When I was eleven years old, my older sister Chrissy was killed in a car accident on the way to school. Chrissy was into classic rock and heavy metal, she smoked cigarettes and swore all the time, she wore leather jackets and concert T-shirts. She represented everything I wanted to be: rebellious, independent, and full of attitude.
When she died I was in a state of complete bewilderment and terror. At times it was unbearable, and mostly it was unbelievable. I walked the halls of my school comparing myself to everyone else: how come nobody else’s sister was dead? Why did this happen to me?
Over time my pain and confusion turned into anger and hatred. I didn’t even know who or what to be angry at, but mostly I blamed God, society and my parents. By the age of thirteen, anger and hatred seemed to be the only realistic response to my inner and outer world. Life was totally unfair, and it seemed to me that no one else got the message.
In my teen years, I listened to a lot of heavy metal, hard core and punk rock. The attitude and aggression of that music seemed to fit with my internal world. It felt like it wasn’t safe to care about anything, so I took refuge in anger and sought out others who did the same. I started using drugs and alcohol regularly, and learned how to play the guitar.
By the time I was sixteen, I was completely miserable, finding no satisfaction or meaning in any of my friendships, my own hatred just pulling back into confusion, grief and sadness. My Uncle Raymond, who was one of my favorite people in the world, had just died in a mountain bike accident and my father’s construction business had to file for bankruptcy. The bank took our house, our cars, everything. We had to move in with my grandparents in rural Western Massachusetts. Things were really bad and I felt so angry and alone I was actually happy to move; I had nothing more to lose and welcomed any form of change.
In my senior year of high school I moved out of my parents’ house and started living in apartments in Northampton, Massachusetts. During this time, moving in and out of several places, I had fallen in love with a girl who I was living with. On a brisk autumn night she and I were walking down a dirt road in a cornfield just on the edge of town when we were run down by a drunk driver who was swerving in and out of the corn. She was killed on impact, and I was left there to discover the body, and in a state of total panic, alert the police and identify the driver of the vehicle. My parents met me at the hospital just after the doctor had told me that my girlfriend was dead. I was devastated beyond belief. I couldn’t even begin to fathom “why” this had happened, and in that moment I immediately lost all sense of hope, or meaning in life.
Fortunately I had a friend named Hanuman whose parents had a lot of compassion and understanding for my suffering. They encouraged me to go meet with one of their close friends who was a Dharma teacher (a term that meant absolutely nothing to me at that time). So it was through a series of tragedies, circumstances, good luck and just that one friendship that in 1993 I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness meditation. It was in November when Hanuman and I drove up to the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, to meet my first Dharma teacher. His name was Steven Smith. He and I talked for a few hours about my life, my experiences and my suffering. He spoke in great detail about the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, and how meditation can be used to help ease suffering. He invited me to meet him later that day for meditation instructions.
A few hours later, I found myself sitting in the Dharma hall at IMS hearing the initial instructions, “bring your attention to the sensation of the in-and-out breath,” and I reluctantly gave it a try. I continued to practice mindfulness of breathing for the next few minutes, and I started to feel more at ease. I began to find moments where everything seemed to be okay. Then I heard the next instruction, “when you notice your mind begin to wander, gently return to your breath, back to the present moment.” This was the instruction that blew me wide open. I could actually see that my attention was getting pulled into the stories of my life— reliving the accident, all the horrible experiences, all the anger, the confusion, the pain and sadness…there it was. It was all in my mind. As I gently readjusted my attention out of my thinking mind and into my breathing body, I could get relief. I could be okay, at least for one moment. My breath was totally reliable, safe, available and “thought free.”
After about forty-five minutes of this simple practice, I felt a tremendous sense of ease and calm. In fact, I don’t think I have ever had such a moment of freedom during meditation as that initial encounter with mindfulness. I had no idea that I could choose to come out of my thinking mind and into my feeling, breathing body. What a relief that was. I spent most of that day sitting and walking, following the instructions. Of course my mind would wander off back into the suffering mind (all the past pains, the stories, the memories, the self-judgment and the forecasting into the fears and uncertainty of the future), but I could really see that I could get out. I felt a tremendous weight come off me. I experimented with mindfulness all day, and it kept on working. The breath, the present moment, the body, were always patiently waiting for me to come back to them. Things were different, and life was different. I thought, maybe I can be ok…maybe? And that was enough for me to keep on going.
