image courtesy of the Museum of anti-alcohol posters
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
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 Lodro will probably get to it!
Q: A while ago you mentioned “Right Drinking” in one of your posts. What is that? I often drink too much. How can I make drinking not be detrimental to my meditation path? Thanks, Chuck
To start off I should note that nowhere in Buddhist texts will you find the term “Right Drinking.” I first mentioned it in my post on whether or not Sid would take a job as a bartender (I said he would). In fact, traditional Buddhist teachers stick pretty strongly to the whole “I undertake the vow to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness” thing.
As is often discussed on this blog, traditional monastic systems clash with the reality of a modern existence in the West. As such we need to determine for ourselves what it means to partake in intoxicants that can easily lead to confusion and recklessness. Because if you’ve seen textsfromlastnight you know there’s a lot of heedlessness to be had when you drink. As such the first question I might pose to any practitioner would be, “Do you want to drink at all?” If you feel like you can’t be a practitioner who drinks that’s fine.
However, it seems like your question was not so much “Is it okay to drink” but “How can I drink while not losing my head?” That is a great question. How often have you seen an alcohol ad that ended with “Drink Responsibly?” What does that even mean? The alcohol companies aren’t gonna tell us so we have to figure it out for ourselves.
Personally I feel that when we say we’re trying to bring our mindfulness off the meditation cushion and into our everyday world we can’t say, “I’ll be mindful washing the dishes, at work, walking the dog, but not when I drink.” If you want to lead a mindful life then you should aim for meditation practice to penetrate every aspect of your existence.
When you’re meditating you might catch yourself mid-fantasy and say, “Whoa. Back to the breath.” Similarly, when you’re arguing with your spouse you might catch yourself mid-biting remark and instead bite your tongue. Good meditation practice is the meditation practice that seeps into your everyday existence.
If there’s Right Speech why can’t the modern day practitioner engage in Right Drinking? I mean, Sid did drink in his youth but as the Buddha he acknowledged that it’s a dangerous fire to play with. Over time as Buddhism spread and encountered new lands it morphed to accomodate those cultures. Today in many monasteries in Tibet and India Vajrayana practitioners will incorporate alcohol as part of their practice.
The intent is not to get the monks schwasted but to take what is seen as a poison and transform it into a tool for spaciousness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche attempted to lead his Vajrayana students in the West in what he referred to as “mindful drinking” with mixed results. Some students would engage the practice to the point where they felt a loosening up on their ego and their dualistic sense of “me” vs. “the world.” Others threw up.
One student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said they were encouraged to “drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and to help your ego go to sleep.” The idea was to watch how the the alcohol effects you and see how it can relax your mind. When you feel that loosening inside you then you stop.
Unfortunately most of us don’t stop there. Most of us go out with the intention of loosening our mind, celebrating something with friends, or having a low key get-together and don’t have the discipline to say “no” to one more drink.
With that said I think Right Drinking would include the following:
1) Know your intention: are you motivated to drink as a practice tool? to shake off a bad day at work? to relax with a friend? to drink your sorrows away? Knowing in advance what you’re intending to use alcohol for is important. Drinking alcohol is a bit like taking out a chainsaw; if you don’t know what you intend to do with it you’re going to get hurt.
2) Taste it: this is a very simple way to bring mindfulness to your drinking habits. Don’t chug, don’t gulp it down, but try to taste every sip. Enjoy the alcohol you drink. Along those lines I’d recommend drinking less and drinking good alcohol. Quality, not quantity.
3) Watch what happens to your mind as you drink: notice the effect the alcohol has on you. You don’t have to make a big deal of it but you can at least pause after you finish a drink, look up, rest your mind, and see how you feel.
4) Find your own Middle Way: it might be that you’re walking the fine line between relaxed, spacious, and pleasant now but will one more drink push you over the edge into crazytown? As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged his students to do, stop while you can still appreciate the situation.
Alcohol is easy to abuse. I don’t want to seem like I’m trying to make binge drinking ok by saying it’s meditation. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to get across. Instead, I’m saying let’s bring mindfulness to the act of drinking. Let’s not over indulge but work with our craving in a similar fashion to the way we work with it on the meditation cushion. Let’s enjoy the experience without falling into the trap of confusion.
At the end of the night of a Right Drinking don’t be surprised if instead of feeling woozy you feel refreshed by the experience.