The Thin Places We Share: The Role of Spirits in Our Quest for Ritual and Self

Friday, August 8, 2014 - 5:34am
Photo by Claire Mazur

The Thin Places We Share: The Role of Spirits in Our Quest for Ritual and Self

We were driving down a tree-covered street in the family mini-van when I made my eight-year-old declaration: “When I’m an adult, I’m never going to drink.”

“Interesting,” said my mom, a woman who liked the occasional Sea Breeze just fine. “Why is that?”

“Why would you drink?” I shot back.

“For starters, it makes social interaction easier for some people — helps them loosen up,” she answered.

“Well, I don’t ever want to need anything fake in order to interact with other people.”

Heartbreak of all kinds has muddled my black and white instincts, but, back then, I was prone to righteous declarations. A relentless observer, so much of what “the adults did” made little sense to me. It wasn’t the inherent danger of alcohol that worried me (I, thankfully, hadn’t been exposed to much of that yet), so much as the crutch of it. It seemed weak. Inauthentic.

And then junior high happened. If anything will drive one to drink, lord knows it is the awkwardness associated with those in between years. I tasted my first beer then — a Honey Brown Ale in neighbor friend’s kitchen, snuck from her older brother’s stash — and though it was disgusting, I liked the taste of rebellion.

Like most American kids, I drank in high school — St. Ide’s Special Brew, a malt liquor I associated with the hip hop music I grew up listening to, and disgusting concoctions like Captain Morgan rum in 7-11 Slurpees. Then I drank a lot in college — vodka tonics mostly. In my 20s, I started sipping whiskey on the rocks like a lot of my girlfriends; it was a feminist stand in brown, lip-loosening liquid.

By now you’re thinking that this is a long-winded way of disclosing that I’m an alcoholic, but in fact, I’m not. I realize that it’s so unusual for people to critically examine even so-called normal drinking in our culture that, the second you start to explore the subject, people expect an admission of some kind. But this isn’t that kind of essay.

This is an essay about alcohol, but also about ritual.

The writer with babe and beer in hand at the river.

The last couple of years have been relatively dry for me. I was pregnant and now nursing. In both cases, I’ve enjoyed a rich glass of Malbec or a hoppy Racer 5 (good for milk production!) on a pretty regular basis, but I haven’t been anything more than slightly tipsy in a long time.

Being the sober person at the occasional bar or frequent wedding (I am in my early 30s) has put me back into that little girl place of observing and wondering. Why do we drink on such a regular basis? What does it do for us?

Is what it does worth it when there is such a danger of crossing the line into disease? I was fascinated by the recent recap of the longest running human development study out of Harvard that concluded that alcohol was the number one risk for an unhappy life among men. The NIH reports that 17 million adults suffer from alcohol use disorder.

You don’t need a DSMV to realize that part of it is about dealing with anxiety — social, chronic, and of the more existential variety. When my inbox is overflowing or my heart heavy with some lingering conflict with a loved one, a drink helps to shake my focus free of the hard stuff. It blurs the lines of my to do list.

But there’s something else at play here, something even more alluring than a muting of my anxious energy. Drinking is the organizing force for some of my most meaningful communal moments.

In my 20s, this looked like me, jumping up and down surrounded by my favorite humans, hair flying wildly, as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” blasted out of the speakers. My dear friend Pete on the turntables. The expanse between 10 pm when we first left our cramped apartments in search of an ecstatic experience until 4 am when the bars closed was what the ancient Celts called a “thin place” and a “thin time” — places and times where the veil between heaven and earth, between the temporal and eternal, wear thin.

Sound like too sacred a descriptor to be associated with the dark corners of basement bars in Brooklyn? Think again. In the proverbial arms of the people you love the most, for a brief moment, completely unselfconscious about what you’re accomplishing or how you look, moving your body instinctually, joyfully, losing yourself to a beat, a kiss, a joke. It’s Csikszentmihalyi’s flow to a Kanye West beat.

Is alcohol — “spirits” as it were — necessary for that kind of “thin time,” that kind of “thin place”? “Dry bars” are popping up all over Britain, thanks to Jacquie Johnston-Lynch, whose brother was killed by a drunk driver. San Franciscan entrepreneur Chelsea Rustrum hosts parties where people are expected to turn their cell phones off and drink nothing stiffer than a strong coffee; it’s not for recovering alcoholics, but distraction detoxing hipsters.

Ladies of the TED Prize have a glass of wine in Sonoma, California.

