Sobriety

Many years ago I had a conversation with a young couple who had just heard an introduction to Buddhist practice by Shinzen Young. Before long, one of them said, “But if we do this practice, it might change how we live!” I had to admit that this was true, and pointed out that it might gradually lead to wiser choices.

Most of us know that we could make improvements to our lifestyle, but we think about it reluctantly. Our idea of who we are is tied up with the most mundane habits, some of long-standing and others quite new. Our food preferences, our choices in entertainment, our relations with family members – these and many other factors add up to “who we are”. For this reason, a challenge to any part of this identification process can feel like an attack. If being knowledgeable about wine and appreciating a nice drop is a regular part of our day, thinking of giving it up can be upsetting.

The training recommended by the Buddha is designed to upset the status quo; it’s not meant to protect our comfort zone. Over time, we change who we spend time with, what activities we participate in, and how we think about our life. What principles are guiding our decision-making?

The fifth precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” Whole sectors of society would see this as an outlandish idea. Intoxication with drink or drugs is considered a reward for working, or a necessary part of relaxation. Many individuals self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs to avoid confronting the underlying causes of their unhappiness. Some people consider getting so high that they black out a standard form of fun. This is all very much a part of our general cultures. The Buddha points out that when we’re intoxicated, we don’t think straight; intoxication leads away from mindfulness and towards mindlessness.

You may say, “Well, I can drink or smoke dope without getting intoxicated”. In a relative sense this is true. One glass of wine may impair our judgment to an imperceptible degree. However, the first drink or toke makes the second and third ones more likely, and in no case does it improve mindfulness.

At a societal level, intoxication is associated with domestic violence, traffic tragedies, even murder. Because the consequences can be so serious, we ought to look carefully at what we are doing with alcohol or drugs. There are social programs that aim to mitigate the damage, but for our own integrity, it must begin with us examining our relationship to intoxicants. If we’re part of a social group that floats along on a sea of drink or drugs, how do we feel about that? Do we have other opportunities for social connection?

For most of us, reflecting on and discussing our drinking/drugging habits is a slow and gradual process. Shutting things down in one go is rarely sustainable. When we decide that we want to choose mindfulness over carelessness at every opportunity, quite a few of our habits may change.

 

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Less talk

The precepts on upright speech give us a wide range of opportunities to improve how we relate to each other verbally. In a nutshell, the instructions are to guide our speech by truthfulness, harmonious intent, gentleness, and non-blathering. But for me, probably the most important practice regarding speech is…silence.

There have only been a few moments I can point to in my own practice when I could see that something had changed. When I started not-saying what was on my mind, at least not right away, everything shifted.

There are a couple of parts to this. In a conversation with two or more people, sometimes if we wait, whatever we had on our mind is said by someone else. It’s best if people figure things out for themselves instead of being told by someone else, and a lot of us only figure out what we think by listening to ourselves talk. So lesson number one (for me) is WAIT.

This willingness to pause has other benefits. It has been my experience that if I listen with full attention to someone, they listen to themselves better and consequently speak in a more authentic way. Sometimes what we had been planning to say would have interrupted the flow the conversation, possibly pointing it back towards ourselves and our experiences or opinions.

Another good thing that can happen if we practice silence is that we are able to take in more information and form a broader picture of whatever subject is at hand. Many people need pauses built into their thoughtful speech. They deserve that space, and it is kind for us to give it to them. If someone is saying something we disagree with, we can wait until they finish, because they may end up surprising us. We can ask questions rather than arguing. If our goal is to understand rather than persuade, everyone benefits.

And, keeping silence conserves our energy.

Of course, there are people who have difficulty speaking up. They may be keeping too much silence already, especially if they are not-speaking because of fear or a lack of self-confidence. We can notice if this is the case and invite the quiet ones to share their thoughts, then wait for a complete response.

Listening is an important form of giving, and it is a powerful tool for loosening the grip of our self-importance.

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Non-harming with sexual energy

Moving along in our investigation of ethical living as a foundation for harmonious communities, the third precept is: I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.

We could argue long and hard about what exactly constitutes sexual misconduct, but the shorthand rule is to refrain from hurting anyone (including ourselves) with our sexual energy and actions. Egregious misconduct includes rape, coercion, and other prosecutable offenses. Less obvious versions include betraying established partners, misleading others, seductions, taking advantage of people who are vulnerable (impaired by intoxicants, or at a disadvantage by virtue of age or inexperience). People with authority over others have a special duty to protect those under their care.

