‘Why have an un­clear mind when you can have a clear one?’

Scot­land’s first mind­ful drink­ing fes­ti­val will cel­e­brate im­bib­ing less and en­joy­ing flavour more. Our cul­ture has been con­di­tioned to drink to ex­cess, but mind­ful­ness can help break the habit, writes au­thor Martin Ste­pek

The Scotsman - - Features -

I’m go­ing out with old friends this evening. A re­u­nion meet­ing of folk, some of whom I haven’t seen for 40 years. We were all at Strath­clyde Univer­sity in the late seven­ties or early eight­ies, and all played for the univer­sity foot­ball team, ex­cept for one of us, who was our coach for most of those years.

Way back in those days we drank for plea­sure. Let me be clearer. We drank al­co­hol for plea­sure. Or did we re­ally do it for plea­sure?

To an­swer that I need to go fur­ther back, to late 1973 or early 1974, when I was 14 go­ing on 15. That’s when I started drink­ing al­co­hol. I didn’t start drink­ing be­cause it was cool to drink. I started drink­ing be­cause it was un­cool not to drink. There’s a big dif­fer­ence.

I learned to drink al­co­hol at that early age in or­der not to be looked down on. Beer for the most part. Then as the school years be­came univer­sity years a more so­phis­ti­cated at­tempt to look cool and dif­fer­ent yet still one of the crowd arose un­know­ingly in­side me. Wine. Was that cool or not? Was red wine more ma­cho than white, or were they both “women’s” drinks? What about whisky, rum, black rum and black­cur­rant, vodka? Th­ese were the days when few of th­ese spir­its were branded in a cool way for young peo­ple. Still you had to try them all and get an in­stinc­tive sense of whether they matched who­ever you were try­ing to be at that sen­si­tive age.

And then it all be­came just a habit. A few of my friends ad­mit­ted strug­gling with the ad­dic­tive qual­i­ties of al­co­hol but that was rare. Most didn’t drink through the week but ef­fort­lessly downed half a dozen or more pints of beer on a Fri­day or Satur­day night ev­ery week.

Then as we mar­ried and had kids, we stopped drink­ing in the pub and did it more at home or in res­tau­rants. Drink­ing to get drunk made no sense any more but drink­ing to un­wind af­ter a stress­ful day or week at work felt good.

So what does it ac­tu­ally mean to drink al­co­hol? It is, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists’ ad­vice, to risk self-harm. There is in their view, hav­ing looked at all the ev­i­dence, no safe min­i­mum level of drink­ing al­co­hol.

Anal­y­sis from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive says drink­ing al­co­hol causes more deaths and ill­nesses than any­thing else we do ex­cept for smok­ing. But in ev­ery quar­ter of our sup­pos­edly re­fined and so­phis­ti­cated world we get the hu­mor­ous quotes on Face­book and other so­cial me­dia, like “Ev­ery day is gin day” or “I need a break and by break I mean a very large glass of red”.

We could say lit­er­ally the kind of joke that kills you.

Now we have the pu­ri­tans re­turn­ing to scold us. Or so it seems. Young adults now drink less than any other adult age group. They are ditch­ing booze as if it’s poi­sonous or some­thing. Which it is. This de­spite the rise in al­co­hol brand mar­ket­ing to Premier League stan­dards. In the su­per­mar­ket I can spend five min­utes or more in the aisles of al­co­holic drinks ad­mir­ing the artistry and beauty of the vodka and gin bot­tles. Pubs and din­ers are also more at­trac­tive, for fam­i­lies as well as adults, and many skil­fully tar­get young adults.

Yet the young are drift­ing away from it de­spite all th­ese ex­pert pro­fes­sional at­tempts to get them to drink al­co­hol.

Ed­u­ca­tion and pub­lic health reg­u­la­tion have def­i­nitely got some­thing to do with it, just as they did with smok­ing. It took half a cen­tury but to­bacco us­age has gone down from over 80 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women around 1950 to un­der 20 per cent to­day. Al­co­hol is head­ing the same way.

