The Perils of Healing

By Nathan A Thompson 04/30/17

I thought that if I meditated enough I would become a better person. But progress in meditation is not linear. It’s more a process of revealing what is inside than making improvements.

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Man in yoga position
A personal journey of meditation, yoga, and self fulfillment

When I was 24 I attended a psychedelic frenzy in Portugal called Boom Festival. There, I took a yoga class for the first time. I slunk in, hungover and self-conscious at 8am, an early start given my strict schedule of drugs and no sleep.

Pushing my feet into a bamboo mat, I cast my first triangle pose with 50 others in a marquee and stared up at the dark canvass. I began to sense an unfamiliar peace. I stretched into that sundial shape and held it.

My burning hangover, self-consciousness, indeed, the whole festival seemed to be passing over my stilled form, casting shadows.

It did not last long. Thoughts rushed in. The world and its pain again enveloped. I exited, blinking in the hard sunlight. All around the bronzed and beautiful walked. I made a beeline for the beer tent. Maybe alcohol would help me be like them.

That year I started smoking heroin. Running out of money. Stealing, lying and corrupting. Taking more heroin to feel better. My girlfriend came home and found me nodding in and out of consciousness on her couch; she balled up sheets of dragon-chased foil and hurled them at me, crying.

I spent a lot of time on cold London corners waiting for drug dealers. Just waiting. Five minutes more, they would say. Five minutes. Five more. Called again. Cursed them. Cursed the grey, raining sky and the incessant demands of addiction. Cursed myself: stupid, lying, piece-of-shit junky.

His car pulled up and I slid into its warmth and bought a few peanut-sized bags of the drug and, not long after, with it in my blood, everything was better. Beautiful, in fact.

A year later I went to rehab and relapsed five weeks after leaving. My friends deserted me, my parents had moved abroad and my therapy aftercare group had told me to quit hanging around the center so much. It was all I needed to stop fighting. All I needed to fall, exhausted, into the arms of a drug that held me closer than any lover.

But I could not forget what I learned in rehab. I accepted that I had a life-threatening addiction and, while it was difficult to rouse much desire to save myself, I did want to save my family from losing a son and brother.

It felt like scrambling through a pitch-black tunnel packed with thorny bracken. Choked and bleeding, I pulled myself on. There was no light at the end and I didn’t know if my efforts would be rewarded but it was better than the cold oblivion behind. The only option was to press on.

I started meditating, doing a ten-day Vipassana course at a center in the British countryside. It was a demanding, silent retreat and I soon found myself alone in my room staring at the floor. If I left now, took a train to London and called my dealer I could be high in, say, four hours…

I walked to the reception and demanded they return my keys and wallet, locked away for safekeeping.

“I’m leaving; you can’t make me stay here,” I told the thin, genial manager.

“Sure,” he said. “We’re not a prison. But why not speak to the teacher first?” Cornered by his reasonableness, I flashed him with angry eyes.

“Fine.”

The teacher calmed me down and I decided to stay. I decided to sit on the meditation cushion and let my body become a kiln for flames of pain and anger. And when the retreat finished, I noticed a new space in my mind. A space where the need to take drugs used to be. For the first time in a decade, I didn’t want to get high.

It lasted two weeks before the old tug started again. I relapsed a month later. But the calm space I had experienced impressed upon me the importance of Vipassana as a way out of the darkness.

Despite drinking and using heroin occasionally, I started meditating one or two hours a day and, being unemployed and unemployable, I had the time to do three more retreats that year.

I started yoga because I thought it would boost my meditation. It immediately helped me develop the stable core and flexible hips needed to sit comfortably for long hours. Then there was the endorphin rush of a good backbend and the calm sway of shoulder stand and I was hooked because, in those moments, my mind would stop trying to eat itself with post-addiction anxiety.

I couldn’t afford lessons so I explored online videos. Scrolling down online links I hovered over something called Ashtanga Yoga with Kino Macgregor and, attracted by the authentic-sounding name, I clicked. Forget westernized “power yoga” or “flow yoga.” Give me the real shit.

I fired up the video and ran my mouse along the timeline. I watched Kino’s body extend and fold, neat as a deckchair, her limbs placed with insect precision. Each video ended with a yogic chant, a Buddha smile on her lips.

I had a huge crush on her but, beyond that, there was a sincerity in her practice that called to a sincerity in me: a desire to understand and emancipate from life’s suffering.

What I came to know as the Primary Series of Ashtanga began to feel like reading a great novel, revealing more with each repetition. It began to draw from within me qualities of perseverance, concentration and balance.

My heroin relapses occurred at longer and longer intervals until they were inched out of my life by a burgeoning trifactor of yoga, meditation and writing. I even started to earn money giving poetry workshops and publishing articles.

But I was still unable to move out of my parent’s house. When I went to the pub with the leftovers of my dole payment, I had anxiety attacks. Being asked, “So, what are you up to?” was enough to experience the full range of shame and guilt.

So I stayed in. I became extremely familiar with TV shows from the 2000s and Green and Black’s range of quality chocolate. It did not help. And the terrors that drove me to drugs began to operate in my meditation and yoga practices, threatening to turn them toxic.

