Just How Free Do You Want To Be, Anyway?

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (I Corinthians 13.11).

In this blog entry I will suggest a few ideas about how the process of gaining sobriety has some interesting and informative parallels with the process of maturation. Close consideration of what maturation is and how it occurs might help in the navigation of the path leading to sobriety.

My journey to sobriety began when I was about 9 years old. It was around that time that I had my first philosophical thought (that’s not to say this became a habit; I didn’t really have any decent thoughts for another 25 years or so). But as I stood in my room, surveying the toys scattered randomly about, I became aware of a shift in the sense with which I beheld them. It struck me that there would eventually come a time when these things would no longer provide any enjoyment for me. Time would inevitably effect my estrangement from the joy that I received from them. I was deeply unsettled by this. But then this realization came to me: I will no longer enjoy them for the simple reason that my desire will by then have run its course, and that adolescence – that woeful interloper – will by then have fully displaced any trace of this particular desire. I realized that for all intents and purposes this shouldn’t be a difficult state to embrace, since the desire would be absent, and hence there would be no longing for these toys. My thought should have ended with this reasonably sound notion, but it didn’t. I began instead to lament the loss of my desire for these things; I lamented the loss of loss. I suppose that ultimately I was unsettled by the recognition that childhood must inevitably be left behind, and that I would eventually come to acquire a new identity. I’d have to learn to chase girls around, and spend all kinds of time standing around in line at a bank – the sorts of tedious and deplorable things that men choose to occupy themselves with.

I’ve since then learned that chasing girls around isn’t such a deplorable thing after all. The process of maturation waylaid the naïve pessimism I had entertained that day so long ago. The way I see it, maturation is a process involving the productive, informative interaction between reason, desire and will. The fruits of this interaction are the means by which Paul and every other child puts an end to childish ways. The process is a poetry of the self (the words “poem/poet” derive from the Greek poiein – “to make/create/do”). Navigating one’s way through life, picking up things here and there in the mind – these things become matrices of reason. The poetry of the self emerges from the dialogue which takes place between the will and desire. Reason provides a kind of grammar for the poem, setting aright any missteps in syntax, safeguarding the cohesive flow in the narrative structure of the self that will come to be written.

All human engagement with the world is mediated via the mind. All action is preceded by some level of deliberation which results in a decision. Where the mind has been – our personal history – is in constant negotiation with where we would like our mind to be – our personal future. Just as a fruit comes from a tree, both the will and desire come from a thought. Desire and will are the fruits of thought. All desires have a history – they don’t simply emerge from out of nowhere.

All human transformation involves moving from some former place to a newer. The impetus for the movement is the dialogue that takes place between desire and will. I wrote previously about Plato’s analogy on the governance of the soul/self. Plato presents his idea with an analogy of the self, which he proposes is akin to riding in a chariot pulled by two horses of disparate natures, one noble, the other ignoble. I would like to propose another chariot analogy here. My analogy involves three horses under the direction of the self/charioteer. The three horses (in the spirit of Plato, these horses of course have Greek names) are: Sophia, who is the center of the team. To either side are Eros, and Thelēma. These horses are very powerful, and they will lead wherever the charioteer directs.

Sophia, whose name translates to reason, wisdom, sound judgment, and skill, is the center of the team. She functions as a centrifugal power and energy, exerting the greatest influence over the momentum of the team as a whole. The horses to either side, Eros, whose name means desire and love, and Thelēma, whose name translates to will, are both directed by Sophia (provided she has been given a healthy diet). The direction in which Will and Desire move is informed principally by Reason. In other words, Desire and Will don’t simply go wherever they themselves see fit. Both in the process of maturation and in that of attaining sobriety, desire and will don’t just happen. Desire and will are themselves fruits, not trees. But reason will only get one so far. Reason must be working in a close synergistic relationship with desire and will.

Eros (love/desire) – a particularly troublesome horse for persons with disordered desires – wants to draw the self forward into the world. Perhaps a loved self is the only kind that can effectively be in the world. This isn’t the spurious love of self-centredness which points back only to the self; it is the love which points outward, which acknowledges and can accept that a fullest authenticity of presence to and in the world merits the worth and dignity of its sharing. This is possible only in sobriety. Only in sobriety can the self be fully present to the world. Only in sobriety can there be full manifestation of the worthiness of the self, and of all it has to offer to the world in unmitigated, unimpeded, fully authentic presence.

