Well, I enjoyed my Christmas Eve foray into vicaring and sermonising so much, that I think I’ll do it again.
Blessings and compliments of the season to you. I’m saying “the season” rather than “Happy New Year”, because this time of year has always seemed more like a trajectory to me, than a series of discrete events. We warm up with Chanukah, kick off with Christmas, struggle through the scrappy mess of professional fouls that is New Year, but then – for me, anyway – it all culminates in the miserable, anti-climactic penalty shoot-out of my mid-January birthday. Indisputably the crappest time for a birthday. Ohh.. those years of hurt! [apologies to American friends – this piece contains references to some very English football-commentary clichés. Or, in your quaint dialect – “sahh-kerrr”]
As a child, as soon as I gained the ability to perform elementary calculations, I could see that I was getting shafted [or perhaps I should stay in character and say “robbed”, thereby leaving me “sick as a parrot”]. Grandparents sending cash or book tokens would “slip a little extra in for your birthday”, and any sizeable or significant Christmas presents I might receive might, more often than not, have their expense offset by being bundled with the less-miraculous event of my own nativity. Thereby making the morning of the 16th day of the bleakest month largely an exercise in pretending to be excited and charmed (I was a polite child) by the modest pile of cards I might still be eligible for. I could weigh this up against the bi-annual stashes accumulated by my older-brother – a blessed child of summer – and I could “do the math[s]”.
Well, it’s a game of two halves, but later, as a young adult, when the focus of birthdays shifted from cozy accumulation, to rowdy jubilation, things got even worse. I wasn’t asking for much – I knew everyone was broke, and the weather crap for going out. It would just have been nice to hear a little more enthusiasm (or at least a better impression of it) on the other end of the phone when suggesting even the most modest of get-togethers (I quickly learned to not even bother attempting anything that could even charitably be described by the word “party”). “Yeah, mate, I’ll really try to make it, yeah? But just in case something comes up, and I can’t – you have a wicked one, yeah?” were the blithe and innocuous-sounding words that were incised repeatedly upon my tender, beating, bleeding heart. But don’t waste your tears on me – eventually the scar-tissue gets thick enough that you don’t even feel the knives going in.
This early recurring trauma has certainly been a major formative factor in my lifelong misanthropy and generalised sense of vengeful grievance directed at the entire world. Well, I suppose not the entire world, at least when I’m in one of my reasonable moods – just a mere eleven twelfths of Christendom. Or perhaps even a slightly greater fraction than that – shall I tell you for why?
Why, for if my dear mother had been able to just hang on, just squeeze them together for a little bit longer, then my life would have been a very different story. I wouldn’t now exist (you call this “living”???) as this shadowy, solitary, broken figure, on the fringes of society, eating out of bins, face permanently stretched in a manic, mirthless, rictus grin, as I obsessively plot megalomaniac schemes, since my thirst for glorious vengeance can only be satisfied when I STEAL THE MOON!
Just another lousy week would probably have been enough because, as we all know, by the end of January AT THE ABSOLUTE LATEST resolve has crumbled, and promises lie broken and twitching in the dust. All that “trying not to drink too much”, “trying to eat healthily”, “trying not to spend money I don’t have”, “getting quality sleep”, spending more time with the family, focusing on career-goals, starting the day with tinkly waterfall singing-bowls off YouTube, 15-minutes of stretching, and a fucking broccoli smoothie…
Where’s all that when “Fuck-it February” rolls around? Yeah. Exactly. You know.
And that, dearly beloved, brings me to my theme for today’s sermon – New Year’s resolutions. Or any resolutions, I suppose, but this seems like an appropriate moment to examine such things.
Well – they’re a joke, aren’t they? Quite literally in fact. In almost all instances that I can remember of this expression being used, it was with a knowing, semi-self-deprecatory eyeroll. Because of course, the notion that we might genuinely and sincerely draw up a list of things we could do better at or do without, try our utmost, and succeed… is just obviously, inherently, absurd. Isn’t it?
