Dem Precepts

If you really want to be a good Buddhist you take the five precepts: you agree to

  1. refrain from killing (I’m still not a vegetarian. Sigh.);
  2. refrain from taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you (This isn’t just material “stuff.” It can include others’ time, attention and labour.);
  3. refrain from inappropriate, exploitive, or harmful sexual relationships;
  4. refrain from false speech (like not lying, which is of course harder than it ought to be); and
  5. refraining from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind.

I will say that not drinking gives me a fighting chance of living according to the precepts. It’s always bugged me that I haven’t been on board with number five.

Lots of the precepts seem like “well duh,” but like most religious stuff, it is much more complicated and subtle once you dig in to it. The gist in basic Buddhist terms is to live your life in a way that minimizes your own suffering, and that of others.

So a little more on number five there, for obvious reasons: Buddhists don’t tell you drinking and drugs are immoral in and of themselves; rather, intoxication is more likely to lead to you screwing up the other precepts. (You know. I know. We’ve all been there.)

The “clouding the mind” thing is super important too. One thing I’m struck by when I listen to other recovery stories — I’ve been doing a ton of that on the Bubble Hour — is how people describe coming to see themselves and the world more¬†clearly. They don’t always love everything they see, but there is a freedom and peace that comes with knowing that you aren’t bullshitting yourself day in and day out about your alcohol use.

But its more than that. People talk about getting their heads out of their own arses — about how drinking leads to self-absorption, and sobriety helps them to re-evaluate and work on their relationships with others. Community is really important for most people in achieving and maintaining sobriety because we need to give and receive love to feel whole as human beings.

Maya, in Eastern faith traditions, names the veil of ignorance that we live under when we cannot see ourselves and the world clearly. And one of the biggest deceptions we live under is that we are separate from others. You can’t achieve enlightenment without grasping, fundamentally, that we are interconnected, and you really have little hope of seeing this when you are chronically under the influence. I think that Maya is kind of synonymous with using alcohol for “numbing,” because we just don’t want to see things clearly! It is, or has become, too painful.

I’m still a long way off from achieving enlightenment! On good days I have catches of light — tiny spaces where I feel the kindness and compassion toward others that one tries to cultivate as a Buddhist. On bad days, I walk around lost in the noise in my own head. But sobriety may be turning down the volume a bit, and at least I’m feeling less stuck. And I can finally *nail* that fifth precept. Yeah!

Constant Craving

Caroline Knapp’s drinking memoir Drinking: A Love Story continues to be widely read twenty years after its publication. Knapp’s writing is emotionally honest yet unsentimental in a way that gets you right in to the mind games that we play with ourselves around drinking.

Like many others I’m sure, I’ve underlined and dog-eared parts of Knapp’s book (among others) to ¬†reflect on my drinking. One section that really hit home for me was her account of a formless kind of need in alcoholics that nothing seems to satisfy. Swilling scotch from a bottle at the time, she recalls, “I just remember the hunger, the need….Most alcoholics I know experience that hunger long before their first drink, that yearning for something, something outside of the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being.”

Knapp goes on to recall her childhood…craving and obsessing over attaining things — party shoes, she says, or horseback riding lessons. Over time, the object of that craving became alcohol, but the underlying drive to fill a hole she just didn’t understand was always the same.

It was the little kid thing. “That was me,” I thought. I’ve always viewed my drinking behaviour as a long, slow evolution of my habits in adulthood. There was no alcoholism in my home, so no obvious need to go back to my childhood make sense of my drinking. But I immediately recognized myself as a child in Knapp’s chant: “Fill it up, fill it up, fill it up. Fill up the emptiness; fill up what feels like a pit of loneliness and terror and rage…”

The pit I have been trying to fill since childhood is one of profound loneliness. When I was a kid, I fantasized about being anything or anyone other than what I was, and what I was was a gifted little dork with no social skills, and big emotions that came out at all the wrong times. In retrospect, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD and childhood depression. ADHD People are often “divergent thinkers,” so my mind did constant acrobatics, trying to imagine ways of being in the world that might feel less sad and angry, where I might fit in with my peers, where I might not have felt the need to hide in bathroom stalls and the corners or rooms with books, and the diaries I wrote in constantly.

I am still lonely, as I’ve mentioned. Perhaps this is a blog and a journey as much about loneliness as about drinking. I had all this trepidation leading up to quitting drinking before I actually committed. Now I’m having trepidation about committing to some kind of sobriety community. It’s just like quitting drinking. I know I have to do it but I’m scared.