Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sacrament, Part 1


Religious action or symbol in which spiritual power is believed to be transmitted through material elements or the performance of ritual.

I grew up Episcopalian. That means I didn't grow up afraid of God so much as I did bored by him. To me, God was not a terrible judge wielding thunderbolts and cauldrons of fire; he was a balding middle-aged man in a tweed jacket sipping on a cocktail and milling about a dinner party. He never had anything interesting to say, but people pretended like they were listening. To do otherwise would have been bad form.

Our sacrament mirrored our deity. Communion wafers and fruity wine, mumbled over by the priest to effect the miracle of transubstantiation. To me they seemed like styrofoam and fortified grape juice, nothing more. I never tasted them before the ritual, but afterwards I never sensed any power emanating from them. 

I wanted to. I was a devout little kid, hungry for some kind of spiritual connection that would soothe me and heal the dreadful wounds being inflicted by the people who were supposed to guide and nurture and protect me.

By the time I hit adolescence, that child-like yearning had been replaced by a hard, desperate cynicism and a recognition that church could never provide me the comfort and instruction I needed. I turned in other directions. Pornography, hardcore punk, drugs, and alcohol were clearly a lower path, but that seemed to suit the person I thought I was - dirty and bad and wrong. And very, very angry. I embraced them with fervor.

When I was 13 I was confirmed. My mother insisted on it, and that was that. She had her appearances to keep up - being on the faculty of the local seminary placed certain demands on her, demands that would not be denied. To secure my living space, I acquiesced. But after that, I drew a line - no more. Sunday morning church attendance interfered with staying up all night on acid Saturday night, so one of them had to go. And that one was certainly not going to be my new sacrament.

Because that is exactly what drugs and alcohol were to me. It occurred to me some years ago -- after a friend in AA committed suicide, drunk, in a ghastly manner -- that it was no accident that we refer to liquor as "spirits". I know that the first few times I got loaded, I felt the spirit move through me. At the time, I thought it was the first time in my life that I had experienced it.

What sort of spirit was it? Hard and arrogant and lustful and numb, and delightfully unafraid. The feeling of being an outcast and a reject and a victim that had plagued me since early childhood disappeared completely. I felt confident. I could talk to girls. I felt as though I belonged.

My list of sacraments grew. Marijuana, magic mushrooms, LSD-25, methamphetamine, nitrous oxide, cocaine, pain killers, muscle relaxants. I wasn't too picky - if they helped me to leave my body, to become someone else for a time, that was enough. They worked for quite a while.

And then one day they stopped working. I can't put an exact time on it, but I know it happened. Maybe it was around the time that I felt myself pulled into a corner store and compelled, literally compelled in spite of my wishes, to buy a quart of beer and finish at it lunchtime.

The spirits had turned on me, and they were far more powerful than I was.

And so the first step was no stretch for me at all:

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable."

I took that step immediately and without reservation.

The early part of my story may perhaps contain elements so unusual that they mark me as unique. From here, though, it becomes painfully, tediously, wonderfully, blessedly common:

"Hopeless alcoholic and addict stumbles into a meeting, asks for help, gets it. Never has to drink again."

God bless you, whoever you are.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!

To my overseas friends, this may not mean much, but for me this is a special day. To me, it approaches what a holy day should truly be - a day of feasting, rest, and gratitude. Coming as it does 4 weeks before Christmas, our capitalist perversion of the redeemer's birthday, I have always found Thanksgiving to be far less contrived and free-market totalitarian than its December relative.

How could it be? The very notion of a holiday devoted to giving thanks for our blessings is antithetical to the foundations of free-market capitalism - fear, greed, envy, and lust for domination. There's a reason we don't have Thanksgiving carols and decorations shoved down our throat starting in August - the culture doesn't really know how to process the holiday.

Which is ironic, since it is essentially a celebration of the American creation myth. You know, the one in which the naive dark-skinned savages foolishly sustain the white-skinned bearers of civilization in their funny black hats. How often must their descendants have regretted that decision!

During one of my first ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru, I had a profound insight and healing around my family's involvement in indigenous American genocide. On my father's side, I am the direct descendant of Spanish conquistadores. My family owned an estancia in central Mexico about the size of a county. I'm pretty sure they didn't get it by being nice to the natives.

During the ceremony, I was overwhelmed that these same people that my forebears had murdered, robbed, and enslaved were sharing their most sacred medicine with me. I felt a weight of guilt and shame lift from me, amid a flood of wrenching sobs.

The motives of the Amazonian shamans and their communities for sharing this medicine with the world are surely complex. At their most base, they likely contain a desire for profit and spiritual control. But what I experienced down there, and continue to experience in my healing community here in the US, cannot be reduced to that.

"You shall know the tree by its fruit."

For me, the fruits of this work have been spiritual cleansing and healing at a level I wanted to believe was possible, but had come to doubt.

So today, in addition to the more traditional objects of family, health, and prosperity, I stop and give thanks for this sacred medicine and the incredibly wise and profound healing traditions that steward it. It is truly a gift from God, and I do my best not to forget that.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Wish I Didn't Have to Drink Ayahuasca, But I'm Grateful I Get to

Recently I started a new job. It comes after an incredibly difficult year for me in this area of my life, and by contrast it feels like a real blessing. By way of illustration, last week a visiting director took everyone in the office out for sushi after work. No pep talks, no propaganda, just a friendly meal on the company dime.

