Thirty years ago, I decided not to drink alcohol.
I was 19 and still lived in my native Denmark. I wasn’t addicted, but I was becoming a yogi. I noticed that alcohol was a pretty extreme interference with my meditation practice. It became more and more obvious that my precious intuitive capacities, my inner radar since early childhood shut down with the use of alcohol.
I had to choose—did I want to drown out or stay close to my inner voice?
I never had an external teacher suggest I not drink; in fact, several of my early Buddhist teachers did drink on occasion. But my inner voice told me that I am someone who cannot mix alcohol with a genuine spiritual practice.
This was an unusual decision back in 1989. I received a lot of flack from friends and family for saying no to alcohol, which is a pretty ingrained part of Danish socializing. People assumed I must be in recovery. Which is fine but not true. Later in life, I even had a swami tell me to just go ahead and twirl a glass of wine at dinner parties so as not to draw attention to my not drinking. I found that advice inauthentic. Why must I pretend? Why does it make others uncomfortable that I am not drinking?
Now, 30 years later, things are shifting. Many friends and students of mine are starting to speak up about the negative impact of alcohol on their spiritual practice, their bodies, and their capacity to deal with feelings and emotions. I never tell my students not to drink, but I do tell them to pay attention. Pay attention when that urge to have a cocktail arises. What is going on within you? What are the feelings or maybe anxieties that are arising that you don’t want to embrace and process?
In my experience, the very thing that I want to avoid feeling is the sacred portal into a deeper relationship with myself. A profound sense of unconditional love and compassion for self, which is ultimately the only way to heal the unpleasant feelings that live as stagnant energy within.
This month, I started up with a new cohort of teacher training students. Alcohol and other numbing agents are subjects that will be discussed. To notice and witness all the intricate ways that we use to run away from how we truly feel. When we cannot embrace ourselves with unconditional love, we cannot hope that someone else will embrace us with unconditional love.
Although I don’t think it’s helpful to be preachy (I truly believe that the decision to say goodbye to alcohol is a deeply personal one), I do encourage anyone who will listen to wait. Wait five minutes, maybe 10 from the moment the urge to drink (or numb out in some other way) arises until you have that drink. There is magic in that moment. It’s a doorway, and if you become still and feel yourself, listen to yourself, something deeply vulnerable is likely trying to speak to you. Asking for your attention. Begging for your embrace. Are you perhaps a little bit scared or anxious? Are you angry or sad? Could it be that you are emotionally uncomfortable in some way?
Let that be okay, if even for just a little tiny bit. Hold and honor that place in yourself. Be with that place in yourself. Love that not cool, not confident, not self-assured part of yourself with deep compassion.
Then ask yourself: if a small child came to me and felt these feelings, would I embrace this child with love and compassion or would I tell them to have a drink so as not to feel?
Allowing feelings to be felt so they can be healed is the doorway to true, lasting healing.