One of the very many wonderful things that happened to me after I quit drinking was I was able to fully commit to Buddhism. I was raised in a very liberal Christian church and had exposure to (and gained respect for) many different religions. But the basic tenets and beliefs of Buddhism had always spoken to me the loudest. I won’t go into why here, because this isn’t a religion blog, and I’m not a proselytizer. Just take my word for it — it was a spiritual path I really wanted to take.
But I couldn’t.
Buddhism doesn’t have a lot of rules. But the five precepts are its ten commandments. Whatever else you do in your practice, you gotta buy into these. They are (according to the BBC — and pretty much everyone else):
All Buddhists live by the Five Moral Precepts which are refraining from:
- harming living things
- taking what is not given
- sexual misconduct
- lying or gossip
- taking intoxicating substances
See number five? You see my problem. There is healthy discussion among Buddhists about what the first four precepts demand. They are clear, but there is some definitional wiggle room around the edges, and that leads to (positive and friendly) discourse among practitioners (eg., the first precept is not just about not whacking people or becoming a vegetarian (plants are alive, after all) but about a broader sense of moving through the world causing the least suffering to all of our living earth, you know, environmentalism, leave no trace camping, that sort of thing).
But number five? Not a lot of room for discussion. And I gave you the most generous translation. Quite literally, it can be read as “No fermented liquor.” Not “a social drink is fine once in a while” or “don’t get drunk.” No drinking period. Now go meditate.
So, I stopped drinking. Learned mindfulness meditation practices (which got me through many a cravings freakout, but that’s another post) and, once those intoxicating substances worked their way out of my bloodstream and my thirsty synapses, dedicated myself to a serious Zen practice. And it has been more mind-expanding and happy-making than drinking ever was. In fact, those times when I flash on that thought — I would love a drink right now (rarely these days, but it does happen), I think, no — I would have to give up Zen, and I’m hanging onto that the way I used to hang on to a nice bottle of Malbec.
What I didn’t realize at that time was that it wasn’t just precept five that was keeping me for Buddhism. Precept four would have also blocked me — the one that says (again really clearly), no lying.
Because alcoholics are liars. Really good liars. We lie to the people we love the most. We tell them we don’t have a problem (and justify it by not wanting to worry them or have to stop drinking and become less entertaining to them (as if)). We lie by omission — drinking in secret. But worst of all, at least for our hopes of recover, we lie to ourselves.
You know those lies. The ones where we convince ourselves we’re not as bad as [FILL IN THE BLANK — AA members, people on TV, our friend so and so]. At 3 AM, we wake up and (before we can get our lies on) know we have a serious problem. By afternoon (or morning for some), we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have a problem after all, by telling ourselves, you got it, more lies.
I was so bad that I would drink half a bottle of wine before going to a social or work dinner, then I would have maybe one or two glasses of wine at the cocktail hour and one or two more at dinner. When I went home, I would congratulate myself for being “a moderate drinker” — seriously — over a couple of glasses of scotch.
Buddhism is very much based on seeing the world as it really is — in all its wonder and beauty — and seeing ourselves as we really are — in all our wonder and beauty. In a way, giving up lying about booze was more liberating than giving up the booze itself (of course, you can’t do the former without the latter).
I want to leave you with a story the writer Alice Walker tells about lying, and lying to someone you love, but mostly about the wonderful freedom that stopping the lies brings, even if that means we have to speak hard truths:
When I was three or four, I broke a jar, and given that I had siblings I could have said that they had broken it, or I could have said that it had slipped. I remember that he asked me if I had done it, and I looked at him and I thought, gee, this is a person I really love and he would be happy if I hadn’t broken this thing. On the other hand he was looking at me with such expectancy that I found myself coming up to meet his expectancy with a real need to express the truth, because that’s the most wonderful feeling there is. So I said, “Yes, I broke the jar.” His response was not to fuss and not to spank me or anything but rather to beam this incredible love in my direction, and that was his way of teaching me about telling the truth and what is possible. It is possible that if you tell the truth not only will you be delivered yourself from the prison of untruth, but the person who hears the truth will also be opened and can be delighted.