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Saturday, July 23, 2011

A new blog

Dear Friends and readers: I am devoting my energies to a new blog, The Buddha Wasn't A Fat Guy. It takes on (or will) all of the themes I have written about here, but in a context that is more current for me, and allows me to be a bit more open about who I am without any concern about anonymity within AA. I would love for you to read and, I hope, comment on the new blog.

Unlike God-loving Buddhist Drunk, I have obligated myself to write in this new blog every day (or as close to that as I can; one never knows with vacations and such...), so hopefully that will be one advantage to the new one. In any case, thanks so much for reading over the years I have been publishing (very intermittently) here. I really did appreciate it and honored the fact that people I have never met were reading what I wrote.

The address to the new blog is  http://buddhawasntafatguy.blogspot.com.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Acceptance

It is my opinion that there is almost no passage of AA literature more profound (or more Buddhist) than the oft-quoted, and nearly as often misunderstood, part of one of the stories that deals with the thorny concept of acceptance. It begins:
"And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation--some fact of my life--unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment." (page 417 in Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition)
American Vipassana master Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a time in her life when her response to any inquiry into how she was doing was, "I couldn't be better," no matter what her external circumstances. Though it seems at first glance to be a rather dismissive statement, when one drills down a bit deeper, it is a very profound and meaningful truth. In fact, we could have just been in a major traffic accident, have multiple broken bones, be in terrible pain, be bleeding profusely, and the fact still would be that we couldn't be better. It is the very desire to have things be other than as they are which is the nature of suffering as the Buddha defined it. Acceptance really is the answer to all my problems. Everything else is desire, aversion, or ignorance, the trifecta of suffering at the core of the Buddha's teachings.

The Big Book goes on to make the statement which has caused so much consternation over the years, "Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake." This has been, for me, a very useful koan, and one to which I have returned frequently. As with most people who read it for the first time, my initial interpretation of this line went something like this: "Everything that happens is O.K. with God." I have come to believe, however, that this is far from the truth of what is being said.

An AA speaker (Sandy B.) once said, "Problems are just events we decide never should have happened". This is one of the most important meanings of the idea that nothing happens in God's world by mistake. When we face the solid reality of an event that has happened or is happening, if it is unpleasant the immediate reaction is to deny its legitimacy, to determine in our own minds that it never should have happened. This judgment has two quite negative effects. The first is to divide us from the reality of the here and now, which, according to the dharma, is the most profound place in which we can dwell. No matter what the reality is, it is the whole truth of this moment. The second deleterious result is that it places us in opposition to that reality, which is the very nature of suffering in the Buddhist cosmology. In fact, regardless of what it contains, this moment "couldn't be better". It is one of the deepest and most disturbing ironies of human existence that the very rejection of the source of our pain is at the core of our suffering. Or, as one sage (Shinzen Young) put it, "Suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance".

This Big Book passage, though, confronts us once again with this concept of "God" that can cause us so much difficulty. If there is a being external to us that is a God, and he is all-powerful, and nothing happens in his world by mistake, then why, oh why would this God create disasters, pain, suffering, abuse, murder, and all other manner of chaos and entirely unnecessary suffering? Well, if one believes in this omniscient idea of God, then this would, indeed, be problematic. But, if one believes in this kind of God, then the only logical response is to fall prostrate at His feet and accept whatever comes as right and just without question. What more often happens, ironically, is that a person has this concept of an all-powerful God, and uses the fact of the injustice of the world to altogether reject the idea of any God at all. This would be amusing if it weren't so tragic, that for so many a belief in an all-powerful God is used to create a lack of belief in any God at all, and to a rejection of the idea that "nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake."

There are, of course, many ways to think of God. I do not believe in a God that is a creator God, or who arbitrarily decides who lives and dies, who suffers and who prospers, who thrives and who shrivels. "The Great Reality [the truth of God] lies deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found" (Big Book, page 55). This is, for me, the truth of God (except for the "He" part; I don't believe God has a gender). As I have stated elsewhere in this blog, God is a convenient concept that, nonetheless, has as many different meanings as there are people. To speak of a God is to share an experience without necessarily sharing a meaning. It is this experience I value, the experience of freedom which comes from accepting the premise that there are things which occur in our lives over which we have no control whatsoever, and seem to have been steered by a power outside of us. We who have had a spiritual awakening which removed our desire to drink, a desire that had been intransigent to any other method of eradication, can attest to this, even if we cannot define or grasp what that entity is with any precision.