(Anna Verghese)

But as much as I support these spaces and the all too rare opportunity that they offer to be communal without liquor, I also have to admit that I don’t see the same potential for a true suspension of self. I feel bad writing it, the eight-year-old part of me still frustrated that the 34-year-old me can’t “get there” without drink. But it’s true. I’ve had all sorts of powerful experiences since I’ve been more sober these past couple of years (probably more powerful, in fact), but none of them were similar to the endless nights of drinking and dancing that characterized my 20s. That is a special kind of ritual.

In my 30s, I’m losing myself less, but alcohol is still at the center of many meaningful moments. My friend braved his way through fire academy and we toasted the realization of his dream, the support of his partner, the gathering of our growing families. Last month, we all went up to the confluence of the Russian and Navarro rivers to camp, tasted wine in the morning (my strategy is to keep my palette ignorant and cheap) and, when the sun got too hot, we packed our lunch down to the most perfect watering hole on Planet Earth, threw the babies in, and — you guessed it — drank. As the little fish nibbled at the dead skin on our heels (“you pay big bucks for this in fancy spas,” we reassured one another with delight) and my daughter Maya bobbed happily in her huge, orange sun hat, time was suspended in a way it rarely is now that naps are the relentless tyrants of our days.

Late at night we put the babes to bed and gathered in the dark around the fire, looking up at the comforting blanket of stars and laughing our asses off. Arnold, the Buddha among us, said, “Expect less and love people more.” It’s been echoing in my head ever since.

I don’t know if I would have gotten that out of him had the Pliny Elder not been flowing. Maybe that’s sad. Maybe that’s life. Probably both, depending on how pure or heartbroken your perspective. I know for sure that in a culture with too few rituals, I’m deeply grateful for these. I still haven’t decided how I feel about the necessity of the drink.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



I want to curse I loved this so much. But I won't. It is a topic I often wrestle with. I rarely drink these days also after my wilder teen to 20's years and now struggle a little with a world so heavily still fueled by booze. While I don't want my life centered around drinking anymore, i too still enjoy a drink or even responsible buzz sometimes. I like how you connected drinking to ritual and I agree that there are certain times where you are more present while drinking that create some special moments of connection. I think when people use booze to escape or numb frequently rather than to connect, its a waste. I choose a majority of sober days in my life, but don't plan to make it a never thing.
Thank you for this. It had a lightness that is not available in my analyzing.

Feeling revealed by drinking are not necessarily sincere. There are better ways to bond and form rituals with our friends and families.

THank you for Sharing this important perspective.

Being someone who works with moms and babies, i truly hope that you're not nursing and that if you are, you not continue to give the message that it's Okay to drink and Nurse.

I truly hope that that is not what you got out of this insightful essay. the readers of this blog are not particularly the demographic that needs a stern warning that you seemingly so gleefully provided. lauri, a nursing mother can safely have a beverage while she nurses provided she give her body time to metabolize before she nurse. but you know that, in your impressive wisdom, i am sure you know quite a bit about what women should and should not to with their bodies. but this is not a place for that. consider the essay's message, what we do with the sacred moments we have. why do we relish with friends and family over a spirit or fermented grape? there is a need for those of us not religious to find a moment of reflection on our existence, i appreciated the essay's thought provoking body.

Lauri, that's unfortunately an incorrect statement. Having a single glass of wine or a beer while nursing is not harmful, per all doctors i have interacted with in three years of nursing my child. less than 1% of the alcohol you ingest makes it into the bloodstream, and from there, to your nursling. it is also entirely possible to plan around a baby's sleep/nursing schedule to determine when you might indulge in a second glass. the modern medical community more than embraces this knowledge.

Back in the mid-sixties, when i was learning to nurse, i used the la leche manual to help. i remember clearly at one meeting learning that a glass of beer in the late afternoon, feet up and baby at breast was a good way to let the milk down and be with her. good nutrition, rest for mom and a happy baby. i did drink the first and maybe low alcohol beer then, gablinger's.

The whole you cant drink and nurse thing is a giant myth. "The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs considers alcohol compatible with breastfeeding." Further information from the La Leche League. You know, the organization that exists entirely to encourage breastfeeding:

My understanding was the same back in 1965, and from the same source.

Very thought provoking, of course. At 65 i remember the times in college and slightly beyond when i drank way too much. I am now at a place i can take it or leave it and i love the freedom that brings me.

The ritual of alcohol is just an illusion. I imagine in ten years you will be looking at this essay in a different light.

As someone who had an alcoholic husband, I have trouble embracing the fact that people need the crutch of alcohol to help them relax. When every weekend, wedding, spectator sport, birthday, and holidays has alcohol served, it's taking away the opportunity to get truly know people without the cloud of spirits overwhelming their behavior. A meaningful and memorable celebration can involve a shared meal, game, movie, discussion, etc. without feeling the need or pressure to imbibe.

