Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reckoning

I think it is time for ayahuasca drinkers to make peace with twelve-step programs. Not just on a secret, ad-hoc basis, but formally. Officially. 

I know plenty of people doing the other.  Lately I've had the great blessing to serve as guardian at some truly outstanding ceremonies, ones that a couple of good friends of mine lead. And it's hilarious - every time I go it seems like I meet some new AA apostate who is drinking medicine on the sly to further his spiritual development. Sometimes several of them in the same weekend.

These guys are interesting to me because they have all continued to be regular meeting-goers. As I've described in this blog, I have not. I pretty much recoiled from the phenomenon in the early stage of my medicine-drinking career. For me, ayahuasca seemed to have quickly and thoroughly supplanted 12-step programs and everything they entail - going to meetings, reading the book, working with a sponsor, sponsoring others. 

As I've related, after I came back from Peru I felt an energetic dissonance whenever I went to a meeting - like I was being pulled downward. The people, for the most part, seemed to be resonating on a lower frequency than the medicine drinkers I had begun associating with. There was also the simple fact that after 12 years I was tired of hearing the same shit you always do in meetings. Perhaps the phrase "It works if you work it" had some efficacy for me the first 100 times I heard it; after that, not so much. And the idea of hiding my new-found sacrament, never daring to speak openly of it in a meeting - well that was just ridiculous to me. The notion of being classed as some poor relapser who needed to step up and grab a desire chip right after the meth-freak who just wrecked his car/beat his girl/got out of jail/all of the above -- the notion of having this done to me by some ignorant, small-minded AA fundamentalist  -- well, this was simply out of the question.

It's been over 3 years since I attended meetings. Kind of astonishing, when I think about it. I was a 3-meeting-a-week guy. For 12 and a half years I was, without a single relapse. And it wasn't just meetings - I did service work at the local jail, I had sponsees, I made phone calls, I inventoried regularly, I read the Big Book - I did just about everything an AA is supposed to. I meant it.

Then I pretty much stopped on a dime. I informed my sponsees that I could not in good faith act as a representative of an organization I no longer felt a part of, and I split.

For a long time I didn't really think any more about it. I was too busy on my new path - facing the challenges, reaping the rewards. When I thought about AA I would kind of shake my head, feeling a touch superior, perhaps. I definitely felt glad to have graduated.

Then a funny thing started to happen. I began to notice that at least a few of the medicine drinkers I encountered seemed a touch delusional. Perhaps that's a bit strong - maybe "confused" is a more accurate term. They seemed a little too comfortable in their egos. They seemed like they were bullshitting themselves. Like they imagined themselves as protagonists in a Carlos Castaneda novel. Like they hadn't examined their own motives and beliefs rigorously enough.

Like they hadn't done a fifth step.

Like they hadn't done any of the steps.

Whoa. I was fascinated by my discovery. I had come to take the steps and everything they involve -- surrender to a higher power, rigorous honesty, a complete willingness to acknowledge and let go of my character defects, a fervent desire to be of service to others -- for granted. I had completely internalized them, and I sincerely tried (however inadequately) to live my life according to them.

I never stopped being a good AA.

I made the unconscious assumption that anyone and everyone who accompanied me on my new path would naturally also have learned these basic spiritual lessons.

Hah!

Alas, it is not so. I am most displeased to report that there are any number of poseurs and shallow spiritual materialists who drink medicine regularly. I certainly do not find them to be the majority, but I do experience them as a saddeningly significant minority.

How they manage it is a mystery to me. I find the force of ayahuasca simply overwhelming to my ego and all of its petty nonsense. She cleans me right out, every time.

Why they would even bother in their attempt is even more incomprehensible. It's like they're standing just outside of an open bank vault, free for the taking, and they're combing the ground for loose change.

But then again, maybe not. Maybe to make that metaphor more complete, in front of the vault there's a football field's worth of hot coals that they have to cross bare-footed while birds of prey swoop down on them and headhunters pepper them with poison darts.

In the end I suppose it looks like cowardice. Wide and spacious is the path that leads to destruction, and many find it. May God have mercy on them.

The 12 steps are no proof against this phenomenon. The distressingly large number of dry drunks who haunt AA meeting houses are a depressing reminder of this fact.

However, they are a useful tool. The principles of humility, honesty, willingness, and service they embody are solid ground on which to stand in this spiritual trial that every true seeker undergoes. If sincerely applied, they are consistent and effective antidotes for our innate love of delusion.

It works if you work it.

Damn. In the end it seems I return to the AA stock phrases that still crowd my brain. I suppose there's a reason that they became clich├ęs in the first place.

Once more I am issuing a call to action to those of you who feel compelled to read this blog*:

Let's integrate these two things.

It's what Bill Wilson wanted, you know. After his own transformational experience with LSD-25, he suggested what amounted to a 13th step - careful, clinical application of psychedelics in order to expand the consciousness of the newly recovered alcoholic, to get to the root of the reasons they drank in the first place. To heal trauma.

He was completely shut down. Threatened with banishment from the thing he had founded. Ridiculed and marginalized by the same frightened, ignorant people who have ended up dominating that organization.

You shall know the tree by the fruit. What's AA's success rate for long-term sobriety? Single-digit percentages, right? That's the number I seem to recall hearing in meetings. That's about what it looked like to me, surveying the landscape of retreads, relapsers, and suicides who could never seem to get adequate traction from the 12 steps devoid of sacrament.

What a miserable joke. It's time to right this twisted state of affairs.

