Steadiness, Sobriety, Joy

The life-changing joy of steadiness. You probably know the feeling, though maybe you don’t often have the conditions for it: you’re well-slept, well-fed, healthy enough, not in relational or political drama, not in a crisis of overwork, overwhelm, deadline, or some other external urgency, and importantly, also not in the pulsing swirl of romance, creative inspiration, or world-saving furor—what does that feel like?

The Buddhist path in most of its manifestations has a strong bias toward states of ease, unhurried presence, and appreciation of—rather than constant engagement with—the sensory world. Many of us have lost the taste for this subtle dish, preferring fast human culture over slow immersion in the non-human world, flavored drinks over water, inspiration over contentment. We could think about all of this in terms of preferring intoxication over sobriety, not just in terms of our chemical relationships but in terms of all of our relationships: human, cultural, and all the rest.

When the fifth ethical precept enjoins us to abstain from “intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to heedlessness,” the central equation here is that intoxication leads to heedlessness. Heedlessness basically means “acting without mindfulness,” since it is mindfulness that makes it possible to be heedful—to take care with our actions. So whatever chemicals we are under the influence of—whether more socially-acceptable ones like caffeine, prescription meds, alcohol, or sugar, or less-accepted ones like cannabis, opiates, or psychedelics—the central task is to keep mindfulness always awake and active. To not lose our agency. Mindfulness in this way is our first line of defense against the defilements, and intoxication of any kind can potentially weaken that defense. 

“Whatever a [practitioner] frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of [their] mind” (MN 19). Intoxication is a habit, and whenever you try to change I have it, you have to go against the stream of its force for a while. That’s uncomfortable, because habits by definition create a certain kind of comfort, even if it’s the ego comfort of a painful state that feels like home, for all the trauma-culture-belonging-identity reasons.

One of the keys to sobriety, then, is to develop a taste for boredom. Boredom, of course, is not the same as neutral, unstimulating experience. Boredom is an aversive response to non-stimulation. But boredom is the doorway to joy. If we can get through withdrawal from overstimulation—which can be terrifying and destabilizing in addition to being boring, I know—on the other side is a beautiful landscape that sparkles with ordinariness. 

Distracting thought is in this way an intoxication, as we repeat the stories, worries, and obsessions of our little narrative again and again, believing that this time we will gain some satisfaction through doing so, or finally figure out a compelling problem. Positive states of inspiration and creativity are wonderful, but they are even more intoxicating. Thinking about the troubles of the world and staying inspired by activists and wise thinkers is wholesome, but still intoxicating. If we do not learn to delight in inner silence, nothing in the external world can ever enable us to do so. Even wonderful teachings from wonderful, wise teachers can be used as a distraction.

I think a definition of liberation is that the mind is no longer able to be distracted or drawn away from it intended focus by unwholesome internal or external stimuli. Buddhas and arahants are permanently sober, no matter what they encounter or ingest. That’s how the Buddha is so equanimous even as he is dying of food poisoning. Or how Neem Karoli Baba, after chugging Ram Dass’s entire vial of strong LSD, just laughed and teased his young western devotees for being so entranced and overwhelmed by the influence of the chemical. 

Renunciation is the process of needing less stimulation to be happy. Though I think this is an extraordinarily difficult hill to climb in our online global attention ecosystem, maybe a good starting place is just creating the conditions for ease and non-crisis in our own lives as best we can. A first step often is giving attention to sleep, food, exercise, and connection with humans, animals, and the outside world. 

(Side note on sleep: The symptoms of ADD/ADHD and sleep-deprivation are the same, and studies have shown that giving teenagers, for instance, even one extra hour of sleep decreases ADHD diagnoses and behavioral incidents in school by an appreciable amount. It’s true for us adults as well. Prioritize sleep!) 

If you want to start on one substantive habit change that will support your progress on the path, I suggest choosing either sleep, exercise, or connection with wise friends. (In other contexts I would say food, but we’re a rather well-fed bunch, my progressive, privileged community, and being more health-obsessed about food has now become unwholesome rather than wholesome in many of our subcultures.)

Whenever you notice that peculiar unruffled energy—ease, peacefulness, contentment, ordinariness, simplicity, groundedness, sobriety, presence—stop whatever you’re doing, feel it, notice its qualities, and delight in it. Think about it. Notice what conditions are present in the moment and in the recent past that may be supporting this excellent state. Feel it through the whole body. Feel it as an emotional tone. And invited to stay, increase, and be found again easily when it has departed. 

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