illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
A lot of people struggle with embodying the Buddhist teachings. After all, the standards seem pretty high: "right speech", "right action" and "right livelihood" for starters… A lot of people love to read about Buddhism and about living in abundance and about generosity and about peace, but then they don't respond to calls for donations, they continue fighting with their families and work colleagues, they cannot stop criticising practitioners of other schools, etc.
It's commonly hard to "walk the talk": exiting the cyclical suffering is just not a matter of reading a few inspirational quotes!
While some people advise to "go cold" to cease unhelpful addictions, I believe this is individual-dependent: some people will find easier to stop brutally a habit, others will find easier to gradually shift away from the habit. Moreover, it's not only person-dependent, it's also habit-dependent: the same person might cease one habit one way and another habit the other way… What matters is the intention and then the willingness to experiment in order to find a way to actualise the intention.
For example, I do not promote vegetarianism as a 'must' of Buddhism (gplus.wallez.name/TGBUJMuqewF). I understand the arguments in favour of vegetarianism and even veganism, and I included this information as part of the conditions and circumstances to which I need to respond as appropriately as I can… but I do not promote the idea that if you're buddhist, then you 'must' be vegetarian or vegan. There are multiple reasons for this, but one is that I think it is important to keep open the door of gradual cessation of unwholesome habits.
What I advise is to try reducing one's meat intake, and explore how this feels (in relation to health first, but then also in relation to mindset, self-appraisal, self-confidence, morality…).
For a few people (a lot rarer than most people think), there's an argument for meat eating, about proteins and other nutrients. For many people, this is just an excuse though… But even if the argument applies to you, this would still suggest eating meat maybe once a week and very small amounts!
Some people live in the complete delusion that they need two meals with animal proteins a day… The profit-greedy food industry is not necessarily innocent vis-à-vis some misinformation via advertising!
But compared to meat twice a day, eating meat only once a week purely for health reasons, that'd be a reduction of 93% of one's meat consumption, and that'd be far from negligible! 93% reduction is a very wholesome, practical, concrete result! Even if eating meat once a week, you still wouldn't 'be' a vegetarian: it's okay, 93% is a pretty good score to achieve. Let's debate again once you reached this first!
Depending on your metabolism and other circumstances, at "once a week", you may be "mindfully eating", i.e. taking into accounts your needs but also the needs of others!
But let's be even more 'gradual' than this: eating meat once instead of twice a day (or e.g. eating meat every other day rather than every day) would be a reduction of 50%: concrete, wholesome, and far far from negligible!
So why don't you try a gradual approach, and see if you can more easily stick to it? It's a lot more constructive to halve your meat consumption (or alcohol drinking…) forever, than to cut it entirely for one week only to then go back to previous habits! So be practical: aim for the long-run! Any progress (no matter how small) can make a sizeable difference in the long-run, including by providing a role-model to others!
Reducing your consumption might help you get a grip on your desire, give you more freedom from "automatic" reactions, and allow you to figure out how you can cultivate wholesomeness further in your circumstances (rather than the common 'generalities' issued by teachers). Stopping abruptly might not be the right approach for you, and that's okay! If you drink like a fish e.g. 10 units per night, try sticking to maximum 8… and explore if that makes your life horrible (it won't)! Then see if you can stick to a maximum of 6, etc. Idem with meat. Idem with sexuality…
One way to help the transition might be to move "up-market": instead of drinking to get so trashed that you're not really appreciating here&now anymore, that you don't even enjoy drinking anymore, that it becomes tasteless because everything just becomes a blur… maybe you can drink only when "noticeably enjoyable"? If you cannot actively notice the joy (after too many), it's time to stop for the day…
Idem with meat, in fact: most people eat meat out of habits, and they don't noticeably appreciate it. They finish their plate but they're not even able to say which part of the animal it was (unless they remember the words on the packet/menu). There's no enjoyment of what is on their plate, it's just bland habit, a case of "what I've always done".
Idem with sexuality: "going through the motion" isn't remotely as pleasurable as being mindfully present in a loving relationship in which freedom (including sexual freedom) is valued. Move "up-market": it isn't about quantity, but quality! And you can appreciate quality only if you're present, paying attention, mindful of the conditions and circumstances and small variations (that are usually glossed over). And your partners like yourself are also a lot more likely to explore if they're not pressured into a logic of quantity, if they're not pressured into "automatism over freedom"…
All of the above relates to narratives in your head about what you 'need'.
And while you do have needs, they're very likely to be a lot lot smaller than you imagine. The point of the practice is to mindfully explore and find out what these needs truly are, by opposition to what you currently imagine they are. "Reality as it is", remember? It is not about denying your needs, but seeing them as what they are (rather than what society, culture, advertising and past experiences convinced you they are).
The Buddha famously rejected asceticism in favour of the Middle Way: this is it! Not denying your (true) needs, but not falling in the indulgence of imaginary delusional mental fabrications called 'needs'.
What matters is the intention to walk the Path, and then the willingness to experiment in order to find a way to actualise this intention.
Start with exploring one 'need' which currently creates dissatisfaction in your life: without rejecting the 'need' entirely (possibly a right view, but possibly an extreme view… you don't know yet!), explore the possibility of reducing such a need and enquire into the difference between true needs (here&now… they change through circumstances!) and mental proliferations!
Don't tackle all your 'needs' at once, just the most pressing here&now… In a few hours, the "most pressing" might be another one: enquire into that one then, not now! Remember that any reduction that you can hold over the long-run will prove more effective than a brutal but short-lived suspension. One defilement at a time, partially, is likely to be a more effective approach, a more real practice, than an "holier than thou" extreme.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Practical action is meritorious, talking of sainthood not so much…
Watercolour: "Buddha and Sujata", © P. R. Roy
Sujata's offering is when the Buddha decided to break away from asceticism, having realised first-hand that it allowed for higher rebirth but not for Liberation.