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The Skeptical Buddhist: To Tell the Truth or Not?

This week I had the opportunity to listen to Venerable Robina Courtin speak on the IDP podcast, which you can listen to here and here. I highly recommend it.

The part of her class that is relevant to the topic I want to discuss today, History, is the part where she talks about her own path, her experience, and her History. If you listen to Courtin, you’ll notice that her personal story is told in an upfront and honest way. She likes her story and she finds it important to convey.

Many meditation teachers that I’ve met have a similar relationship to the stories of their lives. This week, I discovered that I do not.

This is problematic to me both because I am a writer and because I hope to teach meditation to others in the years ahead.

So, I asked myself, what would it take for me to be honest about my life? Why would I hide it in the first place? Is there a problem with searching for an accurate History when stories are things that can confuse us and are by their very nature, just pictures in the mind?

My answer to the last question is this: by hiding my experience, I am clinging to an image of myself that I want to portray: I am NOT a person who has used drugs. In this way, I create an unhealthy relationship with an untruth: I AM the person who never had such and such experiences even though I did, and I seek to permanently showcase this. As we know, nothing is permanent. Our history is not permanent. But our wisdom is grounded in our experiences, and though our memory of experience is shifty and imperfect, experience is experience, and it is what we have to share.

Furthermore, my experiences led to my wisdom. My experiences are what allow me to understand mediation teachers. My experiences, the real ones, not the ones I made up, not the NOT ME experiences, but the (yikes!) ME experiences, are the keys to my understanding of truth.

A note of warning. If you take anything from the excerpt I am about to share, it is this: I AM LUCKY. My experiences were tricky, no doubt, but ultimately, I AM LUCKY, because for some reason my experiences led me here. Many people I know are not so lucky. My daily life these days is filled with ease and contemplation. For others, it is not so easy.

So, read the excerpt below, and answer this question in the comments (along with anything else you’d like to discuss): do you sense that when I speak from my experience, that I do the world a bigger favor than if I simply told the world to do what I do (even if what I do now is beneficial)?

With that, here is an excerpt from what I wrote this week. Think of it like a sketch of some moments in my early life. It is a long excerpt, so settle in.


I’ve been thinking lately about bottoms. Drug and alcohol abusers have to hit a bottom. One of the things you try to do to get a drug or alcohol abuser to quit using is to create a bottom for them before something more deadly does. People have trouble getting users to hit bottoms, because to get your friend or family member to hit a bottom, you have to threaten to or actually withdraw all love, affection, and support except the support they need to stop using. The support the user needs is either medical or professional. Family and friends are generally not equipped to help an abuser quit their drug of choice in a medically safe way, so they usually try to help by providing food, shelter, money, and ‘love.’  These things tend to enable an abuser to keep using; consequently, friends and family members often end up endangering their loved one.

A few days ago, I realized that I have spent much of my life hiding the bottom I hit when I was quite young. I hid it, because I was never 'caught.' This was an extraordinary feat that allowed me to pretend not to have hit a bottom at all. It is the privilege of those who were never caught to remain free. Anyway, as a teenager, revealing my bottom would have gotten me in trouble, and revealing it later would have been embarrassing. Why share anything if I don’t have to?

The bottom I hit is the key to understanding my current life view, and without acknowledging that and sharing that, I am somehow being deeply untruthful in my attempts to help others.

I’ll try to give you a sense of what my bottom was like. Let me attempt to bottom you out. I am going to speak in the second person, but, of course, these are my experiences—I use the second person to help you along. I want you to play a game with me. You pretend you are you having the experiences I describe, but in the end, we’ll both understand that the vision I just presented to you is what my experience was like.

Imagine that you are 15. You are sitting on a bench waiting for, let’s say, a bus. It is a sunny day, and you are watching people. Some walk past you, some stand at the bus stop looking for the bus, some sit beside you. There is plenty to see and hear, but your awareness picks up what people are doing and saying right around you, and you find it difficult to do anything else.

You can’t read a book, because the moment someone starts talking on their cell phone two feet from you, you will listen to what they were saying.  You can’t look at the clouds, because a person walking past you or even reaching into their purse draws your attention.

