Right before the millennium, at a birthday celebration held in a spacious loft in downtown Manhattan, I fell into deep conversation with an eccentric artist who was rapidly rising in a city where the competition is known to be beyond fierce. He’d always been intrigued by Indian art, culture and philosophy, he told me, and his art reflected this interest. He then proceeded to ask me searching questions about my life in south India, including how and why I had made my way to the Big Apple, and I found him to be highly intelligent and perceptive—no, this was not superficial party talk, but a true meeting of souls.
In turn he spoke about his own life, and I was stunned by his revelations, particularly because he appeared to be the product of a loving background. He told me that his mother had fled her vicious alcoholic husband when he was only three and that his father had then turned his rage on him, abusing him sexually and beating him viciously, and no one had been around to protect him.
To cope with chronic feelings of hopelessness and misery, he began smoking pot in his early teens, then graduated to hard drugs and liquor. Finally he ran away from home and his addictions roared into top gear as he tried to survive on the streets. His rage against his father had grown murderous; when he was high, he confessed to me with a wry grin, he would often fantasize about killing the mean bastard and getting away with it. Fortunately these thoughts never turned into action.
In his twenties he fell in love with a woman who, unable to cope with his erratic behavior, advised him to go to Narcotics Anonymous. He resisted, and their relationship deteriorated rapidly. The night she left him for good he got so high that, as he stumbled home in the dark, he was almost run over by a speeding vehicle. Next morning, frightened and alone, he had no choice but to face the stark fact that he would die if he continued on his reckless path. His ex-girlfriend’s words came back to him and he decided he would give the anonymous program a chance.
His resistance to sobriety was so strong that he continued to slip back into addiction even after entering ‘the rooms’ as they are called. But thanks to the support of new and sober friends, and the 12 Steps themselves (which provide a spiritual way for addicts and alcoholics who are ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’ to break the grip of their demons), he managed to stay sober for longer and longer stretches of time.
He began to paint seriously and to make money off his art; he learned hatha yoga, began to meditate, and took long hikes in upstate New York that refreshed his weary body and soul. As his mind grew calm and his heart happy, he was gradually able to clear the financial wreckage of his past, to make amends to the many he had hurt, and to create a rich sober lifestyle.
“Know what strikes me as most bizarre?” he asked me. “The fact that it was drugs and booze that stopped me from killing myself as a teenager. They blotted out my pain and gave me a false sense of happiness that helped me survive. Then of course these so-called ‘friends’ turned into my enemy.”
I mulled over what he said for a long time afterwards. My own experience of sharing frankly with others on the inner path has taught me that many who are severely abused as children—or just prone to debilitating doubt and confusion about their role in what appears to be a chaotic and meaningless world—form habits that are destructive. The paradox is that these same choices also numb our minds and hearts and may stop us from even committing suicide, or, in extreme cases, from harming or killing our abuser.
This train of thought led me to consider my own egoic self. You see, my way of breaking out of my birth matrix was to cultivate so strong a sense of self that I could fight all opposition to my efforts to be free. No, I did not want to be just another traditional Indian girl forced into an arranged marriage; I wanted to make my own choices and invest my precious energy in developing my potential. True, the life my parents wanted for me might have given me safety, comfort, even luxury, but I was convinced that material security alone—especially if it came with a million caveats and restrictions—would never satisfy my deeper yearnings.
Later, when the seed for spiritual growth awakened with a mighty roar, I realized to my chagrin that that same sense of personal self that had helped me escape what I considered a life of tedium now had to dissolve, or I would never make progress. No different than the guy at the party who had used intoxicants to survive a brutal father, I had used a powerful sense of mini-me to break free of my shackles; it struck me that now I would have to use diligent intelligent effort to destroy this old and reliable servant (the ego) who had most certainly shape-shifted into a callous master.
Addiction is a many-headed hydra. It can take subtle or gross forms, and the worst one is not, in my opinion, enslavement to drugs or booze, which can be given up at any time, but to our own limited and limiting sense of self. I’ve come to believe that it is this restrictive personal sense of self which we have carefully fabricated over lifetimes to which most of us are really addicted. It covers our birth matrix and all our blood relationships, our track record and so much more. It is a wily and elusive foe and only a sharp intellect that can cut through the illusions and delusions of relative life, coupled with a yearning for genuine peace, can give us the determination to confront and then dissolve it into higher consciousness.
Yes, the inner path is an incredible journey studded with all forms of paradox. What may serve us at one time becomes a negative force in another phase of our lives. Inner investigation means that we have to constantly analyze what we need to throw away from our inner cupboards if we really want to flower into our full potential. But if fear makes us cling to crutches we no longer need, if we continue to dwell in a matrix that no longer serves our higher Self, we have only ourselves to blame. On a positive note, this inner work can begin at any point in time—age is no barrier, for our true spirit is eternal.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a sacred hill of fire and light, and who comes to our aid when we finally commit to breaking free of the egoic casing that prevents us from knowing we are nothing less than immortal bliss!