One of the most straightforward definitions of Dharma is to think thoughts and act in a way that sets you free. I love it! While this definition is, indeed simple, it is obviously not the easiest to do. If it were, you would think more people would actually do it.
In the first place, how do we find out what actually sets us free? For example, I believe in the pleasurable things in life (since life is often hard enough as it is) and I often feel that enjoying them puts me in a good mood and makes me feel grateful and generous towards myself and others. So far, so good. But where is the line between something that has a good effect on me versus something that might actually, in the long term, enslave me, or cause me harm?
For many years I was a pretty “pure” yogi. I rarely drank alcohol, went to bed early each evening, and got up very early each day to practice. I only ate “the right” kinds of food. I only had sex on Friday nights according to the instruction of Pattabhi Jois’ Asthanga bible. (Okay, that’s exaggerated, as I never heeded that particular advice. But, since I didn’t really have a boyfriend at the time, it didn’t matter anyway which is why Sharon Gannon from Jivamukti gave me the nickname “Brahmachari” - celibate). Then, at some point in my 30s, I discovered how much I enjoyed a glass of red wine at night. I loved the ritual of it. It made me feel closer to my family in Switzerland where wine often is a part of long, drawn out evenings at dinner with lively and interesting conversations about God and the world. I firmly believe in the healthy qualities of red wine, that when it is consumed in moderation it actually is a boon to your health in every way. Just as chocolate is – a fact that has been only recently discovered in America but has long since been known in Switzerland.
Recently, a friend made me a good margarita, with organic lime juice, on the rocks, and even taught me how to make one myself. I haven’t had much hard liquor for some time, so I felt the effects pretty quickly and we had a fun evening. I came home and decided I would like to try making my own margaritas.
It didn’t last long. I realized fast that this particular practice did not set me free. On the contrary, being sensitive, I would feel the effects of even one margarita the next day. I don’t think that tequila, the main ingredient used in this particular beverage has any beneficial qualities for my health and, in fact, I worry about my liver since that organ is one of the weak spots in my body. I’m not saying that I will never make a margarita again. I’m sure I will. But, I will not turn this into a practice on a regular basis because I know it won’t set me free.
As I abandon my newly acquired skills of making a bad-ass margarita (I even bought myself a professional shaker and all), I feel a certain regret, I really do.
But my commitment to the Dharma is deeper. I want to be free. It is said that the Buddha made every mistake that one human can make on his journey to being free. But it is often emphasized that he never lied about making those mistakes. The very foundation of the Dharma is this kind of honesty and while it is easy to say that we will do the things that set us free, doing is not as easy and requires an ongoing investigation and a willingness to tell the truth about our experiences at all times.
From this vantage point, I understand the rather strict and moralistic rules that are often set in yoga and Buddhism. The point can be made that it is easier to avoid all alcohol due to the addictive quality and mind-deluding properties. But, just to avoid things in life is not really the Dharma to me. And the request can, and has, at times, felt like a punishment or denial of life itself.
Yes, to actually inquire what is or isn’t setting me free is a lot of work. It is so much easier to just “believe” something or follow a teacher or a system. I do believe that sooner or later we actually all have to do this work and come to our own conclusions based on our own experience. And to me, this is truly worth it.
Viva red wine!