Learning to Unlearn

Sometimes I envy alcoholics. They certainly have a problem, but it is a problem that can be identified. I see alcoholics as the canary in the coal mine of the struggle with a domineering ego and the human condition. I have come to the conclusion that we are all struggling with the human condition in various forms. But the recovery tools taught in 12-step recovery seem to address way more than “drinking too much.” They address head on the struggle with the dominating ego and the human condition. Unfortunately in my case, without an easily identified problem, I have gained nearly the same information and realizations through a long—perhaps too long—personal and individual process. Waking up to “my problem” and trying to “fix it” has been a painful process for me and those closest to me. However, even when I realized I had a problem, I did not know how to change. The exact nature of my problem was that I equated my body image with my worth, a rather unusual situation for a man. But I now see my problem more fully as my ego and my struggle with the human condition.

I tried to learn what to do through counseling, religion, community service, reading self-help books (several), medicine (though I always proved allergic to it), taking addicted relatives into our home and sending them to treatment, gratitude journals, etc. These various activities and approaches all helped relieve my psychological and spiritual discomfort for a brief period, but I could never stop the incessant ruminating on my problem, my “addiction” to the thoughts that my body image equaled my worth. 

Slowly, however, things began to change when I decided to read the AA Big Book, even though I never drank. I also began attending 12-step meetings over seven years ago and continue to this day, even though technically I do not qualify to attend. The change of mind and heart I was searching for still evaded me, though hope was returning and the problem was beginning to lighten. Over a year ago I read a mindfulness book I have since heard recommended by LAP, and I undertook an eight-week mindfulness course. This also helped. My biggest take away from that mindfulness course was that there were people trying to help me, telling me it was ok if I did not get it right the first time, and that it was a practice not an end game. Still, however, I had no solid relief from my problem. Improvement, yes. Recovery or “sobriety,” no. All the while I was—as I have tried to be in all aspects of life including the legal practice—flatly honest. This honesty did not solve my problems. It did, however, allow me to see myself as the problem rather than blaming others for my plight. Unfortunately, my struggle with all of this was also greatly impacting my lovely wife. All of this effort to “learn” a way out of my problem caused me to continue searching. Not unlike an addict, it was a life or death situation for me. 

In the past year I began listening to teachers like Richard Rohr and Eckhart Tolle. They spoke of acceptance, surrender, the “thinking mind,” and of ego. Though I had heard it many times in 12-step meetings, I began to realize the way out of my problem was to STOP THINKING—to surrender. Frankly, in the past I did not know how to surrender. My life circumstances, my education, my work as a lawyer all taught me that I could, and had to, figure out what it took to fix the problem. I even had to figure out how to surrender. The picture, however, was becoming clearer. I had to stop thinking. I had to unlearn. 

Because the ego is really identifying with my thoughts and then taking my identity (worth) from my thoughts, I had to stop the analytical thoughts. As Rohr says, “the thinking mind is simply not adequate for the task.” I had to let go, to surrender my thinking mind. As you know, this does not mean I became brain dead. To the contrary, I have started to see things more clearly and with less attachment, less judgment. Truly, I was not able to implement all the good I had learned through all my efforts to change until I understood that I needed to FIRST unlearn. I had to stop hustling for my worth. LAP’s example in a CLE talk about the two lawyers speaking in “code” about who has been the longest without a vacation to prove their worth was spot on! There is simply no worth to prove. It is not a factor to plug into an equation. If it is used in the equation, the math will fail every time.  It is a math problem I could, and can, never solve.

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