Four years sober: Alcoholics Anonymous helps but it’s not the only weapon a recovering drunk has in the armoury

Demons & angels

From a deep inner darkness I emerged to find myself lying on my back on a pavement, bewildered and lost. The street was silent, iced in deep-winter frost, the night hazed in the orange light of the early hours. I had no idea how I had ended up here, or where I was.

Staring into the black hole of my memory, I faintly recalled sitting in a pub near Victoria station slamming down umpteen pints of Guinness and large Jameson chasers. Now here I lay. I made it on to my hands and knees, blinked at the world around me, and shuddered with relief when I realised I was a mile down the road from home.

Somehow, I had managed to cross a vast swathe of London. For all I knew, I had tripped through a rift in the fabric of space and time, but it seems more likely that, guided by the mystical forces that frequently watch over drunks, I traversed a couple of lines on the Underground, missed my suburban stop and got out at the next one down the line before falling to the pavement, where I had lain for an unknown period. This is speculation, though, because those few hours of my life are a void.

Some of that mile home I crawled on my hands and knees, some I stumbled sideways, hands scrabbling at walls, lampposts and hedges for support. I may have shed a tear or two – frozen to the bone and feeling broken, I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. I was relieved enough when I finally lurched through my front door to take a large whiskey before dropping back into that deep inner darkness.

This is not the beginning of a drunkalogue. It is a tale of sobriety.

That night was just one blackout among many over 35-odd years of remorseless drinking, but it was my last; my last blackout but not my last drink, because I carried on for another month or so.

Towards the end of those final weeks, I played the cruel trick – not for the first time – of passing out so deeply one evening that my wife and son, unable to detect any obvious signs of life in me in the morning, were considering whether to dial the dreaded three digits when my eyes flickered open and I blinked back from the abyss. This was not precisely a blackout, but it felt like something worse – like a premonition, as if the Reaper had breathed dank breath on to the back of my neck.

I had been warned and I knew, with a sense of certainty I had never experienced before, that it was time either to pay attention or prepare for the end.

And so to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It felt like a desperate measure but also inevitable. I had known for many years that I had a problem, (more…)

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Sharon Salzberg’s loving-kindness: rich syrup from the high table of Western Buddhism is an acquired taste

Loving-kindness by Sharon SalzbergBook review
Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg

This is a difficult book to review. I wearied of it about 70 per cent of the way through but, having got so far, pushed on to the end, and gained something from it. The problem is that, in essence, it’s all about being nice – to yourself, your loved ones, strangers, enemies, everyone – and it feels a bit wrong to want to say something negative about so positive a mission.

Unfortunately, there is no denying that I did indeed have a few negative reactions to the way Salzberg delivers her instructions.

I first learnt how to do loving-kindness meditation at the London Buddhist Centre, which calls it metta bhavana. The centre has that slightly culty vibe of pseudo-Eastern bogosity that hangs over many such Western Buddhist outfits, but its teachers do deliver short, effective lessons in the practice (at least during their lunch-hour pop-in sessions).

There’s not much to loving-kindness meditation: I simplify hugely, but, briefly, you sit and “wish” happiness to all beings in the universe, including yourself. You’re not expecting your wishes to come true, in the fairy godmother sense, simply trying to develop a kinder spirit.

As with all forms of meditation, the proof is in the practice when you sit down alone at home, day after day, and at various points, I have spent a fair bit of time trying to develop this one. While I believe it’s worth doing at least semi-regularly (it certainly helps to make me less of a grumpy old bastard), I’m not a huge fan of it, for while it’s silent – no chanting, mercifully – it feels slightly too wordy; like you’re encouraging thoughts, rather than observing them, which, for me, is what meditation is all about.

So I turned to Salzberg’s celebrity-endorsed book, which is fulsomely praised by many of its readers as a modern classic on the subject, for inspiration. I guess I got some, inasmuch as I spent a bit of time revisiting the principles of loving-kindness (more…)

Dan Harris and Sam Harris: a good year for meditation books

Book review
10% Happier, by Dan Harris
Waking Up, by Sam Harris

Five minutes of sitting and meditating are likely to teach you more about this practice – if not yourself – than any amount of reading, but good books on the subject nonetheless serve to inspire and inform, and the past few months happen to have delivered a couple of excellent ones.

Dan Harris, 10% HappierFirst came Dan Harris’s 10% Happier. It’s essentially a description of how he went from being a sceptical newsman who considered meditation an airy-fairy indulgence of limp-wristed new agers to being a wholehearted practitioner.

I initially struggled with his story, having limited respect for the American corporate news machine and its high-maintenance, make-up-wearing anchors, but in the end Harris emerges as an eminently likeable fellow, and his personal yarn is in fact the back story. The real story is the meditation, and as Harris progresses on his journey, he gathers – and here shares – lots of practical information about meditating that is as useful to a beginner as to more experienced sorts. It’s a very good read indeed.

Next came Waking Up by Sam Harris (not related to, but a friend of, Dan Harris). He is a neuroscientist and his book successfully conveys how meditation works on the brain and mind, in scientific terms rather than with the usual mystical mumbo-jumbo.

Sam Harris, Waking UpHe presents lots of excellent information about how the brain works that is interesting in its own right, but for me, the main course is his demolition of the idea of self. The notion many of us have of I, or me, as a separate presence looking out at the world from some place in our heads, as if we were riding in our bodies, is an illusion, he argues, little more than a thought passing through our minds like any other, but one we give enormous power to (often with negative consequences) by thinking of it as the be all and end all of who we are.

He offers some guidance on what to do about this while meditating: basically, try searching for that inner homunculus, and you will see it’s not there; and this will help you develop a clarity of mind that is a kind of superpower. I wanted more practical detail on this, but slowly came to accept that Harris gives more than enough and that he’s encouraging us to sit down and do the exploratory work ourselves.

It’s a powerful message, perfectly in harmony with traditional Buddhist ideas about the self, but more clearly expounded than I have ever seen, and totally without distracting dharma lingo. For me, this section of the book alone (more…)