Over the next couple of years, I started to have a lot of faith in mindfulness practice and I began to develop mindfulness of breathing during daily sitting practice. By practicing mindfulness of breathing, I started to undo my mind’s tendency towards anger and self-judgment. Six months after I was introduced to the Dharma, I sat my first ten-day meditation retreat. Practicing mindfulness and learning about the Dharma was providing me some ease with the day-to-day struggles of my life.
Unfortunately, as time went on, I stopped sitting, doubted my practice, and in some cases would completely abandon mindfulness practice altogether. I had the attitude that “I was all better now.” I also had no community; there really weren’t a lot of nineteen year olds who practiced the Dharma. I spent most of my time with musicians who drank, used drugs and complained about the state of the world. I began to play in punk bands and was re-introduced to the idea that life really wasn’t fair and that I should rebel against the world, against society and the mainstream. Frustration and anger began to work their way back into my experience. Justifying anger became a strong and overwhelming habit of mind.
By the time I was twenty-five or so, my Dharma practice was nonexistent, and I was relying heavily on drugs and alcohol to provide relief. In 2003, while living in Amsterdam and touring in a ska-punk band, I hit rock bottom. I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit everything and moved back to Northampton to live with my parents. I started going to Twelve Step meetings and began working a recovery program. I went to work every day at a business I’d started, met a girl and got married, and did my best to settle into a life of sobriety.
Wanting to get back into music, in 2008 I moved to Nashville. I was five years sober, fresh off of a painful divorce, broke, scared, angry and alone. Having a hard time making ends meet, I soon found myself working with teenagers at a residential drug-and-alcohol treatment center, a job I took out of sheer desperation. During that time, I also returned to my meditation practice with a vengeance in hopes of finding some relief from the grief of my divorce and my mind’s relentless tendency towards self-judgment.
At that time, I also began training to teach mindfulness with Noah Levine. I had been in touch with Noah on and off for the past few years, and hoped that with his guidance and direction I would be able to uncover and recover some of what I had learned and experienced in my early years practicing at IMS. In no time at all, it became painfully obvious that what I was lacking the most was metta—an attitude of mercy, kindness, and compassion towards myself. Metta was a practice that I was well aware of and had vehemently avoided during my years of sitting at IMS. I was scared to turn toward my own heart for fear of what I might or might not find. It felt embarrassing, contrived, phony and forced. It only reminded me of how “unkind” my mind really was.
During the course of about one year, I developed a daily practice of metta. I started by bringing an attitude of kindness and friendliness into my meditation, simply offering the phrase, May I be at ease, and repeating it over and over. I also included compassion and forgiveness into my meditation, offering the phrases, May I learn to care about the suffering in my life, and I forgive you for all the ways you have caused me harm. I found it was not so difficult to forgive those who had harmed me: my band mates, my ex-wife, people who had betrayed me over the years. But I had the hardest time cultivating forgiveness toward myself. For several months I practiced metta phrases only towards myself.
At first I felt silly and embarrassed, just as I always had when attempting the metta practice, but after a few weeks I really started to mean it, and then a few weeks after that I really started to feel it. I could see that I really did care; the phrases became less mechanical and really seemed to land in my emotional body.
Kindness, compassion, forgiveness and appreciation seemed to become part of my nervous system, not just nice ideas. My practice became rich and heartfelt. I actually began to look forward to sitting. My view of what it meant to practice the Dharma shifted in a big way. One phrase at a time, one breath at a time, I began to excavate my own heart. For years, I was so scared to actually look inside of my own heart, afraid of what I might find. It was with great relief that I began to experience these beautiful qualities that were already there, just waiting for me. They were just buried beneath layers of anger and confusion.
The great realization for me was the basic understanding that I get angry because I care.When someone I love dies, it hurts. When someone I love hurts me, I feel betrayed. When I judge myself in an unkind way, I suffer. When something that I care about feels threatened, attacked or belittled, anger arises all by itself. If I can just open to the “ouch” of life without meeting it with anger or hatred, I can be free. When I turn toward my own heart, I begin to see that underneath all the aversion, confusion, anger, hatred and suffering is a wonderful and beautiful heart that cares.