‘Spiritual life begins when seeking fails.’ Adi Da Samraj
The freshness of the day glinted through the window, navigating its way through the small opening and spreading out like a fan made of silken butter, over the sheets and into my caress. I wanted to marvel at its honeyed wonder, but was instead wrestling a demonic hangover. One of the dread trials of the dependent drinker is waking. A febrile and sweaty worry greets the day, the only compensation being that it doesn’t matter if it’s rain or shine although rain does not carry with it the same burden of guilt; the guilt of time about to be wasted, already spent.
It takes time to be able to meet any day after drinking and even in the hours before the first eye opens warily upon that day, a nightmarish fear would take me over in the dusky threshold between two worlds. I imagined that I did not have to wake as at sixteen – yes I was only sixteen – a familiar heart-thumping dread was hanging low in my belly and was about to climb into my chest. Generally, I turned over and tried sleep again.
Unconsciousness is always preferable to the alcoholic. If only I knew then how lucky I was and that my fear was only of my parents’ hostility and not yet the terror of waking in a soaked bed, occasionally with someone I had never clapped eyes on, with the sure knowledge of recent disgrace. Blackouts are useful but do not save one from repercussions, aftermaths and consequences.
But this, I soon remembered, was a big day, not one whose preparation best required a night on the town. I was about to be confirmed. Sweetly, a girlfriend and I had sought to cement our union before it was whipped away from us and it seemed right to have God’s blessing whether or not we believed. In a sense my two addictions had dovetailed neatly, drinking and love, yet this ceremony hinted at a purer wine, one that I desperately needed but was too young to understand.
I emerged and was, fairly, greeted with a certain frostiness. Relatives were coming, godparents, friends. I was looking bilious and quickly needed to find my sea legs before nestling into the backseat of a 40-minute car journey, hoping that I could sense the earth and see the road. It wasn’t long before we were pulling over. I flung the door open, threw up and crawled back inside, not green any more but white. It didn’t give me the sort of virginal innocence that could have elicited sympathy and we pulled up at the cathedral, soon all smiles after a lengthy silence, as the more sincere religious among us found us in the crowd.
The service stretched before me like some accursed desert, dry to the mouth and interminable, no oases yet an ending some way down the road. If I looked up into the cathedral vaults I got vertigo; if I looked down a wrenching sickness I struggled to hold down. The bishop, looking fine in his regalia, his fish-hat faintly ridiculous, his purple robes rippling under a moted shaft of sunlight. It was way too hot and he seemed to go on and on. Finally, it was my turn and I knelt before him, fighting hard to keep the dread blend of bitter and lager within my body. Rarely had I struggled so hard or had to endure so much. I got away with it – just. For years afterwards, I saw images of a jolly fat man in a fishy hat and a purple dress sprayed with projectile vomit, a thousand-strong congregation dashing for the exit. I often had the sense of getting away with it by a whisker, making light of my revelry in order to avoid the pain that drove it.
Outside, in the lee of the building that I loved and had attended every day while at school, I managed to pose for photographs, and introduce two families. We returned home for the celebration and I retired to bed exhausted and sick. Everyone wondered where I was and excuses were duly made. It was not my finest hour and while mostly I drank away from my family there were occasions like this one when it was out in the open.
I threw up in spectacular fashion that same year on a boat across Niagara, my sea legs more needed yet less available than ever. It was a pattern that progressed for another ten years, almost fatally. At 26, I was done and almost at once catapulted out of this shadow aspect – the addict – into the land of the lover. He had long lurked underneath the pain and chaos that drove me. I was, in short, a natural devotee and, as my focus turned 180 degrees I discovered that alcohol is called spirit for a reason. Like a drunken native American in many a western, I had been robbed of the conditions I needed to thrive, and so my spirit went underground emerging like a mad genie in a bottle.
It is nearly 28 years since I stopped drinking and began the search for what really ailed me and what I really wanted. I rarely think about it now except occasionally to give thanks. There are countless stories these days of ‘recovery’ with people wrapping themselves tightly in their new identity. It can be an important phase, yet as the ego calms down one that needs to pass, in my view, and life met again. So this is not really a story about drinking at all, but of a search.
When I was 18, a school friend – actually a girl I hardly knew who not long after died of cancer – gave me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles. It was my introduction to mysticism and it bore a quotation from Little Gidding by TS Eliot: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
Eight years later when I came to, I fell in love with Taoism and Zen Buddhism and came to realise that I lived in a patriarchal culture where the effortless being that I was reading about – the feminine qualities of love and relatedness – had been driven out by a tyrannical masculinity that wanted only money, power and control. Later, as I explored Jung, I saw there was an evolutional power in the universe that sought wholeness and integration of the duelling opposites both within the world and in the psyche.
