Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world?
Which of us has his desire? Or having it, is satisfied?

—William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Only two things have I ever craved as much as life itself: drink and a man. To save my life, I had to give up the drink. To give up the drink, I had to give up the man.

My desire for both was total, visceral: passion seeking its own DNA. The bond was physical, emotional, spiritual, chemical—drink, man, and I locked in a menage a trois.

It began, however, as a folie á deux. Alcohol was my first love: a constant, if feckless, companion in negotiating the scary home life of my teens. Early on I fell into the addict’s faulty logic: I felt “normal” only when I was high.

For a while, it worked. A few drinks and I was prettier, sexier, more assured, less bookish and aloof. In no time, the desire for that state of mind became a craving for the only vehicle I knew could get me there—alcohol. By age seventeen, I was hooked.

In a sense we’re all hooked, the Buddha taught. Not on alcohol but on a desire to be happy—which often means a desire for things to be other than they are. According to the Second Noble Truth, desire, or craving (tanha in Pali, trishna in Sanskrit, translated as “thirst”) is the source of dukkha, dissatisfaction. For an addict or alcoholic, that thirst is literal and all consuming. (A Chinese proverb describes the cycle: Man takes a drink; drink takes a drink; drink takes the man.) Overdoing alcohol, drugs, food, or, for that matter, gambling, sex, shopping, even TV-watching, Net-surfing, and checking e-mail gradually erodes choice, until we’re left with little more than our desires and our efforts to satisfy them.

But where is the line between ordinary human longing and addictive craving? Even among specialists, what constitutes addiction remains a matter of debate. Narrowly defined, addiction is “chronic or habitual use of any chemical substance to alter body or mind states for other than medical purposes.” Certain substances—cocaine, nicotine, and the painkiller OxyContin, among them—are known to trigger tenacious physical dependence. Alcoholism runs in families, and a genetic link has been established. But there is a saying in Twelve Step circles: “Alcoholism comes in people, not in bottles,” suggesting that addiction is more nuanced and holistic, and in large part as the Buddha saw it: a mental affliction. The Fifth Precept, one of the ethical guidelines originally set our for monks and nuns, calls on practitioners to “refrain from intoxicants that confuse the mind, causing heedlessness and lack of restraint.” That is precisely why I drank: to be more spontaneous and uninhibited. As I saw it, more alive.

In my teens, I took a line from the poet Marianne Moore as ultimate truth: “satisfaction is a lowly / thing, how pure a thing is joy.” Satisfaction was the opiate of the masses, I declared, and joy the nectar of the gods. I wanted nectar. That’s where the man came in.

We met one July afternoon forty years ago, in Harvard Yard. It sounds quaint now, but a friend and I were trying to liven up the weekly mixer for summer school students by spiking our fruit punch with whiskey smuggled into the Yard. Soon a merry group had gathered around us, to the envy of the other students. A few approached to ask why we were having so much fun. “We’re punching the Yard punch,” we sang our gaily, offering them a splash.

I don’t recall when T. appeared. But within minutes the conversation had sailed into deep waters, too intimate for turning back. The recognition was instant—karmic, some might have said. I was Dante encountering Beatrice:

The moment I saw (him) I can say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibration alarmingly in all my pulses, even the weakest of them. As it trembled it uttered these words: Behold a god more powerful than I who comes to rule over me. 

I was already in thrall to the Dewar’s god; that day T. joined the pantheon. Though our relationship, unlike Dante’s, was earthy, it was never earthbound. We lived in different cities, and when we met, which wasn’t often, it was always over a steamy brew of sex, talk, drink, and sometimes pot. For the next decade, through other affairs and vague talk of marriage, nothing came close to the raw, ravishing desire I felt for T. It was as mind-altering and addictive as any drug.

Then, as I turned thirty, alcohol turned on me. The demon lover, it was all I could think about, though no amount I drank was ever enough. The Buddha understood this: that desire, whatever its object—a substance, a person, an experience, a state of mind—is insatiable. The addict’s hope is to become too sick, or sick of hurting, to continue. “Hitting bottom” is karmic grace: a moment of awakening in which the only desire is to stop desiring, and hence, to stop suffering.