A little wine or other drink generally is no big deal, unless you are one of the unfortunate that cannot control themselves and drink to excess. I am in that category. As a teen I started drinking and abusing pot. I spent most of my life addicted to them. My point is,we need to make sure that our young people are aware that they may be prone to addictions. Personally, I was encouraged by peers to drink more. No one thought to warn me or offer help. I do not blame anyone for my behavior,but I might have avoided a life full of heartache.

Your thoughts do cause me to pause. I think the question for me here is do I enjoy the taste of the alcohol I drink or am I even exploring that or just drinking to fit in, loosen up etc. etc. because other foods/drinks I don't like I don't feel compelled to consume 'just to fit in."

I didn't drink in high school since I watched my family fall apart due to alcoholism. And the effects of living in it. I only drink wine if I drink now due to needing to cut out sugars. I'm an outgoing social person moreso without alcohol, so when I have too much, which is rare during my entire life, and I'm in my mid-50's, I am sleepy and quiet.

So it isn’t something I need ot “open up” to others. I question anything but inner reflection and self-awareness work that we must comsum in order to help us share something with someone else that we feel needs to be shared.

Going deeper is hard work. Having fun is something I want to remember for the fun part, not the stories of how drunk I got as the fun part. I don’t get that. I suppose my background plays a big part in this yet so many who have had this this background live for the stories of how drunk they got and what they did when they were drunk too. It continues to baffle me. As I said, for me it is “Do I like the taste” or am I just going through the motions. Honestly, I may have to test this out. ;) and to feel the need to drink to fit in/make others feel ok that they a sign I need more of that self reflective work....not another drink!

This is a really interesting train of thought, Ginny. I didn't even think through the pleasure thread of self-examination around drinking. How much do we really taste that one delicious, cold beer on a hot day or a beautiful glass of wine at a dinner table with fascinating conversation? You've inspired me to pay more attention to the physical pleasure of the drink itself, too.

Love the honesty of this article. provoked me to write a response:

Thanks for sharing this Susan. I'm glad it inspired others to reflect and write about their journey with these questions, as well. It seems to me that "presence" is not something you turn on or off; it exists on a spectrum of "more present" or "less present." alcohol may feel like a distraction from presence, for you, but for some people i think it serves as a window into presence. perhaps you would argue that they shouldn't need it, and maybe they shouldn't, but life is hard and I tend to believe that if there is something that helps people connect to love, and that something can be used within a healthy range, than it's not something to be condemned.

Read this: Miller, William B. The Beer Drinker's Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth about Lager, Loving and Living. Howard Books (2014).

Interesting essay, to be sure. I have been pondering the sentence about “even so-called normal drinking in our culture” because, frankly, I can read your intriguing perspective on it but never share that perspective. My perspective on drinking, shaped by my experiences, to be sure, will always be through the lens of alcoholism. All the evidence of alcoholism visible by the time I was 20: son of an alcoholic father, drinking at 13, blackout drinker by 16. “3 strikes, you’re a drunk.”

I was fascinated by the question you pose: “Is what it does worth it when there is such a danger of crossing the line into disease?” Of course, the debate rages about whether alcoholism is hereditary or environmental, nature or nurture. The classification of alcoholism as a disease has been debated since 1956. All I know is this: one crosses the line into addictive, self-destructive drinking way before he knows that he has crossed – if one ever does come to the realization.

Drinking alcoholically is not just “about dealing with anxiety” – although stress relief may be huge motivator for some to drink. It’s about the phenomenon of craving; a Japanese saying goes “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.” One is too many …

But your essay is more about ritual and “meaningful communal moments.” Of course, those of us who have an alcoholic perspective had our own rituals around drinking. We may have even had an occasional “meaningful communal moment” – and those communal moments came to an end with, perhaps, a deeper sense of disconnection and loneliness. I wouldn’t have been in the picture dancing to Kelly Clarkson. I would have been on the periphery. Drunk. Fighting. You visited basement bars in Brooklyn. I resided there. The thrill of “so-called normal drinking” crosses the line to the disorientation of alcoholic drinking, to the deflation of spirit.

You mention the “potential for a true suspension of self” that so-called normal drinking offers. Alcoholic drinking initially offers that, for sure. Then it is a stripping of self. A loss of self. In my experience, that is what we recover: our self. Deep down. At our core.

And, interestingly, this recovery is due to the community of recovery. It is because of other ritual – yoga, meditation, prayer, reflection, dialogue – that brings me more deeply into the communal. I have had rich, deep, tear-jerking, awe-inducing “meaningful moments” because I have been present for them. Alcohol stripped me of being present. Sobriety brought me back.

Suspension of self? Maybe not. Immersion of self into the present moment…absolutely.

I Love and share your hard-won perspective.