There’s also a new fac­tor, one which didn’t ex­ist in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion un­til re­cently. Mind­ful­ness. Some­times still re­garded as a new age fad, it is in fact backed by heavy­weight aca­demic ev­i­dence, from Har­vard, Ox­ford and many of the other world lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties and re­search cen­tres.

It’s a sim­ple propo­si­tion. Learn to no­tice bet­ter through prac­tices and you’ll start to feel clearer in mind, there­fore calmer, more pro­duc­tive and more thought­ful to oth­ers. When it comes to our re­la­tion­ship to al­co­hol this has a very pow­er­ful ef­fect.

Be­cause we are so ha­bit­ual in our drink­ing we fail to no­tice two things in par­tic­u­lar. Firstly we don’t see how much of a habit it has be­come, and we don’t re­alise how fre­quently we drink. Se­condly we barely ac­knowl­edge the bad news emerg­ing from the science labs about the de­struc­tive

“I started drink­ing be­cause it was un­cool not to drink”

ef­fects of drink­ing even small quan­ti­ties of al­co­hol. This is pre­cisely be­cause our minds are not nor­mally mind­ful but au­to­matic. We learn things, they be­come habits, and we stop pay­ing at­ten­tion to them.

But more and more peo­ple are prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness. They are learn­ing about it in school, even pri­mary school, and as it’s help­ing them deal with the stress and anx­i­ety of gov­ern­ment-im­posed pres­sures heaped on them, they’re also notic­ing things around them. Like al­co­hol. What it ac­tu­ally is com­pared with what its ad­ver­tis­ers say it is. They learn to be clear­minded and they en­joy the feel­ing of be­ing clear-minded.

Al­co­hol dulls the mind, makes it fud­dled, and the young are notic­ing this with mind­ful­ness, so they are leav­ing off it. Why have an un­clear mind when you can have a clear one? And when friends, or in­deed par­ents of the old school, do that ir­ri­tat­ing but well-mean­ing “come on, you know you want one” nudge to pres­sure them into hav­ing an al­co­holic drink, they have the clar­ity and wis­dom to sim­ply refuse, not to give in to the pres­sure to feel “nor­mal”. That’s be­cause they are the new nor­mal and it’s our gen­er­a­tion that are the strange self-harm­ers in the world of al­co­hol.

On Satur­day there’s a ma­jor Mind­ful Drink­ing Fes­ti­val in Glas­gow show­cas­ing non­al­co­holic beers and other drinks, as well as craft beers and other al­co­holic beers which are drunk slowly and in real mod­er­a­tion in or­der to savour their unique qual­i­ties.

There are non-al­co­holic hen par­ties be­ing ad­ver­tised. We may yet even see the re­mark­able sight of sober women com­ing out of th­ese par­ties, hap­pily walk­ing straight and steadily, hav­ing had just as good if not a far bet­ter night than they would have done had they been drink­ing al­co­hol.

Times are chang­ing. We are all get­ting older, and if we’re not mind­ful, we might lose years of our life with our fam­ily and friends sim­ply be­cause of an age-old habit foisted on us by so­ci­etal norms and com­mer­cial needs to sell then ha­bit­u­ated in our mind­less minds. Mind­ful­ness is a great skill for many things in our lives, and chal­leng­ing the way we en­gage with al­co­holic drinks can be a life-sav­ing and life-en­hanc­ing part of it. We think we drink be­cause we en­joy it but when we see our­selves close up and ob­jec­tively with a mind­ful eye we see that we’ve just been con­di­tioned. Mind­ful­ness can help us loosen and drop that con­di­tion­ing, and re­place it with new con­di­tion­ing that is more in tune with what we now know is a health­ier way of en­joy­ing life.

● Martin Ste­pek is the co-founder of Ten for Zen and the au­thor of a se­ries of books in­clud­ing Mind­ful Liv­ing and Pocket Guide to a Mind­ful Life, www.ten­forzen.co.uk

For more on Scot­land’s first Mind­ful Drink­ing Fes­ti­val see https:// mind­fuldrink­ingfes­ti­val.com/

Martin Ste­pek, main, says al­co­hol causes more deaths and ill­nesses than any­thing else we do ex­cept for smok­ing; drinkers of­ten don’t re­alise how much al­co­hol they con­sume, above

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