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What Do We Mean By Sobriety?

What do we mean by sobriety? The phrase gets tossed around a lot, but rarely is it explained in meaningful terms, and so I believe it has come to exist as a vogue word, devoid of much useable content and used for far too broad a range of behaviours. The whole thing seems to be hinging precariously on tacit agreement with some very old and deep-rooted ideas, so let’s get stuck in and see if we can’t squeeze some sense out of the whole mess.

We associate sobriety with balance, consciousness, rationality, reasonability, logical behaviour, good risk-management, coherence of speech and action. Deeper still, we associate it with morality, good-naturedness, responsibility, purity and piety.

We associate drunkenness with inarticulate speech, lack of balance, irrationality, being unreasonable, acting illogically, poor risk management and incoherent speech and action. Deeper still we see intoxication as immoral, devious, dangerous, irresponsible, impure and dirty, and unholy.

Sobriety is most often seen as the absence of an intoxicating agent in the human body. So, we say that, having not consumed any alcohol or other inebriates, a person is sober.

Of course, one recognises immediately that the absence of intoxicating agents does not give an individual a free-pass on the above characteristics of drunkenness. So how can we approach the question in a new way, that gives us a more useful definition of the subject?

Let’s start by stripping the term of any relation to substances consumed or the presence of an “intoxicant” in the nervous system. Why? For the simple fact that psychoactive substances have a variety of different effects on consciousness, from drowsiness to the stimulation of pleasure to vivid hallucinations, and it makes little sense to annex all of that under the heading of “intoxication”.

Our conscious experience is also largely put together by endogenous drugs, such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. Stimuli provoke action potentials in neurons to occur, and subsequently these endogenous drugs are released, which modulate mood, cognition and perception. Chemicals do not need to be directly absorbed, exogenously from the outside, rather, we are living inside of a laboratory of sorts which is more than happy to produce them all by itself.

Every time any stimulus is experienced, endogenous drugs are also being released. So, then to assume intoxication is a “from-the-outer, in” sort of phenomena is to disregard the complex biochemical network that is an integral aspect of our functioning as living organisms, that is getting us various forms of “drunk” every minute.

So now, instead of asking, “is that person on anything?”, which is effectively a useless piece of information to acquire in the absence of further knowledge about the individual and the substance they’d taken, we can ask, “is that person sober?”, referring to the qualities of behaviour they are exhibiting, not the chemical makeup of their organism at that specific moment.

Stripped of chemical connotations, we also avoid snap judgments based on generalised statements about the likely behaviour an individual will engage in. If a person has heard that LSD causes psychosis, for example, and then finds out that an acquaintance has taken LSD, their behaviour towards that individual will likely be altered by that belief. This can cause bizarre and problematic situations where psychedelics are involved, as the potential for the transfer of emotional states between one person and another seems to be significantly higher for those under the influence.

The individual who assumes that LSD “causes”, or starts, psychotic behaviour may become paranoid about the individual on LSD, and in so doing transfer that paranoia, perhaps by trying to help the person out of what they perceive to be a difficult scenario, perhaps by talking about them or to them about the psychosis, causing the very reaction they feared in the process.

This whole phenomena seems to be traceable to the daft notion that LSD, and other substances, “cause” specific and predictable reactions in those who take them, and that if we can recognise those reactions, we can infer what substance that person is on and deal with them accordingly.

This seems to me to be completely absurd.

Are we really so lazy and contemptuous of our fellow man that we need approach him or her with such a shield of abstractions, classifications and contexts? Or can we own our responsibility to one another as adults, as existent creatures sharing a habitable zone in the vastness of space, and be with one another sans labels?

I think we can.

So, perhaps we have extricated ourselves from the false association of external chemical influence with sobriety, and we have seen that it is really an isolating behaviour to try to understand our fellow human through a layered veil of abstract symbols. I hope we can see that. Perhaps now we can try to move closer to a raw understanding of what intoxication actually is, stripped of these cultural and societal points of reference.

We saw before that we associate drunkenness with inarticulate speech, lack of balance, irrationality, being unreasonable, acting illogically and so on. Deeper still we see intoxication as immoral, devious, unholy, and dangerous.

What is the common factor that underlies these characteristics? A lack of regard for one’s surroundings, regardless of their nature, and a preoccupation with one’s own desires and their fulfilment. In other words, a lack of conscious awareness coupled with an irreverent movement towards the fulfilment of desire.

The “drunkenness” we’re raging against is really closer to egotism than it is to chemical intoxication.

I’m sure by now you’ve clicked to what I’m getting at with this whole preamble. Look at our culture and the behaviours it’s engaged in.

What are TV Shopping channels but a way to get wasted drunk on the empty promises of cosmetics-pushers and in-home gym salesmen? What is that new Maserati but a thousand shots of straight aimed at the brain cells responsible for remembering which part of South-East Asia’s child population paid for it?

Health-food crazes, new-age crystals and readings, all manner of religions and cults, the business world, all bars from which we emerge bleary-eyed and slurring our words, obsessed with the new phrase-book we’ve acquired for describing our own impotence and self-assurance.

We yell and scream at each other for not remembering to pick up an item at the grocery store, and yet sneer at the wino in the gutter as if his poison were somehow dirtier than our own. We close over our hearts and leave out most of humanity, then see a wide-eyed young man dancing under the influence and call him unrealistic.

