I just found out that an old friend of mine went insane. I hope it’s temporary. I knew he was leaning in that direction (is it okay to say that?) but I’m told one day he finally went nuts, the police came, and he was placed in a mental hospital for a few days. Our mutual friend hasn’t seen him since.
He was someone who liked to use mind-altering drugs – especially after a traumatic experience he had 10 years ago – and presumably he felt these drugs were beneficial, necessary, and relatively harmless.
Elsewhere, another friend just sent me an article about the mind-altering benefits of Psilocybin and LSD, and suggested it could inspire a post on this blog.
Well. All this got me thinking about whether something is beneficial or harmful, and how I could tell the difference. And it reminded me of a very non-moralistic consideration Chögyam Trungpa once had about alcohol:
There seems to be something wrong with an approach to alcohol that is based entirely on morality or social propriety. The scruples implied have solely to do with the external effects of one’s drinking. The real effect of alcohol is not considered, but only its impact on the social format. On the other hand, a drinker feels that there is something worthwhile in his drinking aside from the pleasure he or she gets out of it. There are the warmth and openness that seem to come from the relaxation of his usual self-conscious style. Also there is the confidence of being able to communicate his perceptions accurately, which cuts through his usual feeling of inadequacy. Scientists find they are able to solve their problems; philosophers have new insights; and artists find clear perception. The drinker experiences greater clarity because he feels more really what he is; therefore daydreams and fantasies can be temporarily put aside.
It seems that alcohol is a weak poison which is capable of being transmuted into medicine. An old Persian folktale tells how the peacock thrives on poison, which nourishes his system and brightens his plumage….
Nevertheless, alcohol can as easily be a death potion as a medicine. The sense of joviality and heartiness can seduce us to relinquish our awareness. But fortunately there is also a subtle depression that goes with drinking. There is a strong tendency to latch onto the heartiness and ignore the depression; this is the ape instinct. It is a great mistake. If we take alcohol merely as a substance that will cheer us up or loosen us up like a sedative, it becomes exceedingly dangerous. It is the same with alcohol as with anything else in life that we relate to only partially.
There is a great difference between alcohol and other inebriates. In contrast with alcohol, such substances as LSD, marijuana, and opium do not bring simultaneous depression. If depression does occur, it is of a purely conceptual nature. But with alcohol, there are always physical symptoms: weight gain, loss of appetite, increased feeling of solidity (which includes hangovers). There is always the sense that one still has a body. Psychologically, intoxication with alcohol is a process of coming down, rather than, as with the other substances, of going up into space.
Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism. Alcohol becomes destructive when one gives in to the joviality: letting loose permits the poisons to enter one’s body. Thus alcohol can be a testing ground. It brings to the surface the latent style of the drinker’s neuroses, the style that he is habitually hiding. If his neuroses are strong and habitually deeply hidden, he later forgets what happened when he was drunk or else is extremely embarrassed to remember what he did….
For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…1
This piece is quite beautiful and worth reading in its entirety, but I don’t want to rip off the publishers by posting any more than I already have here.
- Under what circumstances does he say alcohol is a death potion?
- In your own case, what is your history with these things? What sorts of people trained you to drink alcohol, were role models for you?
- What does Trungpa mean about trying to compete with or imitate the “transcendental style of drinking” of a tantric master?
A modern spiritual teacher2 once commented on how drugs such as LSD and Psilocybin were commonly used in the 1960s to open up people’s minds. But he said even in the best of circumstances they had a lot of side effects, including the opening up of giant holes in a person’s protective aura, an increased potential for insanity, and a tendency for the users to become innocent & creative but rather dysfunctional. What do you think?
- Are you the kind of person who would prefer to go “up into space”, come down into your emotions, or avoid both of these experiences in an effort to appear “normal” and conventional? Or all three, depending on the context?
- In the midst of the unspeakably painful, disturbing, and overwhelming demands of life – if we can be honest about it for a moment – what do you resort to to help you deal with it all?