From Abstinence to Abandonment

Vince Cullen standing outside an derelict building where the word 'ABANDONED' has been painted on the wall.

From abstinence to abandonment: the change in attitude that saved my life.

Vince Cullen

At some point in our life we might surrender to the truth of being human:

  • Being human can be stressful, uncomfortable, uncertain, insecure, disappointing, painful…
  • Being human can be complicated, boring, impersonal, difficult, distressing, challenging, unfair…
  • Being human isn’t just stressful; in many ways, it can be truly traumatic.

To paraphrase what the Buddha realised some 2,600-years ago, birth is traumatic, ageing is traumatic, illness is traumatic, death is traumatic; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are traumatic; being stuck with what is displeasing is traumatic; separation from what we love is traumatic; not getting what we want is traumatic.

The Buddha offers another realisation, that this trauma is exasperated by craving; a very negative feedback loop.

  • Craving for sensual pleasures…
  • Craving for excitement…
  • Craving for stimulation…
  • Craving for novelty…

Then there’s the craving to be someone, to be something, the craving to have status.

Then the craving for continued existence, to live forever, for another life. Or the opposite, the craving to disappear, for the ground to open up and swallow me whole!

Real life is traumatic and difficult, so I crave for things to be different; I crave for a better or different experience and content of experience.

There are many addictions, some subtle, some gross.
There are many paths leading away from addiction.
You can choose the path that works for you.

Now, I cannot change the traumatic nature of life, nor can I change the past, but I can change my relationship to life and how I respond to any given experience; particularly the experience of ‘now’.

This life is said to be the unfolding of 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys but I think that we can tip the balance by the choices we make; both positive and negative. I do have a choice about how I respond to the moment-to-moment ever-changing unfolding of my life; particularly in relation to cravings, aversions and compulsions:

I was an alcoholic for most of my adult life. This month (October 2020), 24-years ago I decided to stop. Now I am not an alcoholic because I mindfully choose not to be.

That was who I was then,
It is not who I am now,
And not who I will be in the future.

from Jeff Oliver’s book ‘Forgiveness for Everyone’

I was once asked in a Facebook conversation “Have you tried controlled drinking?”. My reply was along the lines…

I wouldn’t try ‘controlled’ drinking for the same reasons that I wouldn’t try ‘controlled’ heroin use, or ‘controlled’ crack use.

However, I did try 25-years of drinking and I have tried 24-years of sobriety. It is the sobriety that has brought freedom and contentedness.

“But let me be honest here. The first two years of sobriety were miserable.”

But let me be honest here. The first two years of sobriety were miserable. I kept torturing myself; “why can’t I be normal?”, and “why can’t I just have a couple of drinks?”. Even though I wasn’t drinking or using, my abstinence was keeping me a prisoner to my addiction, a prisoner to my past. It wasn’t until I realised that I should abandon intoxication that the penny finally dropped.

In terms of addictions and compulsions, there is a liberating difference between ‘abstaining’ and ‘abandoning’.

The definition of ‘abstain‘ is to “refrain from (something); to forbear or keep from doing, especially an indulgence of the passions or appetites”.

But to ‘abandon‘ is “to cast out; to banish; to expel; to reject freely and entirely”. In a Buddhist sense it is renunciation, a complete letting go:

From Abstinence to Abandonment
From ‘I can’t drink’ to ‘I don’t drink’
From ‘I can’t use’ to ‘I don’t use’.

The Buddha further realised that by abandoning unhelpful craving then a personally verifiable freedom from unnecessary and avoidable stress and trauma can be experienced right here and now.

Abandoning intoxication has brought me untold and unexpected liberation. Every day I have –

– freedom from cravings;
– freedom from conflict,
– freedom from blame,
– freedom from guilt;
– freedom from shame;
– freedom from debt;
– and freedom from regret… that is a lot of freedom.

In sobriety, I have recovered:
I have recovered all of life’s possibilities and potentialities that were stolen from me by alcohol and alcoholism.

My commitment to a clear head (Mindfulness) is a deliberate, intentional moment-to-moment choice whatever the vicissitudes of life –

One breath at a time,
One step at a time,
One day at a time,
One life at a time.

Seeing life differently and a small change in attitude can bring unimaginable benefits.

There is life without alcohol and other drugs; it can be a very good life.

PS:   I am still working on chocolate!!!

Addiction, Abstinence and Abandonment

In the poem, Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, Portia Nelson beautifully characterises addiction, abstinence and abandonment…

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.

For more information about a possible Buddhist-inspired approach to addiction and recovery, please feel free to explore the Fifth Precept Sangha website.