Thelēma (will) is sometimes a little ahead of Eros, sometimes a little behind – sometimes she leads to Love, while at other times Love leads to her. Will and Desire/Love impel one another to push forward, encouraging one another to advance and to grow. Sophia (Reason) alone cannot lead one to love oneself, but once Reason begins to impact one’s worldview, one’s will is transformed, and the authentic worthiness of the self becomes more apparent. Love then becomes possible, and one’s will sets its sights on it.

When the dynamics of reason, love and will are operative and healthy in persons seeking sobriety, there is continual maturation of these dynamic themselves. The self becomes far more immersed in the experience of authenticity and presence to the extent that the compulsion and attraction to the illusory, childish (in a pejorative sense) nature of intoxication begins to trickle away, to lose its seductive, magnetic power. Indeed it eventually becomes a deeply abhorrent and fearful thing (by which I mean not a thing to fear doing, but a fear to recall having done). The depth and feel of a sober life is of such a quality that one comes to not want to surrender it at any cost – even amid everyday difficulties and trials. The likelihood of a return to using becomes every bit as unlikely as a stooping down in return to the toys scattered on the floor of one’s childhood.

It is informative to note that the verb in Paul’s statement is in the active voice – i.e., this is action which he himself has effected. He was himself instrumental in effecting the process of maturation, in the “putting aside” of childish things and ways. And the transformation here is final and decisive. This is more apparent in the original Greek of Paul. The Greek verb katargeo has much more of a sense of finality and completeness than the English “put an end to.” The Greek verb means “to cause something to lose its power or effectiveness, to invalidate, to make powerless; to cause something to come to an end or to be no longer in existence, to abolish, to wipe out.” No doubt Paul managed this transformation by means of his increasing in wisdom, aligning his will to that wisdom, and allowing a new perspective on love – which includes the formation of a healthy and reciprocating desire – to solidify and further foster this maturation.

If I may venture here a neologism, I think that this type of growth might be referred to as thelemoerotic maturation. It is a maturation of the will and the formation of a sound perception of the nature of love. There is a movement to a perception of the worthiness of the world, the worthiness of self, and the realization that one has in the self something of great worth to give back to the world. There comes a mature and resolute acceptance that such is possible only via the authenticity which is garnered and engaged in sobriety. We begin to give ourselves permission to fully give and to fully be. This is a conscious pursuit of freedom.

My Story (Part6)

Looking back on the incident, I’m surprised how little I was bothered by the robbery. In his preface to the book Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction, Gabor Maté writes, “the healing of addiction is all about how to learn from pain.” Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was beginning to learn from pain, particularly that of my sister in her profound struggles with cancer. I was learning what real pain is, and what is merely nuisance. My sister was always an image of beauty. She could very easily have been a model. Cancer had done its best to conceal this beauty – though it didn’t succeed – and had left a number of alarming indicators of its merciless presence. She lost all of her hair. This loss revealed a massive scar which quartered her scalp where surgeons had gone in to scrape away some of the most urgent cancer. They also put a chemo “port” in her head. It left a massive bump – about the size of a golf ball – protruding from her head above her left eye, just above where her hair line would have been. As a result of pressure exerted by one of her brain tumours, her left side was more or less completely paralysed. Her left hand had curled up – the finger tips pressing helplessly against her palm – and she dragged her left leg as she walked, holding a four-footed cane in her other hand for stability. She suffered grand mal seizures. As she lay in her bed, her back would arch horrifically upward, like a bridge leading from sorrow to sorrow. There were days when the brain tumours rendered her mute, turning her inside herself, alone and remote in her brokenness.

I was now staying at a medical student’s residence close to the hospital, which had been arranged before my flight to the U.K. The residence, a Kafkaesque structure consisting of 4 or 5 stories, was for the most part hauntingly vacant during my few days there. I never once saw another person in the hallways, or entering or exiting the building. Perplexingly, the floors in the building weren’t numbered, and they were each completely and utterly nondescript, as though they didn’t want to be found out. One had to count the stair landings to arrive at the proper storey. A convoluted security system thwarted one’s efforts to correct the inevitable misstep of exiting the staircase into the wrong storey. Certain doors were locked at what seemed to be arbitrary intervals, and each storey was itself accessible only via particular stairwells.

