The Heart of a Child


Give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live that out. – Elene Loecher

June 4, 2014, Early Morning

According to Willie Stark, the cynical southern governor in All the King’s Men, “There is always something.”

True. But I doubt Willie was counting spiritual experiences or love or lemonade on a warm early summer morning in his listings. Truth be told, I learned long ago not to be concerned about having spiritual experiences. I was as cynical as Willie probably was about love – romantic love, anyway. First off, I can’t create those spiritual experiences and would most likely be disappointed if I tried. Secondly, my history in romantic love is tattered, and for a period of three years, it was merely addiction wearing its most cynical mask.

But lemonade? As I write this, with a mug of lemonade close by, that’s as close to whimsy and delight as I can reliably get right now.

Writing to you, sitting in the sun, I recall that I will soon have left behind my 72nd year of living and my first 30 years of sobriety.

Forty-eight hours ago I was not. As Chuck C. writes in A New Pair of Glasses, I was living in “conscious separation”. I was edgy, angry, depressed and wondering how the hell I had found myself back in a painful situation I thought was behind me. Hadn’t I worked hard at dealing with it? Maybe, but I had overlooked being cared about and loved.

It’s true, however, that the past is not past. We need the past to become the present and to remind us of regret and empathy. No past, no opportunity for awakening. It is my long experience that awakening unfolds. It is not an event, magically achieved when you do the Twelve Steps perfectly. My Zen teacher has been a practicing Buddhist and has lived clean and sober for many decades. She continually deepens her practice. I do, too.

I used her example to lead me to this plastic chair by the bird feeder, on the lawn by my tiny yellow house, with this fresh lemonade, and with a
new story to tell.

Heart of a Child

A spiritual awakening that does not awaken us to love has roused us in vain. Forty-eight hours ago, in response to my frustration over the cynical reminder of this heartbreaking event of my past, my friend and lover, Lenore, said she didn’t know what to say and didn’t know how she could help me. Then she said, “I love you.”

The awakening began to unfold, yet again.

June 1992

When we speak of listening with compassion, we usually think of listening to someone else. But we must also listen to the wounded child inside of us. Sometimes the wounded child in us needs all of our attention. That little child might emerge from the depths of your consciousness and ask for your attention. If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice calling for help. At that moment, instead of paying attention to whatever is in front of you, go back and tenderly embrace the wounded child. – Thich Nhat Hanh

In 1992, I spent the summer in Plum Village in France, the home of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, peace-activist, poet and healer. Deep into that peaceful summer of 1992, one day during the daily walking meditation practice, Thay, the affectionate name for Thich Nhat Hanh, walked up to me very slowly, and offered his left hand. I took it, and we walked together. On his right was a child, perhaps six years old. Hand-in-hand, we walked with Thay, for 20 minutes or so. Then we sat by a creek in dappled sunlight, in silence, in joy.

For a moment, I was back on my childhood farm in west Tennessee, sitting as I did nearly every day by a quiet stream as my horse, Whitey, stood by; and the insects and minnows did their insect and minnow things all about in the air and water. I consider that moment to be one of spiritual awakening; an awakening to who I was then and who I could be now, any time I chose to invoke it. I had awakened, not to a memory of my childhood, but through it, to a deep knowledge of who I am right now when I choose to stop keeping score, to give up trying to figure it all out and to be a rascal and practice whimsy, maybe with a heart filled with gratitude and laughter and my fingers sticky with lemonade.

June 2011

The only way through suffering is to go into it entirely. That is where the angels wait, in quiet and hidden places, pockets full of compassion and joy. And everything in us, in me, rebels against that idea.

The only way out is through – but don’t linger.

On a dark tropical evening, in the words of Bill Wilson, I was in a state of anxious apartness, or more broadly, chronic depression. I was lost in bewilderment and self-loathing. I bellowed, “What the hell am I supposed to notice here?” Without fanfare or preparation or conscious volition or even wild imaginings, something emerged from the dark fog of my suffering and bewilderment.

