I woke up in the morning thinking I was waking up from a dream; the dream being the commitments I had made to myself the previous day. Suddenly, I felt a lot less sure about myself. I thought I must have been on some sort of meditation high—maybe an over oxygenation of my brain due to improved breathing or circulation—to have come up with such implausible goals as completely abstaining from alcohol, the embarrassing prospect of apologizing to those I might have offended while dealing with them in difficult situations, or pledging to forgive others who have wronged me in indelibly hurtful ways.
Becoming a teetotaler was tall order for someone like me who took appreciating and enjoying alcohol to a whole new level. I hosted lavish parties, took clients and colleagues out for sumptuous meals where I was the de facto wine connoisseur who painstakingly and tastefully deliberated vintages with sommeliers, or indulged my closest friends in the finest selection of single malts at home. I was an admirer of fine spirits and was easily a keen, if not a somewhat excessive, drinker. Those who knew me well considered me a benchmark for knowing how to enjoy alcohol and entertain, and also encouraging and enabling others to drink.
I could see many practical barriers in forsaking my favorite indulgence even if I somehow convinced myself I wanted to do so. What would some of my closest friends think? What would I tell my clients and teams? Would I still have a shot at being the life of the party if I didn’t have a drink in my hand? More practically, what was I going to do with the carefully curated and extensive collection of various wines, single malts, liqueurs, scotches, cognacs and the like I had in abundant supply at home?
My thoughts wandered next to the pride-swallowing prospect of apologizing to folks I had wronged in some material way, whether at work or in my personal life. What would I say to people when years had passed since the incidents that resulted in unforgettable friction? Will they think I had lost my mind coming to them completely out of the blue and apologizing to them, years after the misdeed was done and over with? If so, I would certainly feel like a real loser acknowledging my mistakes in a weak emotional moment and later realizing I was justified in my previous actions after all. What if these people don’t forgive me? Even if the apology was merited, what if their retort to my apology upset me and I said something back that further worsened the matter?
I headed to the Dhamma Hall for the 4:30 am meditation with all these questions banging against the walls of my fragile yet reviving conscience. I found it hard to concentrate exclusively on meditating because I was already feeling a regression from the previous day, which is what I had been afraid of all along. All good things came to an end and so was my euphoria from self-discovering some truths about myself. Sadly, my resolve towards the self-commitments from the prior day had weakened considerably.
I found myself falling back into the typical cycle of excitement around the prospect of some potential life change to overcome self-destructive habits and then the familiar clouds of doubt setting in, bringing me back to the realities of inertia and resistance to taking action when it came time to make some tough trade-offs and follow the difficult but necessary choices.
But this had felt different, I knew it deep down that everything I had resolved to do the previous day had come from a place inside that I never before knew existed nor had I known a way to access it. How could I make this novel and nascent resolve last longer? I started to process all my stated goals in order—the drinking one was on the top of the list, so I started there. Why did I want to give it up again?
At this stage in the program, the only reasonable explanation I had was that abstaining from alcohol (and any other form of intoxication), had been one of the many essential ingredients in enabling my mind to build in-depth awareness around some core mindsets and behaviors that were responsible for my seemingly sub-optimized personal and professional life. Sustaining such courageous introspection and pursuant benefits would require being able to maintain as many of the preconditions as possible that had led me down the track of powerful self-realizations which held the potential to revamp my life for the better, and in a way that had made sense to me at a fundamental, logical level.
I searched my mental database for people who I considered successful, and who also did not consume alcohol. A range of several profiles emerged. A favorite client CEO, a senior partner at my consulting firm, a family-friend doctor with a vibrant veterinary practice, my sister’s father-in-law, who was a very senior military officer…suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head!
My sister’s father-in-law, who had recently passed away after battling cancer, had been one of the highest-ranking officials in the Indian Army when he had retired, and was in line for more accolades had he stayed in duty a little longer. I remembered that though he would keenly entertain others during the extensive social and work-related gatherings at his house, I had never seen him drink. Amazingly, this never detracted from his charmingly charismatic personality. I had tried on many occasions, as was my style, to coax him into having a drink together. He would always decline politely, even on the night when his younger son (who was also my high school buddy) married my sister.
I had never understood why and how a high-ranking Indian army officer managed to do as well as he had done in his career and have a vibrant social life while avoiding alcohol, which flows freely in military circles and drinking is considered an absolute norm. While reflecting on this admirable quality of sticking to his principles of alcohol abstention, I recalled that he was a regular and serious Vipassana meditator!!!
My respect and admiration for him grew even further as I connected the dots that his resolve to abstain from drinking was most likely to maintain the sanctity of his meditation practice. He had always been a role model of leading an equanimous life. I never saw him perturbed over anything and he smilingly battled cancer while all his loved ones seemed agitated to see him suffer. He was the only person I had known closely who was truly at peace with himself and the world when he succumbed to his untimely ailment.
Feasting later over a breakfast of halwa (sweet semolina pudding) and parathas (stuffed Indian flatbread), I drew confidence from the fact that if a Vipassi (Vipassana meditator) army general could overcome a military stereotype and find a way to abstain from alcohol without compromising his career or social standing, I would certainly be able to do so as well. A part of me was glad I’d had my share of fine Tuscan Brunellos and Scottish single malts in the past as my resolve to sustain the benefits of meditation strengthened. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all!