By Ian Prattis
My eighteen-year-old son, Alexander, was studying at the Glasgow School of Art. From our transatlantic calls, I knew he was in trouble with drugs. I arranged to visit him. At the airport I scarcely recognized him in his multicoloured hairstyle. He met me with a warm hug and a big smile.
At his apartment, I knew something was dreadfully amiss. There were no books or art materials. The large apartment was occupied by a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers. Alexander left for a while; I sat in his squalid room wondering about him. Several hours later, he returned, badly beaten up in a drug deal gone wrong. He confessed that his requests for money to complete summer courses were false; he needed the money because he was deep in Glasgow's drug world. I listened quietly, calmly washed his rearranged face, and learned that he could easily have been killed that night.
We walked to nearby Kelvingrove Park where I introduced him to walking meditation, encouraging him to trust the earth to absorb his pain and distress on each out-breath. As he calmed, I suggested perhaps the beating was a wakeup call. I offered him two options: £500 cash to enter drugdealing in a bigger way, or spending the next several weeks living mindfully with me. He refused the money, so I will never know how much bluff I used.
Alexander and I read most of The Miracle of Mindfulness together and did some of the exercises. Together we practiced sitting and walking meditation, enjoying silent meals, and conscious breathing. I taught him to coordinate body movement with breath, and also to defend himself with martial arts. We discovered that we enjoyed one another's company and humour.
The residents of "Punk Palace," as I named the place, gathered each evening to listen to heavy metal music, do drugs, and talk. Committed not to take drugs while I was there, Alexander smoked cigarettes. I listened quietly to these young people pour out their lives. For this short time, they became my family. No other parent ever visited them, let alone lived with them.
One night several punks asked me to teach them walking meditation. I agreed—if they remained drug-free for two days. Two evenings later, my punk friends boosted me into a tree and told me to crawl along a branch that hung over a private park. They bounced over the fifteen-foot-high railings and caught me as I dropped. After we picked ourselves up and stopped laughing, I introduced them to walking meditation. Slowly and mindfully for over two hours, we walked barefoot in the grass.
The next evening the punks spoke of their awareness of my presence in Punk Palace. Drugs were used less; my new friends turned their music down. No drug deals went down while I was there, and the kitchen even got a cursory clean! I thanked them and quietly said I was also aware of them, of every acid hit and cocaine use, of every moment of their despair and anger. Silence followed. Two people began crying. I softly thanked them all for their kindness and consideration, and said I was there for them. I then left them among themselves. These young people knew everything interconnects. They were simply lost.
Alexander and I worked on practical matters for which we prepared with meditation. We met with college tutors who had not seen him for six months, his college counsellor, and his bank manager. I enrolled him in a martial arts academy run by a kick-boxing champion who treated his students as family and began and ended sessions with meditation.
The final step was to talk to the drug dealers. We met in Alexander's room. They were the most hardened young people I have ever met. I cleared Alexander's outstanding debts, and quietly and firmly told them he was out of drugs. The tension could be cut with a knife. I breathed slowly in and out, extending love and compassion to them. After a time, they too relaxed. They asked about my martial arts background, which Alexander had no doubt exaggerated. It was our only common ground apart from Alexander. I wove a web of stories and showed them some drills, mentioning how many martial arts experts end up in healing and meditative practices. The more I talked quietly and directly to them, the more violence left the room. When they left, I knew they would leave Alexander alone, but their energy disturbed me.
It would be ideal to say the whole situation did not get to me, but it did. After one all-night party, I got really angry over Alexander's wasted opportunities and irresponsibility. I did walking meditation, unsuccessfully trying to calm down. At 6:00 a.m., I packed my bags, found Alex, and asked him to walk me to the bus stop—I was leaving. His face showed fear that I was walking out of his life.
We walked silently. Alexander insisted on carrying my bags. They were much too heavy, but I let him. Then I stopped, told him to put the bags down, and hugged him. I told him I love him. We both cried. I told him why I had been so angry and invited him to join me at the airport hotel for a few days to continue our mindfulness training. Relief flooded his face.
Our mindfulness training continued at the hotel with emphasis on life skills-budgeting finances, handling peer pressure, completing college assignments, etc. We meditated and continued breath work with martial arts training. Once again we drew closer. When I left, Alexander saw me off and the real test began for us both: Alexander has to choose how he wants to walk through life and I have to allow him the freedom to choose.
This article is excerpted from a longer work by Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, who teaches anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.