This form of intoxication is far more dangerous than the kind one can get out of a bottle or by tearing off a little square of cardboard. It exhibits all of the characteristics we mentioned before: it is irrational, illogical, dangerous and arguably immoral as the human cost of this flamboyance is rarely spoken about, let alone acted on.

In fact, the definition I gave just above to describe the underlying qualities of intoxication could just as easily describe the whole edifice of Western life, this desperate search for fulfilment at any cost, which is its own peculiar drunkenness.

By now the thought may have crossed your mind that the very same people most commonly defining drunkenness are those who stand to benefit most from its restriction to the arena of psychoactive drugs. Churches, media outlets, advertisers, governments, ideologies, all of them regularly comment on “drug culture” and the dangers of being involved with psychoactive substances, all of them peddle ways of thinking and behaving that are robotic, irrational and potentially dangerous.

They play on notions of division, in group/out group dramas, ultimate truth, fulfilment through adherence to a way of thought or behaviour, denial of unique personal experience in favour of mass-produced uniform truths and so on, all of which create confusion and conflict in the psyche, a deafness to the fact of existence, which is substituted for the known, the intoxicant itself.

Therefore, we can come to feel that the whole notion of sobriety is effectively a sales-pitch for that which deadens us. You’re sober if you’re listening to the politician speak instead of watching his body language. You’re sober when you’re drinking Christianity instead of wine. You’re sober on twenty-five minutes of The Voice because no-ones feathers are being ruffled by safely uninspired pop-music.

But really, we’re most sober when we give up all of this bullshit, when we cease to belt-up our proverbial arms and mainline the narrow-mindedness of respectability, normality, “sobriety”.

Oftentimes people come across that experience while under the influence of a sizeable amount of psychedelic substances. Some in a circle of friends passing a joint. Some when the flame of their attention moves from the twenty four frames-per-second of flickering apocalyptic hair products and on to the movement of their own breath as it passes across the tip of their nose.

To look simply. To hear the passing of sounds as music. Smell the dew on the morning grass and stop to appreciate it. To see in the eyes of another that same “I, myself” which you can’t seem to explain. To rest in your own being, here, now.

This vitality, this presence, this seemingly boundless compassion is sobriety. When the mind is unblemished by frivolity, clinging, searching, and comes to be ecstatically aware of the present moment, this is sobriety. To be in love is to be sober.

But of course, no-one can really say what sobriety is, because fundamentally it isn’t words.

In these states that I’ve been trying to outline, which we all feel from time to time, we stop forcing ourselves into the rat-trap mazes of official “sobriety”, and in doing so, we really sober up. We feel lucid, coherent, engaged.

It is my contention that the vast majority of the human species is drunk twenty four hours a day, and that sobriety, as we use it, is a convenient fiction we have bought into so we can stay that way.

Who can say he is sober when he is restlessly pursuing the forms of his own thoughts, his own plans, his own wanting or those of another?

“Is that person sober?”

Are they buying into the rigid skeletons of faith so eagerly proffered by paedophile priests? Are they shuddering at the thought of a global jihad? Are they proud [insert nation here]’s? Are they working to afford that new [x]? Are they waxing lyrical about the he said/she said dramas of relationship?

Then you can bet your bottom dollar that they’re at the least a little tipsy.

It’s time we wised up to our own deception and started having a real conversation about what it means to be sober in the twenty first century, where the threats of over-population, mass ecological collapse and sectarian violence are coming to a head. We can no longer stay cocooned in a comfortable lie when the very comfort that lie produces drags us towards annihilation.

So, are you sober? Find out.


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  1. James Mason

    Rob .. thanks for this eloquent and explicit piece .. shows great insight into this mad selfish and egotistical world of consumerism, corruption and mayhem .. re the LSD reference .. I remember seeing a T-shirt that Timothy Leary wore which read “These drugs cause fear and paranoia in those who have never tried them” kinda sums up (all too briefly) what you have been saying .. The main thrust of your discussion I see and try hard to practice, but am human and fail often, only to chastise myself later and find myself apologising to friends and others .. which is sometimes not a bad thing because then we both get to discuss this issue of ‘Judgementality’ .. with its reflections and projections.
    I have a radio show on our local community radio station (3MGB fm. Mallacoota, Vic.) and would love to be able to use some if not all of what you have written .. do I or may I have your permission to use it?
    James Mason

  2. Rob Marsh

    Cheers James, glad you liked the piece 🙂

    I’m a fan of Leary’s, and I absolutely had that quote in mind while writing the LSD aspects of this article. I’d wager a good amount of the bad psychedelic experiences that have been had are due to propaganda around the effects of the drug. As for practising a life of non-judgmentality, you’re right James, we are human, and we do fall. That seems to be half the fun 😉 And as you rightly noted, it gives us an opportunity to more deeply connect with our fellow humans.

    You can use anything of mine you like so long as you mention me as the author 🙂 maybe sneak in a link to my blog over at: wide-eyedandhopefullywild.tumblr.com

    Best wishes,

  3. antinous8

    Thank you for this article. Thank you for arguing a position regarding drugs and alcohol which isn’t moralising. I believe that judging others is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and quite necessary too. Spirituality isn’t necessarily, in my view, about the natural, it’s about using our potential to surpass the natural. Non-judgmentality is transcending human nature in a much more positive way than is commonly preached!

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