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.




18 thoughts on “Lying

  1. I love this post. I don’t know anything about Buddhism (despite having visited some very amazing Buddhist temples while travelling through Asia) but those five principles sound wonderfully simple and peace-inducing.

  2. Great post. I’m wondering how you are able to reconcile the golden rule of autonomy of Buddhism, with the notion of helplessness and the necessity of divine intervention as propounded by AA. For example, it is written in one of the earliest Buddhist texts, The Dhammapada:

    “Only a man himself can be the master of himself: who else from outside could be his master? When the master and servant are one, then there is true help and self-possession” (Dhammapada 12.160).

    I think that AA’s notion that alcoholism is an incurable disease also militates against the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

    The First Noble Truth – that there is suffering – could be seen to be compatible with AA. The Second Noble Truth parts ways with the 12 step approach, and teaches that suffering is the result not of a disease, but of the failure to recognize the transient, ephemeral nature of being, and in seeking illusory and transient pleasures. The Third Noble Truth is where things really diverge. This Truth teaches that there can be an end to suffering. This idea is radically antithetical to the core of the 12 step approach in regarding alcoholism as insurmountable. The Fourth Noble Truth tells me how to annihilate the enemy of illusion and craving, while AA tells me I’ve got to attend meetings for the rest of my life.

    • Quick reply. I respectfully disagree with the premise that AA and Buddhism don’t jibe. There are several books on the matter (probably on both sides) so I don’t want to get into a huge debate here. I’m certainly no expert on Buddhist or AA teaching, but I feel I work hard at my Buddhist practice and at my AA program, and both have kept me sober and spiritually fulfilled. The way I reconcile the principles you mention is:

      On AA’s first step (admitting we’re powerless over alcohol). I’m not sure I understand why this is a problem. I see saying that I am helpless when it come to controlling my drinking is simply seeing things as they really are — accepting what I cannot change in AA parlance or opening up to the universe (of which my illusory view of my separate self is actually just a part) as it really is, a more Buddhist phrasing,

      On the noble truths, 1, we agree.

      2, I’m not sure I understand again. I think you would agree that, say, cancer is a disease. And the suffering caused by that disease is the result of not understanding what you call the “transient, ephemeral nature of being” and what I would call over-attachment to false ideas of death and separateness. Understanding alcoholism as a disease helped me figure out how to treat it and stop drinking (as understanding cancer as a disease would help me understand my treatment options. I can take that chemo (did in fact), beat the cancer (did in fact), and still “treat” or try to remove the suffering by trying to understand its true causes through my practice).

      3, again maybe semantics are the problem here. As I work the program, I do believe I will always be an alcoholic, but I also believe I can end the suffering I caused to myself and others when I was drinking (an active alcoholic).

      4, The fourth noble truth, in the words of my favorite Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: “The Fourth Noble Truth is the path (marga) that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer. This is the path we need the most. The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path. The Chinese translate it as the “Path of Eight Right Practices”: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.” That’s right, a bunch of practical steps that help us lead our lives based on spirituality, compassion for ourselves and other, and mindful and aware travel through the world. Not surprisingly, the Eightfold Noble Path and the 12 steps overlap in many, many places.

      Also, it sounds a bit like you may have run into an AA group dominated by bullies. Attending meetings regularly is an essential part of my 12 step program, plus I really enjoy the community there. But I don’t think anyone would say you should attend if you don’t think the program works for you (like Buddhism, AA is a program of attraction). And most AAers would say, if you find something else that works — that’s great. And finally, my dear Zen teacher (and most serious Zen teachers I would think) says to I have to attend zazen (group meditation) for the rest of my life and into the next and next. Which I joyfully do and look forward to. How is that different?

      I am sorry this is so incoherent.I really can only speak to how the the two sets of principles and practices have worked to help me become alcohol free and happy. There is a thoughtful set of essays discussion how 12-step programs and Buddhist principle can work together put out by the highly regarded San Francisco Zen Center for anyone who would like a more clear discussion of the matter:

      And you’ll excuse me if I bow out of further debate (or promise) that this is the last I will get into the weeds on Buddhist doctrine. Like I said, this isn’t a religion blog, and I will try to keep my discussions of religion and AA focused on my personal experience getting sober. The goal of this blog is to put what I’ve done (good and bad) out there in hopes t’llresonate with someone and alleviate a little suffering. And if if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

      • It sounds like this dual approach is doing a lot of good for you. I’ll also bow out of further debate on the matter. I hope you’ll permit me, however, to answer your one question regarding how the attendance of life-long zazen is different from that of lifelong AA meetings.

        For me, sobriety didn’t come until I ended my 8 years of AA attendance. rejecting AA probably saved my life. And it was definitely not the case that I had fallen in with a group of “AA bullies” as you put it. I had attended well over a dozen different AA groups in 4 different major cities.

