Three Buddhist Truths About Curing Alcoholism, Demonstrated by My Enlightened Drinking Buddy
If you have the Buddhist gift of living in the here-and-now, share it. It’s your friends’ best, perhaps only, hope.
Before I tell you more about how to cure your friends’ alcoholism, based on my experiences in my local bar in Brooklyn, let me dispatch with the worlds of alcoholism/addiction treatment and alcohol policy. Don’t worry—it won’t take long!
A few decades ago, the world’s most famous alcohol epidemiologist and policy wonk* wrote the following:
“In comparing Scotland and the United States, on the one hand, with developing countries like Mexico and Zambia … we were struck with how much more responsibility Mexicans and Zambians gave to family and friends in dealing with alcohol problems, and how ready Americans and Scots were to cede responsibility for these human problems to official agencies or to professionals. . .
Studying the period since 1950 in seven industrialized countries (including California), a period in which alcohol consumption grew, we were struck by the concomitant growth of treatment provision in all these countries. The provision of treatment, we felt, became a societal alibi for the dismantling of long-standing structures of control of drinking behavior, both formal and informal.”
In other words, as we look to treatment to solve our addiction problems, we export them to Betty Ford, without realizing that the only solution is for families and friendship groups to change altogether. Our dominant narrative is both wrong and the major cause of our national addiction epidemic.
Now that I’ve resolved America’s misguided treatment fixation, let me return to my local bar, where I hang out with a couple of musicians, occasionally joined by one of their wives (who grew up in Europe).
The three of them probably drink too much—but none is an alcoholic. All of them are too involved with their work, their marriages, their friendships with one another and others in the community to fall into that category.
I am closest to one of these men. He is a highly respected musician who is always working. In addition, he throws himself into his friendships, his marriage, and the accoutrements of his life, including alcohol and food. My friend is a true-life philosopher, one from whom I gain daily affirmations. He’s not Buddhist. But his thinking contains strong Buddhist elements.
While he claims to believe my views, I don’t think really understands them. He knows I’m anti-AA and pro-harm reduction. But he doesn’t get the essence of my ideas about addiction.
He does, however, illustrate them perfectly in the way that he lives his life.
Buddhist Vignette #1—Addiction Is In the Life, Not the Thing
My friend, during a discussion with a third person, asks me, “Are painkillers addictive?”
I answer: “Have you ever taken painkillers?”
“Yes, but I don’t like them, and I try to stay away from them.”
I then launch into my rap about how the psychiatric manual, DSM-5, calls only one thing an addiction: gambling.
My friend: “Really? I could never sit somewhere throwing money away on gambling. It has no appeal for me.”
Buddhist moral: Addiction is not in the thing. It is in the life and outlook of the person who uses the thing. (Although, their addictions are not them.)
Buddhist Vignette #2—The Perfection of Imperfection
My friend decides to go hardware shopping. He ends up at the bar with me.
“My wife [she doesn’t go to the bar] is cleaning up our office, putting everything into piles. But then I can never find anything! I like stuff splayed around the room!”
“Anyhow, in order to get out of there, I told her I’d go out to buy some storage bins. She said, ‘Don’t make any detours!’”
“But the bar is directly on the route I was going!“ (Big horse-laugh.)
He then proceeds on a discourse about Brooklyn hardware and bargain supply stores where he shops, while he has one beer, then leaves.
Buddhist moral: My friend married his wife after he had decided he would probably end up single. “Then I stopped searching for perfection. I also abandoned the idea that I had to be the knight in shining armor for a woman. She’s fine the way she is. And I’m good enough. I revel in the perfection of our imperfection.”
Buddhist Vignette #3—Finding Life on Side Streets (Yet Having Purpose)
My friend announced enthusiastically at the bar: “I found the best Mexican restaurant on Sunday, over on 14th Street! My wife wanted to go to Costco, which is a couple of miles away. I said, ‘We should walk.’ and she agreed.”
“On the way back, we took a little side street I didn’t know about, and we found the greatest little Mexican restaurant. They make all the ingredients themselves.”
He proceeds with a loving description of every dish they had, and how cheap each one was.
Me: “How did your wife like the place?”
“She loved it—can’t wait to go back. She left a giant tip.”
Buddhist moral: When you live in the here-and-now, you are able to find life on the side streets. And that’s where life really is. Or at least, some of it—it’s also found in his purpose and mission in making creative, beautiful music that he and I love. Several times I have prevailed on him to take out his horn and play at the bar—including with my family on my birthday.
Despite my friend’s inherent wisdom, this group of people I drink with, knowing my specialty, now wants me to solve the alcoholism of another friend of theirs. I haven’t met him. But they feel that I will have the key to his problem.
I note from their descriptions that he is not involved in an intimate relationship, nor does he have occupying, meaningful work. And when they all get together with him, it is nearly always at a bar, not in some other engaging activity.
How to tell them: “I can’t cure your friend’s alcoholism. You, as his friends, stand to offer him a better pathway out of his condition than I ever could in a session or two.”
Next time I stop by for a drink with them all, my task will be to change their focus from me as rescuing hero to themselves as the man’s friends.
*Robin Room, the author of the quote, has long since refocused his efforts on reducing the world’s alcohol consumption by (a) raising the price on alcohol, (b) raising the drinking age in those weird Southern European countries that allow people to drink at age 16 (truth be told, the drinking age is even lower in Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and Greece).
Room and his colleagues at the World Health Organization are virtually all from Scandinavian or English-speaking countries (so-called “temperance cultures”). They are not in the least deterred by two remarkable epidemiological findings. First is the inverse correlation across Western Europe between the amount of alcohol consumed and alcohol problems in a country. Nordic countries, which consume the least alcohol, have the most such problems, while Southern European countries, which consume the most, have the fewest. How does that work? In Nordic countries, people drink spirits on special occasions, when they binge. In Mediterranean countries, they drink, mainly wine, regularly and moderately with meals amidst family and friends.
And, second, when Sweden, as a member of the EU, was forced to reduce traditionally high tariffs on alcohol imported from mainland Europe, drinking problems were reduced as Swedes began imitating their Southern neighbors’ more moderate drinking habits.