At the last minute, I almost decided not to go. But on a certain day in December, I went and sat on a certain park bench at the north-east corner of Hackney Downs near my home in east London.
I was nervous because that bench is a place where heroin and crack addicts wait for their dealers. I know this because for years I was one of those addicts, spending countless hours waiting on that bench for my daily fix. I waited other places, too, of course: bus stops, stairwells, piss-soaked alleys. And my decade of addiction was played out against a backdrop of hospitals, hostels, needle exchanges, and crack dens. But most of all, I remember the waiting. And when I think about the waiting, I picture the bench in Hackney Downs, where I am sitting again now on a bright afternoon under a cold blue sky. I haven’t come here to buy drugs, but because I’m eighteen months clean today, and for some reason, I needed to remember what it was like.
You will never know how slowly time can move until you are an addict waiting for your dealer to show up. You’re not an idiot: you know that the more you obsess about the moment you get the drugs into your body, the slower it will seem to arrive. You dare not think about that moment, and yet you are incapable of thinking about anything else. Your mind keeps circling that thought, straining toward the instant when the “runner” will arrive—almost always a hoodie-wearing teenager on a bike, and always, always late—and pedal over to you with a casualness that drives you crazy and say the words that will allow you to identify each other: “You waiting for something, bruv?” This, it occurs to me, is the definition of pure misery: simply wishing time away, waiting to step over a threshold in the future when your pain will be banished, replaced with relief, and you will be able to breathe again. Eighteen months ago, two things happened: I went to rehab (for the third time) and I began to meditate every day, as though my life depended on it (it did). Somehow I managed to stay clean, one day at a time. But I soon discovered that, even without drugs, I was perfectly capable of spending my days in the same way: dissatisfied with this moment, waiting for something better to come along. I noticed my tendency to fixate on some event in the near or far-off future when, I believed, I would be happy: when I lit my next cigarette, when I finished rehab, when I met the perfect woman, when I achieved astonishing success and could spend my days basking in universal love and acclaim, when I could go home and meditate, when I could get up off my cushion and stop meditating... If we’re not careful, we might spend our whole lives like this: waiting for the moment when we have the job, the partner, the life that we believe will make us whole. Then, we tell ourselves, I will finally cross that threshold and step into my real life, and I will finally be happy. Without even realizing it, we will have lived and died in a purgatory of our own making, sitting on a park bench of the soul, addicted to our fantasies, waiting for the future to arrive and set us free.
We can meditate in this way, too: straining for the end of the session, consumed in visions of the future, preoccupied by whatever is coming next. But then we take another breath and return to the present moment. And we remember what we’ve forgotten a thousand times: that there’s only one place it’s possible to be happy, and it’s here, now. So I'm sitting on this park bench, and suddenly I notice a kid on a bike eyeing me from under his hood. I knew this might happen, and I try to look away, but I must have caught his eye because now he's cycling over. He looks me up and down, spits from the side of his mouth, and asks: "You waiting for something, bruv, or what?" I shake my head no, but as he disappears up the path I realize there is still some buried part of me that longs for heroin and a surge of excitement passes through me as I imagine calling him back, pressing the cash into his hand, marching home with the drugs burning in my pocket, the needle, the spoon, the annihilation. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I try to become conscious of the weight of my body on the bench and the sensation of my feet on the floor. Slowly, the excitement subsides, leaving a sad ache, like a bruise. I begin to count my breaths. When I open my eyes again the kid is still there, some thirty feet up the tree-lined path, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. He seems to be considering whether to come back and then he's pedaling toward me once more. I take another breath. If he asks me again, I'll tell him I'm not waiting for anything.