How Meditation Helped Me to Stop Drinking

1 week ago

At age 52, I quit drinking to see what it would feel like. This step was the final phase of a gradual purification that began with giving up cigarettes when I was 44. Next came giving up hard liquor. Then came kicking marijuana, a habit I had formed as a teenager and that I had continued to use daily during COVID-19 lockdown. Rather than allowing the stresses of the pandemic to accelerate my addictions, I used lockdown as a catalyst for cleaning up.

This shift toward sobriety coincided with the deepening of my mindfulness practice, which I first attempted during my party years as a 20-something, long before I’d commit to anything so transformative. In my 40s, I began a transcendental meditation (TM) practice to cope with depression, which had left me feeling isolated. My TM practice gradually evolved into the Buddhist mindfulness regimen that’s provided me with the philosophical foundation to free myself of the toxic habits that were part of my life for decades.

How did he do it? you might be wondering.

When solving a problem, you revisit its origins, the cause for the effect. How has it come to this? I asked myself in a San Juan bar last summer. And why am I quitting after all these years? The answer to the “why” question came easier, since I was embarrassed by the acts of deceit that I committed during the lowest points of my drinking life, the erosion of values that should’ve awakened me to the truth sooner. Plus, the expense and health impact. Yet, coming up with an answer for “how” I’d gotten there required more intensive introspection.

As a teenager, I experienced a working-class culture that valued music, which led to my playing trumpet in orchestra and jazz bands in high school in the 1980s. Substance abuse had been one of the rites of passage for those of us who matured amidst the excesses of the 1970s and the despair of the 1980s, when much of the Bronx, where I grew up, was ravaged by fires, violent crime, and corruption. I first started sipping beer prior to jazz band performances, a ceremony that my best friend and I would soon transfer to our local park on weekend nights.

My father had given me my first taste of beer when I was 8, yet years would pass before my second sip of the drink that would distort my grip on reality in times to come. Being raised by a heroin addict had taught me to set firm limits on which substances I would and wouldn’t try, but it didn’t protect me from getting hooked on a beverage that, to many, symbolized masculinity. Macho men drank beer and smoked cigarettes, pot even. That’s the image that I wanted to project despite my growing fascination with Buddhism, a spark that first began following a field trip to a temple in Chinatown when I was 7.

Realizing that I was queer during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic intensified the terror I felt, as it seemed  like every gay man I knew in the 1980s died of the disease, a dark reckoning that coincided with the violence that drove my mother to kick my father out in 1981, when I was only 10. A grim start to a rocky decade to come. There were so many problems to escape from back then—like the sexual secret that I began to drag around like a curse—that I didn’t know where to start. With little choice, I went to live with my mother’s family in Oregon in 1988, when I was 17.

In Portland’s underground music scene, I found my tribe. As a closeted musician, this newfound sense of community brought me relief, even though the Gen X punks that I began to befriend there partied harder than anyone I knew back home. My weekend drinking spilled into the rest of the week as I experimented with club drugs in my 20s, including acid, mushrooms, and ecstasy. Once I came out, I immersed myself in the gay subculture, where alcoholism reigned supreme as a coping mechanism for dealing with the cruelties of a homophobic society.

By my 40s, mindfulness meditation filled the space that nightlife had occupied once I took it seriously. Transcendental meditation introduced me to inner stillness through the repetition of a mantra, which appealed to my musical imagination. By embarking on an inward search, I settled into the calm awaiting beneath the choppy surface of anxiety and depression, a well-being so profound that I practiced TM daily. I unveiled the person I was meant to be once I drank less and practiced more introspection, a gradual transition toward befriending myself.

By embarking on an inward search, I settled into the calm awaiting beneath the choppy surface of anxiety and depression, a well-being so profound that I practiced TM daily. 

My first experiences with a practice rooted in mindfulness began while studying for Tibet House’s 100-Hour Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training with David Nichtern during lockdown. By that point, in addition to TM, I’d experimented with sound, metta, (loving-kindness), and breath-based meditation techniques. Yet, mindfulness practice resonated with me on an even deeper level. When taught in the Buddhist context, a mindfulness discipline trains you to observe how thoughts, emotions, and perceptions arise and vanish. These “movements” of the mind can vary from joyful to disturbing. By viewing these “movements” as separate and distinct from the mind, one can practice giving rise to skillful mind states while abandoning unhealthy ones. Herein lies the key to self-transformation.  

Mindfulness of Craving: A Two-Step Practice

Disclaimer: I don’t attend A.A. meetings or participate in recovery programs. While I drank heavily in the past, I gradually weaned myself away from those tendencies, which could explain why it was easier for me to stop. Despite this, in addition to traditional recovery programs, I believe that a mindfulness practice can be of great benefit to serious drinkers and addicts.

The method that I’m sharing isn’t a substitute for any medical and/or therapeutic support that you might be receiving as part of your recovery. Quitting alcohol cold turkey can result in devastating health consequences for certain drinkers. While a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist, learning how your mind functions—and working with that insight—can help you to reduce your suffering by understanding how desire comes into being.

My daily practice is rooted in the tantric teachings of the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu schools, which provide a philosophical framework for transforming defilements—addiction in this case—into realization through skillful means. We turn garbage into gold. While this is easier said than done for many of my students, it presents an ancient system for managing the energy of craving through awareness and discipline. This is how you change.

Step One: Observe your triggers and desires as they happen.

A disciplined mindfulness practice will create distance between “you” and your thoughts. Notice your thoughts as they appear in the present moment, such as the thoughts that trigger your desire for alcohol. Observing this cause-and-effect reaction has taught me to reel myself in whenever this happens, as when entering a roomful of strangers where alcohol is available, when I sought a drink to cope with the awkwardness of social situations that I didn’t want to deal with—a trigger that aroused my desire.

Step Two: Redirect the desire’s energy, thus transforming it.

Once observed, you can redirect that energy into an alternate activity such as running, power walking, deep breathing, or any physical outlet that will exhaust the momentum and emotions associated with the deep-seated craving for pleasure before acting on it. We divert this movement toward a meritorious activity rather than perpetuating the suffering that yielding to our defilements causes us. We transform the energy of desire from garbage into gold through awareness and discipline.

Another ritual that’s worked me for is taking Nine Purifying Breaths, a series of full inhalations with the right nostril pressed down for the first three complete exhalations, the left nostril covered for the middle set of outbreaths, and neither of them pressed for the final three. The practice I learned from Dzogchen teacher and scholar Keith Dowman is to relax my body with the infusion of oxygen, exhale, and intensify my awareness of the present moment.

Meditation helped me to stop drinking by making me aware of the causes that beget my desire for alcohol. My urges for getting drunk have diminished through the practice of noticing and redirecting that energy into skillful actions. By tapping into your awareness of the present moment, you can do the same with your habits. Filling the space of addictions with healthier alternatives, such as mindfulness meditation, can be an auspicious inroad to a path of sobriety. 

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