My father was a MIT graduate who had, among other things, invented plastic Baggies and Hefty bags, served as Undersecretary Of Commerce for President Lyndon Johnson, and hob-knobbed with Page-Sixers like Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo and Broadway star Mary Martin.
Needless to say, I grew up as a child of privilege. However, none of my father’s affluence or connections — none of my brilliant surroundings — prevented me from becoming an emaciated drug addict who spent days and nights wandering New York’s infamous Alphabet City, searching desperately for Heroin and Cocaine.
I spent twelve years of my adult life living in that hell. I simply couldn’t stop. No matter how hard I tried, I could not divorce myself from that lifestyle and it cost me everything. My bright future, my family, and my friends were all taken from me, seemingly overnight, and I was powerless to prevent it from happening. I had to get high.
Eventually, I found my way out of that nightmare and back into the waking world. What I can tell you is this: in some respects, the waking world was a lot more terrifying.
Life is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a huge mansion or standing in line at a soup kitchen, the truth of the matter is, not many of us are given the tools growing up to cope with the many stressors in our lives.
But, there are people out there who seem to have an idea of how to stay optimistic in these changing times. I spent much of my adult life perplexed by their good natures, and even more confused by their good will.
I learned that there were principles — and, by principles, I mean universal truths — that I could apply to my own life and literally change how I felt, not only about myself, but about the world around me.
Some of them seem like common sense, but you need to understand going into the exercise that reading these principles and actually practicing them in your day-to-day lives are two entirely different things (the latter requires vigilance and willingness). The phrase, “easier said than done” applies here.
But, the truth is, if you’re reading this, then chances are you’re in the same place I was when I first discovered these practices; and that means you’re ready.
My own recovery process began with (yet another) intervention by my family. They gathered and convinced me if I didn’t get professional help for my drug addiction, I was going to lose everything. Bear in mind, I was a parasite who’d used my family for emotional and financial support all of my life. The very thought of having them pull the plug on my resources spoke volumes about their commitment to helping me.
I could see in my father’s eyes, this time, he meant it. My father was a brilliant inventor, but he was also a politician, and if there’s one thing I ever learned from the man it was this: When the Heart Speaks, The Heart Listens — You can’t fake sincerity. People crave transparency, but they respond to honesty, and I knew on that very day that my father was done financing my addiction.
The minute he drew that boundary — the minute he served me his ultimatum — was the moment I set off on my road to recovery and committed to checking into rehab.
The road was long and arduous, to be sure, but every step I’ve ever taken has been worth it. My father died early on in my recovery. I left rehab to bury him and then, as they lowered his casket into the ground, I made a solemn vow to him that he would never have to worry about me again.
That was when I decided to grow up.
Despite dyslexia, I went back to college and earned my Masters in psychology. Looking at me now, you’d think I’d been handed my accomplishments on a silver platter, but this is not the case. Everything I know about spirituality — these principles that I am about to share with you — were learned over time (usually through trial-and-error), but they’ve served me in good stead and will do the same for you, if you let them.
Here are the 12 Spiritual Principles I try to live by on a daily basis:
There’s this thing called The Serenity Prayer which goes something like this: God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
I had a patient once who was in an abusive relationship with her husband. He berated and belittled her and, to add insult to injury, one day he struck her. Still, she told me repeatedly that she was desperately in love with this man and could not possibly leave him — he was the breadwinner, they had a huge house and two children, the list went on and on. But she was miserable and it was painful to watch her live that life.
I shared this prayer with her as a last-ditch attempt to reach her and help her understand her role in her malady. I asked her, “What painful, awful thing in your life are you accepting that you can actually change?”
The thinking here was that once you deeply accept that only you have the power to move forward in your life, then you can take the action to do it. Now, there are also things that you cannot change, and the work there is to accept that you can’t manage that situation or this person or that thing. But my patient understood what was happening. Intelligent women always do, and it’s a wonder to behold. Within a month, she’d left that man and set out on her own. Her children got to see what happens when you hit women, and she earned their adoration and respect.
