To meet Gregory Lennon is to have the experience of reconnecting with a dear friend. Whether in a crowded classroom debate or a one-on-one conversation, his kindness, sincerity, and intentionality shine through every interaction. In this Trailblazers feature, Gregory speaks openly about his journey to sobriety and offers guidance and encouragement for anyone seeking to make a meaningful change. Read on for the story of Gregory’s new beginning…
How did you know it was time to make a change?
In 2002 I was living in Chicago. My work brought accolades from my superiors, promotions, and bonuses. I was on the guest list at every nightclub in town. My friends were fabulous, and in some cases famous. It was glamour by association. But I was miserable and plagued by thoughts of suicide. In one surprisingly lucid moment, I told my mother that I had been neglecting myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wanted her to tell me to join a gym, get a therapist, and maybe recommend another self-help book for my ever-growing collection. Instead, she said that all real growth begins with a spiritual path. I took another drink.
Weeks later I met a friend for Sunday brunch. Mimosas turned to bottles of champagne. We sat in my living room after a particularly long day of drinking, where she complained about how difficult her life had become. People treated her badly; it seemed the entire world was against her. She had droned on for hours, and I couldn’t take any more. The words just erupted, “When are you going to get it? You’re an alcoholic and drug addict! You bring all of this on yourself!” She turned to me with a chilling calm, pointed a finger at my chest, and replied, “And YOU are just like me.”
I was struck sober, a searing pain in my head, and an indescribable emptiness in my gut. By Wednesday the burden of this truth became too much to bear alone. I sat at my kitchen table, and the phone book literally fell open to a substance abuse hotline. I thought it was Divine Providence. Only later would I find out how often my ex had scored the page in hopes that I might one day find it. That afternoon, I found myself in a room with people just like me, telling their stories, giving me hope. Here I embarked on a spiritual path that is my journey of recovery.
What gave you the confidence you needed to move forward?
I found a beginner’s sort of desperate faith in twelve-step recovery meetings. Here was a group of people who said that they had suffered as I had – as I was. They offered suggestions and support, but what was more important, they offered the power of example. If I could believe that they were able to live sober, purposeful, happy lives, perhaps there was hope for me.
Each day offered a new challenge – a new ‘first sober [fill in the blank]’. There was the first sober Pride parade, first sober company Christmas party, eventually the first sober date, and the first sober break-up. With each experience, I reminded myself that I would never have to do that for the ‘first’ time again.
A man who had been sober for what seemed like an eternity at the time – ten years – would ask me how I was every time we met. In the beginning I would lodge my complaints about life, work, and how difficult everything seemed now that my senses were clear as a clarions. His response was always, “Don’t worry... This too shall pass.” I ran into him one evening, at about three months sober. Again, he asked how I was. My week had been fantastic. Work, home, not a cloud in the sky. I told him how well I was doing, and he responded, “Don’t worry... This too shall pass.” I was flummoxed. Years later, this lesson in impermanence would start to make sense. With every challenge met grew the conviction that I could walk through the next.
Who/what inspires you today?
I am drawn to people who have chosen an unconventional path, particularly those who have placed service to others ahead of their own needs, or who have surmounted seemingly impossible circumstances to achieve their dreams.
One example is recording artist and actress Aziza Brahim who was born in an Algerian refugee camp. Inspired by poems recited by her grandmother, she found relief from the grueling daily existence of the camps in music. She was rejected when she tried to attend a music school, but continued to write and perform, soon receiving awards for her music. Just this year, Aziza’s music has topped the World Music Europe charts three times. She now uses her music as a platform to promote tolerance and fight against social injustice.
I am inspired by people I meet virtually every day. Early this spring, while skiing in Utah, I met an instructor we’ll call “Chuck”. He had the clear, smiling-eyed look of a monk, and the distinct accent of a Chicago south-sider. While riding up a very long lift, he told me his story. Several years earlier, when he and his wife were both in their early 40s, their teenaged son expressed and interest in skiing and showed great potential. After a bit of research, Chuck and his wife left lucrative careers in Chicago to move to Salt Lake City where his son could train. Chuck said it was the best decision of his life, and this was evident in his patient, supportive manner with his students. He works full time as a ski instructor, lives a simple life, and has found fulfillment that he never expected previously.
Inspiration comes when I am open. This could be in line at the supermarket, or while sitting with a guru. It is less about the story one has to tell, and more the ability and willingness to listen.
What are you dreaming about now?
This year I set an intention of alignment, not only the physical alignment of my yoga asana practice, but the alignment of my career and daily life with my values and authentic self. As a result of this intention, I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training in April, and left my job of the last 13 years to pursue working in wellness and sustainability full time. My dream is to help others to journey inward, to consider daily choices, and to live in better harmony in the world and with all of its inhabitants.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Twelve-step recovery is filled with borrowed sayings that resonate, but there are a few that were particularly resonant in my early sobriety and continue to guide my decisions today:
Several years ago, I heard of the Sufi tradition of the four gates of speech in a yoga class. This had a profound affect on the way that I communicate to this day. The tradition advises us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through four gates. At the first gate, we ask ourselves, "Are these words true?" At the second gate we ask; "Are they necessary?" At the third gate we ask; "Are they beneficial?" and at the fourth gate, we ask, "Are they kind?" If the answer to any of these is no, then what you are about to say should be left unsaid.
What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you started?
My journey is what it is, and I know that this moment is exactly as it is meant to be. Nothing could have been different in bringing me to this point. However, the single most beneficial change I have experienced in the last decade was developing a daily meditation practice. I could not have anticipated the affects in nearly every aspect of my life, and the virtually unshakable sense of well-being that would come as a result of quieting my mind for a few minutes each day.
What encouragement can you offer someone who wants to make a change but is apprehensive?
Whatever challenge you face, there are others who have successfully walked through it. Seek them out. Learn from their actions. Find faith through their experience. And, when the time comes, offer the benefit of your experience to others in need. There is a purpose in your journey.
What book(s) have provided guidance or inspiration for your New Beginning?
Here is a list of books that I found particularly inspirational. It is in no particular order, and is in no way complete: