Updated: Apr 5
"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. Our culture promotes and encourages many habits which lead to bondage. Purveyors of pleasure make "merchandise of you."
Drinking is a maladaptive strategy for coping. It is encouraged in our culture. When stressed, how often do we hear people say, "I could use a drink," or "I'll need a drink after this?" But, alcohol provides no long term relief. It is a central nervous system depressant. A recent global study concluded that no level of alcohol consumption was safe. I learned this the hard way in my early twenties experimenting with the hardest 100-190 proof stuff I could find. 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.
"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. Returning to the States two years later, 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) 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.
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?
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. By abstaining, moreover, I serve as an ally to those in recovery, strengthening their resolve.
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. 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.
"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 and turmeric root; celery, pear, and ginger; protein, ashwagandha, and creatine shakes; and moon milk- oat milk, ginger, triphala, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and honey. I'd have a six-pack, not a beer belly.
Abstention saves me money- which I would rather invest in my health, my family, my hobbies, travel, and education. The people who profit from 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. My loved ones will pay for my choices.
Ultimately, abstention comes down to clarity of mind, freedom, responsibility, and the strengthening of resolve and intention. Life is challenging enough without the added struggles. It is not for kings. It is not for the man who is sovereign of his own mind.