Sober Up

“Back for another?”

When I think about drinking, I usually sigh and think about how much I enjoy it. The actual act of imbibing is one of simple dopamine pleasure. It’s a sort-of chemical cheat code that, for a while, has enabled me to relax and shut down my thinking brain. The teachers of Zen’s storied past have often taken to alcohol as a method of elucidating the thoughts that come when one stops thinking so hard. This is odd considering all of the ancient Hindu and Buddhist proscriptions against intoxication. Zen was originally all about dismantling such doctrinal tenets, but since I quit drinking I’m wondering if the ancients were really onto something. Intoxicants are fun but they lead us towards the level of the apes, not the Gods.

Alan Watts was one of the most famous writers to bring ideas of Zen and Tao to a Western audience. His star rose alongside tropes of the hippie and beatnik-influenced generations, which pushed the limits of transgression, indulgence, and brash individualism. The ideals of the 60’s were a response to the conservative values of the 50’s— oblique and (by then) meaningless values— that a generation of tepid youth felt unfulfilled by, especially when they were drafted to fight for them. Watts, a drop-out religious studies scholar, felt compelled to write about the East for this eager audience of hedonistic free-thinkers. Somewhere along the line, Zen became conflated with “Everything’s cool, man. Just chill.”

Watts was, of course, opposed to this carelessness, but he had his own misconceptions about spiritual life. He referred to himself as an entertainer, never claiming transmission from any Zen teacher in particular. He did a lot of reading, but also wrote about how at a certain point meditation became unnecessary for him, and how meditative practice wasn’t necessary to understand Zen or Tao— an easy way to sell books. He also drank a lot.

I tell this meandering story both because it’s an important part of my spiritual quest and because it had, until fairly recently, confused me for a long time. Watts, to many, is the golden standard of White Boy Buddhism. As a white boy, I get this. He wrote about Eastern concepts in a legitimate way at times, but also blended this with a cultural tone that was as hopeful as it was nihilistic. It misinterpreted Zen as a justification for selfishness and indulgence.

Such concepts collapsed under their own transparency. Of course the self-indulgent progressives of the 60’s looked to a dated Japanese school of philosophy for their vindication— no one was gonna question them about it because no one knew what the truth of the matter actually was. Looking back at Watts, his breadth of work, and his sad ends— as a houseboat-dwelling bottle-a-day whiskey drinker with countless estranged wives and kids— I realize that his periodic misunderstanding of spirituality got the better of him. He gave up the cushion for the bottle. It’s a tempting trade to the anxious and suffering mind, the mind most likely to be drawn to spirituality in the first place. While his work was at times wonderfully illuminating, we can all learn something from Watts about how not to live.

I’ve quit drinking for a few weeks after too much selfish indulgence throughout my college years and beyond. I was never a pass-out-on-the-floor type of alcoholic, or even a typical “alcoholic” at all, for that matter, but I’ve habitually used mild amounts of alcohol to forget about the stress of the day every day for months at a time.

Buddha and Krishna both made strict warnings about intoxicants. In the same way that the hippies rebelled against their parents and did acid not because it was necessary but because they wanted to, spiritual people have skirted the traditional rules in favor of intoxication. I’m not saying anyone should become a monk. No great spiritual teacher has ever advocated for that; the most enriching traditions tend to encourage people to find ways to operate transcendentally in regular life. Everyone makes mistakes. But we should not think that just because we can simultaneously practice and intoxicate ourselves that it’s a good idea. Anything that removes us from the state of blunt organic human experience, unpleasant as it may at times be, is a deterrent to spiritual progress.

In the mere two weeks since I quit drinking I’ve felt generally more lucid but I’ve also noticed a major onslaught of anxiety. My highly-engaged nervous system is no longer willfully depressed on a regular basis. Before I quit, despite practicing regular meditation, writing, reading, and living, I had still been drinking a lot. I was cheating the system, basically. Now I have new work to do. The same thing happened when I quit smoking last year. Vices are natural, but what allows us to transcend from mere brute creatures to nuanced humans capable of engaging in higher spirituality is finding the strength to let these vices go. This extends to life-at-large— problems and imperfections are natural, but what separates disciplined people from the teeming masses is the ability to control the self and direct its power towards activities that produce value rather than selfishly gobbling it all up. If you’re feeling world weary, trade the bottle for the cushion. It’s the difference between sleepwalking and running a marathon.

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