Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Alcohol Substitute

Many people make a vow to abstain from alcohol, often citing religious reasons. (Often religious people might use alcohol as an issue of judgment. I know there is a tension between the Evangelical and Catholics on this issue - among others - and Muslims also come to mind.)

There was an Evangelical wedding my wife and I were invited to several years ago that was quite the experience; one we'll never forget.

No alcohol.
No cash bar. No open bar. No wine on the tables, but grape juice for the toasts. Don't get me wrong. It isn't that I need alcohol to have fun. It's not that I need alcohol to celebrate. It's that there wasn't really any celebrating. Strictly controlled speeches. No music. No dancing.

It was like fun was replaced with fear.
That is the point that haunts me to this day, and has heavily affected a decision I made last summer on holiday (August 2012). I promised myself to give up drink. No, there was no event or embarrassment that initiated it. Just a point I came to in my personal journey towards solace and compassion.

However, I have zero tolerance for using this promise for any degree of attention. We all know these people. At some celebration or social event they decide to make it about their abstinence or their belief, at the passive judgement and potential guilt of others. No, that was never the purpose for me. I would have no difficulty with a glass of wine at a toast or social engagement should it merit it. (And incidentally this made me appreciate and savor the tastes more than before).

I know what you're thinking because I thought it myself. “That's not making a vow to abstain from alcohol”.


Maybe we should explore some traditional understandings or assumptions about 'vows'. Many of our “Western Traditions” or beliefs or religions – like the Evangelical, Catholic, or Muslim mentioned earlier – are ethical systems governed by rules. They are based on obedience to regulations and consequences. Failure or disobedience comes with moral guilt and fear of punishment. Ultimately, whether intentionally or not, it is a system of fear - and in turn - punishment. Taking a vow of alcohol abstinence in this tradition can only end in a fear of failure. There are no degrees or gradations allowed, for its purpose is not focused on personal growth or improvement, because improvement is an ongoing process, and process involves growth, and growth involves failure.

I don't believe this is spiritually healthy.

In the Mindfulness tradition the practices governing ethical behaviour are primarily concerned with shaping personal character. If one falls short of the promise, they simply take note of the shortcoming and vow to do better on the next occasion, without the feeling of incompetence or moral guilt.

This particular way of approaching ethical conduct invites the individual to act morally – not to avoid punishment (I don't run a red traffic light because I'm afraid of getting a ticket, but because I understand the danger I put myself and others in), but for the more positive and constructive purpose of refining one's character and promoting the well-being of the world (solace and compassion). This Mindfulness tradition uses neither the stick nor the carrot. (I am not given a reward for my good behaviour).

Making a vow in these two traditions involve drastically different functionalities.


I suppose my 'vow of alcohol abstinence' was more one of moderation and refraining from abuse. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize it was closer to Buddhism's 5th precept:
I shall endeavor not to consume toxins.”

Alcohol is not necessarily a poison, but it can be. However, there are a great many mind-inflicting toxins out there.

Historically, the precept to refrain from consuming toxins referred specifically to the use of alcohol, but the intent of this principle was simply to diminish the destructive effects of drunkenness. The use of alcohol can obviously affect the ability to think clearly, but alcohol isn't the only substance that can affect our ability to think clearly. Adhering to the spirit of this precept would necessarily mean becoming aware of any substance that could impair our mental and bodily functions, such as tobacco and mind-altering drugs.

Promising to observe this precept means nothing less than monitoring the things we allow into our bodies and into our minds.

Guarding our minds from intoxication and toxicity would necessarily include being aware of the kinds of information we take in. Gossip, slander, toxic people, poisonous attitudes, and some media. (Is watching Simon Cowell degrade and humiliate hopeful young artists and singers really entertainment? What does it say about you if you enjoy this?)

Religion can be a dangerous addiction.
Religiosity is a consumable toxin. And for those who would make this vow of alcohol/toxin abstinence – especially for religious reasons – I would advise them to search deeply and tread carefully.
Do not replace one with another more difficult to abstain from and near impossible to identify or be aware of. In fact, one could argue that Religiosity has a built-in system to keep its addicts blind to their affliction – fear of punishment and moral guilt. Perpetually conditioned to believe themselves undeserving and inadequate.

For me, these past six months have been yet another exercise in approaching the Mu Portal; freeing myself from the fetters that shackle and bind me.

I don't think is it overly important whether we take this 'vow' to not consume toxins, but I think it is extremely important  that we take an inventory of toxins within our daily lives. Alcohol would seem to be the lest of our worries.

(...continued on The Cleansing...)

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