I felt a real admiration for the guy. He came across as a solid, dependable, straightforward middle class American; the best that our society is likely to produce. At various points during the time he was here I heard him describe the love he had for his children and the devastation he felt when he learned of his father's death. I also heard him talk about his enthusiasm for firearms and dedication to the 2nd Amendment. Some people judge this harshly, but for me it was consistent with his whole being and I felt no animus towards him for it.

Above all, I just felt the decency and honest simplicity that he exuded, and I appreciated it.

This guy will almost certainly never drink ayahuasca.

Why would he? It's a grueling experience, and he doesn't have to. American society has worked well for him. Blessings.

In one sense I think that's fine. In another, I question it.

The problem is that American society works so disastrously for the bulk of the people on the Earth. Our consumption, our pollution, our wars, our cultural domination - they may not look like such a problem seen from an affluent subdivision of a Western American city.

They look very different seen from a Brazilian favela or a Mayan village in Central America. These are the kinds of places my father's employment with the CIA took him. Or, at any rate, they're the kinds of places that were on the receiving end of his work.

The same way that I, as a helpless young boy, was on the receiving end of his work. My father did field assignments in some of the most brutal places on earth. He brought it home with him.

Suffice it to say that I have never imagined feeling devastation when he dies. For a long time I imagined dancing on his grave, then pissing on it. I take it as a sign of grace that these thoughts no longer trouble me.

At this point in my life I feel that I have no other good option than drinking ayahuasca regularly. I wish I didn't have to. The taste is gruesome, the emotional component is wrenching, and the aftershocks can linger for weeks. I get shaky as I even contemplate the space in which the ceremonies occur.

It's a bitch.

But the healing is profound and unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Grief and anger that blotted out my heart for decades seem to have been simply lifted from me. Actions (like writing this blog) that used to torment me because of my inability to execute them now simply come. I can't explain it. But I'm experiencing it. And for that I am grateful beyond measure or expression.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Last House on the Block

Anyone who has spent any time at all in meetings becomes painfully familiar with AA's many stock sayings: "It works if you work it"; "Put the plug in the jug"; "The more I miss meetings the more I miss drinking"; "Keep coming back".

For the most part, they never did much for me. I found them, by turns, trite and infuriating. When I was doing well they did not add to my comprehension of the benefit I had derived from working the steps, reading the book, joining in the fellowship of the group, or being of service to others. When I was doing badly, they tormented me with a smug simple-mindedness that seemed to suggest that all of my troubles would vanish if I just applied myself correctly to the program.

I used to fantasize about simply reading a pages-long list of them in one of the more fundamentalist meetings, and limiting my share to that.

One that always stood out as different from the rest was the notion of AA being "the last house on the block". The refuge that took us poor, battered drunks in and offered us hope after everything else had failed to cure our drinking problems.

That I could relate to. I had tried many means of conquering drugs and alcohol, and none of them helped: therapy, meditation, church, yoga, chi gong, exercise, self-will. Lots and lots of self will. Promises and vows and commitments and resolutions. They never stuck. Alcohol was my protector, my lover, my parent, my friend. My Higher Power. And there is no arguing with a Higher Power.

I came to my first meeting broken and in tears. I was beaten, done. I asked for help and I got it. Though stuck in the middle of a run-down thoroughfare in Richmond, California, that meeting truly was the last house on the block for me. And I'll always be grateful for that. Because, for me, it did work when I worked it. At least on the substances.

Then I found myself 12 years sober, divorced, laid off from work, and teetering on the edge of complete spiritual collapse. Suicide began to seem like a possibility.

Working the steps had helped me learn to examine my motives, clean up my life, and at least think of being of service to others. Unfortunately, it had not helped my PTSD and the depression and insomnia that often accompanied it. I went through a grueling childhood, and the effects of it have never left me. Not African child-soldier grueling. Not Brazilian street-kid grueling. But, by middle class American standards, pretty catastrophic. And AA was not helping (nor were any of the other methods I had at my disposal).

The 12 Steps were received in the 1930s. In American society, there simply was no concept of healing from from trauma at that time. And that was precisely what I needed.

I had nibbled away at it for years: individual therapy, group therapy, chi gong, EMDR - these techniques had all helped to various degrees and allowed me to function in society.

But when I plunged to the bottom, they couldn't do any more. So I tried something new. I booked space in a 12-day ayahuasca workshop in Peru. I went there and, under the care of wonderful American facilitators and powerful Shipibo shamans, found a clarity and self-love that I had never believed was possible.

I am blessed to be able to continue the work in a loving and wise community back here in the States, and it is completely changing my life. Every two weeks I drink ayahuasca and experience what comes up for me. Every two weeks I am granted insights and healing that would have taken me years to arrive at by more limited means, such as traditional talk therapy. Perhaps they would never come at all. As a dear friend in Peru noted, "It's tough for a therapist to keep up with a divine trans-dimensional being."

Among those familiar with these power plants, the words "psychedelic" and "hallucinogen" are not in favor. Instead, we prefer the term "entheogen" - "creating the God within". That has been and continues to be my experience with this holy sacrament, and it is what compels me to write this journal.

For me, it is truly the last house on the block.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why I'm Writing This

I used to call myself a practicing alcoholic. Then I called myself a sober one. Now I call myself a perfect and holy child of God.

What changed? I drank ayahuasca with the care and supervision of skilled healers. I continue to do so.

My life will never be the same, and for this I am profoundly grateful. I would like to share my journey with you.

God bless you, whoever you are.