The solution is plain to see, right in front of us, though its details are not yet clear. Maybe a new organization, one that is based on the 12 steps but explicitly recognizes the use of plant medicine. Some amalgam of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Santo Daime, perhaps. Maybe simply a recognition in our minds that these paths are not contradictory. An openness to a fruitful, beautiful, healing union of the two, in accordance with the vision of AA's founder. A recognition that the two things need each other desperately: AA needs the biochemical and spiritual agent of transformation offered by true sacrament; the ayahuasca tradition needs to be cleansed of cultural detritus that has built up over its millennia of use.

How this will come about is not for me to say. That is for you people to work out. I am but a messenger.

God bless you, whoever you are.


* I am still amazed at the footprints my readers leave. Google tracks you, you know, as it does all of us, and then reports your whereabouts to me. From the four corners of the earth you come, it seems - Russia, Finland, Canada, Peru, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Ukraine, France, and here in the USA. I thank you all for your attention to these pressing matters. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On the Antidepressant Qualities of Ayahuasca

This last weekend I had the chance to drink ayahuasca, and so I did. It marked the 70th time that I have done so. The gratitude I feel for this opportunity can't be expressed with human language - the opportunity to truly learn myself and the Universe, simply by drinking this divine, foul-tasting brew. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

I tend to focus a lot in this blog on the spiritual and emotional aspects of my recovery from PTSD. These are paramount for me. But another, subtler transformation is also being wrought by ayahuasca - the healing of my brain chemistry. This is something that feels like it's been happening in the background the entire time. Neural paths have been re-rerouted. Diseased matter has been regenerated. Chemical levels have been normalized. New connections have been formed.

A primary effect of this is that my depression is being lifted from me. It's so profound a change that it is very difficult to tabulate or comprehend. It's not that I have new furniture, or a new house to put it in, or a new piece of land on which to place it all. It's more basic than that. The air I breathe is different. The ground I walk on is not the same. The stars that adorn my sky have been totally reconfigured. My relationship to the world is new.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a really gorgeous poem describing a "world of lament" that featured "ein Klage-Himmel mit entstellten Sternen" - "a lament-heaven with disfigured stars".

This poem has always spoken to me, particularly this stanza:

        "....a whole world of lament arose, in which
        all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
        road and village, field and stream and animal;
        and ... around this lament-world, even as
        around the other earth, a sun revolved
        and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
        heaven, with its own, disfigured stars...."

I, too, have had my own separate world, distinct from the worlds inhabited by my fellows. A world created almost entirely by trauma, neglect, and emotional poverty. It was made by others, but ultimately embraced by me. I didn't know what else to do.

In terms of brain chemistry and mood, my world looked like constant, more-or-less severe clinical depression. But those are just words. They cannot convey the reality of what it is like to live in that state. The hopelessness of it. The despair. The heartbreak. The exhaustion. The longing for release, by any means at all.

When I went to meetings I used to often hear people say "How you feel isn't important, it's what you do that counts." And my response was "Yeah, well, maybe for you. You try feeling this way for a week and then get back to me."

I was, louvado seja Deus nas alturas, never really inclined to suicide. But I understood it when others did that. Even though it frightened me and angered me and I would sometimes lash out in my heart at them, I knew why they did it. Now I just send them all prayers. I've felt too many of their spirits come through me and other members of our community during mediumship ceremonies. Suicide's definitely no solution. They're in a rough spot.

I got on antidepressants in my late 20s, and I stayed largely on them for 12 years. They managed my symptoms pretty well, and without too many side effects. Eventually I just got tired of being dependent on them, and so I quit.

My experiment went surprisingly well for a couple of years. I was working out like crazy, and that seemed to compensate for my lowered serotonin levels. I felt pretty good.

But then things started piling up - divorce, unemployment, other family problems. A return of major depression and severe PTSD. I quit sleeping, and I started cracking up. But there's no need describe my journey to ayahuasca, I've already done that.

What I want to talk about now is what happened after she found me. And that is, at least in terms of my mood, nothing at all. I drank 20, 30 times and got essentially no relief whatsoever from depression. I started to feel horribly bitter and betrayed - "healing" had been dangled in front of me like a carrot in front of a busted-up old mule, and then apparently yanked away before I could grab it. I wanted to kick somebody. I especially wanted to kick the author of that famous National Geographic article, the one who described how 1 ayahuasca workshop had permanently rid her of depression. What the hell was wrong with me? I felt broken beyond repair.

Again, I've already described how cannabis has given me profound relief from depression. But about a year ago, it started to become plain to me that this is more than simply a question of helping manage my symptoms and giving me short-term relief from suffering. Something else has happened, as well. It has taken a very long time, far longer than was promised, and certainly far longer than I ever wanted. But it has finally happened.

Somehow, working in conjunction, ayahuasca and marijuana together have actually re-wired my organism. Now, even when I fast from both medicines I can tell that my base mental and emotional state is far more balanced and healthy than it was before I started this work. I am less inclined to pessimism. I can actually feel joy (a rare experience indeed in my former life). I laugh a whole lot more.

I can sleep at night.

That one's huge. As I have discovered to my great cost, sleeplessness and depressed mood can very easily form a negative feedback loop that ends in psychological catastrophe. The lower your serotonin, the worse you sleep.....the worse you sleep, the lower your mood..... add that up for a few weeks and see where you end up. Scary.

A sweet and beautiful friend of mine, a man who has completed a traditional Shipibo apprenticeship in Peru, describes in a matter-or-fact way how people tend to find plant medicine in times of great disruption and crisis in their lives, and how plants serve to balance our organism during these times. Certainly that has been my experience.

Today I no longer feel the need to kick all of the ayahuasca poster children. I have become one of them. What a wonderful thing that is. I wish it for you, too.

God bless you, whoever you are.