It can certainly appear so. After all – the entire, huge, modern gym and health-club industry operates almost entirely funded by the unused membership packages it will sell over the next couple of weeks. Do the math[s] – for a few hundred quid you can get on-demand access to a large facility containing a lot of expensive, complicated machinery that needs to be perfectly maintained. Saunas, swimming pools, qualified specialist staff, plus administrators, an army of midnight cleaners to mop up the daily bumsweat tsunami and restore perfect fragrant gleamingness by 6am. Opens early, closes late, right through weekends and most public holidays. Your subscription doesn’t pay for that – it doesn’t even scratch the surface or touch the sides of what all this costs, let alone generate a profit for the shareholders.
It’s a business model of weird genius – an industry almost entirely paid for by people who don’t make use of its services, handsomely subsidising those who do, and for its most enthusiastic customers – practically free, really, if you consider what you could get if you really go for it all year. I’m pretty sure that turns some supposedly foundational rules of capitalism on their heads. I like it!
But it’s slightly sobering (see what I did?) when you actually crunch the numbers, however roughly, or guesstimatedly, and realise what a reliable economic constant the inconstancy of human resolution is. Well, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? I think this illustrates very well what a downright unusual thing it is, when someone can do it – be true to their word. Or in a larger sense – do the thing they know they probably should, and at one time said they would, and briefly acted as if that might be real, and then – well, you know how it is, don’t you? I certainly do. ALL Capricorns understand this very well, (as I may have mentioned – don’t get me started again.)
I find it odd when people treat chronic compulsive drug and alcohol use as if there’s something odd about that. “I just can’t understand… why they keep doing that to themselves, it’s entirely self-inflicted… and then why they keep going back to it, even after they have been able to get clean… don’t they want the chance of a better life? What’s wrong with them?”
“Habit” is quite a small-sounding word in English. Just a step up from “foible” or “quirk”, and sounds like it could even be quite endearing. That belies what a powerful force it is, and how pervasive it is through everything we do, and even are. Everything that we do, say, or think is most likely to merely continue replicating ways in which we have previously acted, spoken, or thought, unless clear mindfulness is being applied to each and every moment, and seeing where there are choices to be made.
Imagine thought, speech, and action being three parallel lines, each following their own unfolding narrative, dictated by their own seperate logic, with each event along those lines being conditioned by the ones preceding it, and picking up their own momentum, making it increasingly harder to steer or stop. And also allowing those lines to wander and diverge quite freely.
What is needed to change course is an application of force from the side – from one of the other lines. From outside the habit – think of a sidewipe in a game of Quidditch [to switch up the team-sports metaphors, to something more pan-cultural]. Ideally, we will [to switch to a more purely graphical metaphor] be cross-hatching our lines, so that each is continually referencing itself against the others, and trying to stay in close formation, like a (small) flock of geese (or Gryffindors) in flight. I like to call this kind of integration, “integrity” (or “intergity” when in a comical humour)
I also like to call what I just did, “a good example of how to undermine a developing metaphor by not fully committing to it, and but also how hard it is to abandon a habit – such as over-using parentheses – once it is established (not to mention the use of very long sentences) especially if it keeps delivering that precious dopamine hit.”
And I furthermore would like to call what I just did there, “an obstinate save” in which one attempts to pretend that a bad piece of writing was somehow intentionally making a point.
And all of that was of course “intentionally breaking the fourth wall”, which can be effective for contriving a false intimacy between writer and reader, or cowardly ironic distance from one’s own argument, in addition to various other smartypants post-modernist shimmies…
But anyway – whether at New Year, or at any other time, then, this integration (intention, speech, action) is the process to gain insight into, and control over. If we want to make effective and lasting changes, anyway. And given how rare significant control seems to be, it could practically be regarded as a superpower. I try to keep framing it that way, to balance the unfortunate fact that, in former times I may have seen integrity more as a weakness, or a burden. What – to be bound to some course of action just because of something I had said? To surrender my freedom to whimsically do as I please in some future moment? Didn’t fancy that much! They can take our homes, our money, our jobs, our loved ones from us – but they will never take… OUR WHIMSY!
Well, we all know what it is like to have rashly undertaken to do something, and regretted it later. To have over-promised for short-term gain or convenience, or comfort.
