Yesterday I buried a friend. Today I saw a man who was broken, wretched, confused and reeking of insanitary hells and death, who had been thrown out of a car outside the meeting. I feel intensely moved to write about recovery, in the hope that someone somewhere may find some small hope or inspiration in these words.
I am in recovery, I have suffered several addictions, and do you know what? I would not change the past even if I had the option. It may sound strange, even unbelievable, if you are currently in suffering, but the suffering I lived through was actually a massive blessing.
Like diamonds forged in great fire, those years of hell burned and forced us to become ready for change. Even in recovery, the first months were very dark, and it took some time to want to live. That sadness, that darkness, was also a secret and profound blessing. It made me work so hard, studying, learning spiritual practices, practising hour after hour, as my life depended upon it. My energy was lit by that fire, and that effort of course can but have consequences.
Today, I live free of that darkness, free of that suffering and shaking, free of any and all desire to drink or take drugs. In fact, life is a stream of blessings, gratitude and beauty. Meditation and the spiritual life have shown me how to know subtle and blissful states that drugs cannot touch. I now find the serenity, smiles, warmth, friendship and confidence I once only knew how to find from a bottle.
So what I am trying to communicate is a cry that recovery is possible and that you can achieve contentment beyond your current understanding. Even if you are still drinking, shaking, and full of shame, can you hear what I am saying?
You may one day look back on this time and see it as a gift, yes even you. None of us is so uniquely damaged or special that recovery is not possible. I promise you that this is my truth, and the truth of many others, and it is a simple promise.
So do not lose hope, do not think that you are this illness or that this illness is your life. Do not believe that change is not possible, and please do not imagine that happiness is simply out of reach of people like you and I. It is here, on the other side, and this is a promise I would sign with my blood.
This doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging, and like I say, this illness can be fatal. You have to know that you must change, and you have to put in the work. You have to accept that you are ill, which to me was a blessed relief, as I felt that it was all my own fault and that I was just a terrible human being. We hurt people, we do and say things we don’t mean or intend, we commit crimes, we do whatever it takes to ensure we have our drugs or alcohol. So for me, to accept that this is an illness allowed me to drop a measure of the crippling shame and self-hatred I felt.
So after accepting that this is the way things are for you, and that the only solution is to let go of the substances, you must do whatever it takes to get well. This involves going to meetings, working the steps, and finding some kind of spiritual life, a sense of meaning, and a belonging. This can be in AA or whatever support group, but support is invaluable, a sponsor invaluable. Find a sponsor, do what they tell you – remember they know how to get well and you don’t, yet.
Don’t worry about God, or higher power, for me I tried prayer and found it useful, tried meditation and found it wonderful. Try things out, even if the idea of religion makes you feel sick, the benefits of prayer and meditation are hard to communicate but a part of the package, the process which leads to freedom. You don’t need to fathom the depths of the universe or theology just yet, don’t let intellectual concerns prevent you from getting well. Just try to be open, willing, and honest.
A higher power may become clear for you; a god, a spirit, the earth, nature, life, people, love..just relax. Keep it simple, a day at a time, let it unfold, and it will.
I know sober people who are christians, muslims, buddhists, sikhs, shamans, wiccans, druids or pagans. In some ways it doesn’t matter, but to find a path and walk it seems very important. For me of course it is buddhism, but I studied mysticism of all kinds, and read very widely on spiritual and religious experience. I became convinced that happiness and freedom are a matter of spiritual development, and I still am. I read and studied because the happiness had vanished from my life. Now it is back, and it isn’t any longer dependent on a bottle or a pill, it is a happiness that cannot be taken away, and is not dependent from what arises in life, as it is mind made, fire made, heart made.
The most important lesson from recovery is that happiness is not dependent on any substance, any person, any thing, any amount of wealth or status or what other people think. Happiness cannot be bought, it can only be learned and experienced. It is a process of appreciating more and more what you have, even if you have nothing. Having nothing is quite liberating, but doesn’t necessarily seem that way at the time! Cultivating a mind which sees what there is to appreciate rather than what is lacking, what you want, is key, for craving is the very root of suffering.
I remember in my early days when the sun on a magnolia tree thrilled my soul, and I remembered how beautiful the world is. The light on trees, the green radiance of grass, the sparkle of sunshine on a stream, the continuous miraculous display of awareness, which can become free from clinging or thought-made suffering. All suffering is made by thinking, and the secret seems to be about learning to abide in the awareness beyond and around thinking, not just somatic awareness (body awareness) but unlimited awareness. The space around the thinking, around the selfing, around the grasping.