My navigation of the building was further complicated by a fear of sleep I had acquired some time before coming to the U.K., and in my state of mental disquietude I invariably become lost whenever I attempted to enter or exit the residence. I became particularly lost following my meeting with the doctor at Charing Cross. Our meeting lasted about 3 minutes. He told me there was nothing that modern medicine could do for my sister.

So I went back to the residence, and got lost. Wherever it was that I had ended up in that building, I had there a kind of breakdown. Here I was, lost in this labyrinth, a Theseus without a string to lead me out into the light – and all the while the Minotaur of cancer sounded his murderous cries as he lumbered ever closer to my dear Ariadne, my dear sister. He pawed at the ground with hooves that kicked up angry dust which was now obscuring my sight of her, separating us, taking her away from me.

The doctor cut straight to the point: “You should get home, quickly, and be with your sister.”

It was hardly a hill at all, really. Just a very slight decline in the road which levelled out in front of our house – a degree of slope down which a ball wouldn’t even roll. The vinyl streamers at the ends of our handlebars danced to the clicking music of the straws which teeter-tottered the length of our bicycles’ wheel spokes. I stole a laughing glance over my shoulder, looking back at her, thrilled and exhilarated as I was at our exploit. I saw fear and the anxiousness that marks one who has found themself overwhelmed with what is at hand. “It’s too fast!,” she cried out, “The brakes! It’s too fast!”

 So I made my way back to Canada – without a string, without any brakes.


My Story (Part 5)

I was flying from Toronto to Charing Cross Hospital in London, England, with a piece of my sister’s brain tumour in a box on my lap. I was making my way over to see an oncologist at Charing Cross who was revered as an expert in the type of cancer that my sister was thought to have (gestational trophoblastic choriocarcinoma – a rare form of cancer which might be caused by pregnancy). The overhead monitors were showing horrific scenes from the conflict which was then raging in Kosovo. We sat captive to images of jets being shot down, of bodies half visible as they lay in pools of blood, of men thrilled and intoxicated with their entire warehouses full of weapons – an orgy of death unfolding in the chaos and myriad paraphernalia of violence over which we were shortly to pass en route to the U.K. I sat wondering how many of those weapons were now trained on our jet as it passed over them. For the majority of the flight our plane was caught in a jet stream or some such thing. The turbulence so was so severe that as I watched the wings flex where they meet the fuselage, I many times found myself surprised and mystified that we were somehow still aloft, rather than down there spilled and torn apart amid all the carnage and sorrow that was unfolding on the ground below us. I had with me, quite uncharacteristically since I was not at all a religious person then, a collection of the writings of the 12th century Christian mystic, Hildegard von Bingen: “The winds,” Hildegard assured me, “are the wings of God’s power.” This comforted me while I was being tossed around the cabin as the aircraft staggered and bucked through the insolent turbulence. On a more mundane level, I was surprised – and grateful – that the flight attendants didn’t seem to be keeping track of the alcohol. Combined with the Xanax and Ativan that I had taken before departure in the unsuccessful hope of assuaging my flight anxiety, the 15 or so drinks I consumed on board made my passage through Heathrow far less than graceful. The customs official asked me if I was in psychiatric treatment.

Once I had found an inexpensive hostel in the Shepherd’s Bush district of London, I went out in search of more alcohol and drugs. I somehow met a fellow who told me he could get me some hashish. We walked together for about an hour to the place where the hash was to be gotten. As we went along, I told him all about my sister, and how I had this box with me. We arrived at the spot. I waited a few moments while he went to retrieve the hash. He returned, now with another fellow who seemed anxious as they emerged from out of the rainy dark. Now beside me, he applied a little flame to what he had removed from his pocket, in order to demonstrate his honesty and integrity, I suppose. It smelled great, so I took out the fold of money I had in my pocket . . .

Two or so minutes later, while I could still see the two blokes running away with all the money I had with me in London, as I stood there with neither money nor hashish in my possession, another fellow approached. He said he had seen what happened, and was shocked and dismayed. He padded my front pants’ pocket in the thinly-veiled malicious hope that the others hadn’t taken it all. He was disappointed.


Dismantling the Myth of Powerlessness (Part 1)

In this series of entries, I’ll introduce some of the main works and theories that helped me to correct my thinking, and turned me away from the dangerous error and myth of powerlessness. This first entry is a general introduction to these conceptual tools. 