My alarm went off at 5am. First, chai tea. Count out two cardamom pods, five individual cloves, a cinnamon stick, ginger and precisely two twists from the pepper grinder. Then one hour of strenuous meditation, write and do 90 minutes of yoga.

More writing after lunch and then a perfectly-balanced vegetarian dinner. Then TV (documentary or drama) with chocolate for reward. Bed. Repeat.

The remedy for emotional chaos was external control. Time was fenced and every hour planned. Free time was feared. Any loss of control could lead back to drugs so I lashed myself to schedules to get through those stormy days.

Ashtanga is practiced in set sequences: the same poses in the same order. It became a place of safety and predictability. But I became afraid to stop. Like scheduling, it seemed that if I relented for more than a couple of days I might slide back into addiction.

I pushed too hard, too fast. Advanced postures, pouring my body backwards, spouting my head towards my feet, putting pressure on what I later found out to be an unstable sacrum joint gave me lower back pain.

Anxiety burned if I missed a practice, even if I did a shorter, less intense version. My only tool was force. If something was difficult, the way forward was to increase effort. My body became strong and flexible but my mind was petrified.

It is a banality that yoga and mindfulness check ambition and overwork. People recommend them to remedy mental illnesses like addiction and depression. But what happens when neuroses play out in yoga and meditation?

Just as I was intolerant of my body when it fell out of headstand for the third time, shaking with tiredness, I was unforgiving of my mind when it would not focus on my belly rising and falling with each breath. And I did not know how potentially dangerous all this was.

Professor Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School runs "The Dark Night Project" which “is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” according to The Atlantic.

Some of the people who turn up at Britton’s door have meditated so much they develop a pathological detachment. The Buddhists have long known about these potential side effects; they warn of practitioners who think they have developed equanimity but have really just stopped caring.

Yoga can be dangerous too. Pulitzer Prize-winning science author, William J. Broad, kicked the lid off that can of worms when he said it can “wreck your body” in a 2012 New York Times Magazine article. In his book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, he lists three cases of strokes caused by improperly performing poses.

For me, one side of the problem was taking a linear concept of progress and imposing it on a practice birthed in a culture that saw time as cyclical. The other was the idea that meditation and yoga are for anything other than learning to live with the Truth.

I thought that if I meditated enough I would become a better person and, like press ups, the more I did the stronger the effect would be. But progress in meditation is not linear. It’s more a process of revealing what is inside than making improvements.

Then I slammed into one of the central problems in spiritual practice: how can you practice acceptance when the motivation for doing so is an inability to accept yourself?

And all those wellness websites and videos that depict yoga as an entry into the realm of thin, beautiful people on beaches are reflections of the same problem. Yes, yoga does maintain a strong, youthful body but make that the goal and the practice is built on narcissism.

I worked through these problems, not with my intellect, but on the yoga mat. The poses began to show me how ambition and conflict blocked yoga’s liberating potential, poses like pincha mayurasana which was the bane of my life for a year because I just kept falling. I rubbed my elbows raw trying to form the pose on my forearms with my body straight above, toes pointing to the sky.

The balance only came when I stopped trying so hard. I arced my legs through all possible points as usual until, ah! They came to rest, straight and true as a fencer’s thrust. There was that same sense of peace that I felt at that first class at Boom Festival. And, as my weight tumbled down through bone and ligament, pouring into the Earth, my body, breath and mind fused into a gestalt.

Mystical things happened in meditation. While my body was still, half-leaning to one side, face slack, my heart, for no reason, would start to speed. Intense pressure built up and then washed through my nervous system causing intense tingles, waves of psychedelic visions and jangling cells.

My meditation teacher was unimpressed. “If meditation was about having experiences of the ‘beyond’ you would be enlightened already,” she said after I dropped my latest experience, like a cat with a bird, on her lap. “I’m teaching you how to change your life.”

So, I got practical. The year I became her student, in 2013, I started following the five Buddhist precepts: no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or intoxicating the mind. I found they were anything but limitations. They were a protective fence around my sapling life.

I stopped relapsing. I stopped forming friendships in dive bars. I stopped waking up, hungover, next to a new lover and deciding this was an excellent basis for a new romance. “Well, we’re already in bed together so we might as well fall in love.”

I spent a lot of time practicing the paramis – Buddhist virtues. I took to street corners near my house with a steaming pot of rice and lentils ladling out platefuls to homeless people and neighbours. Serving five people. Then five more. Smiling at them. Smiling at myself: generous, brave, convivial man.

The world and its pain stopped drowning me. Instead, pain flowed through my softened heart opening compassion, a smile for that annoying driver, a tip for the carpark attendant and patience, a virtue in short supply because it is seen as a virtue of the weak.

Life became social events, civil society groups and making a good living. I learned you cannot force life or yourself into what you think either should be. There is a greater way.

When I was 32, I taught my first yoga class. Only four people came and one of them was my beautiful girlfriend who has never seen me drunk. It was 8:30am, a late start, given my tendency to rise at dawn and watch the sunrise.

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