Thanks so much for this, Vince. I'm struck by how deeply you engaged what I wrote, and it really helps me understand what the abuse of alcohol feels like. I'm grateful for your healing journey and your generosity in sharing it.

Vince, thanks. You gave voice to what I, another recovering man, was feeling and thinking. I was in my early forties before I learned i would always need to be in recovery, never recovered. For that, And for your words, I am grateful.

Hope to see you in Atlanta!

"Immersion of self into the present moment...absolutely." Beautiful.
In solidarity and on the path with you.

I appreciated this article. It allowed me to reflect upon some of my ecstatic and unselfconscious experiences. Of these, only a few were accompanied by alcohol, or another intoxicant, and in safe surroundings with people I trusted. Whether or not I should have trusted them or myself in these situations is another matter. These few instances were out of character for me, because I neither drank nor did drugs (still don’t). These forays resulted from my desire to experience the sensation of losing physical control, of really letting go, just to see what it felt like.
I was also interested in the mention of dance as one of the possible ingredients in experiencing the “thin place.” The vast majority of my ecstatic and unselfconscious experiences have occurred while dancing - not at a club or a party, but while performing, studying, or having conversations about dance. So, it seems that dance (with others), rather than alcohol, has been enough of an intoxicant to help me experience the “thin place."

Interesting article, but frankly I think this woman has a problem. Or maybe the "mommy's sippy cup" culture that seems pervasive right now is the problem. It's sad if we've lost the ability to just let go or enjoy each other socially without controlled substances to fuel the "rituals" of life. It's one thing when you are young and single and experimenting with all sorts of boundaries but another when you are the one who may need to make life or death decisions regarding a child's life at any moment. Also, those last few sentences of the article are misleading. I think the writer knows exactly how she feels about alcohol- she even says she doesn't think she could connect to her friend so deeply if the Pliny the Elder weren't flowing. Don't get me wrong- I enjoy a nice glass of wine or a beer once in a while. And maybe now that I'm an old, wise 42 year-old, I'm becoming more and more lame and uncool. But I don't think I would throw my toddler in a lake and drink all day.

Once again, you nailed it Courtney!!!

Curious, what exactly did she "nail"?

i've researched and written a lot about some of what you touch upon in a historical/sociological lens. i was (am) super interested in the significance of nightlife in social and cultural life, from the middle ages to the present. one of the most consistent aspects of modernity is the need for temporary moments of disorganization, release, impropriety, carnival, festivity, etc etc. There is a tendency to excess that can be pathologized, particularly right now with such a hyper-monitored world, and there are many ways that this release can become extremely unhealthy. However, when you take a longer lens on it, as you allude to w/ reference to Celtic traditions, the ritual linked to drinking/partying (often at night) is one of the most persistent, necessary, and productive aspects of modern life.

For me, alcohol is fine with a special meal or directly afterwards. Seeing the pictures above with people holding beer bottles while dancing, being with their baby, or just being together, makes me feel awkward. I wouldn't join those people. Don't know why - somehow I think they have left the clear inner place where we could meet each other. When thirsty, I don't drink alcohol but water, juice and soft drinks - wouldn't like the dizzy feeling afterwards just because I needed some fluid. When in a ritual, alcohol would distract my concentration and openness. I even don't like when people smoke cigarettes in a ritual break. It gives me an impure feeling that I hate when somebody of those stands close to me when the ritual goes on.
All of this sounds a bit stuffy, but I had to accept that I am like this, and I am happy that there are others like me. Just my two cents.

She who has located the absolute in Pleasure cannot help being dominated by it. Human Beings do not struggle against the Absolute. He who knows how to locate the absolute outside pleasure possesses the perfection of Temperance.

The different Kinds of Vice, the use of Drugs, in the literal or metaphorical sense of the word, all such things constitute the search for a state where the beauty of the world will be tangible. The mistake lies precisely in the search for a special state.
—Simon Weil "Waiting For God"

The ritual of drinking is well steeped in our history. Celebrations of any kind almost always include alcohol. It is perpetuated by the alcohol beverage industry through countless ads that tell us, show us, how life is simply more fun when drinking. The sexy images are everywhere. Uncanny how the tie to sports is cemented also. Hard liquor sponsors Nascar (seriously?), the NBA uses beer logos on the backboard. And our favorite American sport - baseball wouldn't be the same without sloshing through sticky beer on the way to our seat. I'm not a prohibitionist by any means, but think we should all be aware of the Pavlov response we have to alcohol and celebrations.

I've just recently quit drinking, and I've lost relationships and friendships as a result - we simply cannot connect on the level we used to. I guess I should be happy to write off friendships so loosely built but at the same time, I miss my friends.