The core of acceptance in recovery is contained in the Third Step prayer,
"God, I offer myself to you, to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life" (Big Book, page 63). (Those of you who know your Big Book will see that I have replaced the Thees and Thous with more modern language; I find this pseudo-Biblical language off-putting, so I don't use it).
This is what we came here to do, and yet those of us who do not believe in the God of our parents, or the God of Christianity or Islam or Judaism, can be confounded when we come to this part of the work. But if we release ourselves into the great flow of the dharma, if we come to understand that our judgment, our limited grasp of the truth, is not the whole of life, that there is a larger, unfathomable, vast, limitless Reality that is always present within and without us, then taking this step becomes almost laughably easy. Of course I can offer myself to this; of course I can acknowledge that to go against the "will" of the flow of the universe is sheer folly; of course I can wish for my difficulties to be removed, because, after all, the stumbling blocks between me and Nirvana are and always have been of my own making; of course I wish for my life to be a demonstration of the power, the love, and the way of life that is the Buddhadharma. How could it be otherwise?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Selfishness

I casually commented to a friend the other day that, since humans are by nature selfish and self-centered, it is not too surprising that we cannot find a way to take collective action to do what we can to reverse climate change. I thought I was being fairly non-controversial; I have so long considered selfishness to be a basic component of the human condition that I stated it more as a premise than a talking point. My friend, however, took great umbrage at this idea, denied that she, for one was selfish or self-centered, and refused to discuss this further. Hmm....

I guess to me it just makes good sense that, as we are a comparatively weak, slow species, a sort of tunnel vision focused on our own safety has been one of the only reasons we have survived to this point. Put another way, those who were more altruistic in the prehistoric days of human evolution died out and did not pass their genes along, so only the selfish genes survived.

Perhaps the problem really is (as is quite often the case) one of semantics. The word "selfish" has a connotation of judgment to it, and my friend did, indeed, seem to think I was accusing her of something base. I actually believe quite the opposite, that, given the premise that we are by nature selfish, the fact that we often choose altruism and generosity over self-interest is a remarkable and laudable thing. My only contention is that it is in fact a choice and that it goes against our most basic nature. Is there a better term for this than selfishness? "Survivalist" has already been taken, and has a distinctly distasteful meaning for most of us. I am open to suggestions.

It is interesting to note at the Wikipedia page for altruism that several experiments have been done to demonstrate that this quality does have some antecedents in evolution, and that survival of the tribe or larger organism may come before survival of the individual. It may also be argued, though, (and has been) that this is also less than pure altruism, as the individual would not have survived in any case in these circumstances and therefore the survival of the larger entity also has a selfish motive, being a greater good than the death of the individual, though not as highly valued as survival of the individual would have been had that been possible. Or, it could be what is called "inclusive fitness", meaning that what appears to be altruistic behavior toward the group is actually a survival mechanism for the individual (i.e., by guaranteeing the viability of the group, the individual is more likely to survive). On the other hand, neurobiologists have demonstrated that there is a pleasure center in the brain activated by acts of charity for which the individual will receive no other reward.  Hmm, I say again. Comments would be most welcome.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Misunderstanding

I have been reading Douglas Adams' The Salmon of Doubt, which is a posthumous publication of essays and such. There are many worthwhile musings in this book, but one of the most fascinating to me is the idea that we have almost entirely mistaken what human life is about. Though no Buddhist practitioner, Adams' philosophy nestles neatly into the Dharma as taught by the Buddha. As we will see, this correspondence is not all that surprising, as both derive from what Pema Chodron called "a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it."

