A bunch of us mental defects are sitting in a circle on shitty mauve chairs with scratchy upholstery, each of us holding a strawberry, as Angie, a licensed clinical social worker, leads a group meditation on mindfulness.
“What does the strawberry look like? What kind of color does it have?” she asks in a silky-smooth voice. “What kind of red is it? Is it a blood red, a cherry red, a raspberry red?”
Newsflash, Angie, that would be strawberry red.
“Now, smell it. What does the strawberry smell like?” she asked.
“Now, slowly take a bite and taste it. What does it taste like?”
I wondered if this mindfulness exercise was ripped off from the curriculum at the local preschool. And in case you’re wondering, the strawberry tasted like strawberry. Granted, it wasn’t a Harry’s Berries of Gaviota strawberry—those go for $80 a flat and are super sweet and low on the acidity scale. But we weren’t on our second dessert course at The French Laundry. We were in an intensive outpatient workshop at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood.
The IOP was in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a sort of iron-on Buddhism for us neurotics who don’t have time to invest in the slow progress that is a true spiritual path. DBT centers on mindfulness—being aware of your thoughts and emotions as a detached, non-judgmental observer. And it makes sense as a therapy. Neurotics, and many addicts and alcoholics, aren’t present. We’re chewing on the past or fretting over the future, and yes, as the popular truism goes, we’re pissing away today. Then we beat the shit out of ourselves for it. Then we drink Bombay Sapphire or snort coke or eat maple-bacon cronuts or suck on Camels.
By the time I entered this IOP program, I was newly sober and had just gotten out of the psych unit. Plus, I was still oscillating in and out of bipolar mania, which basically makes you feel like you’re on uppers when you’re not. Imagine trying to slow down and notice the texture of a stupid strawberry when you’re hopped up on speed. It doesn’t work too well. And it turns out meditation was even more popular than I thought because just a few weeks after I left the IOP at Cedars, I wound up in more group meditations.
My brand-new, shiny LA sponsor, who was actress-thin with porcelain skin and Brazilian-blown-out hair, dragged me to 11th Step meditation meetings throughout Los Feliz and Silver Lake—the über-liberal granola neighborhoods where showers are underrated and most people have a toy dog, a yoga mat and an Obama sticker on their car. After these sober folks read the AA preamble with their airy-fairy affectations, they’d erect their backs super-straight to get their chi balanced, then they’d uncross their legs, set their hands on their quads, palms face-up toward the heavens, and sit there in spooky silence for 20 minutes getting progressively more sober.
I, on the other hand, would keep my legs crossed just to be a contrarian, then I’d rest my elbow on my thigh and my chin on my palm—à la Rodin’s Thinker—and I’d ruminate on all my life’s problems for 20 minutes while shifting uncomfortably in my seat, opening and closing my eyes, and hating on all those assholes who had the ability to sit board-stiff with slight smiles on their lips.
I didn’t get much out of it.
But I kept trying. In most of the meditation meetings, AA members would talk about meditation exactly like they talked about it at Cedars—”let your thoughts just flow through your head like clouds and watch them pass.” But my thought-clouds never passed. They just stayed there and stacked up on top of each other, turning into one big nebulous blob. “Insurance due…phone bill due…you’re fat…you’re getting fatter…how many Oreos did you eat yesterday?…he’ll never want to fuck you.”
And when it involved a boy, it was extra hopeless. Making matters even worse was that I had a crush on one of the first AAs who tried to teach me how to meditate. Jason said I should “note” the type of thought I had in my brain. “That’s an angry thought,” I should tell myself. “That’s a sad thought. That’s an anxious thought.” So I’d go home, try it, and my meditations ended up like this:
That’s a thought about Jason. I guess that’s a happy thought. That’s another thought about Jason. Hmmm. That might be an obsessive thought. That’s a thought about how I shouldn’t be thinking about Jason because I am thinking so much about him I must be crazy. That’s a worried thought, I guess. If Jason knew my meditation was all about me thinking about him, he’d never speak to me again. Do I belong in SLAA?
But now I’m 36. I’ve been sober for nearly six years, and the road has gotten narrower. The sugar binges don’t solve my problems, I’ve gone off and on and back off cigarettes because they don’t stop the chatter in my mind and they make me smell like shit and feel like shit, and quick-fix flings don’t work either. All of my former vices in sobriety have stopped working.
I’ve done the steps, but part of the steps does involve slowing down enough to meditate, and all around me everyone who meditates won’t shut up about how awesome it is, including my “normie” boyfriend. He meditates for about two hours a day. It shows—he’s one of the most emotionally stable people I know. Another friend in AA recommended the book Buddha’s Brain, which proves through neuroscience that mindful meditation improves the functioning of the area of the brain that governs impulse control, logic, compassion and wisdom. You know, the things a bipolar alcoholic might lack in spades.
So, I’ve returned to the lotus position, or really just sitting in a chair, to practice mindfulness. I try to meditate every day for around five to 10 minutes in the morning and the same at night, and I usually succeed in doing this about twice a month. I try to tack on a couple of meditation meetings a month as well, and I do attempt to “note” my thoughts, despite how ludicrous it seems, because a funny thing started happening in my non-meditation time when I did this.
I have ever so slowly grown every so slightly more aware of my thoughts and more detached from both them and my emotions. Specifically, I somehow recognize that a thought is simply a thought, nothing else. It won’t kill me, and it isn’t necessarily true. If I wake up one morning thinking, “God what a failure you are, you still haven’t published a book,” I can just observe the asinine thought, acknowledge it and choose to forget about it.
I’ve also started having these split seconds of sanity after events that normally would turn me homicidal, like when some jackass cuts me off on the road or a saleswoman snubs me in a high-end boutique. A thought like “It’s not personal,” or “Pick your battles wisely” or “They’re just having a bad day” will actually come into my consciousness.
For me, having these kinds of thoughts is quite literally miraculous. I do not naturally think this way. So I’ll continue on this meditation path, be it ever so mindlessly, be it just once a month—until I start levitating like all the other AAs in Los Feliz and Silver Lake.