Meditating on Meth

By Hannah Sward 07/25/18

Trying to sit with myself, high or not, was unbearable. The feelings that came up were the reason I used. For years I had been running from myself.

Frazzled woman trying to meditate
Inhale, exhale, that’s all you have to do, I told myself. I sneezed, my head itched, I felt hiccups coming on.

The last time I had meditated was that week I was on crystal meth. Not because I was seeking any form of enlightenment, but rather for the college units.

‘The Art of Zen Meditation’ – a five day silent meditation retreat.

Compared to the statistic classes I had been taking, it seemed like an easy alternative. I was deep into my crystal meth addiction at that time; I’d been using every day for the past six years—minus the times my dealer was in jail.

My plan at the retreat was to "cut back,” maybe not even use at all. But I simply had to bring a little. I arrived with a stash of crystals in the sole of my running shoe. Within an hour of arriving at Mount Baldy Zen Center I had broken three of the four Golden Rules:

No Sex.

No Eye Contact.

No Drugs.

No Killing Spiders.

1. My boyfriend had driven me to the retreat and before he left we had sex. 2. I had sought eye contact with a monk and 3. I had stepped on a spider. But I hadn’t done drugs and by the end of the first day I still hadn’t done drugs. I actually gave myself credit for this even though I had snorted three fat lines before leaving the house and hadn’t arrived at the retreat until six.

At 4am the next morning a bald monk in an orange robe struck the gong outside my cabin window. I wrapped a wool blanket around my shoulders and walked up the trail to the zendo where I joined 12 students for the first meditation of the day.

I sat cross-legged in lotus position next to a woman who was wearing a purple shawl, amber rings, and mala beads. As cymbals came together we were instructed to close our eyes, breathe in on the count of three, out on four. I smelled patchouli, my nose itched, my eyes fluttered. Inhale, exhale, that’s all you have to do, I told myself. I sneezed, my head itched, I felt hiccups coming on. I forgot all about my breath.

My thoughts raced. I made shopping lists in my head: New underwear, pens, thank you cards, clean the fridge, go to the DMV, call Sarah back. She’s irritating though, why should I even call her back? I’m not going to. Definitely not. No, I better call her.

How much longer is this meditation going to last, has it even been 15 minutes? My fingers began twitching, I needed water, my mouth was dry. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next hour let alone five days of this. I kept opening my eyes, sneaking a peak at everyone else sitting there looking so peaceful and serene. Were they? Was I the only one who couldn’t bear sitting a moment longer? I wanted to be one of them. Anybody but myself. All that sitting there gave me too much thinking time. I was used to distraction; distracting myself as far away from me as I could.

After an unbearable amount of time, the cymbals came together again: breakfast time. Instead of following everyone to the main hall for granola and chai, I went straight to my cabin and to the sole of my running shoe. Kneeling down on the floor, I crushed the lines on top of a book, Be Here Now, and stuck the tip of a McDonald’s straw up my nose and snorted. An immediate sense of relief came over me as the familiar burn dripped down my throat. I looked up. A Buddha with pink petals by his feet stared back at me. I turned the picture to face the wall and snorted another line.

I spent the next four and a half days sitting crossed legged in the mountains in between walking meditations along wooded paths, eating tofu and rice, and doing crystal meth.

Trying to sit with myself, high or not, was unbearable. The feelings that came up were the reason I used. For years I had been running from myself. To sit quietly and breathe, to feel a sense of grounding in my body was foreign to me. Yet it was something I always wanted. To be able to "sit" with myself. But how could I do that in the midst of my addiction?

I had always had negative feelings about meditation. I was exposed to it early. When I was a little girl, my dad had a meditation group at our house. He meditated, and stood on his head everyday. We went to ashrams, communes, meditation centers. When I was six I was given a pillow with an orange OM symbol on it.

“Your meditating pillow,” my dad said.

Every Sunday, I was to bring my pillow into my dad’s studio and sit with the adults to breathe for an hour. I wanted to throw that pillow out the window and play hopscotch with the other kids.

It wasn’t until I was five years sober that something shifted. And it wasn’t through someone telling me what to do, it was merely a kind of attraction. Attraction rather than promotion: one of my favorite principles in the program.

When I turned five years sober, my best friend was visiting me from Canada. She was sober, too, and every year she came to give me a cake. This time, she had a ritual. Every morning she would sit in lotus position on my wood floor and meditate for 20 minutes. After, we would drink coffee together in my backyard under a canopy of trees. I had known her for 30 years and even though it was subtle, I sensed something had shifted within her. She seemed to be more serene, content within herself. That didn’t mean on any given day there wasn’t some obstacle or, as my sponsor would say, “spiritual opportunity,” but she handled whatever was presented with more ease, an effortless sort of grace.

I wanted what she had. I downloaded a meditation app and started with three minutes. I fought it at first: my thoughts went from, I’ve got to clean the bathroom sink, reply to Laura’s work email, what a jerk she is to questioning whether I should have Caesar or Chinese chicken salad for lunch.

After a few weeks of a daily practice I started to notice a subtle change as I went through the day. I was more connected to my breath, more in my body. It was a new sensation; I had never felt this way before. After years of being completely out of body with no sense of grounding, I began to appreciate this new awareness. When I would get agitated or emotionally distressed, I’d put one hand on my heart and one on my belly and concentrate on my breath: inhale, exhale. That’s all I had to do, breathe. It was and is like coming home; coming home to my center.

I’d like to say I’m at the point where after three years of maintaining a daily practice I am now doing 20 minutes. Once in a while yes, sometimes I even go to a 30-minute meditation meeting. But for someone like me, who for so many years did anything to avoid sitting still and in my body, maintaining a practice of a minimum of five minutes a day has been life altering.

Next week I am going to a meditation meeting with my dad. As for going back to Mount Baldy, that’s a stretch.

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Hannah Sward’s work has been widely published in literary journals in the US, Canada and the UK. She was Editor and Columnist at Third Street Villager Los Angeles. Her most recent work can be read in Porter Gulch Review 2017,, Other Voices (CND), Vagabonds: Anthology of The Mad Ones 2016, Alimentum, Rozlyn: Anthology of Women Writers 2015, Erotic Review and Word Riot. She has written a collection of linking short stories, Queenie Goes to Bosnia and Other Stories and a memoir, Strip. Follow Hannah on Twitter.