Flirting and teasing form a tricky category because they can so easily tip over into humiliation and emotional cruelty. If we observe closely, we can see that sexual teasing or taunting is a form of bullying.

…what is the scope and purpose of this precept? The word kama means in Pali “sensual desire,” which is not exclusively sexual. It is here used in a plural form which comes close to what is meant by the Biblical expression “the lusts of the flesh.” Greed for food and other sensual pleasure is also included. Most people who are strongly addicted to sexual indulgence are also much drawn to other sense-pleasures. …For those with any grasp at all of Buddhist principles, the basic reason for such an injunction should be immediately obvious. Our dukkha — our feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with life — is rooted in our desires and cravings. The more these can be brought under control, the less dukkha we shall experience. It is as simple as that. But of course, that which is simple is not necessarily easy.
(from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe/wheel225.html)

Our feelings of love and sexual desire are often intermingled and can become confused. Love can sometimes be pure and unselfish, but sexual desire is usually about satisfying ourselves, physically and/or emotionally. Lust can provide us with a false feeling of power or of escape from our responsibilities. It takes patience to sort out when our desire to make someone else happy is overtaken by our own perceived needs.

Our sense of self is more closely tied to our bodies than to any mental qualities. Keeping our bodies safe and comfortable consumes a tremendous amount of energy. If we can practice awareness and acceptance of things as they are, just now, the urgency of our passing desires may be tempered.

As a wise friend said, once we refrain from harmful behavior, a whole world of wholesome possibilities opens up. For example, we can physically comfort others when appropriate. We can position our bodies and facial expressions to make others feel welcome, safe, and loved. Kindness is expressed non-verbally more often than not, and that is something we can observe in others and cultivate in ourselves.

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What’s mine? What’s yours?

Further to our reflections on ethical behavior, the second of the five precepts is: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.”

Different ways to transgress the second precept are (1) stealing (secretly taking what is not given), (2) robbery (taking what is not given by force), (3) fraudulence (laying false claims or telling lies in order to gain someone else’s possessions), and (4) deceit (using deceptive means to deprive someone of an article or to gain his money).

(from an essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi – http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html#prec2)

Most of us wouldn’t admit to doing any of these things, even in subtle ways, but it can still be a useful self-inquiry. Have we ever included misleading information on an application for a loan or a job? Do we help ourselves to whatever is available at work? If transport or other services use the “honor system”, do we abuse that? Are (possibly mild) forms of fraudulence or deceit required by our work?

By becoming conscious of the second precept we invite a specific type of mindfulness, a careful scrutiny of our own intentions and behavior. We can sharpen our perception of what others consider theirs and where the boundaries are. An awareness of our desire to have what others have can be brought into focus, and we might strengthen and refine our honesty. It could also give us confidence in maintaining an upright form of livelihood.

We are beset by desirable images that stimulate our greed. This is not stealing, but it may be the root motivation that could make taking what is not given seem reasonable. Keeping the second precept in mind might help us to check our greed by ringing the alarm when we notice it, allowing us to let the feeling pass without acting on it. Every time we do this, the greedy root is weakened.

All three of the unwholesome roots may be at work motivating a person to break the second precept. Greed or hatred can suffice, but must be accompanied by delusion if we think it’s OK to take what’s not ours.

We can also counter any impulse we might feel in this direction with acts of generosity. When we offer food, material goods, time, or friendship, we are opening our hearts to others; we are giving so others may freely accept our offerings. And generosity often inspires more generosity, in ourselves and others.

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Moving along the path

All the different varieties of Buddhism share the same philosophical foundation: the four truths, the eight-fold path, and the principle of co-dependent arising of all phenomena. Where they differ is in the methods and practices used to realize the goal of liberation from suffering. The Theravada path is the oldest and most unadorned, and the initial and ongoing practices we emphasize are based on ethical behavior rather than surrender to a guru or other forms.

Within the Theravada scriptures there are many lists of wholesome and unwholesome qualities, but the most basic unit of instruction for laypeople is the group of the “five precepts”. These principles are undertaken as a lifetime practice in refining our words and actions, and they lead inexorably in the direction of freedom from suffering.

Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. (from AN 8:39, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

It’s often true that the first item on a list carries the most weight. The category of “abstaining from the destruction of life” is the first precept and covers a wide scope of activities. Most obviously it means don’t kill people or other beings. The more deeply we investigate, the more we discern that the wish to kill or crush others is the root of the problem, and it comes up in our minds more often than we might like. When we learn to abandon the intention to harm any living thing, as it arises, we are liberating ourselves from a powerful negative force. Every time a thought of harming is interrupted before it can become action, we win a victory. As the Dhammapada says (Dhp 103, translated by Gil Fronsdal):

Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers herself.