It took western science and psychology almost two and a half thousand years to catch up with Buddhist psychology, and to develop a practical methodology to apply to the treatment of addictions and other issues which may be broadly classed as disorders of desire. The efficacy of such cognitive-based methods as REBT (rational-emotive behaviour therapy), and DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) are now being verified by the science of neuroplasticity. In essence, neuroplasticity finds that brains are not held locked in a static state of development, but are amenable to thought, and are thereby adaptable and mouldable. Where the mind leads, the circuitry of the brain follows. Like a stream that erodes a channel into a hillside slope, in a similar manner the brain works tendentious channels into its circuitry, setting one up for any manner of habits and tendencies. Or just as rainfall will seek a path of least resistance in a channel eroded into the ground, the brain defaults to habits and proclivities that have been eroded into the structures and neural pathways of the brain. But the erosion can be re-landscaped. Both the rain waters and our thoughts can be re-routed. New routes can be formed in the neural pathways, and habits and dispositions can be unlearned and ultimately curtailed.

In his excellent book The Easy Way to Stop Drinking, Allen Carr uses the word “schizophrenia” to describe the tug-of-war that takes place between desire and revulsion in the mind of an addict. The word describes perfectly the inner conflict that torments affected persons. The word is from the Greek schizein, meaning “to split/divide,” and “phrenos”  meaning “self.” An addict suffers a conflict or division of self. If the mind is the seat of the self, it is the battle ground of the conflict. The battle is won or lost in the mind. In his work Phaedrus, Plato describes how the soul or self is akin to a charioteer whose chariot is pulled by a team of two horses of conflicted nature – one is noble, the other, ignoble. “The driving of them,” Plato asserts, “naturally is a great trouble to the charioteer.” In a dramatic passage, Plato describes the “unruliness” of the steeds, and the chaotic struggles that occur between them and their charioteer. Many are those charioteers and horses who,

” . . . not being strong enough, are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers.”

Jesus of Nazareth would later see the conflict as one between spirit and flesh: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And Paul of Tarsus would later say “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” With these words of Paul, the western mind seems to have thrown up its arms in defeat, and raised the white flag of surrender to the inviolable, insuperable tyranny of the effects and affects of dualism: “I can will what is right,” Paul continues his lament, “but I cannot do it.” A facile, uncritical reading of Paul laid the groundwork for the dangerous notion of helplessness that continues to poison traditional approaches to addiction treatment as well as other facets of culture and society. While some who drink pin the blame on the effect of having a ‘disease,’ and while Paul attributes his powerlessness to the presence of “sin” in his person, there was in the media recently a story in which wealth was to blame for a great tragedy. A drunk driver killed four pedestrians and injured eleven others, and the driver’s lawyer attempted to make the case that his client couldn’t be held accountable for his actions due to his being raised in a well-to-do household. “My client can will what is right, – one can almost hear the lawyer of the affluenza” teen – “but he cannot do it.” The myth and defence of the devil made me do it” is spreading its wings to gather up ever more victims.

Happily, there has been a decisive turn away from this helplessness and pessimism. In Buddhist psychology, the conflict begins (and ends) in the mind. As the Buddha taught:

“The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes: it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy” (Dhammapada 3.35).

How far removed this is from the self-manifesting impotence and hand-wringing that traditional methods of addiction treatments have foisted upon so many lives. I hope that this series will provide some hope for those who might lack it in some measure.

Recommended Reading

(The following works will be explored in subsequent entries in this series):

Dhammapada. This book is considered to be one of the earliest surviving sources of the actual words and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (who became known as The Buddha). I cannot overemphasize the impact this book has had – and continues to have – on my life. It’s deceptively simple, by which I mean it is a quick and easy read – yet it is a seemingly endless resource to apply to one’s day to day life. This is a book that never stops giving.

Allen Carr, The Easy Way to Stop Drinking. This is a brilliant book. The essence of it is Carr’s dismantling of desire through a clear presentation of what alcohol is and does. Carr’s book was massively helpful for me; it uprooted the roots of desire so that the tree of addiction ceased to grow, and quite simply and decisively withered completely away.