Slowly, as the fog cleared, I realised that the conscious life was meant to reflect the wholeness of the Self, which could only be achieved by doing the work of integration, which meant dredging up the long buried contents of my unconscious, facing my shadow – both its darker and more golden aspects – and making peace with it.
It is a monumental work and so often traumatic events are the springboard that propel our seeking. Without pain, where is the spur? Some people are drawn to the essence of love, to what Rumi calls the root of the root of loving, a place where all other desires have been seen through, cleared away. I realised, with a start, that my longing made me a mystic and that I would never be satisfied by the rewards of society.
‘Love draws us back to love, and longing is the fire that purifies us,’ writes the Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Andrew Harvey, another mystic, recommends a good nervous breakdown in your 20s to propel you out of what he calls Stage Two, where we settle for the reward and bribes of the culture, continually fulfilling the false needs of the false self.
My breakdown had been spectacular, my false self – that scaffold we erect to stave off the wounds of childhood – utterly ruptured and a beam of light had hit me between the eyes, smack in the third eye. A portal had opened, my longing had found its proper context. I was a natural mystic and I wanted soul union and that was that. My ego, however, had other ideas.
I was given to over-indulgence in sensual pleasures and was charged with the task of embracing both my humanity and my divinity. I felt in exile all of my life, but again realised without that sense of exile, of not be-longing, I would never have had sufficient longing to travel the journey I have.
That journey took me into living in various communities, becoming a travel writer, re-training as a therapist, studying with different spiritual teachers, travelling to India to study yoga and meditation, finally becoming an initiate of an ancient inner mystical pathway that showed me clearly that the physical world is a realm of reflected light – all its pleasures and pains cul-de-sacs and dead ends that herald our awakening.
The light of pure consciousness can only be found in the heart by turning within. Like everyone else, I spent years looking in this world of reflected light, chasing shadows. Alcohol was only one dead end. There are many others of course: work, sex, food, drugs, gambling, success, achievement. Remarkably, on a bad day I still fall into some of the same old traps.
‘When you extend yourself frenetically outwards, seeking refuge in your external image or role, you are going into exile. When you come patiently and silently home to yourself, you come into unity and belonging,’ wrote the late Catholic priest John O’Donohue.
We are all addicted to exteriorizing our lives, living in our false selves or egos. The more pain we carry, the more we live outside ourselves, for the first thing we encounter within is our distress. Ask any therapy client.
Somehow, we have to learn to be displeasing to ourselves. One of the great deficiencies of The New Age is its emphasis only on love and light and its denial of the shadow. The ego always wants pleasure without pain, happiness and high vibrations linked together in some happy clappy harmony. But I like the dark as well as the light, sadness as well as joy, pleasure and pain. Freedom is letting go of the need to feel good all the time.
If you notice, most of the many programmes for self improvement – often costly – are popular precisely because they appeal to the false self which is predicated on the belief that there is something wrong with us that needs changing. In a sense that is true, but it is the false self itself that is erroneous. There is nothing wrong with our true nature, but most of us are not living in it.
As it says in Alcoholics Anonymous, self will cannot overcome self will. Instead the will has to be surrendered, the false self relinquished entirely not improved. Yet of course, like everything else in this realm of reflected light, the game goes on and people keep buying it. It is, after all, what makes the world go round.
I realised there is nothing wrong with the game just so long as you know it is a game. I have my own place within the game and yet I know it is not real. Success and failure are both impostors.
Finally, seeking is seen through and starts to wind down and then we are in a place of unknowing.
For a time, I followed the teacher quoted at the start of this piece. He said this: ‘The childish individual wants someone to save him; the adolescent wants to fulfil himself absolutely and independently. The true man simply serves good company and surrenders to Truth, the living God.’
I can be in any or all of those states in any one day and I find that quote a good and true barometer for my being. Today, I am doing the deepest inner work of my life, which involves facing more pain yet I know it is not real and that the veils between worlds are parting.
‘Do not stray into the neighbourhood of despair for there are hopes: they are real, they exist. Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you, suns exist.’ Rumi was referring to his experience with his own spiritual teacher, Shams of Tabriz, the sun that eviscerated Rumi’s darkness.
In some ways, the 16-year-old boy that I was has come a long way; in another sense, no way at all. For in truth there is no journey, although the mind can only conceive life so, only a gentle swerve into an innate rhythm long forgotten that waits patiently for its own rediscovery.
TS Eliot had it right.
© simon heathcote