Suffering, Asceticism, and Addiction
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about suffering, my own and that of others.
One of the things I have always appreciated about the Buddha’s journey has been his rejection of self-mortification. As an Orthodox Christian, I always admired the simplicity and beauty of the lives of saints. However, I never saw that in the lives of real-life parishioners. What I saw were people taking pride in their humility (not recognizing the humorous irony) and their ability to fast during Lent and other ugly-underbelly aspects of Christian asceticism.
I think the real problem with addiction is not the pleasurable aspect, but the negative physical and social consequences. I am not into creating misery for oneself for its own sake. If someone wants to have an occasional drink, I don’t see a problem with that. My problem comes with physical addiction. The addiction destroys the addict’s health, their ability to perform their job, their intimate relationships, etc. Addiction turns the person into an unapologetic narcissist. Everything becomes about getting the next fix. Lying to conceal the addiction destroys any possibility of trust.
The interconnectedness of all things makes all choices inter-personal, not private. Consequences have a way of migrating through families and communities.
I have a friend who believes that the best way to find out how much of one’s physical problems are dietarily related is to cut out, uh, basically everything but meat, fruits, and vegetables. Then you add back things like wheat, dairy, etc., to see how they affect you. This is theoretically sensible. In the real world, however, the average person attempting this would likely have to take time off from work, perhaps more than a week. The sugar addiction withdrawal alone would give the headaches from hell. And digestive issues? It could get ugly quickly. No cheese? Or pasta? Or baked goods? We’re talking no pizza, pasta, or even birthday cake.
Over the years, I have made many dietary changes. The only ones with staying power have been the ones I’ve made gradually, very gradually. By slowly consuming more healthier food, I have necessarily let go of many unhealthy choices. For example, I now consume a lot more fruit and nuts. I can’t remember the last Pop Tart I’ve eaten, and they were staples for many years. I always had a box of chocolate ones and blueberry ones. Now I eat low-sugar dark chocolate and actual blueberries.
I believe in delayed gratification, not zero gratification. I believe in making choices that benefit more and more people and have fewer and fewer negative consequences. The Buddhist ramifications of that remain to be seen.