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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Learning to find refuge in reality

This morning it's snowing in the lightest possible way, first dusting of the year, and I just saw a bluebird out the window. It’s funny that I spotted him, because I’ve wanted to write about the simple miracle of trying — at least trying — to learn to pay attention.


I’ve been reading a book called Mindful Recovery. I’ve always struggled with addictive behaviors. Mark Twain once said he’d quit smoking a thousand times; I must have done it, I swear, 50 times before it finally took. And because I’ve just published a new YA novel, The Prince of Denial, about a middle schooler who's living with an alcoholic parent, I’ve again been reading about this struggle with addiction that plagues so many lives, and destroys so many kids’ families — and about the ways people can and do recover.

We get the bluebirds in spring and summer, usually. By mid-July, though, they’ve raised their babies and they're gone from the narrow bluebird houses along the edge of our backyard. But just lately I’ve seen a couple back there, perching again and flitting around. I think they’re stopping by for a few days, on their way south. And because I love watching the bluebirds, seeing them so unexpectedly just as winter is descending, this week in Vermont, is a surprise that feeds me in a way that Halloween candy isn't likely to.

This is what we miss, these great things we can notice and the ways they can feed us, when we’re caught up in addictive behavior. That’s because addiction “is at its core a way of avoiding life rather than being aware of it,” write authors Thomas and Beverly Bien in Mindful Recovery (John Wiley & Sons, 2002).

“For many addicted people, addictive behavior is a way to turn problems off for a while,” they continue. “Unfortunately, of course, doing this increases both the number and the complexity of their problems.”

Well, that’s true. But what surprises me is that the antidote they suggest is something I’ve been trying to practice most of my grownup life. This is mindfulness — the simple practice, promoted especially through Buddhist meditation and teachings, of learning to be here, to build presence, to give warm, unjudging attention to the flow of moments in our lives.

“Because addicted people get caught in unawareness, using drugs rather than face what hurts, mindfulness provides a gentle way to begin to face the pain,” this book says. By simply being more aware, “you receive clear signals concerning what is out of balance and what hurts.” Also, “mindfulness also helps by putting you back in touch with the simple pleasure of being alive.”

What I’ve noticed about my own spasms of addictive behavior is that they're just empty. The escape you hope for isn’t really there; you just get kind of frantic seeking it. And there's the awful letdown after. I’m much happier when I can spot the bluebird, when I can just be here and not be longing or lunging for some hoped-for refuge. Yet grabbing for a refuge has been a pattern in my life, surging up especially when I’ve felt overwhelmed. I think I’m learning to let the stress flow through, rather than try to hide from it — but these patterns of avoidance, long practiced, are not easily let go completely.

That, say the Biens, is where mindfulness comes in. They outline a program of ten “doorways” to long-term recovery through this practice of learning to be here, to face whatever comes up and just let it flow through. The first doorway is “Seeing the Magic of the Ordinary.” I guess that’s spotting the bluebird.

The aim of this practice, the Biens write, “is a warm, caring awareness ... an awareness that finds delight in what is, and is not so completely occupied with what we think should be.” And that makes sense. We’re so commonly distracted by how we wish things had been, or by how we want them to be soon. Then we grow to depend on distraction — I don’t really have to be here — and that can escalate into: I can take this, or smoke or drink this, and I won’t have to be here at all.

That is the pattern, isn’t it? Our simple, everyday ways of distracting ourselves can in some of us build to a compulsion, to separate and seek refuge, that can become a nightmare. I don’t want that. I don’t think anybody really wants that. Mindful Recovery suggests that the way to build the life we do long for is essentially simple: “The more awake you are, the more you can melt frozen behavior patterns that keep you stuck in repetitive, negative cycles.”

In my book The Prince of Denial, seventh grader Casey at first loyally pretends that his dad’s drinking isn’t a problem at all — so he too is caught up in resisting reality. I think in the story it grows more clear that if Casey goes on that way, his own life will be damaged, because he won’t know how to else to deal with hard things. He’ll just be good at denying and avoiding them. I grew up in an alcoholic family, and we got great at that. We were very entertaining at that. And I was always seeking a safe place, a hiding place.

I wonder what can happen if there is a simple shift — if we learn to seek refuge in just being with what is happening, in just resting in what is. That’s a simple shift, isn’t it? And maybe it’s the shift. Maybe that’s a key to living the life we all long, at heart, to live.

I think the bluebirds have left. It’s cold out there, after all. But in the spring, if I'm lucky, they’ll come back. If they do, I would like to really be here too. 

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