Rationale: to understand the world’s most common ritual drug
Experiment no. 1: waking up at 4am
I have a drink problem: I enjoy not drinking. Or to be more precise, I have a weakness for the lucidity of being sober in situations where everyone else is drunk. They may not notice it, but people who are drunk aren’t quite as witty and sharp as they imagine. A sober person can sparkle amongst such slow-wits, with the added bonus that they are less likely to do anything embarrassing. Earlier this year, I went several months without drinking any alcohol at all and it was great: my limbs were more supple, my mind was clearer and my sense of virtue shot through the roof. Not drinking was an experiment that I did rather too well. I had, somehow, become content.
Now, being content is (apparently) an enviable state of existence for much of the population. It implies a condition where all the undignified reaching and grasping of life have been done away with. If you want to be content you have to live in the present and stop stretching after future excitement (holidays, wealth, status, success). It implies blue skies, domestic harmony, and career fulfillment. Through a combination of sobriety, meditation and vegetarianism, I had become content. The only stretching I did was in yoga. Then, one day, as I took a soulful walk through my local park, I saw that contentedness wasn’t the path for me.
It was April and a heavy storm that had been raging for the last twenty-four hours finally let up. Great big ponds had formed on the gravel paths, some parts were impassable meaning that you had to squelch upon the grass. The brook didn’t babble, it bawled; and, as it did so, it carried along all the detritus that had accumulated since the last heavy storm. Watching all that junk flow past, seeing the waters disturbed in such a brutal way, I realised that the torrential rain was necessary for the stream. Otherwise it would get blocked. Perhaps my mind was like the stream, perhaps if it wasn’t stimulated then it would accumulate rubbish. Alcohol inflames the mind, makes everything muddy and things turn into a blur. But, if used occasionally and torrentially, can clear out all the dead branches.
For a few days after discovering that alcohol was logically defensible, I found myself inclined to drink. It’s all in a good cause, I told myself, as I bought a couple of bottles of wine. When I woke up ten days later, picking the chunks of vomit and blood from my hair, I realised that I had deluded myself.
Alcohol is the closest Western culture gets to a ritual drug. Amazonian tribes, whose hallucinogens take them to other realms, are nowhere near as dedicated to their drug as we are to alchohol. We drink when we’re happy, sad, bored, stressed, alone, in company – and it is pervasive through every level of society. This is no surprise, almost every tribe in human history has sought to escape the constraints of consciousness in one form or another. Like the Amazonians, our community is founded around the collective bonding of the drug. The difference is that we don’t invest the drinking experience with the rituals that would give the experience any transcendence and meaning.