I first started messing around with mindfulness when I was in my early teens. I’d always been a bit of a worrier, but my stress levels were off the scale back then because I was living in the midst of my parent’s marriage meltdown – it wasn’t a nice time, and there were many occasions when it felt as if the pressure would cause my head to explode.
The Limitations of My Teenage Mindfulness Practice
I found out about mindfulness though practicing martial arts (Lau Gar Kung Fu). Initially, I viewed it as an exotic state of consciousness, but as I started to focus more on the present moment, I realized it was a familiar state. I turned to mindfulness as a way to escape the shitty things happening at home – I would spend hours practicing martial art forms, and at those times I would be so focused on the movements that I wasn’t thinking about everything else. I also started meditating – I would experience strange states of consciousness that allowed me to escape my stressful reality.
My teenage mindfulness practice did help me cope, but it was more a type of escapism. I was focusing on the present moment, but in an overly selective way. As soon as the thoughts and feelings I didn’t like started to appear, I would become resistant and full of self-pity. I didn’t realize that mindfulness was more than just putting my focus on the present moment – it was also about accepting whatever was happening in the present moment without resistance.
I couldn’t practice martial art forms and meditation 24-hours a day, so I still felt overwhelmed by life much of the time. One night when I was fourteen years of age, I stole a bottle of vodka from my parent’s drink cabinet. I got so drunk that I vomited everywhere, but for a few hours, I felt free of the turmoil in my head. I’ve heard people claim how they became an alcoholic after their first ever drink, and I can believe that – or maybe it would be more accurate to say it was ‘love at first sight’.
The Mindless Years
I was a drunk for almost two decades. I went to my first rehab at age 18, I ended up homeless at age 25, and I was in and out of treatment programs like a yo-yo. I would return to mindfulness during my sober periods. During my mid-twenties, I stopped drinking for two year, and I took up tai-chi and intensive meditation, but I was just never able to achieve the state of mental freedom I was looking for –even though I had a particularly intense spiritual experience during this time. I still felt convinced the answer was mindfulness, but I just couldn’t make it work for me.
Finding Mindfulness in Thailand
I moved to Thailand in 2001, and I went through a strange few years of going on crazy drinking binges followed by trips to local Buddhist temples for meditation instruction – sometimes I would turn up drunk. In 2003, I went on a 28-day retreat at Wat Rampoeng, and I had my first real taste of what I had always been looking for. As part of their program, they have something called a determination where I was expected to meditate (walking and sitting meditation) for 72-hours without sleep or any other type of break.
After I completed the determination, I experienced an amazing state of mental freedom that lasted for a few days. It wasn’t so much that I was blissed-out or anything, I was just experiencing the world without judgments and resistance. The world hadn’t changed, but it was a completely different place for me – it was like I was seeing everything for the first time.
I drank again following Wat Rampoeng, but the fact that I had tasted what I was looking for meant it was only a matter of time before I quit for good. The next few years were pretty miserable until I managed to stop drinking for good at a temple called Wat Thamkrabok in 2006. The desire to drink completely disappeared during my stay at Thamkrabok.
Mindfulness and the Depression Years
My first five years as a non-drinker were amazing – it felt like I had the golden touch. I made mindfulness practice the cornerstone of my new life, and it felt like I was on this amazing spiritual journey where my life would just keep getting better and better. Then things started to fall apart. I had started a small business, and it seemed certain that it was about to go bust, and I’d be left with nothing. I became depressed, and I found it hard to even look at my wife and son because I felt so ashamed. The idea of drinking never entered my head, but the idea of jumping off a cliff did.
When the shit hit the fan, my mindfulness practice became ineffective. This is because my approach was still polluted by my teenage ideas about how I should be feeling – I understood the theory of accepting whatever was happening in the present moment, but in reality, I only wanted to be mindful of the nice stuff.
Things had to become incredibly painful for me before I was able to finally just be mindful. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was hiding in the bedroom because I couldn’t face the world – I was basically wallowing in self-pity. It felt like there was this large stone in my stomach, and I just started to put my attention on it without judgment but with kindness. Then something amazing started to happen, the tension began to unravel and the racing thoughts in my head began to slow down.
I can now see that my episodes of depression were as a result of refusing to accept feelings of sadness. I had developed a conditioned response to resist this feeling, and this resistance pulled me deeper and deeper into depression. For me, the unpleasant feelings are like quicksand, and the more I resist them, the further I will be pulled down into them – real mindfulness is all about no longer resisting anything.
More Mindful in Thailand
I am still mindless most of the time, but I have periods every day when I am fully present, and these periods are happening more frequently and lasting for longer. I cherish all of these breaks into reality because it is the only time when I’m truly alive. I no longer fear negative emotions, and there is this pool of inner-peace that I can always tap into whenever I feel overwhelmed. I am now also in the privileged position of being able to teach mindfulness to other people dealing with addiction problems.