The misunderstanding, it seems to me (and to them) is this: we believe that since this is a very complicated universe and we are at the pinnacle of it, we, too, must be highly complex creatures. Some people in recovery refer to AA as "a simple program for complicated people," reinforcing the same misunderstanding. Adams is very clever in debunking the myth of our complexity, pointing out the flaw in the logic: since we are creative beings and manipulate our world, and have what the bible calls dominion over it, we must be very complex beings to correspond to that world and our place in it. We have fallen for a fallacy that is entirely of our own making, that is, in fact, tautological.

One way of looking at the formation of the human ego is in response to a basic fact of prehistoric need: we are, in comparison to our predators, slow and weak. The only two things we really have going for us is that we have a more highly developed brain and opposable thumbs. This combination made it possible for us to develop tools to defend ourselves, among other things. Our complex brains combined with the constant threat of being such relative wimps in a hostile world led to a state of constant alert. The only way we could defend ourselves and those we considered of value (family or tribe) was to put our safety at the center of our existence. This self-referential adaptation is the source of our egos (more or less). Those who did not develop this defense mechanism were, quite simply, eaten by the saber-tooth and did not survive to pass their genes along to the next generation. Thus did neurosis and egocentrism become an inherent trait in us. 

As the world grew more complex due to our tinkering and inventing ever more safety (shelter, weapons, tools, agriculture, animal husbandry, etc.), our sense of dominion expanded accordingly. We also needed to project our thoughts into the future, as most animals cannot, to plan for the next event that might threaten us (food shortages and cold weather, for instance) and recall our past in order to use the lessons learned from that to model our future response to threat. Another characteristic this threat-based thinking bred in us is the constant desire to have more of everything; there is never enough, because we never know when the resources will run out and we will die as a consequence.

The Buddha identified desire, aversion, and ignorance as the sources of our suffering. It should be clear that the first two, desire and aversion, arise directly from our primitive need to always be on top of things, that we must constantly desire what is good and be averse to that which is bad as a survival technique. Ignorance arises from the need for absolute tunnel vision; the prehistoric human who lets his mind drift dies. What should be obvious in all this, though, is how none of this functions in our lives today. From an evolutionary standpoint, these are residual characteristics that have never (or at least not yet) evolved out of our species. This makes sense, of course, as there is no particular evolutionary pressure to have them removed. Their usefulness is at an end, it is true, and has been for millennia, but lack of usefulness is not a predictor for a trait being selected against in evolution; only traits that are deleterious to survival are under any pressure to disappear. Of course, there are some pressures from the negative outcomes of these traits--global warming and other environmental degradation, economic disparity, constant warring, starvation, and disease arise directly from desire, aversion, and ignorance--but the consequent pressure is not on individuals, but on the entire species. So far, there is unfortunately no adaptive advantage to being openhearted or openminded.

What all of this leads to is a constant state of alert, a never-ending feeling of need to move in some way, even if there is no need and our energies would be better preserved by staying still. When we look at human economic systems, to take one example, we see that they are predicated on the principle of growth, of constantly moving upward to bigger and better. This is a fine philosophy as far as it goes, but it ignores completely that, in an environment of scarce resources, it is unsustainable. Our most basic instincts panic, though, when we perceive that perhaps we must simply stand still or even retreat from the level of resource depletion we currently enjoy. The most obvious current example is that, even in the face of irrefutable evidence of environmental damage from global warming and the human source of most of it, there is very little movement toward retrenchment. There is also a salient political argument here, but all I wish to point out in this essay is the fact that this is all driven by a set of behaviors and responses that are based in survival techniques that we have not needed for thousands of years.

What, then, is the solution? Where do we find peace in the midst of all this? The poet Mary Oliver has famously written that "you do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves." T.S. Eliot wrote (quoting Julian of Norwich, apparently) "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." The point being that we have made too complex an issue of this very simple thing called a human life. It's just not that complicated. There is very little we require, and it is not all that hard to acquire. All the rest is just neurosis, just desire, aversion, and ignorance. When we sit in silent meditation, this becomes crystal clear (from time to time it does, at least). When we are living in the midst of desire, aversion, and ignorance, we suffer. When we are not, we do not, and Nirvana (if only for a moment) is the result. This is the misunderstanding that Pema Chodron referred to, and that has taken over most of our lives and has molded our world into the place it has become: that life is anything other than this. When we step back, take a deep breath, and see what is, rather than our projection of it, peace ensues, simplicity reigns, and we can finally, finally relax with just what is right here, right now. It doesn't seem like much, but is, in fact, everything. 