Once you realise the vastness of the space in which we abide, your thoughts will never again seem so important. Once you see that thoughts are empty, fleeting and formless, your mind will never again be able to deceive you, or depress you, or lead you back into bad habits. In pure awareness, there is no duality to be found, no self and other, no good and bad, no suffering. We are the sky not the clouds. There is just a free, bright, clear awareness of all that arises, undivided into a self who experiences objects, just a free display, amazing.
At the very least, you will see that any mental state or feeling, is impermanent, will change, is not you, not a self. Anyway, I am going to be writing about recovery and the steps, about addiction and freedom. If you are not in recovery, it may still be useful in terms of craving and freedom, and habits which do not serve you. I am going to create a section of the blog for this purpose, but will also write about buddhism and meditation.
This illness of alcoholism takes lives by the day, and there but for the grace of it all go I. I can use the word God in AA, even if what I mean by it varies wildly to how some others use it. The phrase we hear is There but for the grace of God go I. It means, we are lucky, we have a chance, we have a hope, and we are still breathing. This opportunity is precious, this human life is precious.
I wish I could talk to those in need, when they need it. I wish my friend had just called me once more, or replied to my messages. I saw the utter devastation and confusion of his mother seeing the box containing her son, and my heart nearly burst. I thought of my own mum, and how I carried her box out of a church in London a decade ago. So much suffering and loss in this world, there can only be compassion.
I vow to try to reach more people who are suffering, and act creatively in the world to reach beings with the wisdom and the love which has saved me. The teachings which have turned me from a desperate and lost suicide to a strong, free and bright person, who serves this world. What a miracle, and I vow to honour it. I only wish that my vow touches something in you. It isn’t from me to you, its from a light which can arise in us all, may you open to it.
Anyway for what its worth, I am going to launch a series of articles dealing directly with addictions and recovery. I did a lot of writing last year about the twelve steps and how one can approach them with a non theistic understanding, and an open mind. Losing my friend has caused me anguish, for in seeing the grief of family and friends, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I could have done more to help him. I wish I had been able to spare them that loss, I really do. It makes me want to write and do what I can in my own way and I can only hope it is useful.
I wish I could lend my heart to the drinker who, with shaking hands, decides between suicide and one more bottle. I wish I could pass on a taste of the nectar of bliss, so that just for a second, another brighter world is revealed. If I could lend anyone an experience of meditation, a glimpse of the very purest of beauties available in this life, they would throw down the bottle and seek for themselves the light.
I know the agony, the unbearable knowing that you are destroying yourself and hurting others, but being utterly unable to do anything about it. It seems to simple to others, you must just stop drinking, but for the alcoholic, he has drank daily for as long as he began to shed childhood’s innocence. He knows no other way, and even if he did, the shaking, the fits, the unbearable anxiety and fear of the mind in withdrawal allows for no middle way, no alternative. He simply must drink as today I must breathe, and take in food and water to survive. In fact, it was more important than that.
Alcohol provides the only moments of peace and warmth in a frozen life, a life in which natural peace and love is a long lost memory, a fragment of a dream hazily seen. Alcohol is simultaneously the god, the light, the comfort, the warmth, the security, the confidence, the end to fear, and yet the cause of their disappearance.
Of course, there are many paths to freedom, but the path of the dharma is so clearly the beautiful music that suffering hearts are crying out for. It is a music not of this world, and sings to what is deepest in us, most pure, most loving. It reminds us we can simply open and love, cease to do harm and start to do good. It is a simple music, but when you hear it, it changes you forever.
People recover from addiction in many ways, and the twelve steps is not the only way, buddhism is not the only way. But people need something greater than themselves, to serve, to surrender to, to belong to. AA answers a need, and companionship and wisdom is to be found in the rooms.
The great love however comes from somewhere else, the bright heart that sees no self, is straight from the music of the buddha. The attitude of service to benefit the self is fine up to a point, but until it becomes real authentic altruism something is missing. Until the illusion separating self from other, separating good from bad, me from not me, is seen through, the heart cannot know its true scope and deepest freedom.
We may think, until we have practise loving kindness meditation for a while, that true altruism is not possible. When the sun of metta dawns, you will know it is not only possible but our birthright.
In recognition of oneness, of the miracle of life, and the magic of awareness, all life is known as deeply precious, and service no longer arises out of a sense of self and a sense of merit or benefit, but from a removal of self. Genuine selflessness and service is our birthright, and the best chance we have for not only recovering from addiction and helping others to recover, but also for changing this world.