Albert Ellis, When AA Doesn’t Work For You: Rational Steps to Quitting Alcohol. A ground-breaking work from the founder of rational-emotive therapy. This is an introduction and how-to book for the application of RET to problematic drinking. The heart of the technique involves the disputing of unhealthy thoughts that arise in the mind. These are the seeds of Jack Trimpey’s “Beast/AV [Addictive Voice]” that he will present in his two works, the Small Book and Rational Recovery (see below).

Noah Levine, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering From AddictionThe title of the book itself is pretty much all that needs to be said here. But I’ll say more. For those who might not be too familiar with Buddhist thought, this book is an excellent introduction to those principles of Buddhism which are effective means for the overcoming of addictions – and more importantly, for living a more meaningful and joyful life. Noah Levine, in writing this book and in founding the Refuge Recovery program of meetings and recovery centres, has had – and will have – more positive impact on the treatment of addictions than any other method currently available. The world is a better place thanks to this noble man.

Marc Lewis, The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a DiseaseThis book undoes the mythology of addiction as a ‘spiritual’ or otherwise mystical, mysterious affliction that is hard-wired into select unfortunates, either by genetic predisposition or a debauched brain chemistry. Lewis doesn’t merely dismantle these errors, however, but goes further and proposes that a remarkable and powerful growth can come out of the experience of post-addiction.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, You Are Not Your Brain: The 4 Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your LifeSchwartz’ book is both an introduction to neuroplasticity, and also a program to apply its principles to disordered thinking.

Philip Tate, Alcohol: How to Give it up and be Glad you DidThis is a helpful introduction and method for applying rational emotive behaviour therapy.

Jack Trimpey, The Small Book [&] Rational Recovery. These two books are popular presentations of several facets of REBT and DBT. They are helpful and accessible guides for identifying toxic thought, and for debating it once it has arisen. Particularly in the first book, Trimpey very strongly voices a number of objections to AA and traditional approaches, and turns the reader away from their helplessness of passive victimhood into the active governance of one’s own sobriety.

The Mythology of Powerlessness (Part 3)

I was a member of A.A. for some time, and that membership kept me firmly in the drinking game. The notion that I had a “disease” provided a ready-made excuse that I could fall back upon whenever I craved or chose to succumb to the craving. A.A. taught me the catastrophic myth that I was “diseased,” and that I would always be “diseased.” I would never, for the rest of my days, ever know freedom. I would have to wait until a higher power intervened in my ‘disease.’ Yet even then I would still have to continue to attend meetings for the rest of my life. Freedom, in this scenario, was only virtual, not actual. The bars of my prison had been rendered invisible, but they were still there, holding me inside their constrictive confines, choking me, subordinating and subjugating my true essence and nature as a free being. This kept me in the drinking game for many, many years. My membership in A.A. caused me many years of suffering, directly contributing to a very severe clinical depression. I’m not OK with that. And the myth of helplessness was self-perpetuating. It ensured that I cannot leave the cycle: I was helpless, so I craved, which made me more helpless, so I craved, which made me more helpless, so I craved . . .

I was like a dog chasing his tail. For as long as a dog has a tail, he must chase it. For as long as I was helpless, I had to chase freedom, because I didn’t have it. Because I didn’t have it, I was helpless, so I had to chase it, but I was helpless, so I couldn’t catch it . . .

I came finally to accept that for me, any involvement I had in A.A. brought with it a guarantee that I could never experience true freedom. Ultimately, in being involved in A.A., all that I was doing was trading one jailer, one oppressor, for another. I was enabling myself to remain a victim.

But if the tail ceases to be, the chase ceases to be. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism changed everything, and they changed it decisively, completely, absolutely. In the Buddhist approach in targeting desire – which is the very root of addiction itself – craving is no longer even possible for me. There quite simply is nothing for me to chase. There is no jailer – the bars of his prison have been obliterated.

The First Noble Truth – there is dukkha (suffering, disharmony, friction) in the world – could be seen to be compatible with AA. There is no conflict here between the two approaches. But what either approach does with that suffering is radically at odds. I have yet to hear in Buddhist circles any wallowing in lurid stories of what this suffering has driven one to do in the past. In Buddhist circles, all is forward motion and the fostering and edification of the dynamic which propels one out of the suffering and into the freedom which each sentient being has and is.

