Sobriety is a hard word for many people to talk about. Just thinking the word in my head makes me cringe. Is it because I’m an addict? A substance abuser? Someone who seeks to never be sober? Maybe, but not necessarily. I have my moments and my struggles with various substances, but by and far, I am not drinking, smoking, snorting or tripping my life away. There have been points in my life when that might have been harder to prove, but thankfully, I have moved past them. I am far from sober, but I am not wasting my life on substances. At least not in my current version of reality.
I recently read a passage from Deepak Chopra’s The Book of Secrets that gave me a whole new definition and perspective on sobriety. One that is far less looming, bleak and scary to think about or discuss when I examine it in relation to myself (or others for that matter). He calls it “Spiritual Sobriety, Getting Serious About Being in the Present,” and he doesn’t even address the banning of red wine, breakfast stout or blueberry kush (just a few of my favorite things).
Here is one piece of his advice:
“Remove yourself from the details. Before sobriety, you had to find a way to adapt to the loneliness that comes from the absence of reality. Reality is wholeness. It is all embracing. You dive in and there is nothing else. In the absence of wholeness you still crave a similar embrace, so you try to find it in fragments, bits and pieces. In other words, you tried to lose yourself in the details, as if sheer chaos and raucousness could saturate you to the point of fulfillment. Now you know that this strategy didn’t work, so back out of it. Remove yourself from the details. Forget the messiness. Take care of it as efficiently as possible, but don’t take it seriously; don’t make it important to who you are.”
– The Book of Secrets, p. 207.
What really struck me is the thought that spiritual sobriety has nothing to do with Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word sobriety, which largely resonates with American culture (the state of not being drunk) and everything to do with their second definition of the word sobriety: the quality of being serious.
This is obviously not to say that a drunk who never keeps their mind clear of alcohol long enough to make serious connections and act on those in a way that benefits their life and lives of others is going to be able to take a successful spiritual journey while being drunk all the time. There’s a great deal of spiritual benefit to moderation, I believe. And my readings and recent experiences have been supporting that notion whole-heartedly. After reading the aforementioned passage above earlier this week, look what I stumbled across last night in the Yoga Sutra:
“Attachment to Distraction
I.15 Giving up your attachments consists of the decision to gain control over your craving for experiences, seen or only heard of.
[Explanation] Now we will no longer have any time for the meaningless distractions of life—we must simplify our lives, concentrate on what’s really important. No more time to only work and eat and sleep and die—no more time to waste on newspapers and television to hear about how others wasted their time.”
– The Essential Yoga Sutra (English translation by Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally).
Because the Yoga Sutra was written in Sanskrit almost 2,000 years ago, there is much confusion and debate over what the writings actually mean. The words I have referenced above are just one translation of hundreds or even thousands; though, in my opinion, for something that seems this close to pure spirituality written by a Master (the original work is attributed to the great Patanjali and is used by basically every yoga instructor around the world), the meaning will arise out of stubbornness to be put out, despite what is lost in translation…like glowing coals that continue to burn hot despite how much cold water you douse them with.
It is worth mentioning here that the word yoga has also taken a new form and connotation for me recently. I’ve very lightly practiced yoga of the body for years. I never realized that the Sanskrit definition of yoga has nothing to do with physicality, and everything to do with spirituality and unity. It literally means a connection. In this case, the most spiritual goal you can attain through the practice of yoga would be a strong connection to yourself (which, in a sense, is a strong spiritual connection to the universe, since you are an inevitable part of it).
Though practicing yoga can help you develop a stronger connection to yourself, it doesn’t indicate withdrawing. Quite the opposite. It means seeing yourself in others. Realizing that others are merely projections of yourself. When you hurt others, you are hurting yourself. When you love others, you are loving yourself. It seems mystical at first glance, but at its most basic level, it is anything but mystical.
Have you ever known someone who tends to hurt others who isn’t hurting inside themselves? They may deny it, sure, but to most of us it is plainly clear that those who hurt others do so out of some deep sense of hurt inside their own perceived selves.
What about loving others? Have you never seen someone who struggles to love others? Doesn’t it seem like they also struggle to love themselves? I used to think loving yourself came first, and I tried for a very long time to learn how to love myself before I loved anyone else. But this is a fallacy. The path to learning to love yourself is in others. Once you learn to love others, you will have succeeded in loving yourself: it is a simultaneous phenomenon, quite the interesting paradox if you ask me.
This is hard to reconcile and daunting though, isn’t it? How do you learn to love those who have torn your heart to pieces, physically and mentally? How do you learn to love people for what they really are (an extension of yourself) despite all their messy, uncomforting flaws? How do you stop lashing out when you are hurting inside yourself, perpetuating the cycle?
Undoubtedly, the key is non-attachment. The hyperlinked page referenced above for the Yoga Sutra explains carefully that “Non-attachment is not suppression.” Before that, it mentions “Letting go and not taking on,” which, while difficult, can be achieved through sober (serious) dedication and hard work.
Every emotion you repress is like a boomerang: it’s going to come back and slap you in the face at some point if you throw it in a certain direction and forget about it. Therefore, suppressing or repressing “bad” emotions is not fruitless, but will fertilize your mind with rotten trees that continue to bear rotten fruit season after season.
Bad emotions have their place in the world and within spiritual existence, just like good emotions. On the greatest scale of things, the definitions “bad” and “good” are the same, as every person you ask in the world could feasibly have a different idea of whether a certain action is bad or good. Many of us can agree on certain definitions of these words, but at the end of the day, you cannot deny a bad emotion any more than you can stop a synapse from firing. Instead of repression, then, we can use detachment.
I prefer the word non-attachment over detachment, because detachment has a negative connotation for me. Detachment makes me think of not-caring, which is not the same as non-attachment. In the latter sense, you still care, but you acknowledge that all bad things around you and inside you causing you pain are not worth holding on to or attaching yourself to. You don’t ignore them, you simply accept that they exist and keep moving forward. The more you attach yourself to the things that cause you pain, the unhappier and less fulfilled you will feel. No one is saying the practice of non-attachment will be easy, but it is the beginning of the path that will lead you to a source of happiness that is not fleeting. It is more real than the definition of the word real itself.
I’m still working on ‘letting go and not taking on’ as well as non-attachment myself. Letting go is a life’s labor alone when you’ve been me for 30 years, but not taking on or detaching? It seems impossible. However, this is the work that must be done in order to ‘remove yourself from the details’ or eliminate (at least minimize) pain-causing attachments.
In our world of social media, normalized violence, ‘reality’ TV, up-to-the-minute sports updates, constant sales, and everything else pop culture and mainstream media, it seems like removing yourself from the details would be literally unthinkable lest you cancel your cable subscription, internet service, flush your smartphone down the toilet and move to the middle of nowhere where they don’t even have a town newspaper.
I feel the same way. That’s why a spiritual journey is…well…a journey. You don’t board a plane in Chicago and land in San Diego. You dig until you reach China. It may sound ridiculous, even preposterous, but it’s not. It’s real. And it’s going to take daily hard work and constant dedication to get there.
I’m ready when you are. The universe is patient. It will still be there when we are ready to re-connect with it on the level of being. That is the most beautiful part of existence. The universe will never leave you. It is always in you.
The universe doesn’t revolve around you. You are the universe.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Alice Popkorn.