As a semi-clandestine hard-drug user, that was practically a way of life. But I don’t just mean in interactions like, “Can I borrow 50 quid? I will pay you back on Friday, for dead cert! At the latest! Honest mate! Mate, mate..?” although I certainly pulled a few such maneuvers. That needs looking at though, before I move on. I didn’t really consider myself a dishonest person. I just allowed myself to very much inhabit the moment – pressing chemical and emotional needs (even spurious/self-generated ones) have a great way of enabling that – and in many, many moments I could almost feel sincere. Or at least easily drown out any inner voices that might be questioning that, by maintaining a constant white-noise generated mainly by my own self-importance and self-pity. I could easily avoid giving myself the space and objectivity to wrap that moment in a time frame – a past which contained my actual intention, and a future which contained the likely way this would later play out, at least if previous ways such things had generally gone were anything to go by.
It has become almost a running joke throughout this blog that I keep saying I will do an entire piece dedicated to this much-bandied-about word, “mindfulness”, while I keep hinting at it with snippets. But this one probably warrants flagging up – no, it isn’t just “living in the moment”. That’s a part of it, but a moment without context, is more like continually just coming round after having been knocked out, than anything useful to us. Living in the moment was a large part of what allowed me to maintain and continue my destructive habits – untroubled by any intrusion from my acknowledgement of intention (which would force me to take responsibility) or anticipation of consequences. This is how a person who might be (loudly, probably) offended by the suggestion of any actual dishonesty, could still be clearly utterly lacking in integrity. I hope that makes some kind of sense in this sketchy marginalial form, ‘coz I’m moving on to my bigger theme now, which is this:
The way to transform integrity from burden to superpower starts by trying to become very well acquainted with your true intention. Before anything happens. If you can line up intention, word and action, then it can be more like gaining a servant than becoming a slave. Because there are not two parts to “doing what I said I would do”, there are actually three – if we are to be at all serious about this, anyway – and the extra part is “meaning what I say”. That’s easy enough to say, in itself. What does “meaning it” even mean? It might bear some scrutiny…
Becoming honest isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. Well, step 1 perhaps is, at the extreme end of things – stop lying. Stop consciously, deliberately, asserting things that you know very well to be false. That is simple, but simple of course does not equal easy: How do you get to the summit of Everest? Keep going up. Correct, accurate, simple – not easy. VERY not easy. And abandoning lies – even in theory – can be a radical step if taken seriously. It can impact considerably on other ethical behaviours, since I have found a very good quick litmus test for “grey area” actions that I am not clear on whether they are okay or not, is to check whether I am okay with telling another person about them. Alright, maybe not absolutely anyone, but someone (although obviously, preferably not someone we consider to be a complete idiot or degenerate).
What I am really talking about though, is the stories we tell ourselves. Particularly those ones where we can say they aren’t exactly lies, we don’t exactly know them to be false. Just maybe – we aren’t expending a lot of energy on really scrutinising, or testing, to what extent they might be true. Much harm and horseshit can live in that murky in-between space.
My own career with heavy, daily use of cocaine and heroin could have lasted just three years. That was how long I kept it up, being frank with myself (although obviously not everyone else) that this was what I wanted, I [thought I] could handle this, I didn’t see a problem (besides ensuring steady supply). Then it hit a wall. Things got pretty miserable, things fell apart. Time to quit, I said, and I think I meant it. Well, I didn’t succeed. I just tried to stop using, not following any method or structure, and not appreciating the extent to which I had to do a lot more looking at what else was driving this need to consume those substances, beyond the reduction of my blood/opiate levels following the previous time I had consumed them.
That failure was the last time I was honest about my drug-use for quite a while. For almost another three years, in fact. It doubled the time I spent locked in that box. Because what I did next was to say that I was quitting. I got myself onto a methadone program, saying the things I was supposed to say – that I was maintaining for a short while, before reducing down to nothing – tapering off, as it’s called. Of course, like nearly everyone, I continued to use actual heroin as well – just for now, of course, just until I get used to this methadone lark. And of course it was utter nonsense. I used methadone as a backstop against withdrawal for times when I couldn’t score, or couldn’t afford to, and sometimes sold it, and lived in a rolling little bubble-moment of just for now. The eternal week before next week, which is when I really get down to this “weaning myself off” caper, that I somehow proudly, smugly, maintained was what I was really doing. Whereas this mere detail of what merely appeared to be a regular-as-clockwork daily act of getting absolutely spannered on multiple chemicals, was something that should be paid no attention to, and given no importance.
