How to Drink Mindfully

Between date night, girls’ night, work drinks, and Sunday Funday, it’s easier than ever to go accidentally overboard. Julie Klam sits in on a unique meditation class that teaches a more thoughtful approach.

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Photo by MarkSwallow/Getty Images

A few years ago, I noticed a trend among the people I socialize with. Instead of suggesting we meet for coffee, it was, “Let’s get drinks!” Maybe this was because I was hitting a phase in my life where many of my friends were also divorced and therefore had some nights “off.” Or it might have been that drinks just sound more festive than coffee…and don’t we all need more festivity? Even though I’ve never been that much of a drinker—you can always spot me at the table, the one with five ice cubes in my white wine—I found myself having drinks out a lot.

My problem is, I tend to drink the way I shop and write: fast. Of the three, drinking fast is the only one that gives me trouble. Shopping fast gets you a good white shirt in under 20 minutes, but swigging drinks gets you a following morning filled with regrets. It makes it harder to realize when your slight buzz is turning into an “Oops, I’m drunk.” I don’t abuse alcohol, but I have had vague thoughts about whether I should reframe my relationship with it.

Enter the theory of mindful drinking. It is, as its name indicates, a conscious approach to consuming alcohol. The technique has become popular in the U.K., where a group called Club Soda teaches the approach and hosts mindful-drinking pub crawls; this summer, the organization will produce its first Mindful Drinking Festival. Research shows there has been a rapid decline in drinking among young people across Britain.

Though it sounds trendy, like mindful eating and mindful breathing, mindful drinking has long been practiced by Buddhists, says Lodro Rinzler, author of the millennial life guidebook The Buddha Walks into a Bar. Buddhist monks usually can’t have alcohol or other intoxicants, he explains, “but lay practitioners today are not expected to cut out those things in the same way. In fact, in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, there’s an emphasis on taking things normally viewed as obstacles as part of the spiritual path, which happens to include alcohol in some ceremonies.”

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And many Americans in 2017 seem to prefer an all-or-nothing approach to alcohol. “All”—well, we know what that is. Drinking to excess increases your risk of certain diseases, such as breast cancer and dementia, as well as dependence. And the number of women who say they’ve had a heavy-drinking day at least once in the past year is at an all-time high, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Only 30 percent of women who drink stay within what NIAAA defines as "low-risk" limits, which in women is no more than three drinks on any given day and no more than seven per week. The Mad Men era brought us men swigging boilermakers at noon; in the current era, women are equally comfortable with their cocktail intake, and females’ patterns of alcohol use and abuse have grown to look more like men’s, according to NIAAA research. Look to the myriad Facebook posts of “Boozy brunch!” and “Wine o’clock!” Or to the philosopher of our time, the Pinterest board, bulging with cocktail-centric memes (“Sorry I’m late…I like to arrive fashionably drunk”).

As for the “nothing,” it comes in forms like Whole30, in which people eliminate sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, and alcohol in an effort to scour their system, or #DryJanuary, where the goal is abstention for one month (January being the month after #DrinkandEatEverythingInSightDecember). Post-cleanse, enthusiasts report how great they feel: clearer-headed and with looser jeans. But for so many women, the results of such drastic change are short-lived. If you enjoy drinking and aren’t addicted but do want to approach it in a healthy way, cleansing isn’t usually a long-term fix.

We were told to take a sip and savor it—really concentrate on how it felt, how it tasted, what memories or sensations it evoked.

Rinzler promises a middle path to lasting change. First stop: his MNDFL Meditation Studio in Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches mindful-drinking classes.

The MNDFL Studio felt more like a spa than the meditation centers I’d been to in the past. No incense-mixed-with-ramen smell, but there were indoor trees and super-flattering lighting. As we settled in on our assigned cushions, I looked around at the other attendees, who were easily 15 to 20 years younger than I am, and wondered where the 40- to 55-year-olds were. Did they not want to drink mindfully, or were they just not up for leaving the house on a Monday night?

Rinzler began with a brief history of mindful drinking. Nonmonastic Buddhists wanted to be able to drink comfortably, he said, so they developed the methods that morphed into mindful drinking. “In our newly conscious world, we feel a need for help to drink more responsibly, for ourselves and those we drink with,” he said. “Anyone here ever have an awful next-day feeling after a night of overimbibing?” Quickly he was greeted with a chorus of sympathetic groans. “Come back to me when you’ve been hung-over on a class trip to the Bronx Zoo with 40 second graders,” I thought. But I mindfully opted to remain silent.