        The notions of powerlessness and alcohol abuse as a disease were for me self-manifesting notions. Once I abandoned them and began to apply Buddhist principles to my drinking and drugging, it was like having a dentist extract a tooth that had been a source of pain for some time. Just as I would no longer be required to see a dentist for that tooth, since it was no longer even possible to feel any pain, so too had Buddhism excised any desire I had for alcohol – there was no longer any pain or suffering to ‘extract,’ hence no necessity of lifelong meetings. There is no ‘disease’ necessitating my attendance at further meetings. My return to alcohol is just as unlikely as my return to the toys of my childhood.

        My involvement with my sangha, on the other hand, does require my further attendance due to my not having reached nibbana. And if I do reach it some day, just as it was with my becoming free from drinking and drugging, it will not be due to a divine intervention; as the Dhammapada puts it:

        “Only a man himself can be the master of himself: who else from outside could be his master? When the master and servant are one, then there is true help and self-possession” (Dhammapada 12.160).

      • Dang, I’m trying to reply to your (John Paul’s) comment and can only figure out how to reply to my own, but this is in reply to your reply which I am afraid is below. No one should let me around computers. And I always manage to make things more complicated than they need to be (which I think applies to my ramblings on Buddhism).

        But I do want to say I truly respect your experience and am so grateful you are sharing it. I am a profound believer in “whatever works” in bringing people BOTH out of the hell of addiction and into the joy of a life lived fully. I know that many people, for many reasons, find the AA route no good for them, and I think you talking about what work INSTEAD for you might really help someone who is struggling with the 12 steps.

        When I talk positively about AA (or Buddhism), I hope people understand that I am putting my experience out there, explaining how I overcame doubts or fears about the program, but that is all it is. If my circumstances and line of reasoning makes sense to them, then great, they can learn what worked and didn’t for me. But I in no way think my experience is necessarily the right path for everyone else.

        I try not to be too prescriptive, though I know sometimes I sound that way. Part of that is in answering people (obviously not you) who are rejecting AA or other forms of help with their addiction with arguments I used when I was trying very hard to keep drinking. I will be very careful in the future to couch that sort of advice in the future as saying “I used to think X too, but I was just trying to avoid Y” eg., “I used to think I wasn’t a drunk like the drunks in AA, but I realized that their stories were similar in all the important bits to mine.”

      • Thanks for your kind and sensitive reply, haplesshomsteaders. I don’t perceive your writing to be prescriptive at all. You writing simply sounds like someone who is doing very well with their sobriety, and who has found an effective means to that happy and healthy end. I certainly thank you for sharing that, and for opening to others of similar inclinations some excellent ideas about how to implement a double-barrelled approach to combating this plague. It certainly can be done, as you’ve proven.

        I hope you’ll pardon my inclination to absolutism surrounding the dhamma. I sometimes permit my enthusiasm to take this form, and it is an obstacle I must overcome (I’d welcome a thought in your practice of mettā to aid me in this).

        Please be certain that my hat is off to you for your enthusiasm for the dhamma, and for your success in your sobriety.

  3. I love this post. Thank you! Yes 3am truths are hard to ignore, but ignored they were. It feels good not to have to lie to myself anymore. Most of my lies to others were by omission and I’d justify that by telling myself I don’t tell people everything I eat in a day, so why should I tell them everything I drink? I would go to a social event the same as you, half a bottle of wine already consumed. Then I would act like the one I had there was my first.

  4. I really love this post, it really shed some light on what Buddhism is and is not. I will do some research on it, because it is something that I believe can help me, with staying sober. By the way, today is my 7th sober day. :o)

    • Hey Tony! Day 7 is awesome! Now you’ve done everyday of the week without a drink — proved it could be done. It just gets easier. Now when you brain starts telling you “but I always go to happy hour on Friday” you can counter, “I didn’t last Friday, and lived to tell the tale”.”)

      I’m really glad the post spoke to you. If I could offer some advice — or at least tell you what I did — I might start looking into the Buddhist path gently. It is, for me, a religion that is much more experiential than theoretical (not sure I am using the right word — I mean “word-based”). I think if I read a some of the texts early on, I would have written off the whole thing as incomprehensible. What really helped me, both in coming to Buddhism and getting through those first awful weeks of sobriety, was learning mindfulness meditation. It was what I did instead of drink (so I had LOTS of practice). At first it was almost impossible to still my mind, but I stuck with it, and it was a life saver. I used an app at first — from a website called Meditation Oasis. It’s their four week meditation class. I also really found the book (also a website and online class) Awakening Joy by James Salazar, very helpful. It is a friendly introduction to both mindfulness and Buddhist principles with lots of easy exercises that show how easy it is to apply both to your (more) real and new sober life. If you go right to the more academic discussion of Buddhist practice, it can seem, at first, hard to understand how it might apply to you. And trust me, you don’t need anything complicated these first few months. Getting sober is REALLY hard — honor and respect the work you are doing there, and only take on new practices that aid your sobriety until it becomes a little easier.

