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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix


Updated: Feb 10

"It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink." Proverbs 31:4

Abstaining from behaviors which subvert our sovereignty and well-being help safe-guard our freedom. Seeking to liberate ourselves from suffering, we avoid that which contributes to it. Life is hard enough.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. A recent global study concluded that no level of alcohol consumption was safe (Daviet et al., 2022). Even low to moderate alcohol consumption was associated with brain atrophy, neuronal loss, and poorer white matter fiber integrity. My goal is not enlightenment, but to be less stupid. I don't have brain cells to spare.

Alcohol is water and fat soluble. So, it passes easily through organs and cells. Alcohol is a toxin. The body converts the ethanol in alcohol to acetylaldehyde. Acetylaldehyde is a poison that damages and kills cells indiscriminately. Biopathways convert acetylaldehyde into acetate. Cells in the liver help metabolize the poison, but poison the liver over time. The liver has over 500 functions. I am too stupid to list them all but know not to interfere or undermine its work.

Alcohol changes gene expression in areas of the brain that drive memory and reward. Alcohol can alter which proteins bind to DNA to turn genes on and off, how DNA is read and translated into proteins, as well as alter the proteins that determine how cells use energy to function. Alcohol can cause an alternative form of a gene to be expressed in the memory circuits resulting in changes in dopamine receptors and transcription factors involved in reward signaling and neuronal function.

Alcohol increases sensitivity to persistent pain, including alcoholic neuropathy- which is nerve damage that causes chronic pain and other symptoms. In other words, it adds to our suffering. Not only does alcohol change how the brain processes pain signals, it changes the levels of immune system proteins including ionized calcium-binding adapter molecule-1, macrophage-colony stimulating factor, interleukin 6, p38 and extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (Roberto, 2023), which render the body more vulnerable and susceptible to illness and disease.

Although you may have no mechanical skill, you wouldn't put sand in your gas tank. Even so, you could always buy a new vehicle. Could you buy a new immune system or install a new liver? We are more sensible with our cars than with our body which is the only vehicle leased to us on our Earthly journey.

In my early twenties, I experimented with the hardest 100-190 proof stuff I could find. I drank Everclear undiluted, no chaser. I put pure grain alcohol into my tank. My objective- which I did not conceal from myself- was self-destruction. Ever clear I was not. Goaded on by self-loathing, I eschewed moderation.

My bingeing, however, did not last long. I knew this was the path to perdition and to woe and to suffering.

"Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder." Proverbs 23: 29-30, 32

In my valley of darkness, I found refuge in meditation, exercise, my faith, and my father- who did not drink. I stopped as suddenly as I had started, enjoying a few years of sobriety. When I moved to Japan, I resumed in moderation. As in many cultures, drinking was embedded. And the influence of culture over our power to choose is more powerful than we realize. We confabulate conformity with free-will. Returning to the States two years later, however, I returned to abstention.

After a painful break-up, I thrice self-medicated with alcohol, but, by then, I knew better. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise." (Pro 20:1) The fearful become fearless, the anxious become bold, the repressed feel free... only to drop below baseline once the illusion of superpowers dissipates. The respite from the tyranny of a powerful and undisciplined mind is temporary and this relief is ephemeral, transient, illusory.

I began to lean more on my practices and disciplines. A decade later, after a painful divorce, I had moments when I wanted to drink, but was, by then, firmly established in my meditation practice. I sat with the pain, the unpleasant physical sensations, the sadness, the anger, the confusion... and transformed these, over time, into compassion, inner-strength, equanimity, power, self-discipline, and self-mastery which are more valuable to me than conformity, pleasure, dissipation, or relief from self-imposed suffering.

While I could enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer on occasion, I choose not to. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (1 Cor 6:12) Even if I drank responsibly, would I be as moderate if stressed, if challenged, if undone? My history suggests not.

Psychosocial stress activates the insula. And insula activation correlates with heightened alcohol craving (Bach et al., 2024). The more stressed, the greater the urgency to take the edge off. For many, alcohol is a go-to and a poor choice for regulation.

Abstention is a compassionate act. In abstaining, I support the well-being of others. Some people may be struggling with addiction. Others may have a significantly higher risk of developing a drinking problem than I did. By refraining, I encourage and strengthen those who are taking it day by day. Those who quit drinking increase their chances of weight loss, boost their metabolism, lower their cancer risk, improve their heart health, sleep better, reduce their cholesterol levels, and lower their risk of diabetes and liver damage. I stand by this. By abstaining, moreover, I serve as an ally to those in recovery, strengthening their resolve. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul: For if anyone sees you, having knowledge, [drinking], will not his conscience, being weak, be emboldened so as to [drink]? So this weak brother is destroyed by [your liberties]. When you sin against them in this way and undermine their weak resolve, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I [drink] causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never [drink] again, so that I will not cause them to stumble.

