Friday, December 6, 2013

Drinking -- or not -- with mindfulness

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the United States' attempt to outlaw liquor.
Supporters of Prohibition touted its passage in 1920 as a victory for public morals and health. But the law was difficult to enforce and widely flouted. It was repealed in 1933.

It brings to mind the Buddhist practice of renunciation, often misunderstood as abstaining from certain substances or actions.

As Barbara O'Brien writes:

Most broadly, renunciation can be understood as a letting go of whatever binds us to ignorance and suffering. The Buddha taught that genuine renunciation requires thoroughly perceiving how we make ourselves unhappy by grasping and greediness. When we do, renunciation naturally follows, and it is a positive and liberating act, not a punishment.
Buddhism does have precepts, which include abstaining from alcohol or other intoxicating substances. I've heard it said that one is important because it's more likely we'll break the other four when we're under the influence -- those propose refraining from killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.

But the precepts aren't a law like Prohibition or moral imperatives like the Ten Commandments for lay people, they are considered trainings that help us learn how our minds work and lessen grasping. Merely following the precepts, without contemplating your own reasons for thatm is blind faith, which the Buddha discouraged.  Don't take my word for anything without testing it out for yourselves, he told his followers.

So the issue, for those of us who aren't monks or nuns, is not entirely abstinence; it's our relationship to alcohol. What do we want when we reach for a drink? To feel less self-conscious? To fit in? To release tension? Does drinking provide that? Does it have other effects? What is our intention in choosing to have a drink?

And then there's the physical experience -- what does the desire for a drink feel like? The first sip? Do you taste it or just drink for the effects? And speaking of those effects -- how aware are you of what happens to your body and mind? Is there a point where you lose awareness of all that? What happens then?

It's holiday party time. You can choose to abstain from intoxicating substances, whether you've taken the precepts or not. But the practice is not mere abstinence -- the practice is to know what that experience is for you.

A friend of mine summed it up in a post she made on Facebook:

Profoundly grateful tonight on this, the 28th anniversary of my sobriety. It is a continual reminder of how grace is rooted in imperfection, and yet, shines through it.
Know your imperfections and be grateful for them. That's the crack where the light gets in.

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