Desperation brought me into A.A., but it was mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism. I was looking for flaws, for ways to NOT become a part of the herd. Ways to stay on the outskirts of the group. To stay on the outskirts of the hope that I saw there. There was literature to be ignored, traditions to be bored by, promises to be scoffed at, and the STEPS?? Maybe 2 or 3 of them applied to exceptional me, but surely not all 12. And then to add insult to injury my new "friends" kept talking about the “layers of the onion”. “Peel the onion and you will be amazed” they said. On and on they went about the transformative process of peeling back the layers...blah, blah, blah. So now I had another problem to add to my growing list of resentments against A.A. - A big problem. I hate onions. HATE THEM! I once got heartburn from eating a slice of raw onion on a burger. It was so intense I ended up calling 911. When the dispatcher asked me for symptoms I told her what I had eaten. She laughed and said "Honey, you're not dying. That's not what a heart attack feels like, not at all. I think you’ve got a bad case of heartburn." I should have felt relief, but a part of me was disappointed to not be dying because as I was having my imaginary heart attack I brought myself to tears planning my own funeral. It was a very moving service if I do say so myself. The cathedral was packed. Everyone was there. Even I was touched by the profound grief my passing had caused. The speed at which we alcoholics can create a feature length horror film in our heads - especially with ourselves cast as the doomed protagonist - is staggering.
So back to this whole "peeling the onion" idea. We are asked to peel back the layers and dig deep in an attempt to uncover the reason we needed to self-medicate to such a dangerous degree in the first place. Because if we can discover the root cause of our issues we will be better equipped to address them and start recovering from our addictions. As we go deeper and deeper into a process of self-discovery we figure out what is hiding underneath. What is driving us. What lurks deep beneath the skin, behind the outer layers, that causes us repeatedly to do things that we don’t want to do.
Have you ever really peeled an onion? Layer by layer? All the way down? I have. Probably just so I could tell people that I had peeled an actual onion and that their metaphor sucked. Because what I found in the center once all the peeling was done was just...more onion. Nothing at all that I would want to discover underneath my own personal layers. But then, several months later, I had a moment of grace when I saw a lotus flower opening in the sun and I thought “That's it! That's my onion. I'll happily peel that.” Because what is inside the lotus - what is revealed when the lotus opens - is so beautiful and magical that gazing into it that first time made me breathless with wonder. And yet in the darkness of night a lotus flower closes up. It becomes small and hard and impenetrable and nothing, not even light, can get in. Much the way we live our lives while addicted. Small, closed, hardened and unwilling to open. But when you shine light on that same flower it begins to open. The outside petals are hard, waterproof, and protective. As we go deeper into the lotus the petals become softer and more beautiful, but also more delicate and vulnerable. That fragile center is a glorious sight. In the perfection of this, getting to the center suddenly made sense.
So every time I heard about peeling the onion, I fought back with my own metaphor. To back up my claims I consulted my friend and enemy - the internet. I was amazed at what I found. My idea was not so novel after all. The lotus flower plays a central role in several eastern religions. Christians have Jesus rising from the crypt on Easter but in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and other eastern religions the lotus flower is used as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, regeneration, and rebirth.
The lotus flower is a marvel of nature. It plants its roots in muck and mud but sends its flower toward the light. Even planted in the filthiest water the lotus remains unstained. It floats above it all, closing down and protecting itself in the darkness of night and opening to the the light of day. Day after day after day.
Imagine living life like that.
When we are trapped in addiction life becomes dark and muddy. We are drowning, blind in the thick swirling water. Our lives can remain that way long into recovery. Damage done. Lives destroyed. Messes to be cleaned up. But we can be redeemed. We can learn to float above it all. Day after day. And we begin to see that getting to the center is worth the work. That there is something extravagantly beautiful hiding beneath our hardened shells. So we stay in the light, and we open ourselves up, remembering that in darkness we will close again and sink back into the mud.
Just like the lotus.