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The 5th Precept: Mindful Consumption as a Practice in Generosity

When I teach meditation to beginners, I usually tell them that the act of closing our eyes is powerful, because we’re setting an intention to let go of the desire for constant stimulation in an effort bring our attention inward and listen. Our joint purpose, of course, is to realize a deeper and more pervasive peace, one that's always available. The Buddha talks about the joy associated with renunciation as the  "happiness associated with letting go of fruitless quests."

As a health coach, I work to be present around the realities of suffering related to unbalanced relationships to food or substances. When I assist Kevin Griffin on recovery-centered retreats and work with women in recovery from addiction, I find myself at the center of  conversations about the precepts pretty regularly … especially the 5th precept, which asks practitioners to refrain from the use of toxins and intoxicants.

It’s no surprise that this it’s a controversial topic. Frustrated with the Judeo-Christian/Western paradigm of sacrifice and commandments, it makes complete sense that secular people at a birthday party would be hesitant to think twice about having a beer. At this point in my life, I embrace renunciation readily when I'm feeling out of balance or preparing to deepen into my practice, but I didn't always relate to abstinence with feelings of lightness and freedom. I can honestly say, that the commitment to sobriety, imperfectly, as a training and reverence for the radicalness of renunciation are the foundation for all of the most powerful realizations I’ve experienced through practice.

There are deep reasons that some practitioners take on the precepts, for the length of a retreat or a lifetime. This practice is reportedly (by the Buddha) one of the greatest gifts a practitioner can give, especially living in a capitalist society that values consumption (-me, not the Buddha). A gift with potential power to inspire, uplift, and protect limitless beings:

Abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fifth gift, the fifth great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & brahmans." - The Buddha, on the Fifth Precept

1) All of the precepts can be used as heart practices. Following the fifth precept takes commitment, courage, and perseverance, but more than anything, renunciation requires heart. The Buddha describes the act of keeping a precept as a gift we give to ourselves and to others. Ideally, it’s generosity that motivates us to offer our complete attention to the present moment and compels us to sacrifice temporary enjoyment to help create safer communities for ourselves and the people we love. As a person who makes a dedication to radical presence and acceptance, we’re available to the people we love when they need us. When held as a practice of generosity, any precept can naturally encourage a healthy sense of abundance and gratitude.

2) It’s subversive. It's not just our personal greed that renunciation impacts by going against the stream of our drive to constantly achieve and produce. Living in a capitalist society that values consumption and competition even at the high cost of future water, air, and food quality, whenever we choose not to consume what we don't need, we take a small stand for happiness that can’t be bought.

3) The precepts put world peace in the hands of lay practitioners.  The first precept (against harming other living beings) on its own, if practiced perfectly, would end war. If everyone followed only the fifth precept perfectly, a reported 75,000 Americans would avoid alcohol-related death this year alone, In fact, the NHA estimates 1 in 4 deaths this year will be the result of the use of alcohol, drugs and or/tobacco. Practicing this precept would make driving safer ,reduce rates of alcohol-related violence, and have powerful political implications for major corporations that sustain themselves through glorification of unneeded consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

4) Dedication to the precepts shines light on the refuges. Anyone who’s consistently sought relief through intoxication will eventually realize that it’s an empty end. Giving up on finding solace by chemically altering our state of awareness in difficult situations can be a mental struggle. People often take the refuges before the precepts for this reason. Altered states can’t shelter us from our suffering; the refuges remind us that real happiness is possible. We can always find support in stories of liberation, progress, and freedom, in the many paths that lead there and in the people walking the paths.

5) Being sober offers countless opportunities to push through fears, try new things, and break old habits. Some of these can be fun: dancing sober, singing sober, flirting sober, and having sober sex. Sober holidays with family might not always fun, but if we believe they're a real place to practice, then they are enlightening. Clarity of mind and willingness to ride the waves of emotional ups and downs turn difficulties into opportunities for growth and service.

6) The fifth precept helps us keep the (second, third, and fourth) precepts. While use of drugs and alcohol is NEVER an acceptable excuse for unwanted sexual advances or lack of consent, the use of intoxicants in hookup culture can help us to actively avoid intimacy. Sober sex can be a platform for developing willingness to engage vulnerably in intimate conversations about sexual wants and needs and avoid possible harm as the result of miscommunication. The more generous we are, the more our mindset reflects a sense of abundance, making us much less likely to take what isn’t freely given or harm others with words in a heedless moment.

7) Some elements of the Buddhist path are clearly supported by working on subtle levels with unfiltered emotions. The cultivation of the Divine Abodes, or heart practices (Lovingkindness, Compassion, Appreciative Joy, and Equanimity) are subtle and experiential. Learning to notice slight shifts in feeling tone, physical sensation and the nature of concentration is what’s suggested if your goal is to progress developing concentration AND also necessary to practice true, heartfelt ethics.

8) The precepts aren’t rules and NEVER require us to cultivate shame, punishment, or negative representations of self associated with our “failings.” In fact, they’re suggested, we don’t have to practice them. All of the precepts are trainings that offer us opportunities to practice. We don’t even have to take them on belief. We can try them and see for ourselves. We can try them for a day or a month. In the spirit of moderation, we can affirm that it’s better to inch our actions slowly in the direction of our ethics than to slide in the opposite direction.

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” -http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html)" rel="nofollow"> (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html)

Read Thich Nhat Hanh's illuminating commentary on the fifth precept, which puts it into the context of 21st century consumption:

http://dharma.ncf.ca/introduction/precepts/precept-5.html

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