The Second Noble Truth parts ways with the 12 step approach. It teaches that suffering is the result not of a disease, but of a failure to recognize the transient, ephemeral nature of all things, and of seeking the fruits of these illusory and transient pleasures. Tanhā (craving, desire) is the result of this failure to see what’s happening as one swims in the stream of change and clutches graspingly at the waters. Buddhism teaches that change is inevitable; the 12 steps teach that it is impossible. Buddhism teaches mindfulness of the subtle and insidious shift that can take place from “want” to “need” to “must.”

The Third Noble Truth is where things really diverge. This Truth teaches simply that there can be an end to suffering! Once attachment and craving have been eradicated, suffering has been eradicated. Dukkha is no longer capable of causing suffering. This idea is radically antithetical to the core of 12 step approaches in which one cannot know an end to attachment. In the 12 step approach, for the remainder of one’s life the enemy is perpetually lying in wait, poised to strike. In Buddhism, the enemy is no more – the enemy has been completely and utterly neutralized.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells me how to annihilate the enemy of illusion and craving. Now I no longer have to spend the rest of my days looking over my shoulder waiting for the enemy to attack; the enemy no longer exists. There is no necessity of attending meetings for the rest of my life. I don’t have to wait for a deity to save me in the way that a man might put his finger into a glass of water to save a struggling and drowning insect.

The efficacy of the Four Noble Truths and of the teaching of the Buddha in general are often described analogously to the practice of medicine. Dukkha is the illness itself; craving is the virus that causes it; awareness marks the transition to health; the Dhamma (teachings) are the path to that health. There is no waiting around for a higher power to flip the switch. The crypto-calvinism which is the heart and soul of the 12 step approach, i.e., the notion of the powerless and insufficiency of the self and the necessity of divine intervention is radically at odds with the central teaching and method of Buddhism. The application of these teachings to the overcoming of addictions is particularly apt and effective, in large part because they affect one’s world view – which oftentimes is the impetus and catalyst of addiction. One is empowered deeply and thoroughly in all facets of life, and in all relationships – the relationship both to oneself and to others. The master-servant relationship of a drug and its user becomes a master-disciple relationship between oneself and one’s will and action:

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).

In this way of viewing the matter, if liberation from such a thing as addiction is gained via a master other than the self, one must ask: is it really liberation at all? Can an exterior master, a master other than the self, free one from the internal dynamics and poisons of illusion and temptation?

I have gone round in vain the cycles of many lives ever striving to find the builder of the house of life and death . . . But now I have seen thee, housebuilder: never more will you build this house. The rafters of illusion are broken, the walls of craving are destroyed, the floor of desire is destroyed” (Dhammapada 11.153-154).

The house is our world of illusion to which we uncritically surrender. We ourselves are the housebuilder. Only we ourselves can destroy the illusory house that we’ve constructed in our mind:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind” (Dhammapada 1.1).

For more information of the application of Buddhist teachings to addiction, please see the Refuge Recovery website.

My Story (Part 4)

With my obsession for Homer continuing to mount, I applied to university – as a “mature student,” since I hadn’t completed high school. I was granted entry – on probationary status – and began studying Classics. I did sufficiently well to win a scholarship to take part in an archaeological excavation in Greece, at a small Peloponnesian mountain town called Stymphalia. It was very hot, and we excavated a lot of scorpions there, and the odd Roman coin and arrow point. The one taverna in the town of Stymphalia only stocked Amstel beer, and kept behind the counter large barrels of a type of homemade wine called “retsina.” You’d bring in an empty bottle, and Georgios or Stavros or Spiros would fill it with retsina. I’ve no doubt in my mind that the town of Stymphalia is still reaping the profits of my having frequented that taverna with such loyalty throughout the month I spent there 15 or so years ago.

But none of this should be taken to mean that I devoted much time to thinking. I could distinguish between an Ionic column and a Doric one, and I could tell you the name of Aeneas’ father, and how many labours Heracles had undertaken, and I could also now distinguish very dangerous scorpions from less dangerous ones; but I couldn’t really tell you much else. My thinking wasn’t yet affecting my life in any ultimate or meaningful sense. I was still depressed. I still drank, drugged, and smoked a lot.

Then my sister, who was 33 years old at the time, and in her 8th month of pregnancy, was diagnosed with cancer. She was out Christmas shopping in December, 1999, when she suddenly lost consciousness. Subsequent tests revealed she had cancer on her lungs, her brain, her liver, her lymph nodes, and her kidneys.


