I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.
The Buddha’s method for setting down rules was that he waited until someone did something harmful and then created a general rule for the monks and nuns to follow. The monastic community got the instruction to avoid intoxicants after a monk shamed the sangha with his drunken behavior. The fifth precept for laypeople is in the Pali canon, and is synchronous with the other four precepts. A person whose perceptions are altered will have difficulty maintaining mindfulness and is unlikely to take responsibility for her/his actions.
Thich Nath Hanh is a great teacher on this subject. He says that you only have to look at society in general to see how much suffering is precipitated by drink and drugs. Domestic violence, fights among friends, motivation drained away, thievery, lying, withdrawal from society, misbehavior of every variety comes about when people are high on one thing or another. I’ve yet to hear of a single case of someone’s behavior being improved by becoming intoxicated.
Analgesic uses of legal drugs to alleviate suffering are not part of this conversation. Whether drugs are legal or illegal, it’s the intention to “get high”, to escape reality, to assuage negative feelings, that creates a problem.
Most of us grew up thinking that a bit of drink or pot-smoking was a rite of passage. It was seen as a reward, sometimes unearned, but often anticipated. Our social and cultural context is usually the most powerful influence on our attitude towards intoxication. Some think that a tendency towards addictive behavior is genetically inherited, which (if true) could only prove to be a vulnerability, not a fixed fate.
Paradoxically, non-drinkers are often assumed to be recovering alcoholics, as if there must be a dramatic reason not to drink instead of a reason to drink.
Why do we indulge in substances that blur our awareness and blunt our sense of what’s kind or wholesome? When we feel distressed, what are our choices to relieve the pressure? We might each have our own alternatives, for example, vigorous exercise, a good cry, yoga, a hot bath, things that make us laugh, a good novel, talking with a friend, even meditation.
For many or most of us, keeping up a regular sitting practice is a challenge. We can pursue any number of diversions and excuses for procrastination. It is normal that we are reluctant to experience our own physical and mental phenomena directly, clearly, and impartially. The only way to overcome this reluctance is to recognize it and decide that it’s worth trying, persistently and consistently, to be mindful. The rewards will be commensurate with our efforts; we will still experience stress, but will be better able to handle whatever comes.