Quitting—so simple, so logical to those who’ve never tried it—throws an addict unarmed into the pit with desire. Long after physical craving abates, longing may remain. Actor Robert Downey Jr. described it for a New York Times Magazine article: “the arm’s been cut off, but the phantom limb is still twitching.” Issues and insecurities masked by the addictive behavior are laid bare, along with other cravings. Smoking was up next for me, and even harder to quit than drinking. I stared down the true nature of desire while living at a Zen monastery. Despite sub-zero weather, snow, and gale-force winds, I would stand outside on the deck barefoot and smoke, stashing the cigarette butts in the sleeve of my meditation robe before returning to the zendo. Back on the cushion, every urge to smoke felt like Mara tempting Siddhartha on his long night under the Bodhi tree. Or Mara’s daughters—kama-tanha (sexual desire, in Pali), bhava-tanha (desire for things to be a certain way), and vibhava-tanha (desire to avoid losing what we have).

Siddhartha’s steadfast practice saved him, and by dawn he was the Buddha, “one who is awake.” What can we do when Mara and his daughters come calling? Both Buddhism and the Twelve Step recovery program propose a similar response: develop resolute awareness, generate wisdom and compassion. Craving creates tunnel vision: we see only what we yearn for. Mindfulness allows us to see that and much more, giving us the choice not to act on our desires. The one-pointedness with which we fixated on the object of desire can be turned to an object of contemplation, such as the breath. This helps stabilize “monkey mind,” the racing thoughts that beset most meditators at times, but make withdrawal especially hellish. Through Vipassana, or mindfulness practice, we begin to know things as they really are. When we see our craving and the devastation it has wrought, what we crave no longer seems so desirable. Through lovingkindness practice, we can begin the long process of self-forgiveness, and of healing relationships damaged in pursuing our desires. The driven ego-self that knows only “I want” begins to ease its grip.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung famously wrote a letter to Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson, in which he described the craving for alcohol as “a low level of the spiritual search of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” Fourteen centuries earlier, in “Drinking Alone in the Rainy Season,” the Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien hinted at the drawback of this method: “One small cup and a thousand worries vanish; / two, and you’ll even forget about heaven.” I often drank alone late into the night, desperate to dissolve a chronic sense of separation from life and from myself. Only after I sobered up and began practicing zazen did I experience true samadhi, union.

“A tenth of an inch’s difference, / And heaven and earth are set apart,” wrote the Ch’an patriarch Seng-ts’an in a classic poem we recited at the monastery. For me, not drinking was the tenth of an inch’s difference between life and death. Not returning a phone call was the face-off with Mara.

I had been sober less than a month when T. left a message that he was back in town. His voice on my answering machine set off desire so bald, so breathtaking, that I wondered how I had survived it all those years. This time, I knew I wouldn’t survive; I would drink. I didn’t call. Months later, I phoned to tell him I was sober. We never spoke again.

It wasn’t that my desire for T. was gone; just banked. I clung to a certainty that someday we would reconnect, this time for good. Eighteen years went by. One night as I was watching the Academy Awards on television, I heard T.’s name announced. He had won an Oscar—posthumously, the presenter said. Death has been a frequent visitor in my life since childhood, but this loss somehow trumped the others, as if the dashed hopes and missed opportunities of all those earlier deaths had been rolled up into one. Desire for the absent living is one thing; like addiction, it feeds on possibility, hope, denial. Desire for the dead has no such illusions. In mourning T., I had to put to rest the champagne fiction on which our relationship (my obsession, really) had subsisted. I kept thinking of the final gatha of the Diamond Sutra:

All composite things are like
a dream, a fantasy, a bubble
and a shadow
Like a dewdrop and a flash of
They are thus to be regarded.

Buddhism teaches us that desire, for all the agony and ecstasy, is no match for the truth. Addiction exacts a terrible price, but for the addict who recovers, there is the promise of a far more rewarding high: the “divine intoxication” that the Sufis speak of. Unleashed from my attachments to the drink and to the man, I could finally taste what I’d been craving all along: Joy.

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