You cannot control this. Literally, your attention is pulled by these things. Why? Because every single tiny itty bitty minor thing that a human being does is part of a giant conspiracy against you. Everything from someone taking a pencil out of their pocket to someone simply saying hello to their friend is an attempt to make fun of, disparage, affront, embarrass, and manipulate you. Your mind is trapped in a deeply paranoid place.

While you are sitting on the bench, a girl about your age with her back turned to you answers her cell phone. It is a short conversation. She picks up the phone and says, “Hello?” The person on the phone says something. The girl says, “Ok. I’ll be home soon.” She then hangs up the phone.

You don’t know this girl. You’ve never seen her before in your life. But you think there is much more to this conversation than first appears.

When the girl says, “Hello?” to the person on the phone you think she is surreptitiously saying, “Hey moron, you don’t know that we control you. Are you there? Anybody home?” to you. You think she is making fun of you because she, and everyone else in the entire world, knows that you don’t know about the vast conspiracy that seeks to manipulate you. Moreover, by saying, “Hello?” in the context of the phone call, you cannot prove that she is mocking you, because, to the view of anyone around you, she simply said “Hello” to the person on the other side of the phone.

You reinterpret, “Ok. I’ll be home soon,” as well. You think she is speaking code. She is telling her cohorts that she is coming back to “home-base” soon. She doesn’t think you know that. She is also making fun of you because you don’t really have a home, even though you go home to one, because everyone at your home is in on the conspiracy. Additionally, she is threatening your life:  she is calling attention to the fact that she will be home soon, but you won’t.

Things get much more complicated. That phone call was about 10 seconds long, and involved one person. Imagine that there are ten people within your immediate vicinity. Imagine that no single thing that a person does is innocent, and no single thing that a person does is avoidable. A person looking at their watch is counting down the moments until you say something stupid. Someone kissing their lover is making fun of you because you thought you had real lovers, but you never did because your lovers were always part of the conspiracy. When the bus pulls up, people lining up to enter the bus are mocking your belief that the world actually has buses, lines, bus fares, destinations, and, last but not least, that you think that this bus will take you to your “home” which will lead you to your “family” where you will sleep in your “bed.”  Every single thing there is is there to ultimately mock you about you being led to your embarrassing doom.

Add to that that you hallucinate. You are not high right now, but you have gotten high so much that you hallucinate without being high. You see mostly yellow wavy shapes in the air, but sometimes you can see little sperm-like clear creatures swimming around in your close field of vision. You can cause trails to appear if you wave your hand in front of your face.  You can also make the room rock back and forth like an amusement park ride.  And your fingers can feel invisible taffy, as if you could shoot thin taffy out of your fingertips, attach it to things, and squish and bend and twist and squeeze it.

Add to that that things get much worse when you are high. Imagine you are the passenger in the front seat of the pickup truck. You have two friends with you. One drives; the other is in the middle; you are against the window. All three of you are on a dark road and smoking marijuana. Smoking weed makes the paranoia and hallucinations I described above one hundred times worse. Imagine that smoking that itty bit of marijuana causes you to hallucinate so much that you can barely see what is real anymore. Imagine that your friends not only appear to be part of the conspiracy, but seem to be the most vicious, violent, and devious of any in the conspiracy. You think that they are going to take you out to the lake and kill you. Your heart is beating out of your chest. Your body is paralyzed. Your brain is on fire. You think you are about to be murdered.

Every word, every gesture, every breath, every grunt of your friends is an allusion to your violent demise. Imagine that you see them getting a thrill out of your fear, and that your death is so close that they aren’t bothering to hide it anymore.

“Where are we going to go?” said by Friend #1 mean he wants to know where they are going to kill you. “I don’t care,” said by Friend #2 means that it doesn’t matter where they kill you, because no one is going to save you. If one of them mentions a friend who is not present it is because that person is going to be at the site of the murder. If one of them mentions the time, it is because it relates closely to the time you are to be killed. “10:15” might signify that you are to be killed at 10:25, because 10 plus 15 is 25. If the friend who is driving stops at a stop sign, the stop sign is signifying the end of your life. If the friend who is not driving asks you, “What are you thinking?” he literally means, “What are you thinking now that you know you are going to die?”

