Recovering Addict Learns Meditation is a Tough but Rewarding Habit

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Illustration by Hannah Agosta

 

The inside of my head churns with an unrelenting assault of racing thoughts, endless chatter, and unsolicited opinions. Always. As soon as my eyes blink open, before my feet hit the floor, the onslaught begins. Existing in this manner is like swimming in quicksand—pointless and exhausting.

There is little doubt that part of my struggle is rooted in my past. Over the past couple of decades, I coped with chronic dissatisfaction in life by scarfing down absurd amounts of drugs and alcohol. This technique worked fabulously until it didn’t. I finally untangled myself from active addiction through a series of fits and starts in rehabs, mishaps abroad, and chaotic stints behind bars. Here in Orange County is the only place on Earth where I have remained clean and sober for more than 17 years.

A life not shackled to a nasty habit, saturated in drugs and alcohol, is magnificent and liberating. However, I still vacillate between morbidly regretting my past and pessimistically obsessing over my future.

The truth is, being an adult is challenging for me. Since I bypassed huge chunks of personal growth in my formative years, my current mental age falls far below my actual age. I am forever at the whim and mercy of my emotions like a teenage girl. My ability to differentiate between facts and swirling emotions is tenuous. I seek balance, yet rarely experience it.

I seek advice from friends who possess an innate calmness, which I covet, envy, and am somewhat annoyed by. Every last one of them excitedly squawks about meditation.

“Meditation teaches us not to think,” one says. “There are some fantastic apps that guide you in quieting your mind.”

“If we start letting go with the physical body, the mind will follow,” says another. “Sit still. Start at your toes then move up slowly, tighten and release each muscle as you go. Focus only on your breathing. Breathe in for five, then out for five. The monotony of counting becomes a soothing mantra.”

Eager for my success, one of them hits me with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Ugh. Eyeroll. Apps, mantras, quiet, still, slow, and soothing. To me, none of this sounds feasible or relaxing. But sheer desperation is a fantastic motivator.

Meditating at home for me is an oxymoron. The place I head for is the Ramakrishna Monastery. This peaceful haven is open to the public during specific hours, so it becomes my destination in stalking serenity.

Heading east, I wind up into the Santa Ana Mountains. An opalescent blue sky parts the vibrant green hills. I roll down my windows, and the aroma of Pacific wild sage wafts into the car. Turning right onto Trabuco Canyon Road, I drive beneath a canopy of creaking eucalyptus and California live oak trees. As I snake slowly up the entrance to the monastery, a grinning monk in a beanie waves to me.

The stone building for meditation is parabolic. The entrance is like something from “The Hobbit,” shrouded by swaying branches and recessed in the shade. I remove my shoes and enter a velvety darkness. The temperature outdoors is irrelevant. In here, it is womblike. The air is redolent with spicy incense. Across from the door are an altar, a gong, candles, and vases of silk flowers. An empty chair off to the side casts shadows on the wall.

There is a sunken circle in the middle. My head tells me that this area is for next-level meditators. Being barely a novice and feeling highly unqualified, I tiptoe to the right and sit on a worn cushion.

I lean my back and head against the cool, earthen wall. I cross my legs and tuck my bare feet under my knees. I start the breathing technique, but I keep losing track of which number I’m on. Was it four or three? Breathing in or out? My feet start to tingle and cramp, so I stick them out straight. Then I yank them back in, worried someone might trip.

My eyes are itchy and watering. I will them to close yet they refuse. Now, all riled up, I admonish myself for obsessing on all this extraneous stuff when I’m supposed to be thinking of NOTHING! Then my mind knits that puzzle back and forth—“thinking of nothing is actually thinking something.”

I groan aloud. Or wait, was that me? The sound was next to me, but no one’s there. People are across from me. I hear it again, a growling stomach. I put a hand on mine. Nope, not me. Then a lady to my left coughs, but I hear it from the right. What the hell? It’s like a carnival funhouse effect. Swiveling my head, assessing positions of other meditators, it dawns on me; it’s the shape of the building that causes every sound to bounce and ricochet.

Now that I’ve sorted it out, I hunker down to think of nothing. Again. The spinning thoughts kick in, but this time I expect them and practice a system that seems to work. My mind runs wild, and I reel it back in. I breathe in and out and scrap the counting bit. I stay in one place.

My goal of 30 minutes passes quicker than I thought. Ruminating in the dark, I think “Whoa, meditation is intense and not for wussies.”

I realize that when I’m not talking-talking-talking, my inner chatter diminishes. My skin feels as if it fits a little better. The burden of being me seems lighter. I realize that even if self-soothing doesn’t come naturally, it is possible.

Am I cured? No. Evolved into a spiritual savant? Most definitely not. Will I continue to create monsters from the miniscule and perseverate on both real and imagined subjects? Most likely. Is my brain absurdly manic at times? Sure, but it’s all mine!

What this experience does for me is crack open the door of self-acceptance and help me see that my brand of crazy just might be part of the human condition. Will I get back in the ring with meditation? For sure.

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