06 March 2011

Shame, Craving, Intoxication: Little Picture, Big Picture


Lying in bed last night kind of late I started watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix. And I kept watching it. I wanted to see what happened, how the mystery was solved. Still, I wondered why no one had told me it was so much about sadism, rape and murder. Lots of photographs of mutilated dead women. Some friends I talked to about it didn't even remember this. Maybe the effect was amplified because I was alone.

At some point the main character, Lisbeth, is asked if a particular person has secrets. She replies, "Everyone has secrets, it's just a matter of finding out what they are." In the past I might not have paid much notice to this statement. But this time the thought spontaneously surfaced...that I don't really have any secrets. I do have life details that I would not necessarily tell the stranger sitting next to me on an airplane. (Apparently Americans have something of a reputation for doing this.)

But secrets? Actual facts about me or my life or my past that I do not want anyone to know? I'm thinking of something kind of weird I did on the recent monthlong retreat that I told a few friends about, and we all laughed and laughed. Unfortunately sharing it here is out of the question! But the point is that I experience very little shame, at least of the debilitating variety. This is probably mostly to do with my childhood, and temperament. And also, currently, that I am part of an intimate, mostly sane community that understands me, shares my values, and is realistic about the activity of the human mind.

Drugs and Suffering

Speaking of things a normal person wouldn't necessarily want to post for any Random Sam to read...I discovered what you might think is kind of a basic thing recently. I found out that I can't in good conscience take LSD any more. I found out that acid is like a person, a person I used to know intimately and love very much but had forgotten about. A person who, though I hadn't seen them in a long time, never let me get too distant from my own love of life. I was reminded of this person recently and started plotting a reunion, but unfortunately I've been chanting precepts about not taking intoxicants for who knows how long, and there have been too many alcoholics and junkies in my bloodline to think of drugs as solely recreational anymore.

It might seem kind of an obvious conclusion, especially for a meditator, but I assure you it wasn't. Alternatively you may think it's stupid to bother about it. My preference would be for you not to have an opinion either way, but I know that's something I don't get to decide. In any case I have not taken it in a long time and as far as I know I am not addicted to it...but neither can I detach myself from the responsibility and suffering to which it seems to be inexorably linked.

The suffering caused by drugs and alcohol is astronomical. It's one of those things that we all know but is so easy to ignore. Like knowing that if we saw where the hamburgers or chicken we eat came from, it would not be physically possible for us to eat them. But sometimes certain facts come into focus, it would seem in their own time. It is hard for me, at least now, to ignore the dangers, the suffering of drugs, even when that particular brand of suffering doesn't even seem to be mine. But it is in my blood. The suffering, death and distress, so many people with access to drugs and alcohol inflict on themselves, and on other people. All the suffering.

I know that this is not a total picture. I have had spiritual experiences on drugs for which I am grateful, because they gave me an experience of something like a free mind. For some people this is therapeutic. Alcohol makes relaxing much easier sometimes. In some traditional cultures, plant-based, mind altering drugs provide the basis for spiritual experience, as they do for some people in western society today.

For me, at the moment, it's simply a gut feeling - a gut feeling of dread - not something it would be possible to talk me into or out of, even if I myself tried.

Human Addiction

Delving into my reflections on LSD seems to have sent other questions, other perspectives, other cravings, into relief. I've noticed that sometimes I feel a deep disturbance or imbalance on an energetic level that I want to - or must - get rid of, smother, cover. It's like being occasionally but regularly overcome, from inside, with a need to blunt experience. I'm wondering if these kinds of cravings for some kind of dullness or oblivion are happening much more often than I am noticing them. They reach toward stultifying computer games, red wine, cookies - variations on distraction or escape.

All the Buddhist precepts are variations on the theme of non-harm or, stated positively, loving kindness. The Fifth Precept of Buddhism encourages us to cultivate mindfulness, and cautions us against taking 'intoxicants that dull the mind'. The word intoxicant of course means poison (as in toxic.) The precept encourages us not to poison ourselves on a mental level, which is what we are doing every time we drift out of awareness, every time we set up conditions for ourselves that make being skifull more difficult and challenging. The Dhammapada says "Those who are not mindful are as if already dead." ...What's your poison?

It's useful for some of us anyway to look into our relationship to intoxicants such as alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. We can also work out for ourselves on more subtle levels what is toxic. To do this we need to know ourselves to some degree. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need a clear heart and mind, unclouded by craving. What are the things we do, the things we crave even, that make us less aware? What is the craving to not be aware? We have addictive habitual patterns on the levels of body, speech and mind and we need to acknowledge them on all these levels. And we need patience and compassion for the inevitable suffering we cause ourselves and other people.

Using the example of a drink, Buddhist teacher Joan Tollifson suggests:
Pay attention to the first impulse for a drink -- what triggers it, how does it happen, what does it feel like, what goes on -- what is this urge itself actually like – what thoughts are showing up, what mental images, how does it feel in the body -- and then the whole process of "deciding" whether to give in and indulge, how does that unfold, what are your thoughts telling you -- and then buying the bottle, opening it up, pouring the drink -- what does each moment in this process feel like in the body – and then the first sip, what is that like – and how do you feel after one drink -- what is pleasurable about it, what isn't – what moves you to have a second drink, what is this urge, do you really want another drink or is something else going on – how do you feel after that second drink -- simply paying attention and observing. You'll learn a lot.
We can take this advice and apply it to every aspect our our momentary life. And we really need to, because our American world is full of intoxicants. It is engineered to make us want, to envy. We fill up our lives with things, with tasks, with modes of escape and denial. We crave the devices we carry with us that do not allow our minds to rest, or do just one thing. Our craving and restlessness increase as the world moves faster and faster. For me the biggest challenges are food and the internet, the two main things these days I have a hard time being moderate about. Others of us are clinging to...our iPhone, buying things, work, online sex, television, money, Facebook, gambling...we have to look at the unfolding of our relationship to these things. To know ourselves is to know our craving self, and it is very important knowledge indeed.

In Bare Bones Meditation, Joan Tollifson says:
"...there is the conflict, the battle between the desire to indulge, which is an escape from what is, and the desire to stop, which is also a movement away from what is."

However we conceive of addiction, we probably see it as a problem. And to some degree seeing it as a problem is also a problem. Which is to say, our poison is not really the booze or the hard on or the artisan bread. We poison ourselves by our unwillingness to be aware, by wanting to cover up, by not wanting to know what is real for us in each moment.

These are the layers of onion I continue to peel.

See Also

Here's a blog post about addiction to technology.

More excellent writing by Joan Tollifson on addiction.

Frog photo by Kulaprabha.
Plumeria flower from
Chimp photo not sure.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you dont have the shame anymore.

Anonymous said...

this is lovely. i wish i weren't so afraid.

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