To this day, both she and her husband remain amazing parents and, to his credit, he has sought help for his problem. That still doesn’t hold a candle to the life she has now, or the woman she knows and loves every time she looks into a mirror. All of this growth was born from the wisdom of knowing the difference between what was and what wasn’t within her power to change.
This begs the question, “What is it in your own life that you are resigned to accepting but, in truth, have the power and right to change?” You may find the answers astonishing.
2. LIVE YOUR TRUTH
You’d be surprised how many lies I told myself and how many times I suffered because of them. The lies I told myself fed into the lies I told other people and left me isolated when all I ever craved was connection. Can you believe that? My cure for loneliness was isolation.
That changed when I started to speak my own truth and gave the people around me the opportunity to truly know who I was and what I stood for. We live in fear of what other people will think or say about us, but do you really want those kinds of people in your life today?
Tell your truth and embrace who you are. Let the naysayers know that if it’s going to make a difference as to whether they love you or not, then it should start making a difference now.
3. REMAIN GRATEFUL
I have a friend who, for one morning every month, pretends to be blind. He wakes without opening his eyes, fumbles his way to his kitchen to make coffee then heads off to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He eats a bowl of cold cereal and dresses himself and doesn’t open his eyes until he gets behind the wheel of his car to go to work. He does this so he can live in gratitude of the many gifts in his life, least among them the gift of sight.
I try to practice gratitude also, although not with as much verve as my friend. I recognize that, in today’s world, it is easy to become entitled, walking around with a sense of indignation, losing sense of the things that really matter, and falling away from gratitude.
Everything in your life is worth exploring, whether it’s the fact that you can walk and run, or knowing that if it ever gets to be too much, the world is designed to accommodate you and help you not feel abandoned or alone.
4. HAVE FAITH IN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
We come into the world, each of us, with our own baggage (sometimes it’s an abandonment issue; sometimes it’s simple trust issues, etcetera). We acquire these as children, but we discover that these lessons no longer serve us in adulthood, and we become forced to re-parent or reeducate ourselves.
Part of this means learning how to trust our friends and partners and spouses. These relationships are important and you need to think of them as a carefully concocted stew of love, patience, and understanding. When we distrust the people closest to us, what we are actually doing is adding negative ingredients to the pot — jealousy, possessiveness, suspicion . . . of course, they are going to react in a negative fashion.
We are often shocked when conflict arises, but it is conflict that could have been avoided if we’d made a conscious decision to come from a place of love, rather than one of antagonism and unrest.
People are sometimes going to let you down. This is a fact of life. It is our responsibility to not create an arena for them to do so.
5. BE OF SERVICE
My wife is an amazing woman. I am in awe of her, but still got a bit resentful one night when I did the dinner dishes and didn’t get so much as a ‘thank you’, when all was said and done.
It was then I realized that I was looking for a payoff for simply being of service, and that was when my life changed. It isn’t an act of kindness if you expect something for it. Once you remove the payoff from the equation, you will find yourself catapulted to the next level of true selflessness, understanding that the reward for loving is love; the reward for being of service is being of service.
The self-esteem that comes from reaching out and helping other people is invaluable. It gets you out of your own head and helps you not feel overwhelmed by problems or other concerns. It helps you feel connected.
6. LAUGH AT YOURSELF
It never ceases to amaze me how sensitive I am. People who care about me — who I know absolutely love me — will sometimes point out one of my idiosyncrasies or talk about something stupid I did in mixed company and, for a long time, it would hurt my feelings and I would over-react. Granted, we all need to monitor how we are perceived (you don’t get a second chance at first impressions), but learning how to laugh at yourself can help build stronger relationships.
