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A Fresh Take on Drugs and Buddhism

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Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment he was a confused 20- and 30-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual life. Each week in this column we look at what it might be like if a fictional Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Have a question for this weekly column? Click here and I'll probably get to it!

What would Sid say about someone who is living a successful life and using intoxicants regularly (let's say it's pot), like daily. But this person's life is going pretty well, he's not majorly screwing up or anything. What would Sid tell this guy who feels bad about his habit but is not sure why since his life is pretty much together. Thanks! --Anonymous

We all have addictions. It can be something classic (like drugs or alcohol) or more socially accepted (like coffee every morning) or even subtle (such as being addicted to certain habitual patterns). Addiction is a tricky thing, and the first thing I believe our friend Sid would recommend is to explore whether what you are calling a habit is an addiction. So this is Step 1 of my recommendation: Explore your relationship to your habit. If it is indeed addiction, Sid would be right there beside you, encouraging you to attend Narcotics Anonymous.

However, if you are the sort of person who likes to indulge in a bit of weed here and there but have not formed a reliance on it, move on to Step 2: Stay vigilant. I have known incredibly charming, lovely alcoholics who have strung together lucky chance after lucky chance to have a nice life. Some are extremely high-functioning, despite ingesting an incredible amount of intoxicants. Eventually though, the house of cards has come crashing down and those individuals realized they couldn't have it all. So continue to monitor your intake and be inquisitive when it comes to your relationship to substances or get bit in the ass because it's too late.

Step 3: Get your priorities straight. Are you trying to coast by through life or are you trying to make a difference? Just because you're not majorly screwing up doesn't mean you are living a life of mindfulness and compassion. There are, of course, a million shades of gray in between. If you are committed to living your life in a way connected to your own meditation practice I have to ask: Does your habit keep you grounded and awake to the world around you? Or does it layer you in protective goggles, distancing you from reality? As always, no judgment from my end; this is something you need to determine for yourself.

In a workshop I'm offering in May (The Dignity of an Open Heart), I talk a lot about discernment. Through the practice of meditation you begin to learn more about yourself. You see some patterns that coincide with how you want to live your life. Those are the ones you want to cultivate. Eventually, other patterns that you hadn't thought much about all of a sudden are spotted as a source of discontent. Those you want to steer away from. Out of this ability to discern what aspects of yourself you want to accept versus what you might want to reject or cut out you can align your lifestyle with the moral compass of your heart.

It's up to you to determine whether your habits are helpful or hurtful to the way you want to live your life. I myself find drugs to be somewhat escapist, so I can't see myself relying on them on a regular basis. I think they would distract me from some of the other good work I try to do. I think it would hurt my intention to be more present with the people I interact with everyday and be open-hearted with the various obstacles that come up in my life. Maybe for you it's the opposite, and your drug habit grounds you right smack in the middle of how you want to live your life.

The important thing, to reiterate, is to remain inquisitive and vigilant about your drug use. See if it helps support you in your endeavors. If not, lay off of it. If so, then I'd love to hear more about how that works for you.

One more piece of caution: Buddhism is a path that gives us tools to relate with our mind in a way that we do not indulge our attachments. As we start to examine our life, we realize that we cannot take refuge in drugs or alcohol any more than we can take refuge in our job, our lover or our religious identity. If we think any of these things will bring us everlasting comfort, we are sadly mistaken.

I would also like to note that there are lots of Buddhist organizations that host recovery groups. It's a refreshing change for anyone not too keen on the whole God aspect of AA or NA. One group that I would recommend is the Heart of Recovery. Over the last few years this program has spread to many Shambhala Centers and I highly recommend it. If other people would like to throw out some resources along these lines please leave them in the comment section.

If anyone else is interested in writing in and asking a question for this weekly column you can send it to me directly.

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