      So pleased for you! You’re gonna love it on this side.

  5. Loved the post as well. I can further confuse the debate because I follow A Course in Miracles, which is like a blend of Christianity and Buddhism, in some ways. But it’s still a spiritual path and is sometimes hard to reconcile with AA precepts. It’s clear, however, that I eventually use discrepancies of any type to justify drinking. On one of the blogs I was following, there was an image of a tattoo that read, “Never question the decision.” That is my mantra for today.

  6. I am Catholic, but have been reading about Buddhism lately in my quest for understanding. I’ve been sober for 16 months. I’ve gone to AA but don’t attend regularly. I definitely had some run-ins with some quite militant people… I think I was at a point then in my early recovery where I needed support, and not to be told that if I didn’t work the steps that I’d surely drink, etc. Now, I know that even the AA book says “take what you like and leave the rest”. So I’ve taken quite a bit of wisdom from the Big Book. And I also realize that people are often flawed, and different too. And what works for one person doesn’t work for another. I firmly believe that there’s not one “right” way to recover from addiction, although I think there are common practices, choices and beliefs among those who successfully live happily in recovery…which leads me to why I’m so grateful for these blogs where we all share our different paths to the same goal. What a treasure this is!
    I, too, struggled with the concept of powerlessness. I think it’s a tricky word for some of us, just as the concept of a higher power is often loaded for many of us too.
    Great conversation here. I love this sharing of ideas.

    • Thanks Jenn — you said it exactly “there’s not one “right” way to recover from addiction…there are common practices, choices, and beliefs among those who successfully live happily in recovery…” One of the the things I love about AA — and I fully admit, I lucked into two very caring home groups — is listening to the commonalities in experience and growth among the most peaceful of the long-time sober members. I think we all cobble together our paths — but we need something to cobble with. And that’s where people sharing what has worked, and not worked, for them has been so so valuable for me. It doesn’t always mean I agree, but even the process of figuring out why I am resistant to certain suggestions is helpful.

      This is definitely a topic worth exploring — the bigger questions, as it were. I feel like my needs for ideas and support in early sobriety were really different than what I look for from the sober world (online and off) now. This second stage is a lot more fun — and scary. I feel like I got rid of (most of) the cravings and figured out (most of ) the social ramifications of not drinking. But now it is a matter of finding a new passion. I stopped being a drunk — now who am I going to be? What am I going to do with all those regenerated brain cells, all that time (and money) not wasted on drinking, all that gratitude I brim with from waking up in time to enjoy my unmedicated life?

    • I am one who had to change my thoughts and words to stop drinking. the feeling of being powerless is an awful thought to me, so I had to tell myself that I had more power than the alcohol. I wanted to feel empowered, not powerless. Also, the more I told myself I had a problem or called myself an alcoholic, the more that remained true. After I began telling myself “I am a non drinker and I am happy with my choice” I noticed a HUGE change. Quitting became much less of a struggle, and the more I said it, craving and urges pretty much vanished. I never denied I had a problem, I knew from the beginning of my heavy it was. The more I focused on the “problem”, the more it grew. I didn’t deny the problem, I just changed the way I looked at it. Now, I am a non drinker, and I no longer have a drinking problem because I choose to avoid it. If I choose to drink again, I know it could easily turn into a problem again. I chose a program of recovery that focuses on empowerment and discourages the use of labels such as alcoholic or addict, and has no higher power or religion involved in the program, and leaves it up to the individual what to believe on the whole disease issue. I am pagan, and it’s easy for me to personally incorporate it into my recovery. Ive never had any experience with aa meetings, but I have read the big book, and not much of it resonated with me. I’m go grateful that there are many paths to recovery, and that I can pick what feel right from each of them and make my recovery work in the way I need it to. 🙂

      • Hello Sober Goddess…much of what you write resonates with me. I had to take back my power, not give it up…actually drinking made me powerless and living sober had empowered me like nothing else.
        Statistically, most people get over an addiction without any official addiction treatment at that right there tells you that the paths to healing are many indeed…I think that staying connected is one of the most important things that we can all do to keep on the path of freedom, so thank you for being here 🙂

  7. Hi. I’m new here and I look forward to reading more. But wanted to say that I love this post! Like you said, I know it’s not a religion blog, but I would enjoy hearing more about your experiences with Buddhism. I’m pretty new to it myself, also coming from a Christian background. It has been very helpful to me so far. This is also very helpful. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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