I am an alcoholic who has recovered from alcoholism in a 12-step program. As many of you are aware, 12-step recovery involves a spiritual solution, the finding of a higher power. The spirituality I found was in Taoism, I call my higher power the Tao. As a Taoist, I feel right at home writing a guest post for a Buddhist blog. I think most Taoists at the very least think that Buddha was a great guy who was very close to the Tao. As many of you may know, when Buddhism came to China, one branch of Buddhists intermingled the two strains of thought very strongly: the Ch’an, which is known as Zen Buddhism today. So whether you think Zen Buddhists are close to the Tao, or Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were very close to the Buddha, what’s the difference really? They’re all close to reality, and that’s a great place to be. That last statement is a halfway decent lead-in to what I’m writing about here, a concept that is at the root of both Taoist and Buddhist thought, as well as those in recovery: attachment.
Addicted To Attachment:
Attachment is something that every human being deals with. We become attached to all sorts of things. We become attached to material items, to people and our relationships with them, to ideas and habits and… you get the idea. Attachment is an attempt to root something in an undeveloping state, to prevent change in both ourselves and in the thing we are attached to. As we all know from our own experience, doing this leads to suffering. Does this seem awfully basic, not a terribly refined thought? Good. One of my weak spots as a pointy-headed intellectual is for baroque flights of complex thinking. I need to remind myself of basic things often.
So, back to suffering. As someone who has experienced addiction, I think looking at addiction is a great way to look at how attachment works. Addiction is a deep, raw, powerful form of attachment and suffering. It is easy to look at someone who has an addiction and say “you’re an alcoholic, you’re attached to alcohol.” Well, that’s true. It’s also a superficial observation; it’s looking at the flower and not the fruit, at the leaf and not the root. I was attached to control, not alcohol. When I was a child, my family life was chaotic. I felt adrift, without power, without control. As I grew up, I flailed around, trying to find something to hold on to, something unchanging which of course did not exist. I became attached to the idea of controlling my life. At first, I tried to do so by being exceptional. But this required me to be the best at whatever I tried. I quickly discovered that I could not be the best. As large as this world is, there was always someone who surpassed me. As varied as the things people can do are, when I surpassed someone, there was some other pursuit in which they surpassed me. If I couldn’t be the best, what good was it to try, I thought. I was quickly a disappointed perfectionist; I saw that I could not have control over the results of my own pursuits. All I could control was the amount and quality of effort I put in, and that was not enough for me. But I am stubborn, this realization did not stop me. Instead, I found another way.
I would be a drunk.
No, I didn’t make a bold decision just like that, saying, “and now, I will be the best alcoholic ever.” Like many of the decisions we make about our own lives, this one was made as the result of many smaller decisions, and even more, of times when I did not make a decision, but refused and let inertia and whim rule the results. It is very easy to do that when one lives an unexamined life as I did. The end result of my decisions and non-decisions and willful refusal to examine my own motives, though, was that I became alcoholic. Because that’s real control. Remember, what can be controlled is the effort you put into a thing. And I could definitely down a bottle of bourbon. It worked every time. I opened the bottle, I drank, I found refuge. Refuge, because what addiction to an intoxicating substance brings is a relinquishing of control. Control over my own perceptions, my own thoughts, my own fears, my own body, of others’ behavior, of my own life. Everything goes on autopilot when you drink addictively. And that’s a huge relief, giving up control. The only problem is, sooner or later you sober up, and it is very easy to see that when you spend your time being drunk instead of dealing with your own life, autopilot is not a good pilot. Being drunk is what we in 12-step recovery call “an easier, softer way”. And it doesn’t work. It’s like the dark side in the Star Wars mythos. It looks like it’s working at the moment, but in the long run you find that somehow everything has gone awry.
Recovery from addiction, on the other hand, is exactly the same thing. As is living any life mindfully whether you have had the experience of addiction or not. It is about relinquishing control, giving up perfection, and finding refuge. When you do these things in a mindful way (and that’s the difference between addiction and spiritual practice), you find the proper use of the will… another phrase from the 12-step playbook. More importantly, finding those proper uses, you accept what they are and what they are not. I cannot control the words of another, but I can control mine. I cannot control what another person does, but I can choose my own actions. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in the world, but I can choose what I do about those events. Letting go is not about drifting, though many people unacquainted with Taoism and Buddhism make the mistake of thinking so. Sometimes those of us who are make that mistake too. Relinquishing an attachment is more like a boat drawing up an anchor; it is now free to travel with a destination in mind. Where does our spiritual practice come into play here? Extending the metaphor, it is the map, the compass, the knowledge of how to tack into the wind. Doing those things effectively requires one to see clearly, to understand the behavior of the wind and the sea. Tao and Zen are all about seeing clearly. And that brings us right back to basics. If our boat is to carry us to experience and learn about new lands and peoples, we must see and understand the sea and the wind, or the basic foundations of our own lives. Only by avoiding the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable, by relinquishing that very basic attachment, can we be free of the suffering we bring to ourselves. With every bit you let go, your vision becomes clearer, and the more you can let go of.
Living a life as a recovering alcoholic, or just living a life, boil down to the same thing. They’re both done the same way. An addiction is just another attachment, and a life touched by addiction is just another life, and living mindfully is just living mindfully, whatever it is that you personally need to be mindful of. So, no matter who and what you are, ask yourself: is this attachment I see the flower, the outward seeming? Or have I truly reached the root?