Saturday, February 11, 2023

Mindless Consumption and Grateful Contentment

There are some conversations with your mother that you can never forget. One of those, for me, was on the occasion of my twenty-first birthday. I had rushed through my university studies, but not so much because of some special educational virtue on my part. The truth was that I thoroughly disliked the whole experience, I didn’t know how long I could endure it, and I thought graduating as quickly as possible was preferable to dropping out. So I graduated early and found myself moving west for graduate school at the tender age of twenty. I turned twenty one while living close to Highway 1 in northern California. An eccentric friend of mine thought my relative youth made for a funny anecdote and couldn’t pass up the chance to take me for a celebration dinner at a winery, where I could take my first sip of alcohol.

Growing up, I was taught that drinking alcohol was fundamentally wrong. My Southern Baptist church officially condemned it, and there were enough tales of caution to keep a child both fascinated and terrified. Growing up in the 1980s, our public school experience was also incomplete without visits from presentations from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the Just Say No! campaign added drug use to the list of dangerous, taboo items to avoid. Some of my extended family members struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse, so I had heard and sometimes seen the real world risks involved. Still, there were also voices calling for moderation, including my Dad. And we all knew not to touch the bottle with the balloon on top in Grandma’s refrigerator, which appeared each year after the grapes she grew in the backyard ripened. 

So I accepted my friend’s invitation and we headed up the coast. Dinner was lovely, and the wine was expensive. It was white wine, and that’s about all I can tell you. It turned out that I did not have a discerning palate, and my friend was simultaneously amused and disappointed that I wasn’t suitably impressed by the quality and taste. Still, I had fun, and I called home later to tell my parents how I’d celebrated. When I mentioned the wine, you could hear the silence on the other end. My mom was not angry; she was scared. “Oh God, David, you’re going to become an alcoholic.” 

I thought it was funny and laughed it off. I assured her that I was not in danger, if for no other reason than that I was a poor student and, whatever little spending money I might have, I liked buying and reading books much more than I could ever enjoy buying and drinking alcohol. (This, by the way, has been true as long as I can remember. Given the choice between most things and a book, and I will usually buy a book. According to my Dad, this habit began when I was a child. At the grocery store, he would give me a choice between getting a candy bar and getting a Little Golden book. He resolved that the first time I chose the candy bar would be the last time he offered the choice to me. And so my childhood bookshelf was overfilled with those tales of poky puppies, shy kittens, snuggly bunnies, and especially The Monster at the End of this Book.) 

But this did not comfort my mom, and we had later had a long conversation about it. Her concern was not the rigid, “you’ll displease God and go to hell if you drink” message I’d heard enough times. Instead, her plea was more of a “I’ve seen too many people get addicted and create a hell of their lives” message. And that is, tragically, true enough. And although I have never personally struggled with a substance use disorder, I appreciated her care, and I recognized that care like hers is one of the reasons I have not struggled. I was glad to have voices in my life that taught a different way to think about these kinds of decisions and habits, instead of the two oversimplified choices I was otherwise given: harsh condemnation or unbridled consumption. 

I recognized my mother’s voice when I read two verses in the Discourse on Happiness, that bring out a similar contrast: 

“To refrain from what is unwholesome, 
To abstain from all intoxicants,
And to be steadfast in good qualities,
This is the greatest good fortune.

“Respect and humility,
Contentment and gratitude,
And the timely hearing of Dharma:
This is the greatest good fortune.”
(tr. by Bhikkhu Brahmali)

At first glance, it may seem like an opportunity for more of the same moralizing that I grew up hearing. But a closer look reveals a lot more. If we want to hear it, we often need to begin with examining what gets in the way. For many of us, restraint and renunciation are often negative experiences, grounded in a life-denying and antagonistic attitude. This is especially the case where there is a high degree of control, often exerted through coercion, threat, shame, and guilt. Anyone who has experienced that kind of restraint is unlikely to associate it with happiness. It’s much more likely that we’ll get caught in a desire to get rid of or annihilate whatever we’ve come to view as the problem. This often involves our threat-response: we’ve identified an obstacle to our happiness, and we think that we must avoid - or destroy - whatever is in the way. Our capacity for identifying dangers helps keep us safe, but attaching to that kind of craving easily leads to suffering. It’s not a recipe for happiness, and it can make enemies out of our experiences and our friends. 