There is a more compelling reason I refrain. By abstaining, I model the behaviors I want my children to practice. My children are watching. Their developing brains are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. "Misuse of alcohol during adolescence and early adulthood can alter the trajectory of brain development, resulting in long-lasting changes in brain structure and function," the editors of Knowridge write.

Drinking is a maladaptive strategy for coping with life's challenges. Consumption is encouraged in our culture. Our culture promotes and encourages many habits which lead to bondage. Weakness masquerades as strength. And purveyors of pleasure make "merchandise of you."

A recent Billboard headline caught my eye: "Gen Z is Drinking Less and Clubs Aren't Thrilled." The subheading was disturbing, but telling: Some small venue owners are noticing that younger audience's alcohol consumption is dropping, impacting a key revenue stream. It's not the health of the young that these venue operators are concerned with, but with their own bottom line.

Ironman, Thor, the Hulk and other superheroes drink. My children ingest this entertaining make-believe. My children watch the alcohol ads that run during commercial breaks during the basketball and football games they enjoy watching- which show young people having fun- never the true consequences or statistics: 10,000 people killed annually by drunk drivers; 22,000 alcohol liver disease deaths; a quarter of violent crimes perpetuated by offenders who had been drinking, 55% of domestic violence cases are alcohol related; a consumption increase of 1 liter per capita brings about an increase in the divorce rate of about 20%, etc.

"Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works. Alcohol makes it harder for the brain areas controlling balance, memory, speech, and judgment to do their jobs, resulting in a higher likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes. Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in their size (source)."

Mindful that a decision like this can reverberate for generations inspires the motivation to stay the course. My grandfather was an alcoholic. He drank heavily. One fateful day, he met a preacher named Francisco Olazábal. My grandfather chose to follow Christ and quit drinking. His choice reverberated for generations. He became a minister. How different would our destinies have been if my father’s father hadn’t quit drinking! My father- poor, dark-skinned, and dyslexic- would have been mauled in Harlem. Instead, he followed in his father's footsteps and passed the legacy of faith and the transformative power of positive thinking down to me, which I pass down to my children.

"In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation...”

-The Great Law of the Iroquois

The Fifth Mindfulness Training, from Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Inter-being, stresses compassionate, healthy living: "Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, wellbeing, and joy in our bodies and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth."

Abstention, moreover, promotes a more equitable reallocation of the earth's precious resources. There are environmental impacts from production and packaging to distribution and water use which most ignore. Land, water, grains, rice, botanicals, sugar cane, and agave are some of the ingredients used to produce alcohol. These resources, which are being cultivated to poison the body (which it rejects as a toxin), could be used to feed those in need. One study estimated that we could end world hunger if we cut our alcohol and meat consumption by half. Not only would our health improve, but, we could significantly contribute to the well-being of others.

Rather than hops, barley, cereal grains and agave, I put my money into carrots, ashwaghanda, and turmeric root; celery, pear, kale, and ginger; protein and creatine shakes; oat milk, ginger, triphala, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and honey. I'd rather have a six-pack, not a beer belly from too many six packs.

Some of the elixirs I make are bitter. One concoction includes L-leucine, fadogia agrestis, tongkat ali, apple cider vinegar and creatine. If I could tolerate alcohol, I could down anything. This is one positive take away from my years of drinking. I fermented a bad habit into iron discipline and self-hatred into self-respect. I know I can down just about anything- now it's tart cherry juice, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, or anything else that brings vigor to the body and strength to the mind.

Abstention saves me money- which I would rather invest in my health, my family, my hobbies, travel, and education. Those who profit from the production and sale of alcohol won't be sending me a get well card if I get sick from indulging in their product; they won't send a lawyer to defend me if, under the influence, I commit an act that leads to an arrest; they won't pay for counseling if my relationships are torn apart because of my dependence. They are absolved from responsibility which I also refuse to assume for the effluent discharged by my own unexamined mind. We are co-dependent. Rather than confront my weakness and pain with courage, I delay and delay and mask the pain and try to numb it away.

Who pays for our choices and refusal to do the inner work that needs doing? You first, then your loved ones. The collective shares the cost for individual choices. We haven't accepted the truth of our inter-dependence.

Ultimately, abstention comes down to clarity of mind, freedom, responsibility, and the strengthening of resolve and intention. Refraining from intoxicants is a standard boilerplate practice for most contemplatives. Life is challenging enough without the added struggles of an addled mind.

Meditation can positively affect gene regulation in the brain (Kaliman et al., 2014). Attending intensive meditation retreats reduces the expression of genes that affect inflammation (Alvarez-Lopez et al., 2022). Experienced meditators can reduce inflammatory genes after sitting just one day (Chaix et al., 2020). This is the level of cognitive control I seek.

A mindfulness practice is weak if the mind is weak and neglects the basics. It is not for kings. "Ye are children of light... Therefore, let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch and be sober." (1 Thessalonians 5-6)

First published 8/4/2020

Edited and republished 5/17/2023

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