“The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well[…] This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I first moved out of my parents house, I had (and still have) a small Buddha statue whose head was broken off. The house that my friends and I moved into had an old enclave that looked like it had once been a fireplace. The statue fit inside perfectly, and right above it, right on the wall, in felt marker, my cousin (and roommate) wrote ‘everything is ok’.
Everything is okay.
In a very real sense, it’s completely untrue. If you’re looking for it, the world is full of tragedy, strife, and evil. Hell, even if you aren’t looking for it, drama usually manages to sneak its way in around the edges, and mishaps and catastrophes are pretty much inevitable. So everything isn’t okay. Not really.
Not when you look at it like that. Not if everything actually needs to be okay for everything to be okay.
But what if it doesn’t?
What if, however complicated, messy, and hard to bear life becomes, you can find and maintain a calm center within yourself — a still certainty that whatever happens, everything really is okay — from which to draw strength and serenity? Then, in some sense, it becomes true. Everything really is okay, even if it isn’t, because you can choose to make it so.
What seemed like a mocking platitude became an extremely valuable teaching.
I immediately loved that this was written on our living room wall. It struck a chord with me, because I realized both the wisdom and delicious irony of the statement, which at all times is both true and false simultaneously.
I wanted that calm center. I’d sensed it in others. I’d seen it written about. I knew I couldn’t stop the churning mess of the world around me, or immediately will myself to alter the unfortunate situation I was in emotionally, but I grasped at the faint understanding that all of that mess was actually okay, just as it was, it was perfect.
And we’ll keep working on the problem we know we’ll never solve, of love’s uneven remainders — our lives are fractions of a whole.
But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall, then I think we would see the beauty, then
We would stand staring in awe, at our still lives posed, like a bowl of oranges. Like a story told by the fault lines and the soil.
– Bright Eyes (Lyrics from ‘Bowl Of Oranges’)
However, recognizing the wisdom here was not enough to give me that calm center. I had absolutely no idea how it felt to experience such a tranquil acceptance of the mundane treacheries of everyday life, until a very important teacher gave me that experience.
This teacher touched my tongue, and almost instantly, I knew peace. The problems in my life that moments before had seemed unendurable were now exceedingly manageable. My worry melted; which is not to say that I lost all care and concern for my problems. Far from it, I was serenely aware of them and felt capable of handling them. Worry is concern plus anxiety, while serenity can contain a hopeful, peaceful kind of concern.
In just about half an hour, this teacher had allowed me to experience on a very deep level, the wisdom of the serenity prayer:
Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
This teacher is well known, but, in many circles, has fallen into disrepute. Far worse, those who work with this teacher often abuse it, and then charge it with having initiated the abuse. Its name is Valium, and it is a member of the benzodiazepine family of pharmacological drugs. It is prescribed for anxiety disorders, and given to people having seizures, among other things.
Not too many people think of it as a teacher, but I do.
The term ‘plant teacher’ is sometimes used in reference to psychedelic medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca, but I’ve never heard it applied to man-made pharmaceuticals. This language often comes from an earnest belief that ‘mother ayahuasca’ is a very real and palpable spirit, but is also used by the less certain, who simply appreciate the helpful implication that these psychoactive plants have lessons to impart.
I suggest we accept this framework, and widen it. The implications for how we use psychiatric medications would be profound.
Valium is a potent chemical carrier, and teacher, of the lesson that everything is okay, that serenity is a valuable and achievable approach to life’s concerns. SSRI’s can give valuable perspective on the depths of depression. Ritalin, amphetamines, and other stimulants drugs and ADD medications show us the pleasureful potentials of focus and productivity. Even alcohol, I believe, teaches a lesson: That what we hide inside of ourselves is not exterminated. For those who conceal deep anger, alcohol brings it forth; for those who deny their own courage, alcohol will summon it; to those who carry deep sadness, alcohol brings tears. Marijuana is a versatile teacher, but it has helped me connect to my more creative and intuitive potentials.
These are all great and noble teachers of beautiful truths, but they can also be bastards, liars, and cheats — if we mistake the teachers for the lesson.
People take a Valium and think that the serenity is in the pill. That the courage is in the alcohol. The creativity is in the joint.
They try to tell us. They slowly pull away, and it takes more and more of the drug to give us what we want. It’s as if they scream: ‘No! You’re missing the message! — It was never inside of us! It was inside of you! We just showed you where to look.’
But some people don’t listen. They chase the teacher around, day after day, wanting the results without incorporating the lesson.
These drugs need to be approached as if they are merely vessels of a teaching, which must be discarded as the lesson is learned. The current medical model treats them as nutrients. Anxious people, they theorize, have a Valium deficiency. This, of course, is nonsense.
I prefer the conception of teachers — or perhaps crutches. They are something to lean on in times of great need, but you must slowly put more and more weight on your own abilities — by taking the drugs less and less, by using other tools such as therapy, meditation, and self-discovery — until one day, you don’t need the crutches anymore. You can walk by yourself.
You are now the calm center at the eye of the hurricane.
You are a master.
I’m definitely not a master, but I don’t need Valium to find my calm center anymore. I can’t always find it when I want it, but I can now more than I ever could before.
And I don’t know that without Valium, I ever would have found it.