Tag: intoxicants

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

The Precepts Project: Fifth Precept – Intoxicants that Cloud the Mind

Like all of the other Precepts, I’m finding that there is a lot more to consider here than just the obvious surface guideline. The point of this guideline seems to be the inhibition of mindfulness that is caused by the intoxicant, so if you really explore this Precept from a modern perspective, there are a lot of things that could be included here.

I won’t beat around the bush; even on the surface level, this is a complicated one for me. In some ways, this was the one that lead me to try this project. I’m sure I will discuss this further in a future post (possibly about Right Livelihood,) but I have worked in the wine and beer industry for about 10 years now. This is a difficult industry to work in and maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, and I have definitely had the opportunity to explore the effects of drinking on my practice and on mindfulness.

Photo freely given by mnm.all on Unsplash

There are a number of ways that alcohol and drugs can effect mindfulness. Anyone who has tried to meditate while actually under the influence can attest to the effects that these substances can have on your practice. I have seen some people state that some strains of marijuana can actually help them with concentration, and I know there is a significant history of people using psychedelics in conjunction with meditation practice, so there is a lot that could be discussed about the use of intoxicants in practice. For the purpose of this project, I’m going to be working from a renunciation perspective.

I have occasionally used marijuana, but alcohol has definitely been my main intoxicant of choice. I’ve mentioned previously that I was using drinking as a form of self medicating prior to discovering meditation. Over the last year that hasn’t been as much of an issue for me, however I haven’t stopped drinking. In my practice, I have observed that even having a drink or two can effect my ability to concentrate while I’m on the cushion. As I’ve moved into my early 40s, I’ve also noticed that drinking in the evening can effect my sleep, which can leave me feeling foggy in the morning when I typically do a 45 minute sit. At times, it has made it hard for me to get motivated to get up to meditate, which either leads to a shorter sit or to sometimes not getting a good session in that day.

Photo freely given by Rahul Chakraborty on Unsplash

Another, less obvious, area that I have heard several Dharma teachers discuss is technology as an intoxicant. My teacher, JoAnna Hardy, has framed this as anything that we use to numb or zone out can be an intoxicant. We certainly can have addictive responses to social media. I have definitely caught myself posting an Instagram photo or tweet and them obsessively checking to see how many likes or retweets it got. I have also wasted a lot of time mindlessly scrolling down my various feeds. These platforms can also feed greed, hatred, and delusion in a really powerful way if we aren’t mindful to how we use them and how they are impacting us.

There are different ways that people have chosen to deal with the topic of intoxicants. Many Buddhists choose to completely abstain from drinking and drug use, but many others do not. I have heard some arguments that the Precept encourages not using any intoxicant to a degree that it clouds the mind, which can be a pretty vague line to draw. Ultimately, this is just a guideline that the Buddha gave us for practicing, so this isn’t a commandment, and we each have to choose how we will practice with it.

For the purpose of this project, I have chosen to completely abstain from drinking and using other drugs (Almost – I have chosen not to give up caffeine) for the 31 days of the project. I am genuinely curious to see how spending the entire month completely sober impacts my practice. Life has already been throwing some stuff at me this month, so I have had the opportunity to stay with some difficult emotions that might have been clouded by drinking under normal circumstances. I am also working with how I might use technology as an intoxicant. I’m not abstaining from social media, Netflix, or video games, but I am trying to be more mindful of how I might use these things to numb or distract. I did manage to spend at least four hours playing Playstation the other day, so looks like there is some work to be done here. Going into this project, I feel like this might be the area where I anticipate seeing the most fertile exploration in regard to my personal experience. I’m honestly not sure where this one is going to leave me at the end of the month, but I am excited to find out.

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