By Katharine Cook When I decided to take the Fifth Precept, I thought about never drinking again. I believed that it was no problem for me to have an occasional glass of wine at relatives' dinner parties, but now I see that although it may not be a problem for me, it could become a problem for someone who saw me drink alcohol and felt free to do it because I did. I also see that my drinking a glass of wine supports the production of alcohol. I did not understand those points when I took the precept.
Both my parents drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and drank coffee. My mother was also addicted to many kinds of pain relievers and other medications. I believe I inherited the habit energy for all these things from both of them. Fortunately for me, I felt such a great aversion to my mother's extreme alcoholism, I have never been tempted to be a drinker. I have, however, been addicted to cigarettes, caffeine, and a tranquilizer, although I did not know it at the time. I recently spent a year and a half getting off these things as well as another psychotropic drug, after trying unsuccessfully for about five years. I am very grateful to be well into recovery at this time. I know firsthand how much energy, skill, support, and mindfulness it takes to become free of chemical dependencies. To release myself from these poisons, I had to learn to pay very close attention to exactly what was happening inside me on the physical, emotional, and mental levels. I had to learn what their cycles were in my body and how they interacted with my own body chemistry. The whole thing was a very detailed exercise in mindfulness practice as well as a great lesson in how to use nutrition, herbs, flower essences, and gem elixirs to keep me stable enough to withstand the withdrawal symptoms.
The tranquilizer that I came off of, which is called Xanax, is said to be "more addictive than heroin," and the withdrawal symptoms are formidable. They can include tremors, muscle spasms, insomnia, headache, nausea, balance problems, bone and muscle pain, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, itching and burning skin, memory loss, confusion, obsessive thoughts, anxiety, agitation, irritability, and depression. Last February, I was diagnosed as being in chronic Xanax withdrawal, which means I was actually in a syndrome of dependence and withdrawal on a daily basis for about ten years. No one I worked with during this time suspected the real root of the problem. The drug was not known to be addictive when it was first prescribed for me in 1983, and only recently has the evidence of its addictiveness been determined. Xanax, along with other benzodiazepine tranquilizers like Valium, can be very damaging. The doctor who diagnosed me said, "It puts a black hole in the brain" and destroys the brain's natural ability to create calmness. I certainly felt and often acted crazy during the time I was on it. The nutrition counselor and healer who helped me come off it describes it as the most devastating addiction she has ever treated, worse than the hard street drugs in terms of how it destroys the personality of the user.
I was fortunate to find a nutrition counselor and healer who specializes in biochemical restoration, using right diet to effectively build the mind and body to release one from addiction. Her work has been primarily with alcoholics. The evidence is in that many children of alcoholics are born with a genetic sensitivity to sugars which eventually leads them back onto alcohol as a way of getting relief from the irritability and mood swings caused by the way their systems process sugar. By teaching people to keep food journals and develop their awareness of how they react to specific foods, this counselor helps people gradually shift their diets away from sugars, refined starches and caffeine, and towards a balanced intake of protein and vegetables. At that point, they find they do not crave alcohol as they used to. As she is intuitive about brain chemistry, she was able to help me get free of several drugs because she could explain to me how they were interacting chemically. Because of her emphasis on the importance of nutrition, she was able to help me succeed in detox where several psychiatrists had failed. Walking meditation was a very important element in my healing. One of the Xanax withdrawal symptoms is not being able to sit still, so walking meditation was the only way I could practice meditation at all.
At a retreat in California in 1993, Thay spoke of "livingroom consciousness" and "basement consciousness," a simplified version of the Abhidharma model of how the mind works. He stressed the importance of keeping the living room open or empty, so that there could be good circulation with the basement or storehouse consciousness. Transformation of ourselves and society occurs when the wholesome seeds in our unconscious mind are strengthened and the unwholesome ones weakened. For transformation to begin to occur, there has to be room or space, light or awareness in the living room consciousness, so the seeds can come up and be seen. The way they are viewed by the conscious mind in the living room has everything to do with whether they go back down to the basement strengthened or weakened.
