‘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
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/