The gift of safety that we have the power to give to other beings returns to us as a gift of purity, a moment of non-clinging. When we protect others from harm, we protect ourselves. The precept states that we should refrain from harmful activity, including things that might harm us. Having done that, we can move in a positive direction by finding ways to nurture life. It’s like walking in one direction, stopping, and turning to go in another direction.

We all have different triggers for thoughts of harming. We can get results if we start noticing them as they come up, and framing them as welcome challenges, as invitations to convert thoughts of harming to thoughts of preserving or nurturing life.

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Knowing what we’re doing

In MN 61, the Buddha instructs his young son, a monk, to reflect on his own wholesome and unwholesome actions. He recommends that this reflection be done before taking action, while taking action, and after taking action:

Also, Rahula, while you are doing an action with the body, you should reflect upon that same bodily action thus: ‘Does this action that I am doing with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?’ When you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body leads to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results,’ then you should suspend such a bodily action. But when you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body does not lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is a wholesome bodily action with pleasant consequences, with pleasant results,’ then you may continue in such a bodily action. (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In later posts we’ll get into some particulars of wholesome and unwholesome actions, but this sutta suggests an a priori requirement – reflection. It can make the difference between carelessly repeating habitual patterns vs. training our bodies and minds to see ourselves and others in a new way. Rather than viewing other people as obstacles to our desires, or reminders of our inadequacies, or as insignificant, we can start to see that we’re all in the same situation. We all want to live peacefully and happily, without stress or conflict, and we all try, sometimes in misguided ways, to get what we want. What we forget is that when our motivation is to get something for ourselves by excluding or rejecting others, or ignoring our fundamental equality with them, it cannot improve our situation. Clinging, in all of its various forms, can only create suffering.

A special case of unwholesome clinging is “us vs. them” thinking. Unless we try to understand where other people are coming from, we’ll only move further apart.

On the other hand, if we broaden the scope of our intentions to include ourselves and others, we may discover ways to bring joy, or resolution, or release, to all concerned. When we let go of our greedy, me-centered framework, a whole range of possible actions may become apparent.

The key is to notice what we’re doing, ideally before we act, or while we are in the process of doing something. A dharma friend once said to me, “Listen to yourself!” That would be a good start, but we could broaden the instruction to “Observe your intentions and actions.” If we observe ourselves closely as we go about our daily business we will see when our actions are motivated by selfishness and when they are motivated by generosity and beneficial intentions.

Failing that, we can recognize the discomfort that comes afterwards if we know we’ve done something harmful, and the pleasant feeling of having done something beneficial. An after-the-fact assessment can sometimes cut through habitual thinking and provide the opportunity to re-frame a situation.

We can always return to this starting point – we can watch what we’re doing, with care.

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Giving sustenance

“Monks, if people knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of miserliness to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. But, monks, as people do not know, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they eat without having given, and the stain of miserliness obsesses them and takes root in their minds.” (Itivuttaka 26, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

It may be difficult for us to imagine being hungry, having only one bite of food, and thinking of sharing that bite with someone else in need. All three parts of that scenario are likely to be outside of our experience. But what can we take from this verse? We can notice how we relate to food. Do we eat without thinking? Do we get cranky if we’re served something we don’t like, or if we have to wait longer than anticipated for a meal? When was the last time we actually felt hungry?

When we enjoy food (or anything), are we aware of our good fortune in having enough? Do we remember that there are many people in the world, perhaps not very far away, who face hunger or malnutrition?

A few ways we might share our good fortune are by donating money or food to a local food bank, or by volunteering at Meals on Wheels or at any source of nourishment for those in need. There are also international charities that focus on bringing food and water sustainability to those in dire need – Buddhist Global Relief, for example.

Giving food has a special place in the practice of generosity because it is (along with water) the most essential element for keeping our bodies alive. By giving food, by remembering whenever we eat that others also need to eat, we strike at the heart of our own greedy tendencies.

Conquer stinginess with giving (from Dhp 223, translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Sharing our time and attention are also important ways of giving, and provide similar benefits to our inner life. Whenever we give, we are countering our natural selfishness with the equally natural (and much pleasanter) energy of generosity. We only need to remember (and re-remember) this principle for it to do its work.

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