Mindful Drinking

August 30, 2016

Hello Public Hub!

This is a great new addition to our community.  Having written about 120 posts on my blog “The Moderation Manifesto” I don’t know how much new stuff I have left to say  So I’m going to start with a little cutting and pasting of some of the more popular posts in TMM and take it from there. Here goes!

At some point along the way in our San Francisco meetings we started using the term “mindful drinking.”  It was partly tongue in cheek, a phrase that sounded like an artisanal cocktail, an oxymoron with a twist.

On the most obvious level it is meant as a counterpoint to mindless drinking; to consumption without counting, to indulgence that ignores all restraint or inebriation heedless to potential harm or injury.  At its most extreme, mindless drinking becomes self-fulfilling since a blackout is when you have, in essence, rendered yourself mindless.

But the real meaning of “mindful drinking” is its application in the day to day practice of being moderate.  At the most rudimentary level, mindfulness in this context means keeping count of your drinks.  But above and beyond that, it calls upon you to pay attention to your drink.  How does it taste? How is each sip affecting you? What’s happening as you consume more?

The idea of savoring anything you find pleasant, say food or drink, as a way of moderating your consumption has been getting some press recently.  There are books such as “Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung that discuss diet as a practice of paying fuller and clearer attention to what and how you eat.  In case you’re wondering, the book  takes the conventional Buddhist stance on alcohol: don’t.)

But despite what the authors of “Savor” might say, the same principles can be applied to our drinking.  In a way this is simply adaptation.  If you’re not allowing yourself as many drinks as before you damn well better make them count, right? I’ve told myself on occasion that although I may be drinking alcohol, what I’m really doing is milking those drinks for everything they have.  So, mindfulness begins with pacing: you cannot savor what you guzzle. But it also requires a higher degree of attentiveness.  If you’re drinking something you really enjoy, a good glass of wine or a well made cocktail, pay attention to the taste and smell.  After all, alcohol is a drug that comes in this seductive wrapper of taste and color, unlike a pill or a powder.  But these aspects of the drug experience that drinking represents do not have to lure you into overdoing it.  They can instead become your allies in an effort to prolong the experience that each drink presents.  One practical way that people employ this tactic is to increase the quality, not the quantity,  of what they’re drinking.  And by doing so they enlist yet another ally in their efforts at moderation: their budget.

(At this point I should pass along that when it comes to learning how to savor a drink, a little self-knowledge, as always, goes a long way.  A woman who came to our meetings for a while had a rule that she couldn’t allow herself to drink white wine. She just liked it way too much; she recognized that she would not be able to pace herself with a glass of chardonnay in her hand.)

It could be argued that to a certain extent all our problems with drinking stem from lack of attentiveness. This seems pretty intuitive when it comes to binging, since that is the habit of mindlessly forging ahead with your drinking until you are well past the point where  consequences outweigh benefits.  But I have times suspected that for some binge drinkers their problem is not just a conditioned response to a particular setting, but a basic lack of awareness as to how alcohol affects them.  I’m thinking in particular of the people who say that they, for example, never drink during the week and that they never drink alone, and yet when they go out, WHAMO!  Well, if you only drink in these boisterous, amped-up environments there is no way for you really to know and recognize how two or three drinks affect you.  The process of re-learning how to drink could simply begin with sitting down in a quiet place, having a few drinks and seeing how you feel.  Find your happy zone and learn how to stay there, but you have to be paying attention to find it in the first place.

The role of mindfulness in moderating an habitual drinking pattern is somewhat more indirect.  After all, one of the ways that an habitual drinker enables himself or herself  to continue drinking is to make sure that they don’t cross that line into mindless behavior.  This self-regulatory aspect is like a self-preservation skill that a habit of daily drinking nurtures in order to make sure that the habitual drinking can continue: “Look, I never get really messed up, never miss work and so I don’t really have a drinking problem.”  Sound familiar?  But one thing that has struck me over the years in our meetings is the amount of habitual drinking that takes place while the drinker is doing something else.  Cooking is probably the most popular, but there are lots of others: catching up on email, housework, paperwork, talking on the phone, watching a movie.  It may be very difficult, since these are often very entrenched habits, but one of the quickest ways to reduce your number of drinks is simply to eliminate the drinks that take place when you’re doing something else.  By necessity, and by definition, your primary attention is going to be on that activity and so your drinking becomes an accompaniment, like some background music.  But over time the buzz winds up becoming entrenched as the faithful sidekick, and now you have a habit.  A habit that–by the way–comes conveniently wrapped in this alluring bit of self-justification: “Yeah I’m drinking, but look how clean the house is!”

If we are going to allow ourselves to drink, then we need to pay attention to every drink we have.  If we have other stuff to do, then we do that separately.  Some people talk about taking it one day at a time.  Perhaps in Moderation Management we should think in terms of one thing at a time.






4 comments on “Mindful Drinking
  1. beans818 says:

    Paul, so much of your post resonates with me. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Kary May Hickey says:

    Thank you for joining the gang over here, Paul. We look forward to many more posts from you!

  3. Ellie Best says:

    Very helpful, Paul, I definitely see what you are talking about with paying attention to how you are feeling when drinking.

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