I used to love getting stoned. I especially loved to get stoned and read dharma. When stoned I was never bored: Every single piece of my world was reliably fascinating. My curiosity and delight with any- and everybody was palpable. I could read the newspaper and not have my blood curdle. Trees would twinkle and wave especially at me. It felt as if the miracle of my life was familiar and accessible again: Here I was once again in this cozy space. I got so into the addiction that I could hardly go for a walk without getting buzzed. Almost every high brought that tremendous feeling of contact—that feeling of being a part of every crack in the sidewalk, every mosquito trying to make its way in the world. Exhaustion was buoyed and did not weigh so heavily. With gratitude, not annoyance, humbleness, not resentfulness, I could carry on domestic routines: the care of two small children, a husband, and a dog; food purchase, preparation, and cleanup; laundry; not to mention a widening array of friends and participation in Buddhist practices that took daily attention, most of every weekend, though it was sangha-driven as well, with the abundant and never-ending celebrations, practices, feasts, and training programs. Getting stoned brought perceived relief but no real rest. I was part of a life-transforming scene that would change the world, and I didn’t want to miss it.
I had heard stories from first- and second-wave practitioners from Tail of the Tiger that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had held a special ceremony one evening where all who lived there were asked to bring their stashes of dope and bum them up in the campfire while he proclaimed “the end of illusion.” It didn’t make any sense to me, since I knew how much alcohol and other substances were being consumed there. It especially didn’t make sense when it seemed that my drug of choice was being condemned, while my husband’s drug of choice (alcohol) was being celebrated. Drinking lessons were held as we were taught about bringing awareness to inebriating the senses. Alcohol was sanctified during feast practice as our usually chaotic mind was redirected in “sacred space.” Why was my smoke not able to be in sacred space also? I only had one personal interview with Rinpoche, and I hungrily begged for an explanation of why he thought it was alright to use alcohol and not marijuana. Stoned or drunk, my friends and I seemed to get to be in the same psychic places. Why couldn’t he bless my chosen substance? Rinpoche paused for a long moment then quietly told me that when I relaxed into living my life I would be a terrific drinker. That certainly slowed down my momentum—it made no sense to me whatsoever. Perhaps it even stopped my mind, which, instead of just solving our problems, was what the teacher was supposed to do.
From that point of contact with Rinpoche it took many more years of smoking—at least every afternoon, and on bad days from early in the morning—for me to come to my own realization. Without fail every morning I would rise with the fervent vow that this would be the day I would quit, would no longer use this route to cope. Later, it took someone in my addiction recovery unit to tell me how this vow itself was the setup for using. Somehow it would trigger the glee and defeat of getting to a level of tension or frustration and then fold into “Fuck it. I’m smoking, I deserve this and no one can stop me.” It took one wretched near-fight with my husband, where my trembling rage leaked into my awareness, to crack the momentum of my habit. I was already as stoned as I could get. It was a batch of fabulous weed. I felt something rise up in me that was so powerful it was undeniable. Instead of screaming and yelling, expressing and exploding, I felt myself implode. I took my vibrating rage and found myself, as I came to, desperately sucking my special pipe in an effort to make this ignition disappear. It was too late. The realization had seeped through beyond denial and confusion. Something had soundlessly snapped. The hypocrisy of living half of my life trying to wake up by meditating and the other half trying to anesthetize myself was overwhelming. I knew I needed help. By myself I could not overcome the underlying desire to feel only the good stuff. No matter what I had learned from the dharma, I really wanted out of the violence of my anger, confusion, helplessness, hunger, and fear. With just a puff or two, anger simply got fuzzy and rounded off. What was so inutterably irritating just moments before would vanish. I had labeled the force of anger as small-minded, tightly wound up, territorial, uncompassionate, and surely unevolved. Somewhere along the way the word got out that losing your cool erased the karma of an entire month of sitting. This was not Rinpoche’s example. He did get angry and did display it. I always had the impression, from the infinite stories of those who were closer to him, that his anger was pure energy and not attached. He simply roared at someone and then it was over. My delusion was that if I got angry the world would fall apart, people would leave me forever and finally know how aweful a human being I was. I was and am not unattached. My anger resounds for years. Letting it go is an aspiration, not something that seems to work. Not expressing anger did not originate solely from our sangha: this was the way my parents had operated as well. Also, beginning long before I was even conceived, both parents never let one day of their lives go by without a cocktail hour. Thus, on a cellular level, my being was accustomed to daily inebriation. Both parents were socially acceptable drinkers and both were active participants in their busy worlds. Here in this dharma world, the sangha recreated the atmosphere.
Almost. There was a difference. When Rinpoche taught us about co-emergence he had two of us walk together to the front of the room and then suddenly split off in opposite directions. This was a stunning enactment of how closely the neurotic state of mind arises right along with the enlightened. There is no guarantee of choosing the awake route. It is only the pledge of allegiance, the vow to lean into the rawness of experience without filter and without props, that we have to count on. I have found that every vow I have taken as a twenty-year practitioner is a fumbling attempt to stop the perpetuation of illusion. I still scrape along on my knees a lot. In the dozen years since I quit using dope regularly, I have experimented a handful of times “done more research,” as they say in the recovery business. It always fails. I am relentlessly stuck back in the realm of anxiety or frustration that couldn’t be smoked away. The connection to each step beneath my feet—to the place where things are allowed to simply be as they are—is what meditation practice works with. The illusion is in the fact that this contact is brought about by the drug itself and it always fades as the THC passes through. The struggle for a practitioner lies in the infantile yearning for only the good stuff and not being able to hang out with the bleakness. Great ecstatic meditation periods have never been celebrated by teachers; we’re always told to go back to the cushion, to let go of all that arises. Those grungy black emotions come and go with a will of their own. The pledge of allegiance is to the entire mandala, not just the part where there are only downhills and the wind is always gently blowing at my back. Far more often than I’d like to admit, I still actively yearn for the moments of joy and oblivion that dope provided. It’s embarrassing to find that my longing for spirit or connection the fast way hasn’t really disappeared that much over time. I get caught sometimes in the dualism that pokes an annoying finger in my moralistic stance: “What a good girl I am for not smoking. Why don’t I just give myself a tiny little break. Is it imperative that I be gentle and kind and lighten up? Light up! Where’s my maitri [benevolence]? Where has not smoking gotten me? I am no more awake or aware than I was when I was smoking. What is my problem?” It’s stark how much the ol’ hair in the eyeball stings, and what treachery the mind pulls when it wants a break, and you know that giving it that break is destructive. The fire that Rinpoche lit to burn up illusion is still burning away in me.