By Michelleanne Bradley
I have been a Buddhist practitioner for more than a few minutes. It’s been a long windy journey.
When I was in my early 30s, I was divorced, and going through some spiritual searching. I had been raised Catholic, spent a long time as a Unitarian Universalist, but I was looking for something else. I had a shitty marriage, a history of bad relationships and I felt invisible. I realized that I was looking for external validation instead of building up my own internal confidence. It took a long time, and it was far from easy.
With Buddhist practice; I found the way to ease the tension within me. I spent a long time (several years really) going to the local monastery and sitting in silence, and crying. Not the best way to enter into practice, but I’ve never done anything the easy way.
Reason Number One:
I had to do it the long way, even though a short cut is always welcome. Isn’t that the dead truth? We are always looking for a way to get it done faster or take the short cut. That is what is being offered by encouraging use of psychedelics on retreat—a short cut to the place where we can find that elusive bit of peace, or that elusive moment of turning off our brains, or whatever it is that is followed in your school of meditation.
I prefer my meditation to be simple and basic. I do not like a lot of instruction, I do not like a lot of words cluttering up the way to the sit. My preference is to just sit. I took my five precepts at Deer Park Monastery in 2011. That was particularly memorable because it is also when I got clean and sober. I struggled a lot around the fifth precept.
Here is an excerpt:
I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past, nor letting anxieties, fear or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. (1)
Now I know, I fail hard on a lot of that. I sometimes need to remind myself that I am more than a big ole bag of anxiety and fear. I remember working with my mentor and him reminding me to be kind to myself around the precepts. I also distinctly remember the beloved monk, Phap De, getting firm on the practice and saying “Look, I know that some of you have some concerns about the fifth mindfulness training. I am here to tell you that there are a lot of us with addiction issues, so let me put this to rest. No alcohol and no drugs mean exactly that: NO ALCOHOL AND NO DRUGS!”
For me, it is a lot easier once there is that boundary in place to work with the spaciousness that does not include looking over the fence at what I cannot have. Some may call it keeping my eyes on my own page, working within my means, whatever works for you, as long as you get that it actually means NO ALCOHOL AND NO DRUGS.
I have taken precepts with other groups, as I have done work in other schools of Buddhism, but the bottom line really does remain that steering clear of intoxicants is very much central to that vow.
Reason Number Two:
I am sure that I have mentioned a time or a thousand that I have long struggled with depression. Occasionally I say in jest that sometimes I fight with my demons, and sometimes we just cuddle. Psychedelics and depression are known cautious adversaries.
I understand that there are studies going on around micro-dosing of mushrooms and LSD to treat PTSD and depression, but that is a whole different world than being on retreat. I do understand that there are a lot of people who take part in these retreats with a whole lot of education, including all kinds of initials after their names. That all being said, it is different to introduce that kind of toxin while in that kind of a setting.
My bestie who helps me pack for all important travel, including retreat, knows the schedule. Whenever I’m packing to go on retreat, he tells me to just be comfortable, don’t worry about being cute, because the big crying starts on day three, and it is really day two if we have been in silence since sundown on day zero.
Retreat is not easy. There is a lot of time spent in intimate contact with all of the stuff on the inside, which is not always the safest place to be. I feel like I really identify with the Hafiz quote, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”
I cannot run away from myself when really my only task is to practice, which is what we create when on retreat. That is the time for coming fully face to face with all of that which has been avoided inside my brain. This is not the time for introduction of known toxins to alter mood; because there are multiple directions that this can go, and being in proximity to other people also in that place just really spells a bad plan.
Retreat reentry is not easy when it’s just me hanging out with me, myself and I, and I have been known to talk through other friends coming out of the same retreat with much comfort that I am not the only one to feel that sense of the bottom dropping out when reentering the world of people talking and traffic and life (once I even got lost on my way home from my home monastery, which is 20 minutes from my house, and I had been going from the same house to there for five years).
Reason Number Three:
Very important elements of the teachings of Buddhism, no matter the school to which one ascribes, include defining your path. We all have these amazing journeys, filled with beauty, pain, extremes, pushing of boundaries, and relationships with everyone with whom we come in contact, and of course, our suffering, and the suffering of all of beings. The way to end this suffering was taught by the Buddha, and not once in these teachings were ever mentioned that it is okay to take any mind-altering substances to aid in the path to enlightenment.
I know that there are those who do not have issues with substance abuse or addiction. I view these beings as somewhat akin to unicorns, because I certainly do not share in that particular path. I have long been of the school that if one pill will stop a problem, what will happen if I take two?
This does not only apply to alcohol (which really was for a long time my favorite barrier to put between me and the feeling of all that is in life) or drugs (choice number 2) or cigarettes (they really do all go together), or food, sex, hoarding, codependent relationships, unhealthy (unskillful) personal views, power struggles, on and on and on…the acts of being human and interacting.
What the Buddha does teach is to show up whole with our complete and undefended heart. Do the whole thing. Don’t take the shortcuts.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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