A sliding scale

Of course, there are degrees of heedlessness. One glass of wine with dinner on the weekend is not the same as consuming a quart of vodka daily or using drugs every day. Yet, even fine wine has addictive qualities: “Oh, nice! More, please!” If you often come home from work thinking you need a drink (or to smoke some weed) to calm down, very soon a daily habit is formed. The fifth precept recognizes the addictive nature of intoxicants. It is up to you to truthfully assess how well you handle their addictive quality.

For myself, this has been a difficult training. I have had long periods of total abstinence from any sort of alcohol, and a long-standing abhorrence of drug use. But sometimes I have been seduced by the “good life” quality of a wine with dinner. The argument that, for most people, a glass of wine a day is good for one’s heart (reported in a few scientific studies) can temporarily take on added weight. Usually, after some months of indulgence, I would notice that I was looking forward to having wine with dinner – that the thought occurred to me hours before dinner. I would take that as a warning sign and establish a new abstinence resolution.

Many years ago, I spent a period of months reflecting on the training in abstinence. I noticed that after two glasses of wine, I almost invariably ended up saying something that I later wished I hadn’t. After one glass I wasn’t at my best, though the external trouble was contained. Based on these observations and the understanding that my own dis-inhibition level was pretty low, I set myself some rules for imbibing: one glass of wine (at the most), with dinner, only if I wasn’t responsible for anything for the rest of the evening, and no more than three nights a week. I knew I was just containing the damage when I did this. One thing I know for sure: in no case does an intoxicant make me kinder or more alert.

At the time of this writing, I’m in a period of non-indulgence, which is showing signs of lasting a very long time. However, I’m deep into middle age now and so have spent much of my life working out the right way for me to observe this principle.

Other people set themselves different rules. One person might drink only on weekends. Someone else might drink a bit each day until she notices that the quantity is creeping up, or that she’s agitated if she doesn’t get her drink on time. Total abstinence is right for some (perhaps many) people. The key is awareness. What is your relationship to intoxicants?

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