Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sacrament, Part 2


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

I sobered up in Richmond, California. Anyone who has ever spent any time at all in Richmond knows that it is not a place you go because you are on a winning streak. It is poor and neglected. It is filled with refineries, projects, bars, barbecue, and drug dealers. Lots of drug dealers.

The meeting I went to there was multi-cultural in the truest sense of the word. Struggling crackheads from the projects mixed with affluent professionals from neighboring El Cerrito. All had a common purpose: to cast out the dark spirit of addiction and let in the light and love of God. To recover.

As soon as I came to my first meeting, I sensed the importance of ritual and sacrament to the program: the reading of "How it works" and the "Promises" at the beginning; the passing of the basket; the confessional introduction ("I'm X, and I'm an alcoholic"); the closing prayer. It was close enough to my Anglican roots to be familiar and comforting. It resonated deeply with me.

I took my two-week chip at a Southern Baptist church there on a Saturday night. The ceremony was held outside under a tent. It felt archaic and weird, like an old-fashioned revival meeting. I can remember thinking "My God, is this what my life has come to? Praise meetings on Saturday night?"

I had always imagined myself as one of the cool kids. This was definitely not cool. And yet there was no denying the power of this strange new sacrament. It bonded me with the group, and with the program. And I needed it. If Saturday night praise meetings were necessary to lift me up from addiction and despair, then so be it.

The sacraments of AA worked for me for a long time. Then, eventually, they didn't any more. I won't tell that story, since I have already written it here.

Today I am blessed to have access to the highest form of sacrament I have yet experienced: ayahuasca. I cannot discuss the details of the ritual and ceremony surrounding how we drink the brew and process its revelations, since that could compromise the anonymity of the group I belong to. I will simply write about the holy beverage itself.

I am paraphrasing, but I recall that Terence McKenna theorized that at the root of all religions lies a true sacrament: a plant medicine that puts us in direct contact with the divine essence. An entheogen: that which generates the divine within. 

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this theory, but I can certainly attest to the divine power of this sacred brew. When I first drank in Peru, I can recall the visceral sense I had of plunging into the archaic depths of human consciousness. I was entering an actual space: well-defined and well-used, explored and celebrated by the countless shamans and practitioners who had gone before me over untold thousands of years.

There was one moment when I felt as though I were inside of a huge, ancient rainforest tree, as if a dwelling had been lovingly hollowed out from its depths. It was green and brown and woody and warm. It felt like family.

At another moment, ayahuasca felt like an enormously powerful energetic river running through my whole being, cleansing me of shame and rage and grief and despair. Where did it take all of this? Through its tributaries, to the Amazon itself and the sea beyond? Down to the depths of our earth? To other galaxies and dimensions? 

I have no idea. I'm not supposed to. That's the point of true sacrament: it confronts us with the overwhelming experience of divine mystery.

Confrontation is the correct word. At times it can be gentle and loving and subtle, as tender as a mother's caress. At others it can be horrific and savage: one of my fellow pasajeros in the workshop experienced Mother Ayahuasca as a cruel sorceress who told him "I am here to make you suffer. This will never end." It turned out to be one of the most profound healing experiences of his life, rooting out horrific abuse he had experienced at the hands of his own mother. 

As with all deep, real truth, it is a paradox: it is both conduit and mirror, simultaneously channeling divine essence from without and illuminating truth within.

Today, when I walk up to drink my cup of ayahuasca I feel nervous and expectant, and more than a little scared. My guts churn in anticipation. I do my best to focus my mind and breathe. I know something big is coming, but I don't know what it is. I also know that, whatever it is, I won't be in charge of it. As soon as I drain the cup I make the sign of the cross and walk back to my seat, opening myself as fully as possible to the experience.

In drinking ayahuasca I surrender myself to the Divine. It is scary and humbling and magnificent and precious. Incrementally, it is changing me in ways I never imagined possible.

The other day a man roared past me in traffic, enraged that I had delayed his progress to the next red light by 3 seconds. As he passed, I could see his face distorted in anger through his closed window, screaming curses at me and making an obscene gesture with his hand.

What astonished me was my reaction: I didn't even begin to join him in his fury and resentment, as I would have even a year ago. I immediately thought "You poor man. You must be so unhappy. Please, God, help him heal."

I don't know who did that, but it wasn't me. And that is precisely the point.

God bless you, whoever you are.

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