I mentioned to some friends that I'd be writing for VICE, and they couldn't contain their enthusiasm. One of them, a German, asked me what vice actually means for an English speaker. I pointed to his beer and said, “Well, this could be considered a vice.” While discussing the complexities of the word, it occurred to me how apt the nomenclature was. With my history and reputation this suddenly made sense to me in the same way as when you run around looking for your keys only to discover you're holding them in your hand. A vice is normally considered immoral, scandalous, or pertaining to debased activities involving sexuality, intoxication, games of chance, and risk-taking. It evokes a grip-like hold, whether physical, mental, emotional or psychical. It's associated with habitual destructive behavior and addiction. It stems from the Latin vitus, or vine. Since a vice is a tool with movable jaws that clamp shut with a screw, the word once applied to any spiraling shape, from staircases to screws. It's easy then to speculate an early cross-over between the word vice as slang “to screw,” and its association with prostitution and pornography.
However, like any moral judgment, attributing vice to an action is subjective. What determines a vice is the intent behind the action. In nondualistic magical and mystical traditions, vices and virtues are primarily guidelines of conduct, accepted by the practitioner as recommendations rather than edicts. This differs from the dualistic, congregational religious systems, which present commandments and the primacy of following rules. If we had enough awareness, self-control, intelligence, and healthy interactions with others and the environment, we wouldn't need organized religion, politics, schools of philosophy, or even a list of guidelines to remind us of what's life affirming or what's destructive. But we're not omniscient.
To understand vices better, let's take a look at their opposite—virtues. Virtues should promote a sense of wholeness, freedom from malignancies, and delusion. When virtues are implemented as a result of warped motivation, the damage that occurs turns the virtue into a vice. Vices, on the other hand, are thought to create disharmony, fuel worldly anxieties and concerns, and stimulate destructive emotions. Under certain circumstances though, when indulging in a vice motivated by sharp inner focus and compassion, an action might outwardly seem like the wrong thing to do, but is ultimately the most necessary or kindest thing to do. Both vices and virtues can easily become inverted or perverted because of attachment to their effects. So it's not the enjoyment of the vice that makes it malignant—it's the grip it has over us and our craving for excess.
Examples of perverted virtues would be the narcissist who shows how charitable he is, brandishing his generosity when giving money to the homeless. Another case might be the person who feigns dependability—only showing up to help when he or she has an audience to witness lavish displays of selfless martyrdom. Or it could be someone who fights against injustice and hypocrisy, but is motivated by a life-long chip-on-the-shoulder, making themselves an irritant and detriment in every social cause they participate.
Virtuous vices would be the reverse. Cannabis, for example, is a vice with positive medicinal possibilities. Having sex with a prostitute if it harms nobody and helps a relationship or intimacy problems, shouldn't be looked down upon. Anger is considered a vice. But when the energy of anger is distilled and channeled into action to help someone, or to create works of art, then it's no longer malignant. Sadness or melancholy is considered a vice. But sometimes humans need fallow periods to regenerate and then, when the phase has passed, a new idea or revelation comes to mind. By resting in simply what is, instead of always trying to fix what is perceived as a defect, we open ourselves up to infinite possibilities.
We all have vices, visible and invisible. Some we deliberately keep secret. Others we don't even realize or we refuse to admit we have. We enjoy flaunting the vices that are colorful and socially acceptable enough. We laugh about the guilty pleasures we're embarrassed to admit, or the vices we doggedly believe are good for us. There's no special country where you can avoid vices. Nor a place that's better equipped than others to indulge in them. There's no commune that can protect you from them or expensive clinic able to keep you free of all vices. Because just when you isolate yourself from one category of vices, others appear to take their place. Every conceivable vice has its own online forums, chatrooms, cults, self-help groups, opponents, proponents, and pimps. Vices can be lots of fun, or they can turn your life into a living hell. Accept them for what they are, just another aspect of the mind's creation, and you can enjoy them—if you choose—without being broken by them.
In this column, various vices are sure to make cameo appearances, as I share experiences in art, culture, spirituality, sociology and psychology with you.
Š-L-M = Peace
Zeena Schreck is an artist, musician, animal rights activist, Tantric Buddhist, spiritual leader of the Sethian Liberation Movement (SLM), and co-author of Demons of the Flesh: The Complete Guide to Left-Hand Path Sex Magic. Her most recent music release is Radio Werewolf's The Vinyl Solution - Analog Artifacts: Ritual Instrumentals and Undercover Version.
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