Friday, April 22, 2011

in the opium den

I once read that the Chinese described people who frequented opium dens as those who were "biting the clouds." It is a description I find compelling in its artful accuracy -- seeking nourishment in that which has no substance.

Outside of cigarettes, I have never had a physical addiction of that sort, though I have known those who did. My mother was an alcoholic and a pill-popper and I grew up in a realm where someone was "biting the clouds."

But I have had my own addictions -- to thought, emotion, yearning, attachment -- and so, from time to time, I feel lucky to have discovered a discipline that puts more meat on the bone. I am not recommending Zen Buddhism as a cure-all for life's addictions (people find their own healing realms if that's what they want), but just saying I feel fortunate.

How incredibly difficult it is to break the stranglehold of addiction. Even the second-hand tales I hear and have heard of those who were physically addicted is enough to make me wince at the amount of courage and effort it must have taken. How incredibly difficult. Basically, as far as I can understand it, there is a single inspiration that makes it possible -- the recognition that you will either break the addiction and live or fail to break it and die. Very simple -- decide to live or decide to die -- and yet thundering in its complexity.

But the addictions that require no liquids or pills or powders are every bit as potent, every bit as tragic, every bit as capable of arousing that single conclusion -- decide to live or decide to die. Addictions lick their chops at the insistence of the addict. They are like ethereal and malevolent dragons. The claws, the scales, the teeth, the fury. They are so big ... and I am so small. Right and wrong, good and bad, happy and sad, important and unimportant, clothed and naked, praised and damned. They gnaw and claw and insist on having their way. Their joys are paramount and our flesh is their sustenance. "Feed me!" they scream.

The slick and savvy will say, "you have to eat the dragon before the dragon eats you" or "you have to love your dragons" or "don't worry, be happy" but all that's too savvy by half, another round of biting the clouds.

Mostly, perhaps, our dragons slumber. No one wants to dwell too much on the confusions and furies of a quietly addicted life. But there are brick walls that spring up -- times when the dragons are roused and breathing fire and forcing us to see. Some stuff hurts like hell and there is no way around it -- we have to enter the flames.

Courage and patience and doubt are not just dime-store nostrums or self-help pats on the head. They are real and necessary tools and they are not tools that anyone lacks. True, it may take courage to arouse courage and patience to arouse patience and doubt to arouse doubt, but maybe the time has come to decide ... live or die -- take your pick. Maybe the effort is called for -- the effort to stop biting the clouds.

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