Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ordinary Mystics #10: Abstaining from Intoxicants

Chapter Eight: Abstaining from Intoxicants

The Bible makes much ado about the Nazirite avoiding grapes and grape products. The rabbis expand the Bible’s concern. Why? Because at the heart of being a Nazirite is the ability to focus clearly on reality, and being drunk makes that impossible.

When the Bible and the sages worry about grapes, they are really concerned with fermented grapes, wine. Wine was a staple of Jewish life, and while there is little evidence of alcoholism in the Bible (Noah being a notable exception), still the Nazirite needs all of her faculties clear.

I don’t drink wine. In fact I don’t drink any alcohol at all. This is not a moral judgment on my part; I simply don’t like the taste. Yet my distaste for wine was no advantage when taking up the Way of the Nazirite, as I understand it.

Wine is to be understood literally as well as figuratively. For the period of your Nazirite Vow you should avoid all alcohol, but that in and of itself is insufficient. Wine is symbolic of a larger category of things I would call intoxicants.

I define intoxicants as anything that fosters a false view of reality; anything that keeps you off balance; and anything that gets you worked up without a very compelling reason. In essence, wine, for the period of your Nazirite Vow should be understood as needless drama.

Needless drama is anything that complicates your life. I don’t think life is meant to be complicated. I do believe that life is quite complex, just not complicated.

Here is the difference between complex and complicated. Complex means that something is made up of a variety of interrelated parts. Complicated means that something is confused and dealing with it becomes difficult. The difficultly arises not from complexity but from confusion. Confusion is the most common by-product of unnecessary drama.

What is unnecessary drama? I can’t answer that for you, but in my life unnecessary drama, the drama that makes my complex but fairly simple life complicated and difficult to navigate, is anything that seeks to put me in control. When I seek to control life I introduce a level of dramatic complications that always—and I do mean always—leave me drained, depressed, and deserted.

I like the illusion of being in control. Of course, my narrow mind doesn’t think this is an illusion. Mochin d’katnut really believes it is in charge. It really imagines that it can control not only its aims and goals, but also its success in reaching those aims and goals.

I was raised with this belief. It is one of the dead bodies I carry around with me all the time: “You are in control; you are responsible for outcomes; you are in charge, and if you are not in charge then someone else is in charge of you and that is bad.”

I believed this for most of my life. Who am I kidding? I still believe it, just not totally. I now know that despite mochin d’katnut’s insistence otherwise, I am not in control. God is.

If you remember back a few chapters, my understanding of God is that God is the source and substance of all that is happening at this very moment. So when I say God is in control I don’t mean that there is a Person out “there” somewhere who is pulling the strings and making things happen. If God is everything, then to say God is in control is to say that everything is happening exactly the way everything is supposed to happen give the conditions that are present in this moment.

As I write this chapter I can look out my window and see that it is about to rain. I am not surprised. Given the temperature, the level of humidity, the season, and whatever else is necessary to produce rain, the fact that it is about to rain only says that given these conditions raining is inevitable. God isn’t deciding to make it rain. God is the reality that rains when these conditions are manifest. And God is the manifest conditions as well.

One more thing: there is no “it” that is about to rain. There is just the act of raining. English carries with it what Alan Watts called linguistic ghosts. The “it” in the sentence “It is raining” refers to nothing whatsoever. You cannot point to this “it” separate from the act of raining. “It” is the raining.

There are no “its” in the absolute world of mochin d’gadlut. “Its” exist only in the mind of mochin d’katnut. When you see the world from the spacious perspective of mochin d’gadlut you don’t see “its” you see happenings. The world of mochin d’gadlut is a world of gerunds and verbs, and no nouns.

Mochin d’katnut sees the world as nouns: subjects and objects. And because it sees a world of nouns it feels the need to control them. Since these nouns are relative truths and not absolute Truth, they are fictions and cannot be controlled. Seeking to control your life and the people in it is like trying to separate the “it” from “It is raining” in order to make “it” stop raining. It can’t be done.

Yet you keep trying, and the effort invites the needless drama that stirs up the pot of your experience making it impossible for you to see clearly and act wisely.

Abstaining from “wine” means abstaining from drama. For the period of your Nazirite Vow you do your best to stop stirring the pot. You allow things to settle, and when they do you are free to engage the world with the seven qualities of holiness.