When you practice mindfulness of what you consume, you have many opportunities to observe how particular substances are connected to all kinds of memories, thoughts, and feelings that are stored in the basement consciousness. When I drink coffee, for example, I notice that my upper chest becomes tense, I have less oxygen available to me, I feel more angry, the fluid levels in my joints, calcium levels, and hormonal levels are all affected. I am more likely to get into an argument, and my will is affected. And it brings my mother's face up from the storehouse consciousness, "the basement." Drinking coffee and smoking affected her countenance and her consciousness. Her living room consciousness was not available to me as her child. She was not there for me, or for herself either. I find that when I have no caffeine at all for three days, I am more peaceful, more accepting and tolerant, and more light-hearted.
Twice I have been able to see who my mother really was, not covered over by addictions. During a Dharma talk in Plum Village, I had an impression of her fundamental gentle goodness. And after I abstained from coffee for three weeks, talking with my daughter, the same impression came through. I was so happy to see who my mother was in her essence, and know that I could find that part of myself through abstinence. I saw how I could truly forgive her alcoholism and heal my relationship with her through how and what I chose to consume.
I recently spent a very special week with my daughter and her newborn child. She took very good care of herself during her pregnancy and delivered a 9 lb. 2 oz. boy without drugs or anesthesia. She had a good friend, her partner, and a midwife supporting her during labor and delivery. She lost a lot of blood during the birth, and so has had to build her hemoglobin levels back to normal. For that purpose she has used yellow dock and nettle tea on a daily basis. I brought her an aloe plant to help heal the vaginal tear she received in the delivery, and she has also used the juice of the aloe successfully to treat her baby' s heat rash. My mother probably had no way of knowing about healing herbs. My daughter limits herself to wholesome food as she breast-feeds her baby. I know that both the quality of the breast milk and the attention she gives him are good. He is having an important experience of being loved and cared for in this world.
I grew very fond of holding my baby grandson over my own breast, often lying down with him resting on me. I would look out at the leaves and branches swaying in the wind, and the most incredible peace would come over me, as if I was in touch with the essence of life itself. At the same time I would feel a kind of ultimate ferocity, like a lion or tiger mother. I knew I would lay down my life to protect my grandson's life. It is this spirit we need in our practice of mindful consumption. We have to be willing to go all the way to protect our life and that of our descendants by limiting ourselves to what truly nourishes, supports, and heals us.
Now that I am a grandmother, I can see some of the genetic factors operating in my family history, and I have firsthand experience of the hard work it takes to reverse habit energy from one generation to the next. I believe I inherited a genetic disposition for depression from my father, for example, as did my brother. We have both been diagnosed with clinical depression, and he committed suicide, as did my father. But I also believe at this point, from my own experience and from my own self-observation, that this kind of genetic inheritance can be moderated through mindful consumption. I remember Thay saying we could eat our way to health and I believe it. I know now there are many wonderful herbs to help with anxiety and depression which are not addictive, should they be necessary. Wild oat, lady's slipper and skullcap are all wonderful nervine tonics.
I feel very fortunate that I am able to meet my grandson with an ability to be present that I did not have when I was locked in the grips of addiction. And I am also very grateful that my daughter so far does not demonstrate much of the habit energy my parents had. Although she dabbled in smoking and coffee for a couple of years, she was able to give them up fairly easily. We have both worked hard to release ourselves from the habit energies coming down to us.
The Fifth Precept says: "I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society." This means that in order to transform the seeds in our own storehouse consciousness, we need to have our minds clear and open, light and aware, unaffected by intoxicants. It also means that it is essential for us to refrain from sowing new harmful seeds in the storehouse by what we consume through any of our senses. In this way we can begin to transform our lives, our children's lives, and the life of our society.
Katharine Cook co-founded Crimson Clover Recovery to help people who are dependent on tranquilizers. She is a counselor and an art teacher, and has practiced with San Francisco Zen Center for 30 years.