Billy. A little boy in shorts, a green shirt and funny shoes, and on his face I saw bewilderment and just a shadow of hope. I had turned my back on him for many years. Finally my bewilderment was so great and echoed so perfectly Billy’s own voice, only he could be my teacher – a teacher who must be cared for himself, loved recklessly and listened to very deeply.

I spoke to him. He came closer. I told him I was sorry for all the suffering I had caused him. It was a long conversation, one-sided, as he listened raptly. He came closer and took my hand. He crawled on my lap and put his head on my shoulder. I told him I was sorry, so very sorry for the awful places I had taken him and I was sorry to have abandoned him so many years ago. His hand patted my back. We cried. I have not cried so happily in a very long time.

I am a very fortunate man to have met this little boy. He is my greatest teacher, and I am his great hero.

And he has been there all along.

I called my friend, Elene, that night and told her of Billy’s return. There was a silence for a moment. Then she said, “I was praying that would happen for you.” She told me not to forget him. I assured her that I wouldn’t and she came back and assured me that I would. She said to take Billy out once in a while, to dinner, or to play in the stream next to my house, whatever he wished. (It seems he likes to go out to lunch, especially when I’m having a tough day writing, and to have a cheeseburger and fries and a chocolate shake. I go along with him, silly fellow.)

We are too old to rewrite our childhoods. We are never too old to recapture the heart of the child.

Simply ask. In times of bewilderment and fear, simply ask. What does the child have to say? How may I serve the child?

There’s more: Frolic. Be reckless. Giggle in church. Be a rascal, a fool, a classic clown. The Monkey King job is open, I’m told. Go for that one! (I have his likeness tattooed on my right rib cage.)

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned from Billy. Let go, lighten up, move on. And the compassionate form of KISS – Keep It Spiritually Simple.

Or heed Pogo: “Don’t take life so serious, son . . . it ain’t no how permanent.”

June 4, 2014, Noon

Two nights ago, when Lenore said, “I don’t know what to do,” and “I love you,” Billy, decidedly the non-grown-up, took the lead. Over the next few hours, I realized I’d forgotten a vow I had made a few years ago: “I vow to become that person in whom those who are seeking awakening and freedom will see that what they are seeking is real.” I said a phrase from the Third Step Prayer, rewritten for the situation: “. . . Relieve me of my difficulty that victory over it will serve to show others the power, the love and the Way.”

Here is an exercise to help you meet the child within you: First, take some time and remember some moment in your own life when there was awe and wonder and a sense of belonging to it all. Second, without pausing, without even lifting your pencil, make a list of the qualities of that innocent child – nouns, verb, and adjectives, whatever. Allow yourself to be playful. Here are several to start with: Awe. Wonder. Compassion. When you have finished, read them over. Then ask yourself, “How did I know?” Here’s one answer: Because it’s who I am. Not, decidedly not, who I was. Who I am.

Hold onto that list. I think it’s a description of a spiritual experience. We turn our backs on such experiences when we are determined to live in that “conscious separation”.

Don’t fret, my friend. Being born once was quite enough for me, thank you. So this is not some epic of redemption at the mercy of a separate god of some kind. Even I lack that much drama or superstition. I’d rather say, in the language of my peers in Haight Ashbury, over 40 years back, that my consciousness expanded to include undreamt-of wonders and horrors. You can’t have one without the other. We must bring forth what is within us. That is, we must make it conscious. I believe we must endeavor to make the material of the unconscious, conscious.

So, there you have it. I hope you can see the map well enough to use it as I did – as the geography of the entrance to a playground, with tin whistles and tambourines and fools and even some cotton candy. I hope so.

Billy and I are on a good walk together, I think. I’m on his right and holding his hand. His hand is so little, while mine is gaining in gentle strength for his, as it must, with every step we take. Someday we might find a stream, in dappled sunlight, a quiet, peaceful place, where we can sit in silence and joy.

And that situation from the past that became present? Dancing lessons from God.

Now I think I’ll let Billy have just one more lemonade.

Then I’ll take out the trash. Yet again.

William Alexander is the author of Ordinary Recovery: Mindfulness, Addiction, and the Path of Lifelong Sobriety, considered a recovery classic. He’s a poet, story teller and co-founder of Awakening to Love – The 12 Steps for All of Us.


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