The Thought of Never Drinking Again

Reading through a number of sobriety blogs, I’ve noticed that the idea of never drinking again is something that plagues a lot of people who are seeking sobriety. It’s something that plagued me a little in the past, when I was first making serious strides toward sobriety. But luckily this was around the time that I was also pursuing a serious mindfulness practice. Mindfulness provided me release from being uncomfortable with the thought of never drinking again. Here are 2 mindfulness exercises that I used to quickly overcome this.

1. Observe the Mind

One of the first principles of mindfulness has been stated eloquently by Joseph Goldstein, in his book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening:

“If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.”

So the second or third time that the thought of never drinking again appeared in my mind as a troubling thought – I simply asked myself, “OK – what’s going on here? Why is this an unpleasant thought?” And since I had already decided with certainty that I wished to give up alcohol, I wondered: “How can this be an unpleasant thought?

One of my first steps was to weigh up in my mind the qualities I felt while reflecting on two possible scenarios for my future, being aware of what sort of mood each presented in my mind as I held them up for reflection:

  1. I imagined myself trapped in the cycle of regret about drinking
  2. I imagined myself free from the cycle of regret about drinking

Surprisingly, what I found is that the deeper I sat and felt around in my mind during and after this initial reflection, I came to realize that the unpleasant character of the thought had to do with a lack of trust and confidence in myself and my intentions. In some deeper level of my mind, I didn’t really yet believe that I could abstain. There remained some vestige of doubt buried deep down in my mind. I felt that a return to drinking was inevitable. The unpleasant feeling was actually the result of my subconscious entertaining the notion that I would eventually act contrary to my intentions, and would resume drinking. The unpleasantness I was feeling was the result of doubting my intentions, or perhaps predicting that I would fail to carry them out. This awareness was deeply liberating.

I then made efforts to build up my resolve about sobriety by doing some pretty common things such as listing advantages to drinking (hint: there aren’t any – not even a single one!), and advantages to not drinking (hint: how many grains of sand are there on a long stretch of beach, or how many waves on an ocean?).

2. Reflect On the Nature and Relation of Time, Impermanence, and Freedom

I also thought about why I was troubled about how the future would look without alcohol, and why I was troubled about who I would be in that future. I realized that there is no ‘given’ when thinking about the future. There was no need to feel oppressed by some imaginary condition that I was projecting into the future. Why was I associating the future with suffering? I wondered. I was imagining myself at some time in the distant future – dissatisfied with my state, and suffering with desire – but who or what is that person who I had imagined? Though this person didn’t even exist, I had somehow managed to fill him with the suffering of an insatiable longing, and managed also to fold that suffering back onto my present self, causing myself to feel that longing and suffering vicariously. It was the unreal suffering of an unreal character caused by an unreal longing in an unreal time. Being very clear to myself that it was only a conglomerate of unrealities affecting my uncomfortableness at the thought of never drinking again, was very effective in alleviating that virtual, anticipatory suffering.

I realized that the future will look precisely as I cause it to look. The early Buddhist text, the Dhammapada puts it this way:

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday,                                                                      and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow:                                                                            Our life is the creation of our mind.”

And the 4th century Christian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

“We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be.”

The only ‘given’ of tomorrow is the freedom of my thoughts and experience of today with which I sculpt who I will be tomorrow. Even at the cellular level the human person is wholly and entirely re-constituted throughout the course of 7-10 year cycles. The Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah put it this way:

“The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any single state for long. Everything experiences change and deprivation. This is a fact of life about which we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is to contemplate the body and mind to see their impersonality, that neither of them is ‘me’ nor ‘mine’. They have only a provisional reality. It’s like this house, it’s only nominally yours. You couldn’t take it with you anywhere.”

If there is no “me” or “mine” – then where does this addiction abide? The reality is that it doesn’t, unless I permit it to do so, unless I “take it with me” like the house that Chah mentioned. Such labels as “alcoholic” or “helpless” were every bit as subject to change as the cells of which my material being was constituted. All I had to do was to cease clinging to these provisional constructs, to stop misconstruing them with “me” or “mine.”

With help from these two mindfulness exercises, it eventually came to be that the thought of never drinking again became a source of liberating, boundless joy, and an affirmation of both my power and freedom, while the thought of ever drinking again became a terrifying, nightmarish lapse into an oppressive unreality and illusion.