If anyone should suggest to me that I appeared to be in a terrible state, and should consider stopping what I was doing, then I would nod enthusiastically, and explain that this was in fact precisely what I was doing. Next week. This would then (hopefully) stall any further discussion of things I could perhaps do this week.
And since I wasn’t exactly just lying to other people, but using the white noise bubble technique to almost successfully bullshit myself – that meant that any drugs I would then consume on that very day were guilt-free, consequence-free, why – they barely counted as being drugs at all, since they were just a last hurrah.
A pretty limp and lifeless hurrah though. Because a curious thing happens when you abandon the touchstone of truth. I got so accustomed to leaving my inner workings unexamined – in order to get away with seeking my pleasures (so I thought) – that I became disconnected from any meaningful evaluation of whether or not they really were pleasurable. The party was well and truly over, but I was still hanging around, like that dude who never gets the message when it’s time to go home, and nobody is up for another well sick dubstep banger.
What then happens, when volition is gone? Necessarily gone, because you have lost the ability to take any kind of meaningful stock of what’s going on, what the options are, and what you might want to do about it. When all you see is your own smoke and mirrors, that’s when habit takes over. You just keep doing the same thing today as you did yesterday, and making no plans beyond doing it again tomorrow.
Habits are dangerous things. Whenever I meet someone here who says that this is the tenth (or more) detox they have been in, my heart sinks, because now we have a habit of failing at detox. Whenever we blithely tell people the right things when we check in, we build a habit of blithely saying the right things, and it gets progressively harder to say anything and mean it. Whenever we make a half-hearted resolution in January, we build a habit of fucking it off in February.
Truth shall set you free. Somehow, we have to shake our heads, shake free for a moment of the veils we have surrounded ourselves by, and try to glimpse the world from a fresh angle – catch a “moment of clarity” when we actually see the world and our situation in it, and our actions, as they are. But that isn’t enough – moments of clarity fade like a dream unless they can be captured, and crystalized, and that is done by having the mad courage to speak at that moment. To bear witness, and preferably to have someone else bear witness too. If you are able to say (for instance) “I am a total smackhead today. I am quite twatted now, and shall be thoroughly twatted later, and then soon I will be scoring again, so that I can carry on being twatted all the time, and I don’t know how to take any other course of action than this, and I have no plans for anything else”, then that’s a very good start.
If the conversation is to continue, or resume, after that, then it can’t just keep going over the same ground again. It necessarily leads to, “and is this how you intend to be today?” Sometimes the answer is “yes”. That needs to be faced up to, if it is the case. And experience tells me that in a startlingly large proportion of instances, that was the honest answer, when someone has been energetically assuring me of the opposite. Although it might appear that such an answer would be an impasse in the matter of addiction, and escaping from it, I am inclined to disagree, I think it is very promising. It saves a lot of time, and breath, for a start, but more importantly it is an indication that a person is taking the question seriously. They are at least in touch with their actual current intention, and honouring the interaction as a real thing in which true communication should take place.
Such an answer then allows a communication which could explore such questions as: “will you be a total smackhead again tomorrow?”, “would you like to try not to be, at some point?”, “what would be good conditions for making such an attempt?”, those could be productive lines to follow. Otherwise, questions such as “why do you think you are accepting being a total smackhead, with all the damage and deterioration that entails?” might lead some very interesting vistas, or indeed “what conditions could you imagine that might lead to different answers to these questions?” could really get us somewhere.
For the not faint-of-heart there’s ethical evaluation – “Do you feel justified about that bullcrap thing you did, or are you acting like what you yourself might describe using colourful language were someone else to do it?” leading on to “how comfortable are you with that self-evaluation?” and so forth… And meanwhile, “are there ways we could stop everything from sliding completely into Hell while we’re waiting to see if any of those answers ever change?”