Instead, refraining from what is unwholesome focuses on the impacts of what we think, say, and do. As I've mentioned before, our skillfulness in not harming one another depends in large part on “our ability to pay attention and practice discernment.” Instead of getting stuck in a loop of approving or disapproving, praising or blaming, we give ourselves “the opportunity to understand our needs and our experiences,” and then to act on that understanding. And this is why refraining “from what is unwholesome,” from what causes harm to others, is linked with abstaining “from all intoxicants.” Discernment requires a clear mind. Whatever clouds the mind can make it easier to either not perceive the harm that could take place, or to justify harming yourself or another person. It can be challenging enough to understand ourselves, each other, and our experiences when we have a clear head; adding another layer of fogginess makes it that much harder. It’s the same reason we have rules about using heavy machinery or driving a car when taking certain medications. We want to be safe, and to make safe decisions. This is a helpful and simple way to make decisions about using intoxicants, whether you completely abstain or use them responsibly. When using them would impair your ability to make a good decision or protect the safety of yourself and others, don’t use them. 

        Reflecting in this way, we can also see that there are other ways that we can delude our minds and make it difficult to have a clear head. This is why, for example, the Plum Village tradition enlarges the focus from intoxicants in particular to “unmindful consumption” in general. You can be intoxicant-free and still cloud the mind with ideas and habits that make it very difficult to make healthy, happy choices. 
So, while the Mindfulness Training includes the aspiration to not use drugs and alcohol, it puts that aspiration in the context of not harming one another. It concludes by resolving to “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.” So, again, this is a helpful and simple way to help us make decisions. Whatever we are doing, we pay attention. If doing that impairs our ability to make a good decision or protect the safety of ourselves and others, we can make a choice: “refrain from what is unwholesome.”  

This kind of framework also helps us move from an oversimplified condemnation of using drugs and alcohol to a deeper understanding of how our unmindful consumption is linked to so much suffering. For example, in 2010, there were 21,089 opioid-involved overdose deaths. In 2021, there were 80,411. Those are terrifying, tragic numbers. But it is now such a common problem that I have friends who are trained to administer Narcan in the case of witnessing an overdose. I am so grateful that they offer this compassionate service, but there is a shadow here. That we need them to do this at all points to a terrible reality. 

To reflect on one of the social factors involved in that reality, we have a growing awareness of the role of self-medication and its connection to substance use disorders. Many of my friends self-medicate, which is consistent with statistics from 2018 that over 20% of people with mood or anxiety disorders self-medicated with alcohol or drugs. We also cannot separate self-medication from experiences of violence, abuse, injustice, and oppression. Sometimes, relying on alcohol and drugs to cope with the unbearable may feel like the only option available. Sometimes, a human being feels like they cannot bear to see things clearly. But in these situations, the root of the problem is not in the intoxicants, but in the failure of our society to provide the basic medical and social supports people need in order to enjoy life and thrive.

        Unfortunately, this trend seems likely to continue. Discussing studies by the Pew Research Center, Meltem Odabas pointed out that, while fatal drug overdose rates increased in every social setting – “urban, suburban, and rural” - in the USA from 2017 to 2020, Americans who thought drug addiction was an important issue in their community actually decreased over the same time period. She wrote: 

 “Nearly 92,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, up from around 70,000 in 2017 … . During the same period, the rate of fatal overdoses rose from 21.7 to 28.3 per 100,000 people. / Despite these increases, the share of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem in their local community declined by 7 percentage points … – from 42% in 2018 to 35% in 2021. And in a separate Center survey in early 2022, dealing with drug addiction ranked lowest out of 18 priorities for the president and Congress to address this year.” 

