Dear Still Water Friends,
This week we recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They offer us a chance to deepen our practice every time we recite them because while the words (usually) haven’t changed since the last month’s recitation, we have. How do we relate to these words today?
This week, we are to discuss the Fifth Training. Its origin is a simple statement: I undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness. Thich Nhat Hanh expanded on this and entitled the training Nourishment and Healing. The most important words, for me, are the final sentences:
"I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth."
When this training is discussed, we often get caught up in whether we can have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer with friends. I think this training, at its core, declines to answer this for us. Instead, it suggests we use our discernment to focus on not doing things that interfere with our mindfulness, that hide what’s real, or that cause us to let down our guard to habits, perceptions and ways of being that are unhealthy.
The original precept is about avoiding things that encourage heedlessness. “Heed” is an ancient word and one that doesn’t seem to have been hijacked in recent times. Its old German roots are in the concepts of guarding, caring, minding. In other words, to avoid heedlessness is to avoid carelessness, inattention, and mindlessness. If you’re a mindfulness practitioner, why would you take substances that cause you to be less mindful?
I understand this training not to be about whether an occasional Bud makes me a bad Buddhist. It’s whether I have a Bud to escape, to avoid, to hide from reality. And it’s about how I behave and what happens in the world when I have a Bud. The same is true of eating, watching TV, gossiping, etc. Our motivation and the effects of our actions on our practice and perceptions are the bellwether of whether our actions are mindful; their outer form isn’t the point.
I’m seeing the Fifth Training this way because of an experience I had last week. As I walked up to our kitchen sink, I saw my favorite coffee mug sitting there, dirty. I remembered using it the prior day, and grumbled to myself that I wish I had it to use today. I started to unload our dishwasher, and I pulled my favorite coffee mug out of it. I was stunned. I looked in the sink, and it wasn’t my mug, but Doug’s mug. While both are white and ceramic, they are different shapes and have very different decorations. I realized that when I’d looked in the sink, I’d actually been thinking about using the mug the day before, and thought I’d left it in the sink. I’d forgotten about putting it in the dishwasher the night before. So my perception was driven by my memories, not by what was in front of me. It was a wonderful smack upside the head.
I think the Fifth Training calls on us to try to transcend this normal way of living so that we touch the moment in which we find ourselves. We rarely see what’s in front of us. Instead, we perceive rough approximations of reality that our minds piece together based on past experiences (and imaginings). We create a kind of impressionistic sketch that helps us filter the huge data streams our sensory organs bring us so we can make sense of a very busy and active world in an effort to keep us safe. But our habits, prejudices, and collective errors cause us to miss most of what’s really in front of us. The Fifth Training calls us to take care in how we live to reinforce our mindfulness and to more easily touch those elements that nourish and heal us.
So this Thursday, we’ll discuss the Fifth Training and share our practices for consuming mindfully, or not. What do we do to try to keep our mindfulness clear and alive? What throws us off track? How do we navigate this phenomenal, crazy world so as to avoid heedlessness?
I hope you can join us,
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron author, Tibetan Buddhist nun, and founder of Sravasti Avvey
In the ´70s, when we wandered up the hill to Kopan Monastery in Nepal in various states of drug- and alcohol-induced intoxication, we would ask Lama Yeshe, “What do you think about drugs, alcohol, and meditation? They make us more relaxed so it’s easier to watch our breath, and our visualizations are so much more vivid when we’re stoned.”
Lama, looking at us with an expression that was quizzically serious, would say, “You don’t need drugs, dear. You’re already hallucinating.”
Then, when we stopped laughing, he explained that intoxicants and meditation don’t go together. “Intoxicants take you away from reality; meditation takes you toward reality. Which do you want? You are already intoxicated by ignorance, anger, and attachment and suffer as a result. Why do you want to take more intoxicants?”
Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America
Several years ago, I started working on a book about the early years of the psychedelic drug movement (It would be published as The Harvard Psychedelic Club.) One question the book asks is whether drug-induced feelings of wonder, awe, empathy, and interconnectedness are authentic religious experiences. My answer is that while the experiences may be authentic, the real issue is what we do with them. Do the experiences change the way we live our lives? Do they make us more aware and compassionate human beings? Looking back on my own history, I’d have to say that a few psychedelic drug experiences back in the day did change the way I think about the world and live my life. They did make me a better person. But I can’t say the same thing about a few decades of experiences with other drugs, including alcohol.
Last year, I interviewed six Buddhist teachers about their interpretations of the fifth precept. Some of them urge complete abstention from alcohol and other drugs. Others see nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner. Some urge caution but still see some value in psychedelic drugs. One thing I’ve learned in my own recovery is that it’s not up to me to decide if someone else has a problem with alcohol or other drugs. It’s up to them. And I’ve come to feel the same way about the fifth precept.
So if you have a problem with the fifth precept, you might want to ask yourself just why that might be.