Your family and friends should not be made to feel as though they need to walk on eggshells around you; it’s up to you to create a safe, non-judgmental space for those around you. It is only in this space that you can experience the joy of authentic laughter. The fact of the matter is, I can’t possibly be the only one to leave a public restroom with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.
7. LIVE IN THE MOMENT
Your past is inescapable, your future is unavoidable, but your present is forever unrestrained.
We sometimes spend more time obsessing over things that have happened and dreading some unforeseen future that we forget the simple truth that, right now, in this moment, we are okay. No matter what is happening, even now — reading this — you are okay. Take a breath. Enjoy this one, perfect moment, because it is yours.
You have plans and obligations, sure, but we’re not there yet. Right now, it’s just us, living in this wonderful moment, and reveling in the fact that, in and of ourselves, we are complete, we are worthy of connection, and we are enough.
When things get hectic, remind yourself of this and get centered. Only in the moment are we ever our perfect selves.
8. PRACTICE RESTRAINT OF PEN AND TONGUE
This was a hard one for me to learn because I realized that a lot of the conflict in my life was of my own design. I had to adopt a new way of relating to other people. I had to ask myself, “Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said now?” And finally, “Does this need to be said by me?”
The three simple questions, in one fell stroke, eliminated so much pain and drama in my life that it left a huge space to be filled with a new influx of love and understanding. Not only did people suddenly want to be around me, but the problems that I thought could only be managed by me seemed to work themselves out on their own.
I had, for lack of a better term, inadvertently learned how to get out of God’s way.
9. LEARN TO FORGIVE
This one’s a hard pill to swallow, because I’m not a huge advocate of “Turn The Other Cheek”. I believe that you have to talk about (and really process) wrongs that have been done to you before you can get to a place where forgiveness is possible. However, I also believe that it gets easier every time you do it, and that the emotional work involved is worth the effort it takes to get there. Some transgressions are unforgivable, true, but most aren’t. Keep in mind, I am not telling you to run out and forgive everyone.
I am telling you to LEARN to forgive, because the spiritual growth comes from the journey toward forgiveness.
10. REMAIN TEACHABLE
I have a friend who is a huge naysayer when it comes to new concepts and ideas. The simple truth is that he’s so busy seeing through everything that he can’t see anything. Sadly, as a result, he will always be right where I left him. His capacity for growth is stunted by his inability to embrace new ideas. This doesn’t have to be you.
Allow yourself to have an open mind. Accept that even the worst-dressed person at the party may have something interesting to say to you and put your hand out to say hello. Rediscover your sense of wonder. No matter how old you are, the world still has a lot to show you.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having very human experiences. Avail yourself to each and every one.
11. EVERYTHING YOU CAME HERE LOOKING FOR, YOU CAME HERE LOOKING WITH
I cannot tell you how much time and energy I wasted searching for some sort of outside “thing” to fix me. Everywhere I went, the answer was always the same: we’re perfect. In and of ourselves, we are whole and complete. Inner Peace comes from accepting this as your truth.
Granted, there are things about ourselves that we can change. There are outside things that we can acquire to enrich the quality of our lives, but none of those things are the destination of any spiritual journey. Every spiritual journey is designed to help you find yourself.
It is only when you’ve found, accepted, and learned to love yourself that you are capable of connecting with anything else; whether it’s other people, your family, or a God of your own understanding. Believe it.
12. BE COURAGEOUS IN LIFE
Maya Angelou is a celebrated American author and poet who once taught that Courage is the most important of all the virtues because, without it, you cannot practice any of the others consistently.
It takes courage to love. It takes courage to be honest and to speak your own truth. It takes courage to forgive. It takes courage to reach out and help other people.
I had to learn very early on how to not let fear dictate my behavior. I had to learn how to not let fear inform my decisions. You can do this, too. I promise you. It’s in you. If you’re reading this, then you’re ready to take a few chances and truly grow.
If worse comes to worst, keep this in mind: A turtle cannot walk — it cannot move forward — unless it sticks its neck out.