My friend Bree stopped by as I was cooking my new concoction: green soup. I am not known for my wizardry in the kitchen so throwing kale, broccoli, chard, string beans, and peas in a pot with hot water, blending them together and adding salt and butter (note: lots of butter otherwise it tastes like grass) is what’s known as a culinary triumph in our house.
I asked Bree if she wanted to taste it before I added the butter. No, she said, I can’t. I am a food addict, and if I have a little, I’ll eat it all. Really? I asked. You’d want a whole pot of liquid grass? Addicts can’t have a little of anything, she said. We keep wanting more; we never stop. That’s why they call us addicts. Fair enough, I said.
I remembered when I thought I was an addict. I was convinced that I couldn’t be in a room with chocolate without it calling to me from across the room. The terror of food was overwhelming. The belief that I couldn’t control myself, and left on my own, would eat until my skin burst was paralyzing. The nights of nonstop bingeing followed by days of despair and suicidal fantasies lasted for almost twenty years. But after Bree left, I also remembered something much more subtle about that era: the comfort of defining myself as an addict. It was deeply reassuring in a hard to explain way to know who I was (out of control, crazed, and forever hungry). Because then I knew exactly what I needed to do, eat, weigh and think to feel better. I had a plan, a prescription for living my life — even if I couldn’t follow it. Being an addict made me feel as if I was in control of living, even though I (believed I was) out of control of eating.
Over the years, I tried on identities (survivor of abuse, compulsive eater, immune disorder victim, writer, teacher, speaker) like I tried on winter coats, but my main identity — the self around which all other selves was constellated — was of a seeker. I’d say I wanted to reside in “boundless awareness”, but what I really wanted was to succeed at seeking. Which is a fancy way of saying that I wanted to add the badge of “enlightenment” to my long list of achievements, not subtract the identities I already had. Although I’d heard the Zen saying that “[The spiritual] Life is about stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink,” I wrote it off to being one of those inscrutable Zenthings that you can’t take literally. Who, after all, would have volunteered to get on the Titanic knowing its fate? Not me. I wanted to be a thin, successful, happily married, writer/teacher who also happened to reside in presence.
But a few years ago, I started losing interest in the next Big Get. It’s as if an engine that had been running for as long as I could remember suddenly stopped, and in its place, was — nothing (if stillness was speaking, it wasn’t speaking to me). I don’t know why this happened; it could be that after spending so many years being disappointed that the next get was only a step to the next one and the one after that, I got tired of running in place. What I do know, though, is that the stillness was so disorienting that, at first, I thought I had the flu, and then, that I had early Alzheimer’sthe kind that makes dust of everything but the present moment. I’d thrash around trying to reconstitute the white noise of my old life, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t do it, so I’d feed the hummingbirds and make a cup of tea instead.
It’s not that anything looked different from the outside — I didn’t stop teaching retreats or eating Venezuelan chocolate or wearing my cool motorcycle boots. I lived in the same house, took the same walks, drank the same wine, but I started noticing that things I did — laundry, teaching, being with my husband, being on television, playing with my dog were no longer steps on the way to getting somewhere else. Somewhere important. It dawned on me that the meaning of anything was in being there while I did it; without the need to get to the next place and the next, everything could become itself. It’s taken awhile, but I’ve come to see that freedom isn’t (for most of us, at least) a once and for all occurrence, but an everdeepening acclimation to this state where everything is as it is. For a girl like me, this shift feels, at times, like loss.
After decades of Doing Something to Get Somewhere to Be Someone Important, there are still moments when I am convinced something is wrong. I’ll think, “I don’t know where I should go, but I should hurry and get there.” But — here’s the good news — I have come to trust the process of thisthatIcannotname. Even the lostness, when I stop fighting it, feels delicate and sweet and vast. It seems that sinking and wearing motorcycle boots are not, after all, contradictory.