This bench is where heroin and crack addicts wait for their dealers, so I was nervous. I know this because, for many years, I was one of these addicts, spending countless hours on that bench waiting for my daily fix. I waited in other locations as well, including bus stops, stairwells, and urine-soaked alleys. And my decade of addiction occurred in hospitals, hostels, needle exchanges, and crack dens. However, I remember the waiting the most. And when I consider the waiting, I am reminded of the bench in Hackney Downs, where I am currently seated on a sunny afternoon beneath a cold blue sky. I’m not here to buy drugs, but because I’ve been sober for eighteen months and needed to remember what it was like to use.
You will never understand how slowly time can pass until you are a drug addict waiting for your dealer. You are not an idiot; you are aware that the more you dwell on the moment the drugs enter your system, the longer it will seem to take. You dare not consider that moment, yet you are incapable of considering anything else. Your mind keeps circling that thought, anticipating the moment when the runner will arrive—almost always a hoodie-wearing teen on a bicycle, and always, always late—and pedal over to you with a nonchalance that drives you insane and say the words that will allow you to identify each other: “I’m the runner.” You awaiting something, brother? This, it occurs to me, is the definition of pure misery: simply wishing time away and waiting to cross a threshold in the future when your pain will be extinguished, replaced by relief, and you will be able to breathe normally once more. I entered rehab (for the third time) and began daily meditation as if my life depended on it eighteen months ago (it did). I was able to remain sober one day at a time. I soon realized, however, that I was perfectly capable of spending my days in the same manner even without drugs: dissatisfied with the present and awaiting something better. When I smoked my next cigarette, when I completed rehab, when I met the perfect woman, when I achieved astounding success and could spend my days basking in universal love and acclaim, when I could go home and meditate, when I could get up from my cushion and stop meditating… If we are not careful, we could spend our entire lives waiting for the moment when we have the job, the partner, and the life that we believe will complete us. Then, we tell ourselves, I’ll finally cross that threshold and enter my real life, and I’ll be happy. Without even realizing it, we will have lived and died in a purgatory of our own creation, seated on a park bench of the soul, addicted to our fantasies, awaiting the arrival of the future to set us free.
We can also meditate in this manner: anxiously awaiting the end of the session, consumed with visions of the future, and preoccupied with whatever lies ahead. However, we then take another breath and return to the present. And we remember what we’ve forgotten a thousand times: that there is only one place where happiness is possible, and that is right here and right now. So, I’m sitting on this park bench when I notice a child on a bicycle staring at me from beneath his hood. I anticipated this outcome and am attempting to avert my gaze, but I must have caught his attention because he is now cycling over. He examines me from head to toe, spits from the side of his mouth, and inquires, “What are you waiting for, bruv?” I shake my head no, but as he walks up the path, I realize there is still a buried part of me that longs for heroin, and I imagine calling him back, pressing the cash into his hand, and marching home with the drugs burning in my pocket, the needle, the spoon, and oblivion. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I attempt to become aware of my body’s weight on the bench and the feeling of my feet on the floor. The excitement gradually fades, leaving behind a sad ache, like a bruise. I start counting my breaths. When I reopen my eyes, the child is still thirty feet up the tree-lined path, peering at me out of the corner of his eye. He appears to be considering whether or not to return before pedaling toward me again. I take a second breath. If he asks again, I will respond that I am not awaiting anything.
How a former addict started counting breaths instead of minutes until his next fix.