One City

“They tried to make me go sit shamatha and I said ‘OM, OM, OM'”
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What would Sid do?

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.

Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I’ll probably get to it!

Q: Alcohol is an
attachment & a problem for me. I am an alcoholic. I am reading Buddhist
ways that I believe are helping to become a better person altogether. I don’t
consider Buddhism an attachment at all.
I look upon Buddhism as a possible way to separate oneself
from the attachment of alcohol. What would Sid say about that? – Paul

Last month we looked at what Sid would say about intoxicants and drugs in general. Some people responded with a “hell yeah! everything in moderation” standpoint while others were more on the side of D.A.R.E. One thing everyone seemed to agree upon though was that strong attachment, be it to drugs, alcohol, or facebook quizzes, is detrimental to our well-being.

Fans of Acharya Pema Chodron will be familiar with the Tibetan term shenpa which she translates as “getting hooked” by our emotional states. She refers to shenpa as “the urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to
overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your
addiction is.
When we develop a strong attachment to anything we are hooked by it and it becomes incredibly hard to unhook ourselves.”

Thankfully we have this handy tool called meditation which is a sure-fire way to work with our state of mind and insure we catch ourselves when we find we are being hooked. Through meditation we learn to notice when strong urges come up,
acknowledge them for what they are, and come back to the present moment
instead of biting that hook. In Shambhala Buddhism there are four dignities which represent different aspects of this training in wisdom and compassion.

The first is the tiger which is a path marked with discernment, gentleness, and precision. When we contemplate the tiger we may think of how it carefully yet gracefully walks through the jungle. The tiger looks before leaping. For Sid this might mean looking at a glass of wine and asking himself, “Will this bring me a sense of happiness or bring me pain?” before taking a sip. By simply reflecting on our daily activities in this way we learn our habitual patterns intimately.

The second dignity of Shambhala is the snow lion which leaps from mountaintop to mountaintop because it is not weighed down by attachment to strong emotional states. The image of the snow lion frolicking always strikes me as very joyous. This great level of joy that the lion embodies comes from the discipline of applying ourselves to the tiger’s discernment. With the tiger’s discernment we decide what qualities we want to cultivate and reject in our daily life. The lion’s discipline is then following through on those decisions.

To apply these dignities to your question Sid would pick up the glass of wine and, if he discerned that it was a hook waiting to bait him with a painful scenario he would say “No. This activity will cause me harm.” He would then have the discipline to follow through on that knowledge and put the glass down, instead being present with his experience without the drink.

This is a hard practice. When we develop strong addictions we tend to rely on them for all of the awkward, embarrassing, or painful moments in our life. Even if we are not alcoholics how many of us go through a hard day of work and come out the other end saying, “I need a drink”?

If we apply the tiger’s discernment we might look at our life and say that going out for several drinks on a Tuesday night will lead to us being hung-over and annoyed with ourselves on Wednesday morning. Wednesday comes and we get out of bed late with a headache and rush through our morning. We even skip our meditation practice!

Instead of giving in to that “I need a drink” urge what if we instead relaxed with that level of groundlessness after our long day of work and allowed ourselves to be fully present with it?  We might look at our life and say “Lots of drinks right now may not be the best way to scratch this particular itch.” We might catch ourselves saying, “I need a few minutes of mindfulness practice instead.”

This is not to denigrate the idea of going out for a drink with friends after work. I think Sid would be totally open to that idea assuming he was not struggling with alcoholism and he drank moderately (Right Drinking might be a good topic for a future post). Acharya Pema Chodron has said that “something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working,
or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be
very delightful–like eating, enjoying your food. In fact, in moderation
there’s this deep appreciation of the taste, of the good fortune to
have this in your life.” It is only when we go beyond moderation and begin to look to these activities as the way we cope with our life that they become tricky.

Sid would say that Buddhism is a path that gives us tools to relate with our mind in a way that we do not indulge our attachments. As we start to examine our life we realize that we cannot take refuge in alcohol any more than we can take refuge in our job, our lover, or our religious identity. If we think any of these things will bring us everlasting comfort we are sadly mistaken. I want to thank you Paul for this most excellent question.

I would also like to note that there are lots of Buddhist organizations that host recovery groups. It’s a refreshing change for anyone not too keen on the whole God aspect of AA or NA. One group that started up in Boston while I was the director of the Shambhala Meditation Center there is called the Heart of Recovery. Over the last few years this program has spread to many Shambhala Centers and I highly recommend it. If other people would like to throw out some resources along these lines please leave them in the comment section.

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