This is not a problem that will get better by ignoring it, and yet ignoring it seems like the course our society is choosing. We cannot refrain from harm, or cultivate good qualities like wisdom and kindness, if we aren’t willing to understand the conditions as they actually are. At a personal level, we can do our part by taking mindful consumption seriously, and paying attention to how our actions impact one another. How do we want to treat one another? How do we want to respond to the ups and downs of life? What good qualities do we want to make sure we are turning into habits? What harmful actions do we want to make sure we avoid? And how can we care for our hearts and minds in such a way that we have clarity and compassion, instead of confusion and contempt? 

        Training our hearts and minds in this way makes happiness possible, because we are cultivating understanding alongside kindness. When we understand how suffering arises, we can let go joyfully, because we don’t want to suffer or cause others to suffer. When we understand how wellbeing arises, we can practice joyfully, because we see how it brings about happiness for ourselves and happiness for others. And when we do so, we find that “contentment and gratitude” are not far away. In fact, I cannot conceive of a way that mindful consumption is even possible without contentment and gratitude. 

        I’ve mentioned the “Five Contemplations” as one practice to help us cultivate gratitude, but, like all habits, it is worth another look. It is offered as a way of mindfully pausing before eating a meal. If practiced regularly, it can also help us pay more attention to being grateful for more and more of the daily gifts that keep us alive: 

 “This food is the gift of the whole universe – the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we eat in mindfulness so as to nourish our gratitude. May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat with moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food to realize the path of understanding, love, and joy.” (Adapted by the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center)

        Again, we don’t recite these things in order to deny suffering or pretend that everything is all right. As Brother David Steindl-Rast has helpfully observed, “You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or sickness, things like that. So the key, when people ask, ‘Can you be grateful for everything?’ — no, not for everything, but in every moment.” Even in the midst of difficulties and injustice, I can find that, at the least, I can call to mind the people who have faced similar difficulties in the past, those who have been my teachers so that I could have resources and skills to respond today, and all those who are similarly deciding to think, speak, and act in ways that can bring about healing, justice, and happiness. I am not grateful for everything, but I can be grateful in every moment. 

        In reflecting on this second verse, I started with contentment and gratitude, rather than respect and humility, because I’ve found this is often a gentler approach. So many people have experienced respect and humility in humiliating, degrading ways. A Tumblr user named Stimmyabby put this in a particularly powerful way many years ago: 

 “Sometimes people use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like a person’ and sometimes they use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like an authority’

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say ‘if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you’ and they mean ‘if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person’

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.”

When we cultivate contentment and gratitude, respect and humility comes more naturally and easier, and is less prone to the misuse of meaning “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person.” When we understand how much our wellbeing depends on the wholesome decisions that we are all making together, we feel gratitude for our mutual care and cooperation, and we want to treat ourselves and one another with respect. The more we understand all the ways that suffering can arise, the more humble and grateful we feel when the conditions are right for wellbeing to arise. So, again, we are not coercing ourselves to show respect or feel humble. Instead, by practicing in a way that brings about understanding of suffering and wellbeing, respect and humility naturally arise, and they are part of our happiness. When they do, that is a sign that we are practicing skillfully, and another cause for gratitude. 

This respect, humility, gratitude, and contentment are also keys for being able to learn and grow. The last line of the verse, “the timely hearing of the Dharma,” refers specifically to hearing the Buddha’s teachings about how to practice in a way that helps us understand and come to an end to suffering. (You can reflect on it in a more broad way, if that is more appropriate for you.) But the idea that is prominent to me in this particular context is the timeliness of learning and growing in insight and compassion. We only have so much time, and the more I understand that, the more I want to spend my time in the most skillful, happy ways possible. There are many variables that are out of my control when it comes to learning like this, so it is important that I do my part to be ready to learn. I don’t want a timely opportunity to pass me by, because time is passing so very quickly. How can I learn to fashion happiness out of the days and years that I do have, and to do my part to make that happiness available to all beings? I want to be ready to learn, and ready to practice, when a timely teaching comes my way. I want to make the most of this brief life, this amazing opportunity, and I hope you do, too.