassion. Note: I don’t mean pseudo-compassion where we pretend to be above it all with airy-fairy ideals that we barely understand and have even less ability to apply, but real compassion. This is exemplified not in our words or intentions, but our actions.

For example, when people attack or otherwise harm us, instead of taking actions to relieve our own suffering at their expense, we may opt to practice Tonglen, where we meditate on taking on their suffering and offering them the comforts that we normally covet for ourselves. See His Holiness Dalai Lama for over 50 years of examples. One such story of compassion from Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, is of a Tibetan monk who, after escaping from Chinese prison, was asked about his experience. The monk said that the worst thing for him was that at one point during his torture he feared he might lose compassion for his captors.

Could most of us even consider such a notion? Come on. But these <em>are</em> the teachings of the Buddha. When logically integrated with the 12 Steps and other work, we have the opportunity to understand and experience a glimpse or two of how this level of compassion can be. I’ve felt it myself, so I have confidence in the methods. From this foundation I have gained some measure of understanding into practical ways to comfort, rather than be comforted as opposed to disturbing because I am disturbed. The trick is to remember to do it!

The nice thing about facilitating Dharma groups with addicts in recovery is that they never hesitate to throw the teachings or the steps right back at me if I forget. I’d like to thank the people who attend my groups for reminding me to practice what I teach. They really make me think and work hard. There’s no pedestal in this group! I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be on this path.

May we all find a path out of suffering.

2 comments to Disturb the Comfortable, Comfort the Disturbed

  • Doug

    What’s the chicken fucker story? Don’t think I’ve heard that one.

  • That’s the story where a guy is sharing at a meeting and is crying because he’s so ashamed that he was a, you know. Until someone in the back yells, “Did yours die too?” And then the guy feels like he’s not as alone or ashamed. Personally, it’s kind of a gross thing to hear at a meeting in my opinion. I’ve never known anyone who engaged in such activities and am not sure it is a healthy thing to condone. But such is the 12-Step lore.

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