How long have you been writing?
I started writing when I was very young. I think I was in second grade when I wrote my first book of poems. I stitched it together out of notebook paper and knitting yarn.
I wrote frantically in my early 20′s. Mostly drunken ramblings and poetry. I also did some journalism during a more or less lucid stretch in my mid 20′s.
Still, I didn’t really call myself a writer until I started working on The Narrow Way in 2009. Not only was I in a more confident state of mind, but I also realized that I had been writing pretty much non-stop since that first collection of poems.
How many books have you written?
Other than my first poetry book, just one. The Narrow Way.
I hear you’re writing a new novel. What’s it about?
Ah, the novel. That’s a tough one. I’m still working on the short, one-line answer to that.
Let’s just say it’s quite a departure from my memoir. I wanted to do something completely different, to write about something that had nothing to do with my personal life.
So for this story, I decided to pull all the stops and just let my imagination run loose.
It’s a spiritual adventure story set in America. It has everything: Hopi prophecies, 11 year old messiahs, preacher’s daughters from Texas, conspiracies to end the world and even prairie dogs who pray to the sun.
When did you come out as being gay and how did you come out?
I was a late bloomer. As I talk about in The Narrow Way, I was deeply in the closet for many years. After telling lies for so long, it becomes harder and harder to finally tell the truth.
So I came out to my wife when I was about 35 years old. It was very painful for both of us.
After that, I was still on the fence about coming out to my family but after I got beaten to a pulp one night, I realized I couldn’t hide anymore.
I called my brother and my Dad the next day and they were totally fine with it. They were relieved actaully. And so was I.
How long have you been clean and sober?
It will be six years this October.
When did you become interested in Buddhism and how did it change your life?
A couple of months before I came out and got sober, I had written in my journal that I wanted to look into Tibetan Buddhism. It was a kind of calling. But I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good if I was still drinking and using.
So about a week after I made my first real effort to get sober, I picked up Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
There were times as I was reading it that I couldn’t stop crying. It was like I was a giant bell and I’d just been whacked with a massive hammer. I felt like “This is what I’ve been missing my whole life!”
All the ideas made so much sense.
I didn’t call myself a Buddhist right away but I knew I was onto something big. So I kept reading and studying and after a few months decided that the only thing to do was to go to India and see the birthplace of this incredible philosophy with my own eyes.
I’ve been Dharma Bum ever since.
You went to India for the first time in 2008. Was it what you were expecting?
Not at all. I thought I’d prepared myself pretty well. I’d watched travel documentaries, interviewed people who’d gone themselves, read tons of books and did all kinds of research on the internet but nothing prepared me for when I first got off that plane.
The shock is impossible to describe. The poverty, the smell of rotting and pollution, the intense noise and confusion just bowled me over.
Culture shock set in on the second day and I just locked myself in my hotel room for 15 hours.
It got better though…
What’s one of your favorite memories from that first trip?
Seeing His Holiness The Dalai Lama for the first time. I realized right away that it was the whole reason I’d come, whether I knew it or not.
It was right at the start of the trip. I went to five days of his teachings and at the end took Refuge for the first time. It was like, the absolute best blessing for my journey to come.
How about one of your least favorite?
I was at the train station in Gaya, India. It was 3 in the morning and I wasn’t sure if my train was coming or not. No one spoke English and my Hindi was broken at best.
As I waited there in the dark, I saw a young man crawl out from under a pile of filthy rags. He was starving to death right before my eyes. Skin and bones. He peed on himself as he was trying to get up. After he did, he just disappeared down the tracks and I never saw him again.
It was a big shock and very heartbreaking. But India is like that: there’s so much beauty and so much suffering all coexisting at the same time.
How can Buddhism be of help to people who are struggling with addiction and recovery?
First of all, I want to say that when we’re taking those first steps on the path of recovery we need to admit that we’re powerless, that we don’t have any control over our addiction. It’s the hardest thing to do but we need to make ourselves humble.
So although I didn’t work the 12 Steps per se, I still advise anyone who’s taking their recovery seriously to be 100% open to any and all treatments and help available.
That being said, I think Buddhism is the perfect complement to the path of recovery. In a sense, I think it’s the ultimate path to recovery. After all, we’re all junkies in our own way. We are all addicted to our delusions, our selfishness, our negative emotions and thoughts. We’re completely hooked on habits and ways of thinking that bring us nothing but misery.
What the Buddhist path offers us is a method to see our mistaken view on things and give us ways to change that view.
We start out by acknowleging that our current sitution is intolerable and it’s all because of our own ignorance. Then, once we get through that shock, we’re ready to accept the fact that there’s a solution to our problem: we can stop the suffering. The way we do that is by culitvating good ethical behavior, mindfulness and a realistic way of looking at ourselves and the world.
Darren Littlejohn does a great job of correlating Buddism and the path of recovery in his book The 12-Step Buddhist.
There are lots of addiction memoirs our there. Why did you write The Narrow Way?
Story telling is one of the most important aspects of being human. We’re hardwired for it. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world we live in. It’s what gives our lives context and meaning.
Sure, there are lots of addiction stories out there. It’s a sign of the times. But I think that every addiction story can shed some light on what we’re all going through everyday. By understanding someone else’s suffering, we gain insight into our own. By hearing about other people’s victories, we become inspired to better ourselves.
My true wish is that The Narrow Way helps others who are on their own paths of self-discovery. I think my story is one that many people will be able to relate to and that it will simply be a confirmation that no matter how bad off we are or were, we can always improve ourselves and find meaning in our lives.