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Doubt

I have spent the past few months in a paroxysm of doubt, doubt about my place in AA, in life, in recovery, in Buddhism, in spirituality, which about covers everything, doesn't it?

This whole spiral of doubt was precipitated by a visit my wife and I made to Paris in October. I am not a very well-traveled person, and this is the first time I have been in Europe. We made a conscious choice to stay mostly within the confines of Paris, aware as we were that the city itself provides plenty of opportunities to wander and discover without spreading our nets so thin that we really experience nothing at all, a very real possibility in trying to see all of Europe on a single trip (as if that were even possible).

Now, Paris has its allures, of course, and I could probably write a (very unoriginal) blog just on those. I am a nondrinking, vegetarian, caffeine-free man, so many of the gastronomical delights were lost on me (what is this love affair Parisians seem to have with ham, for God's sake?), but otherwise we soaked and bathed and breathed and ate of Paris for three wonderful weeks. But what came out of this trip that is truly relevant to this blog is the feeling of absolute delight that came with discovering something truly new to me, and my capacity to absorb it, comprehend it (if only imperfectly), and absolutely love it. I was entirely there when I was there, and felt engaged in a way I haven't since...well, since my first days in AA.

Since I have returned, I have tried to discover what the nature of that engagement was, and what I must do to have some of that in my daily life. I want to make myself clear here, to make sure I have given you an idea what I am speaking of. All of you know deep in your hearts what I mean, but many, if not most, adults have sublimated this grand desire beneath a mountain of obligations, responsibilities, compromises, acquiescence, and maintenance activities. What I am speaking of is a sense that what I am doing in this moment is absolutely the best thing I could be doing with the brief time I have on this Earth, the absolute conviction that I am where I belong in this universe at this moment in time. This is a taste of the beyond, a glimmer of Nirvana, a glimpse of a real Heaven (not a place of fairies and elves, but a place of beauty and grandeur), of ongoing and everlasting meaningfulness in every activity of every moment of every life. This is not too grandiose an aspiration, is it? Well, perhaps a little....

Understand, though, that I am not delusional enough to think that this dream in its totality is viable, simply that the more we abandon the quest for such a state of being is not only the degree to which we shortchange ourselves, but also the lives of those around us. We all know of people who, by their very presence and way of being, inspire a higher way of thinking and being, and each of us can be one of these, but not if we abandon all hope for anything other than mediocrity.

Thus, the doubt I have been feeling. I think it is dangerous to take anything at all at face value in this life. For instance, we in AA tend to think that all of the principles and values of our fellowship are the best they can possibly be, and that no improvement is possible. But is this truly so? I am not fomenting rebellion in the larger fellowship, but asking this simple question: is it truly in the best interest of AA and ourselves for us to accept as a given the value of what we do? Could we get more out of this program if some things were changed? Could we help more people? Could we attract more people? Do we really understand the difference between attraction and promotion, for instance? And on and on. Everything should be open to question, nothing should be sacrosanct; in fact, we cannot afford for anything to be sacrosanct. And where do I fit into all this?

But this is merely an example; I am not targeting AA in my doubts. After nearly 12 years of recovery, it is admittedly no longer at the center of my life, not even my life in sobriety. Of much more importance to me is the development of my relationship to the spiritual and the larger world (which is, after all, what the 12th Step promises me). So what is my place in that larger world? How can I find more of that bliss I felt in Paris? I have tried a bit of hedonism, but that's really not what Paris was about, anyway. Paris was about immersion, about what the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that drunk!) called flow, a state of absorption so absolute that all distractions are temporarily eliminated. This state is desirable in and of itself, certainly, for the utility of the experience in focusing our attention, but what has been discovered by many of those who achieve this state on a regular basis is that it can be synonymous with bliss, and I posit that a sustained experience of it is what we deem "Nirvana" (thus the absorption states of jhana and their accompanying bliss states, though those are ephemeral and, in the end, unsustainable in that form).