He then began the practice, showing us how to take a moment to center ourselves before we went to drink. This could be done in the car on the way to a party or in your apartment while getting ready to go to a bar. The idea was to clear your mind as much as possible of the stress of the day.

Consider the specifics of the night ahead of you, he encouraged. Who are you going to meet? What do you want to do? If you’re going to meet friends, think about how you will talk and listen, and be present for the company, and enjoy your drink. By visualizing how you want to be mindful ahead of time, you’re more likely to experience mindfulness when the lights are down, the music is soothing, and the alcohol is flowing.

Rinzler then gave us an opportunity to test his approach, directing us to file into the kitchen reception area to get a rye whiskey with ice and an orange peel. The amber tinge reminded me of whatever Lou Grant had in his desk drawer.

Of course, in real life, Rinzler pointed out, you don’t walk into a bar and get handed a drink. You would mindfully consider the choices before you. I’ve always been wary of anything new, but I decided that the next time I went to a bar I would try something with subtle flavors and unusual accoutrements. Nothing crazy, but maybe mint!

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In one lesson, bartenders are told to make a Negroni, first while thinking about someone they dislike, then while thinking about someone they love. The second drink is said to taste immeasurably better than the first.

We returned to our cushions, drinks in hand, and Rinzler instructed us to first feel the drink. How did the glass feel? How about the ice? Then we sniffed the drink and thought about how it smelled. We were told to take a sip and savor it—really concentrate on how it felt, how it tasted, what memories or sensations it evoked.

Right off the bat, I hated this drink. I’m not a whiskey gal, so I didn’t feel like it was a fair test of my self-control. But it was OK: Not loving it helped me pay attention.

Next, we were teamed up to simulate a bar or party scene, because the real challenge comes when you’re in a group. I was matched with two other women, one from South Africa and one from Italy. We told stories of the first drinks we’d ever had (mine was a screwdriver—total baby drink), all the while taking mindful sips. We were instructed to really listen, not listen while thinking of what you’re going to say when the person stops talking. It was hard, but no one said consciousness is easy.

It occurred to me that when I’m in a drinking situation, I’m very aware of “the next drink” and whether I’m going to have it or not. I tend to speed up the one I’m drinking if another round is possible. When I’m drinking this way, I’m not fully present in the conversation and not being courteous to the person I’m with. I felt great relief at this epiphany and more than anything looked forward to being more aware of this with my friends.

We repeated the exercise, this time paired with a new person. We were given the option of having a second drink; I was surprised to realize I still had most of my first one in my glass. But after only a couple of sips, I did notice I was tired and tuning out. Mindfulness requires a lot of mental energy. I felt very ready to go home.

Over the next week, I practiced Rinzler’s teachings at home. I enjoyed a single beer with my boyfriend one night. The next night, at my monthly potluck dinner, I poured myself a glass of wine and carefully sipped…until a friend came in with pitchers of Cosmos and insisted I have one. I had my mindful glass of wine in one hand and my crazy-gals’-night-out Cosmo in the other. (Side note: Cosmos are tasty but strong, so if you chug them like Gatorade, you will be drunk, and if you’re drunk, you can’t be mindful.)

I mentioned my experiment to my friend Rosie Schaap, a bartender and author who has written about cocktail culture. “As a server,” she told me, “I’m aware that it’s our responsibility to be mindful as well. Look customers in the eye, ask them how they are, and really mean it. Take an interest in what they are saying.” Rosie told me about Gary (a.k.a. “Gaz”) Regan, also a bartender, who cofounded the global Institute for Mindful Bartending. In one lesson, bartenders are told to make a negroni, first while thinking about someone they dislike, then with the exact same ingredients but while thinking about someone they love. The second drink is said to taste immeasurably better than the first. Schaap pointed out that with the popularity of craft cocktails, with their fragrant, interesting ingredients and pleasing presentation, mindful drinking is even more satisfying.

All of this is well and good if you’re able to do it. If you have concerns about alcoholism, then any drinking, whether mindful or not, is ill-advised. Mindful drinking, says Rinzler, “is for people who want to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, but it’s no substitute for a recovery program. It’s born of a more pedestrian desire to change our relationship to something in our life, in the same way we might want to reevaluate our relationship to technology.”

As someone who’s been through a mindless drinking phase and now Rinzler’s session, I realize my evenings are vastly improved with these new tools. More than once after an evening out, I’ve felt a twinge of guilt—not for drinking too much but for forgetting to feel my drink or smell it or something. But there’s no question I feel physically better the next morning. It’s lovely to slow down and savor our drinks and our precious time with friends. And to realize that this mindful approach just might help me make more of life’s other pleasures as well.