That was my basic ground in tenth grade. That is what I took with me to classrooms. That is what I took with me on the bus. That is what I took with me to my family. The only basic sanity I seemed to have in those days was that I thought that no one knew that I knew what I knew. That was true; I never told anyone. I thought the entire world was out to get me—who would sympathize? They were all in on the conspiracy!

It goes without saying that living with that profound paranoia caused me to lose many friendships. In fact, it was the fact that this paranoia led me to lose friendships which led me to move to another place which caused me to have no friends which led to me recovering and being here today.

I worry: in hiding that bottom, have I limited my ability to to help others quit using?


So, that is an excerpt of what I wrote trying to tell part of my story in an honest and straightforward way.  Again, it would be helpful for me to know if you think that I am doing the world a favor by staying close to my story or not. Share your thoughts in the comments below.



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I found Your story very

I found Your story very interesting in that I have a friend struggling with a drug problem and I know he is paranoid from the stories he tells me about people following him in his car. He is a nation away from his family and me and my friend are the only people that are here for him. He wouldn't ever go into such detail as you have, but it's good to know the extent of what his possible mind frame could be. I don't think he distrusts everyone, but he seems really stressed, like his mind is focused on something elsewhere. I don't know what we can do for him besides be there as friends as we always have. Thanks anyway. For sharing, it gives some good insight.

I'm glad to hear about your friend...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It helps me understand how being honest in this way can help in a certain way. Seeking to help your friend is very brave. Finding Right action in that situation takes deep contemplation and strength. My energy and support go out to you. I hope that your strategies are working. I have found that the TV show, Intervention, along with other resources, has given me great insight in to how to help those who struggle with addiction.


Thanks, Robert.
I loved Robina's talk, and I love hearing people's stories. I resonate most with teachers who share some part of their stories; I'm not sure you have to do that to be a good teacher, but I do think that you have to know and embrace your story in order to be a good teacher.
For me, a big part of practice is about listening to my stories and hearing them without judgment. I've been fortunate to have wonderful teachers and sangha who've helped me in this. "There is no blame in Buddhism," I've been told, which let me let myself off the hook for a lot of things.
One of my favorite teachers is Noah Levine, whose teachings are closely connected with his story. If you haven't read it, I'd suggest "Dharma Punx."
Also, Robert Loy's "The World is Made of Stories," which is slim but so deep.
I do believe that teachings are more effective when the teacher can relate them to their own life experience. Both Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg do that (Salzberg's "Faith" especially) to great effect.


a friend of mine who's a UU minister and attended Harvard Divinity School said they were told "don't bleed all over the pulpit" -- as in, don't talk about personal things that are too raw. wait until there's some distance and perspective. I think that's a pretty good guideline for writing about your personal story -- is it useful to illustrate the dharma or are you just over-sharing?


Nancy, thanks for sharing those links. As for the 'finding distance' before sharing, I think that is precisely right. The story that I shared is mere description, though colorful--I wanted it to be evocative. I normally would not have talked about this because of embarrassment, but I think hiding it in situations when I am being 'anti-drug abuse' does a disservice to my actions. In situations where paranoia or drug use is not being discussed, I don't think this particular story would be relevant.

But I love that idea: don't bleed on the pulpit. It feels exactly correct.

Also from a Humanist and Feminist perspective, stories are important, right? I didn't go into it here, but I followed and respected the idea that a personal story contains truth. Thanks for your comments and thoughts Nancy!

the personal is political

when we share our stories we see how much we have in common -- and how problems that we think we suffer alone are systemic.

I thought your writing was evocative and engaging. the story pulled me along as a story, but also made a point. it felt like a good use of personal history rather than over-sharing.

A million bowing thank you's.

That is EXTREMELY useful to know. Though it might not seem it, this post was a big change for me when considering how to approach my writing.

Have a good week!

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