So, did I achieve Nirvana in Paris? Well, no, far from it, but I was more at peace (even in the midst of chaos) there then I have been in a long time, and it is that equation I have been seeking since my return. I am not about to quit my job and wander the Earth, nor do I intend to leave AA behind, but I will tell you this: I think it is God's will (however you define that) for us to feel a deep and abiding joy in our lives, and I intend to get me some. Stay tuned.

Well, that's what I get, I guess

That's what I get, I guess, for not posting here for a little over a year. Someone else hacked into my account and was posting rather bizarre pseudo-Buddhist crap for almost that entire time. Very strange. I know it is futile to ask why someone might do this (just because they can and it's fun, I suppose) since they could just as easily start their own blog and post these things. Of course, they couldn't use the supercool name "God-loving Buddhist drunk", and I guess I can understand their envy. ;-}

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Death in the family

My cousin died two days ago. While the official cause of death is still a bit hazy, what is quite certain is that alcoholism played a huge part. He was 52 years old. (For the sake of clarity, I should say that he officially died today, but his brain died two days ago).

Why do some of us get sober and others do not? In his case, it certainly wasn't for lack of loving family surrounding him and wanting him to be there always, without the barrier that alcohol places between us and those who love us. It also wasn't for lack of wanting to be sober; I think perhaps he wanted nothing more than that, except perhaps to be happy, which I don't think he ever was in his adult life.

Death really isn't much of a surprise to us alcoholics when we get to a certain point. Most of us have already been thorough the other two possibilities: institutions and jails. My cousin was no exception. Why death should come to him, though, and not to any of the rest of us is still a mystery to me; we can attribute it to God or fate or chance or karma, still, it feels an awful lot like a random roll of the dice.

And again I fall back on acceptance. Acceptance is not, of course, acquiescence. I am not one of those who can sit back and simply say that this was God's will or an inevitable consequence. Rather, I think of acceptance as a corollary to the dharma principle of equanimity. When all is said and done, it is our ability to release our convictions, our beliefs, our anger, our questioning, and our grief into the vastness of That Which Is which can bring us true and lasting peace. It has been my experience that this is a position of strength and not of weakness, and that from a place of acceptance I can act with courage and conviction without the obscuration of my ego getting in the way. Of course, this is not a state I achieve with any purity for any period of time, otherwise I would be enlightened, wouldn't I? But to the degree that I can place myself in acceptance of what is, I am at peace in any situation. The Buddha's most basic teaching is that circumstances do not determine what I experiecne, my reactions to circumstances do.

One of the saddest parts of my cousin's death is that his sons are still convinced that to one degree or another their father chose alcohol over them. As gently as I could, I tried to speak from my own experience, and let them know that I didn't believe this was so, but to little avail. I don't blame them; we are abandoners and absconders, we are irresponsible and seem uncaring. We are baffling, perplexing, infuriating and heartbreaking. But we are also in the clutches of a disease, a disease which ends up leaving us without choice. There was much talk of will power and spiritual decisions, and I held my peace; it certainly wasn't for me to convince anyone, especially not in that situation. But I felt such a pang in my heart that their father could never assure them that he didn't choose to leave them alone, and that they must now live with a convinction that if he had just loved them enough he might have stayed. What a comfort it might be for them to realize how very stark and impersonal our alcoholism is, how it levels vast fields of love and hope and happiness before it as if they didn't even exist, how much he could have held them in love and still been incapable of being the father they needed and wanted.

This experience also reinforces my convinction that we who are sober are not doing nearly enough to reach out to the alcoholic who still suffers. Worldwide, there are two million alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous, and that number has not grown in at least a decade. There are 6.7 billion people in the world, and estimates of the rate of alcoholism are conservatively 5%. Thus, there are likely at least 300 million alcoholics in the world. Two million is a mere scratch of the surface. Granted, many of those 300 million recover in ways other than AA, and many know of AA and have rejected it. But of the others, have we really done all we can to reach them? I'm not saying I could have saved my cousin. He knew I was sober in AA, and also knew (I hope) that he could ask me about it. I probably could have done more, but the larger question is, what can we all do, collectively and individually to make sure this message is out there? I have been in service to AA the whole time I have been sober, and I have seen a great deal of sqabbling over petty details and not enough emphasis on our primary purpose, which is to reach out to the still-suffering alcoholic. I hope and pray we can do better.

