I was a Buddhist before I got sober. I entered Buddhist practice at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in an effort to get control of my life which was rapidly fragmenting as I plummeted through the last phases of my struggle with alcohol. If I got up earlier, if I did more meditations, if I studied harder, if I went to more retreats, if I lived inside the Green Gulch monastery instead of outside in the community, if, if, if . . . then everything would be all right.
Sometimes I could drink, and sometimes I could not. I abstained for months at a time to prove that I didn’t need alcohol. I no longer drank daily. Few people saw me perceptibly drunk. I rarely drank during the day. I was one of the many alcoholics who can function well despite intoxication. Toward the end, I rarely drank anything other than wine or an occasional beer. I kept up my health, ran three miles a day, sat two periods of meditation daily, led wilderness trips, and published a book. I didn’t look like an alcoholic, but I was in utter despair about my life.
“Sit, just sit,” I thought each morning as I entered the meditation hall to sit in silence on my round black cushion. I sat on my feelings and kept silent about my pain. Wounded, enraged, and frightened by the dissolution of my marriage, the increasing speed with which my life was unraveling, I sensed somehow that events were steadily backing me up against a brick wall; meditation practice helped me see and feel that more clearly. I remember sitting at five o’clock one morning, facing the blank white wall, the temperature near freezing, trying desperately to remember to count my breath. I tried to talk to my teacher and to the practice leader, but I couldn’t tell them that my problem was alcoholism, because I didn’t know it myself. They had no real way to help with the information I gave them, nor were they particularly experienced at seeing through to the problem that I denied. I went on blindly, sitting rigidly on my cushion, determined to be a good student at all costs. I continued to die daily in my long black robes and ever-present smile. But rather than dying from the “ego-killing” meant to occur in Zen practice, I was succumbing to the living death that alcoholism and addiction bring.
After two years, I was finally forced to admit that Buddhist practice wasn’t going to help me stop drinking. And, confronted by my daughter in tears one night, I finally had to admit that I was in trouble and needed to do something about it. I called someone who had gotten sober, three thousand miles away. “Can you control your bowels when you have diarrhea?” he asked, bluntly. “Of course not,” he went on, cheerfully answering his own question. “Well, that’s what trying to control your drinking is like if you have a problem with alcohol. Stopping drinking isn’t a moral issue and it doesn’t have anything to do with will power. This is a disease, and you’ve got it.”
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