The Art of Solitude and Self-Medication
Feb. 08, 2020
I teach meditation. At least I did, until I realized that practice, so long thought to be a self-centered undertaking, was best done in community. We come to understand best when we come together in a group.
That’s why I miss Mass, or communal practice in a Zen center.
But there is a place for individual meditation practice, and we can discover much about ourselves, and our relationship with mental illness, in solitude.
This craving for solitude led me to the Christian mystics, and to the practices of early Buddhism. And in the literature and practice of early Buddhism, I found a guide in Stephen Batchelor.
Batchelor’s focus on the early texts of Buddhism, the Pali Cannon, awakened within me a path devoid of the damaging self-centeredness of Freud. A path of ancient understanding of stresses we still face in our darkest, and most manic, hours.
I’m excited, because in just a few weeks I’ll have the opportunity to study with Batchelor. So of course, I anticipated the release of his new book, The Art of Solitude , this week. At first I was disappointed.
The book is a collection of impressionistic, unconnected chapters on Batchelor’s, and others’, experience of solitude. I must admit I don’t care for impressionistic prose, so I may be being inordinately hard on the book. But Batchelor has a knack for boiling the superstition of the axial age out of early Buddhism and making the writing more secular. He does this in much of the experiences in this book, too, but to much less effect… maybe. Because even in things that disappoint there is knowledge.
The book has its moments. While you may not want to buy it, or invest the time in the entire undertaking of reading it, you should run to the nearest Barnes and Noble, take a copy from the shelf and to the café, and read chapter 9.
The chapter is a meditation on self-medication, a practice so familiar to so many of us with mental illness. I was shocked to learn that Batchelor, so steadfast as a practitioner of Buddhism and its precepts, which include the one against using intoxicants, used cannabis to enhance his focus as a monk in Korea and drank half a bottle of wine nightly up until his use of peyote after his 60 th birthday informed him that, for now, meditation, his primary practice all along, would be enough.
He writes that “self-medication is as much about enhancement of performance as the elimination or reduction of painful feelings.” This is what brought me, early in my experience with bipolar disorder, to stimulants like meth and cocaine. I was not trying to calm my mind or soothe my soul, I was trying to keep up with what I thought was the best of me: the creative, charismatic fuel of mania.
This, too, is what finds me writing this post with a glass of wine beside me on the coffee table. I think Batchelor has nailed the fact that we self-medicate not as a corrective, but as a means to fully experience the best of us.
At least for a while. It always comes to a bad end. It did for me, and the use of speed spun me into psychosis, the hospital, and years of dysfunction.
Batchelor so understands his years of self-medication, and so confidently puts them behind him with the caution that governments and traditional religions “refuse to endorse any approach except abstinence.” Because of this, “they fail to provide an adequate and nuanced education concerning (drug) use and misuse. And as long as we do not understand self-medication as one among other ways of managing our solitude, we lack the context in which to integrate it into disciplines of caring for the soul.”
Maybe self-medication is not misguided or pathetic. Maybe it is corrective; a reaching for something we face uncomfortably when we are left alone.
Batchelor is at his best when he translates and interprets ancient Buddhist texts. In The Art of Solitude he includes his translation of “Atthakavagga – The Chapter of Eights,” a Buddhist sutra from the Pali Cannon. A careful reading of this puts self-medication, and all diseases and definitions of the self, into firm and knowing context.
He tells us that, as we try on personas and meddle with drugs and alcohol, and, in a more acceptable, curative fashion, psychotropic meds: “Dropping one, you clutch the next – urged ahead by self-concern you reject and adopt opinions as a monkey lets go of a branch and seizes another.”
This can be interpreted to include all delusions, and all confidences, whether under the influence or not.
Maybe, on reading this text that Batchelor has renamed the “four eights,” you’ll jump from your table in the café, run to the cash register, and buy the book. It’s that important. It moved me that much. It may move you, too.
I’ll confront chapter 27, the least secular in the book, on my site Practicing Mental Illness on Wednesday.
The Art of Solitude and Self-Medication