As for my cousin, I don't pretend to know what comes after this life, but I know that he is happier than he was here, even if he is nowhere at all. He died too soon, but his was a death of degrees, and happened over his entire 52 years. How merciful that his struggle is over. May we all be free of suffering. May we all be able to care for ourselves with ease and comfort. May we be happy. May we be free. May we know the end of the endless death of anxiety and uncertainty and come to rest in the conviction of our knowing of the Truth.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Discipline

I have come to believe that discipline is the most important aspect of spiritual practice, whether it be through AA, the dharma, some other means, or a combination of them. The whole idea of discipline can cause us to recoil, though, especially us alcoholics, because it implies something imposed from the outside (personally, I think of Coach Capello and his incessant insistence on exercises that were incredibly dull). But the discipline I am thinking of is imposed from within, and arises from wisdom.

What, us, wise? One of the most damaging aspects of the way we tend to speak and think in AA is the idea that we are so basically flawed that it is dangerous for us to ever think for ourselves or believe in our ability to devise a way of living that is skillful. How often have we heard in meetings some version of this statement: "I am as crazy now as the day I came into the program"? But the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is precisely designed, I believe, to give us access to the basic wisdom that is in us all, and that has been obscured by our decades of alcoholism. And I should make clear that I do not think of alcoholism as merely the abuse of alcohol, but of the other characteristics which comprise any addicted character: greed, selfishness, self-centeredness, dissatisfaction, and substitution for true peace that which can never replace it. We have all known alcoholics who were no longer drinking, yet exhibited these characteristics, probably even more so than when they were drinking. Indeed, as we can perceive from studying this list a bit, this could describe most of the people we know, at least the unhappy ones, whether they substitute shopping or sex or alcohol or drugs or television or meditation for the underlying sense of peace which is available to us all if we have the will to look for it. This search is wisdom and is at the base of all our seeking, whether we know it or not.

One of the most basic tenets of dharma is the idea that all persons are seeking the end of suffering. Indeed, we could expand that further: every object and being is also seeking such peace. It is one of the perversities of human nature that we seem to have an innate understanding of what can bring us this peace, but we seek other means as more immediately (if fleetingly) gratifying. This is not to say that any of these pursuits is inherently wrong, mind you. Each of them, in the right person, can be quite useful and a source of joy. Even alcohol is, for most people, a source of relaxation and comfort. But when we make of these a compulsive seeking of the end of suffering, they become addictive because they can never bring us to such a state, except perhaps in memory or in short spurts, which causes us to seek to recreate these states over and over again, with the vain hope that they will become permanent through some alchemy in which we have a faith that is not supported by any available evidence.

Thus, wisdom and discipline. Of course, discipline comes first. As we who have worked through the Twelve Steps know, we are so confused when we get to the program that our wisdom has been thoroughly obscured, and we have lost all faith in our ability to exercise it even if we had access to it. Thus, someone else's wisdom or, more accurately, the wisdom of the program substitutes for our own as we work through the Steps. As we clear away the crap that obscures our access to what I term the sunlight of the Spirit, we become more able to trust our own inherent wisdom, and to use it to guide other parts of our lives; in other words, we have a spiritual awakening and learn to practice these principles in all our affairs, which is the essence of the Twelfth Step. But this requires further discipline, and a discipline which must dominate our lives for as long as we live. Fortunately, once we have access to some modicum of wisdom, it brings us such joy that we want nothing more than to open ourselves even further to this light, and the discipline itself can become joyful. Of course, we still have the impulse to return to easier, softer ways to achieve this, but find that only through the discipline of a spiritual practice can we come ever closer to the peace that we may call God, or nirvana.