I recently watched the documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ NBA dynasty called, “The Last Dance.” Their coach, Phil Jackson, was a well-known Zen Buddhist, and he brought a lot of those principles to the team. During the relentless number of interviews Micheal Jordan had to tolerate, he was often asked about his plans for the future. Would he play another year, or was it time to retire? Would the team stay together, or was it time to rebuild? Sometimes Jordan would refer to what he learned from his coach about living in the present. He would plead with the media pestering him with questions about the future to please let him enjoy the celebration of the moment.
I’m not sure if there is more attention lately on staying focused on the present, or if I’m just more aware of it now because there was no room for mental-health theory when I was in active alcoholism, but it feels rare for a day to go by when I am not reminded to live in the moment. Phil and Michael were talking about it over 20 years ago, and Buddhist philosophy certainly goes back a skosh further than that. But it feels like there is an increasing emphasis on choosing to focus on the day we are in and ignore both the target destination and the rear-view mirror.
It makes sense, really. I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined I would be where I am today back when I was in college getting an education and, “preparing for the future.” A focus on that which is yet to come is a complete waste of time. Surely you’ve heard the joke, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” In my early 20s, my plan was to work as hard as humanly possible and make as much money as I could and retire at 50. I was willing to trade a few decades of misery for the promise of a few decades of being lazy. Thankfully, the birth of our first child shook-up my priorities and thwarted that ridiculous strategy. But still, thinking about and planning for the future remained a favorite pastime for a long time.
Nothing kept me locked out of the present like alcohol. For something that gave me a euphoric sensation when I hit that drinking sweet spot, booze sure did force me to spend a lot of time thinking about anything except where I was and what I was doing in the moment.
I have said for years now that the 20-question surveys so prevalent on the internet designed to help you determine if you are or are not an alcoholic are a waste of your time. There are only two questions you need to ask yourself when determining your alcoholic status: Is alcohol causing problems in your life (big problems or small problems)? And, do you think about alcohol when you are not actively drinking?
The first question is important for obvious reasons. Problems, big or small, are to be avoided if possible. If alcohol is causing problems, avoiding alcohol certainly can’t hurt.
My truth regarding the second question had me trapped in a sort of alcoholic imprisonment for so many years. I thought about alcohol all the time when I was not drinking. As the weekend approached, and I planned to relax, let loose, celebrate, work in the yard, go to a party or stay home and watch a movie, I would start to tingle with anticipation about unleashing my thirst on the beer refrigerator (also worth noting, if you have a second refrigerator that you refer to as the beer refrigerator, you are likely in a whole bunch of trouble whether you realize it or not). Then, when the drinking was over, I sulked, filled with regret and shame about my out-of-control drinking, poor decisions and arguments with my wife. I would stew for days after the booze-fest ended.
I thought about the promise of alcohol before I drank, and I thought about the destruction of alcohol after I drank. I don’t even remember any transition period when I switched from regret back to anticipation. It just happened instantaneously.
When it comes to alcohol, I was thinking or drinking all the time.
And that was a clear indicator that alcohol had to go from my life. The problems booze was causing were sometimes minor and sometimes substantial. I knew I was creating unnecessary chaos and making life harder than it needed to be. But the real tragedy, at least according to Phil Jackson and all the Zen Buddhist scholars espousing their truths on Instagram, is that I never lived in the present.
This is one of the most powerful and (I think) universal truths of being a heavy alcohol consumer. It is impossible to sit in the present. Sober, buzzed or drunk, you can’t do it. Just sit. Be where you are, and be satisfied with, or at least appreciative of, your location. Not moving toward comfort. Not looking for food or something to watch. Not scrolling. Not calling people or trying to find a new book or disappointedly analyzing your fat rolls in the mirror. Not exercising or berating yourself for not exercising. Just sitting, and having that be enough.
If alcohol is a significant part of your life, living in the now can’t be done. Any attempt to appreciate the present is easily overtaken by regrets from the past, or excitement building toward the future. Think about it for a minute. Alcohol numbs our reality. That is what most of us love about it.
How can you possibly appreciate the present when you are actively trying to blur it out?
I was either thinking about drinking, drinking, or back to thinking about drinking again. Future, brain-poisoning present, or past.
One of the greatest blessings of permanent sobriety – and part of this gig no one warned me about – is that I’m learning to enjoy the moment that I’m in at the moment I am in it. Phil Jackson, with his suspenders and his high-waisted suit pants, didn’t look like a genius to me in the 1990s, but now I understand. I have added this to my list of undeniable facts of human existence. You can’t walk down an American street naked without something bad happening. You can’t eat your weight in Doritos without having some disappointing mirror experiences in the weeks that follow. And you can’t live in the present when alcohol is a regular part of your routine. Alcohol and inner peace are mutually exclusive.
If you are like I was, maybe it is time for you to evolve. Maybe you are ready to evolve into sobriety. If you want what Michael Jordan wanted (not the championships and basketball skill, but the more important mentally centering stuff), maybe keep reading and see if it resonates. Maybe the soberevolution is for you.