Many of us who came of age in the 1960s convinced ourselves that getting high was the quickest—if not the best—way to begin the long, strange trip toward higher consciousness. Aldous Huxley, the man who wrote The Doors of Perception and turned Timothy Leary on to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, seemed to be saying that we could access ancient wisdom through the wonders of modern chemistry.
For a while at least, that theory seemed to hold true for me, and I suspect I’m not the only reader of this magazine who became interested in Buddhism following an acid trip back in the sixties.
Further on down the road, in the 1970s, I got a bit more serious about my Buddhism. I struggled through a few meditation retreats with the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn and even considered taking vows to become an official Buddhist. But one of the Buddhist precepts particularly bothered me. It was the fifth one, the one about abstaining from intoxicating drink, and presumably from other drugs that also gave rise to heedlessness.
I never got around to taking those formal vows and soon fell away from my meditation practice altogether. It took two decades before I reconnected with meditation, in this case a Vipassana group. Getting high was still an important part of my daily routine, but I’d long since abandoned the delusion that alcohol and other drugs were somehow furthering my spiritual growth. I could no longer hide the fact from myself that I was an alcoholic and a drug addict—a functional one with a good job, a house, and a family, but an addict nonetheless.
As a journalist, I’d written about twelve-step spirituality and the burgeoning recovery movement, but I’d never felt like Alcoholics Anonymous was for me. I knew enough about Buddhism to know that its teachings about the dangers of craving and attachment (and obsession and selfishness and egomania) might offer a path out of addiction. After asking around, I discovered the beginnings of a Buddhist recovery network. I found the work of Kevin Griffin, the author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps and more recently A Burning Desire: Dharma God and the Path of Recovery. I attended one of his retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County. I also connected with an eclectic group of recovering addicts who were interested in Buddhism and gathered every Monday at a place we called the KooKoo Factory, a funky loft/performance space in San Francisco’s Mission District. That group disbanded following the death of its founding angel, and I started attending a larger meditation recovery group at the San Francisco Zen Center. I also put a little more effort into finding an AA group that was right for me, and discovered that some of my old ideas about AA were based on too many preconceived notions and not enough personal investigation.
Several years ago, I started working on a book about the early years of the psychedelic drug movement (It would be published as The Harvard Psychedelic Club.) One question the book asks is whether drug-induced feelings of wonder, awe, empathy, and interconnectedness are authentic religious experiences. My answer is that while the experiences may be authentic, the real issue is what we do with them. Do the experiences change the way we live our lives? Do they make us more aware and compassionate human beings? Looking back on my own history, I’d have to say that a few psychedelic drug experiences back in the day did change the way I think about the world and live my life. They did make me a better person. But I can’t say the same thing about a few decades of experiences with other drugs, including alcohol.
Last year, I interviewed six Buddhist teachers about their interpretations of the fifth precept. Some of them urge complete abstention from alcohol and other drugs. Others see nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner. Some urge caution but still see some value in psychedelic drugs. One thing I’ve learned in my own recovery is that it’s not up to me to decide if someone else has a problem with alcohol or other drugs. It’s up to them. And I’ve come to feel the same way about the fifth precept.
So if you have a problem with the fifth precept, you might want to ask yourself just why that might be.
Don Lattin is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which is The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. He is now working on a book about Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson.
Image: Emerging figure, 2009, oil on linen, 84 x 68 inches / 213 x 172 cm by Emil Bakalli