Once I understood “wine” to refer to drama, it wasn’t difficult for me to highlight the things that feed the dramas of my life. Here is the list of intoxicants I have drawn up for myself. You may use my list or come up with your own, but however you do it, you have to be very clear with yourself about what it is introduces drama and complications into your life and thereby keeps you off balance.

1. Television. I am a TV news junkie. I love to bounce from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News. Not that I am looking for the Truth; I simply get off on the hype and intensity of the presentations. I also watch a lot of police dramas: all the variations of Law & Order, JAG, and CSI.

2. Email. My inbox is stuffed with the rants and raves of people addicted to drama. I don’t learn much from the email, but I like the rush it gives me.

 3. Magazines. I read dozens of magazines a month: newsmagazines, science magazines, business magazines, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Jewish magazines. I read them for information certainly, but also for the buzz I get from the ads and the flood of ideas for new projects that both the articles and ads provide.

4. Candy. I eat lots of candy. I usually deny this, but I am trying to be honest here. I love chocolate, especially cheap chocolate: my intake of M&Ms alone should send me into recovery. I eat this stuff when I am anxious. It feeds the drama that is making me anxious, and then, because I worry about my weight (another needless drama) it adds a new drama of its own.

5. Salty foods. When I feel like I ought to cut back on sweets, I turn to salty foods, telling myself that these are less of a distraction for me. No so. Whether it is a Chunky bar or a bag of Fritos, I eat this stuff to avoid dealing with reality.

6. Gossip. I do my best not to gossip. I also do my best to encourage my friends to gossip. That way I can get the drama with out the guilt.

When I take the Nazirite Vow I go on a media fast, a sugar and salt fast, a gossip fast, and a drama fast. The first two are not that difficult, while the latter two require constant vigilance.

The way I stay vigilant is through a Jewish spiritual practice called Shmirat haLashon, Guarded Speech. Shmirat haLashon refers to the quality of your communication: verbal, written, and bodily. Usually Shmirat haLashon focuses on gossip, but I use to it with regard to all communication: both what I say and what I hear.

As you engage in any kind of communication be aware of the tone and texture of what is being communicated. If the communication lacks compassion, grace, patience and the other qualities of godliness, stop mid-sentence and start again. If you are too caught up in narrow mind and cannot speak from a place of spaciousness, excuse yourself and plan to meet with the person later when you can prepare yourself for a more holy encounter. If you are on the receiving end of gossip or listening to hyped, biased and overly dramatic ranting on the television or radio, turn it off.

Remember you are not giving this stuff up forever (though with regard to gossip you might consider it); you are simply abstaining from it for the period of your Vow. No need to panic.

 A shorthand tool for practicing Shmirat haLashon is to ask yourself three questions before communicating anything to anyone: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

If it isn’t true, don’t say it. If it isn’t kind and it isn’t necessary, don’t say it. If it isn’t kind but it must be said, then take care to say it in line with the seven qualities of holiness.

What happens when I abstain from these drama inducing stimulants? First a sense of panic arises: I am afraid I will be bored out of my mind. What will I do with all the time I normally spend reading magazines and watching television? If I don’t gossip, what will I have to talk about with people?

It takes a bit of deep breathing to get over this. I am addicted to drama, and there is a period of painful withdrawal that I must endure when entering into the Way of the Nazirite.

The period does pass, however. And when it does there is a level of clarity that I find surprising. It is as if my mind were a glass of muddy water constantly being stirred by these addictive dramas. When I put them aside, the water calms down, the dirt settles of its own accord, and I can see things much more clearly.

What do I see?

My main concern is seeing God more clearly in, with, and as all things. The truth is, however, that lots of other things get clarified first. I am not suggesting a cause and effect relationship here. I really don’t know if one has anything to do with the other, or if one is simply easier to clarify than the other. But I will attest to the fact that when I calm down and the mud settles and the water clears, I see my priorities more clearly.

Without allowing the addictive dramas of my daily life to keep me off balance, I see just how simple my life really is. There are people I love and who love me; I need to honor and tend to them. There are projects I want to do and those I don’t want to do; I need to focus on the former and minimize if not eliminate the latter. I see that I get myself entangled in all kinds of problems when I avoid being straight with people. I see that much of the pain in my life is self-inflicted. In short, I see where I ought to be going, where I am in fact headed, and how to get back on the original track.

This is not magic. It is just what happens when you cleanse the Garment of Speech by abstaining from needless drama.

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