At the very least, it wouldn’t be a boring conversation, as dishonest ones invariably are. And you know what? Nothing makes me feel more like shooting up some smack than boredom can.
Often in the past, in these writings and elsewhere, I have emphasized the very depressing figures for how few people who make some attempt at quitting a chronic addiction actually make it. There’s no getting around these numbers – whichever way you crunch them, and whatever your sources, they’re grim. I draw criticism for this quite frequently, as if I should rather be pretending that everyone is doing just great, and salvation from this very grave problem, and very tricksy trap, is definitely just around the corner – with just a little more effort…
I have numerous reasons for sticking to my guns on this, but the one I would like to highlight here is that of integrity. Why should we expect honesty in return for comforting, convenient lies? And it is my proposition that without honesty all else is futile. If you are among the many, many addicts who isn’t chucking it all in and starting a new life today, then that’s where we start the conversation from. That conversation then has – since it is sincere and rooted in reality – a far greater chance of proceeding to some point in the future when it is about trying to change that reality in a meaningful way, whether that future should be in the next five minutes, weeks, or indeed years.
More bluntly, and in a potentially contentious kind of way – I might say that the person who intends to get munted, tells me he’s getting munted, and then gets righteously munted, is in a far better position than the person who‘s probably going to get munted, says he isn’t in a non-committal way, and then (astonishingly) somehow ends up munted. Due to unforseeable circumstances, naturally…
The latter, and a potentially lethal habit of dishonesty with self and others, is all that we nurture when we insist on everyone always saying the right things, and reward mindless, sycophantic, cliché-ridden “positivity”.
But more than this. Very much more, in fact. I reflect often on the many people I have known, worked with, hung out with, learned a little bit about, and liked sometimes – who are now dead. Or gone to some ever-deteriorating half-life. And I never had a single honest, real conversation with them. Never really met them, perhaps. All I got to speak to was some imaginary character saying the right things, inhabiting some weird limbo of that endless week before the week when we get down to it. When we get real. When we ask ourselves what we are doing, and we take an honest stab at answering that question, and then consider whether or not we are going to continue like this, and what that might take. Either way.
Please don’t conclude from my brandishing about of my fearsome statistics, that I am dividing people up into “winners” and “losers”, and am writing off what is probably – sadly – at least ninety percent of all comers as beneath my notice. If we were thinking in this way, then maybe this would be a reason to maintain the fiction that everyone’s a winner, everyone’s doing great. Not a good one though – surely we can extend compassion to all, yet still speak truth. Surely we can honour each other’s humanity by having real contact in these fleeting moments life gives us. In these fragile lives that could end at any moment, whether for drug-related causes or otherwise. There’s more to this game than just quitting or not quitting. There’s living. And I’m going to stretch my proposition further and put it to you that we are not really living, except in the presence of truth.
There is a resolution that everyone can take right now, whether they’re using, or quitting, or not, or trying to stay straight, or whatever. And that’s to get real. Or realer – because it’s a great big onion of reality, with many layers, and so you can always peel off more, and become more fearless, and it isn’t therefore a pass/fail kind of thing. Every act of honesty – to self or others – starts to build a habit, starts to unify the intention, speech, and action (or the heart-word-body, as the phrase often is in the Dhamma). And there’s perhaps no limit to where such a habit could lead you.
So – telling truth. Seeing truth. Living truth. However unwelcome or unpopular some truths might be. Those are the kinds of New Year’s resolutions that I would like to heartily recommend, and without which I would deem any others to be pretty worthless. At least as worthless as an RSVP slip on an invitation to a January birthday. Although I would also just like to take a moment to reiterate what an amazingly good deal a gym-membership can be, should you actually choose to make use of it, even in a pretty half-arsed way. Or even quarter-arsed…
Happy New Year! Keep reaching for the stars (and moon)
P.S. I’m also going to try to tidy up a bit more often, and swear just a tiny bit less often. And use shorter sentences, and fewer bits in brackets. And never smoke another cigarette. And phone my mother more frequently.