Alcohol Is a Spirit: Healing Addiction in the Native American Church

The word Spirit, the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” comes to us via the Latin spiritus, “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” and is related to spirare “to breathe.” Its plural form, spirits, or a “volatile substance,” is an alchemical idea, and it was only in the 1670s that it usage narrowed to its present meaning: “strong alcoholic liquor.”

Yet lurking within our modern, dry categorization of strong alcohol as “spirits” this original sense of animating power remains firmly entrenched. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff put it, a good sherris-sack “Ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” Not only that, it breathes courage into the soul, it “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris.”

This is the language of spiritual inspiration, not mere infatuation with a physical effect. Perhaps we should take ourselves at our word. What if alcohol really is a spirit? What is approaching it as a spirit is an effective way to heal addiction to alcohol?

In a recent interview with Erik Davis on his program Expanding Mind, our discussion turned to the nature of addiction and the healing potential of traditional, and psychoactive, plant medicines such as ayahuasca and peyote.

To illustrate these plants’ mysterious capacity to cleanse us of addictive patterns, I disclosed an experience I’d had not so long ago, one which ended a couple of decade’s long fierce attachment to red wine.

Indeed, I loved read wine. Holding a wine glass was like cupping a rosy heart in my hand, transparent, almost pulsing, catching the light like blood. Ancient, celebrated by song, wine even had its own deity! A good wine tasted of the roots of the Earth, of her fruit, even the sunshine, and its relaxation was, to quote the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, “Ambrosia!”

Although I knew full well my life had been fraught with addictive struggle, I hadn’t ended that particular love affair. When I did, it was with a finality that will endure until my dying breath.

It happened deep in the ocean of an ayahuasca ceremony. Accompanied by the otherworldly, Asiatic tones of the Shipibo icaros of the Amazon rainforest, I had found myself in deep trance, holding my water bottle and praying for the health of the waters of our planet: thanking the ocean for giving birth to us and sustaining us, apologizing for our contamination of her precious being.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something dark flickering over my right shoulder. My hand, like a cat’s paw, shot back and, seizing whatever it was, thrust it into the water bottle.

“Okay,” I said to myself, sitting there bemused in the dark, “I’ve just gone and trapped a spirit in my water bottle. Now what do I do?”

I directly knew I needed to go outside and toss out the water, dispersing the spirit back to the elements. Getting up, I carefully walked through the crowded room, slipped out beneath the stars, and scattered the water.

Returning to my seat, charmed, I asked, “Okay, what was that all about?”

I then saw it. The dark, flickering thing had been the spirit of red wine, and the entity had been feeding off of my energy like a succubus. I thought of all the evenings I had hastened home from a long day of work to relax into the amber red cave of her intoxication, reading my books, disappearing from my family, escorted into a sodden sleep by her liquid embrace. She had been a dark lover.

And I was done with her.

Returning home, I emptied my house of my stockpiled bottles of organic red wine, and wondered to myself, “How am I going to do this?” I was already aware of a hollow yearning within myself, one I would never feed again, left gasping for air in the dust. I felt a smidgen of dread in my soul. So many years seeking solace in the opiate embrace of red wine, could that yearning ever fade away?

Well, it did. So clean was the excision of the spirit that some nights ago, watching an Italian priest pour himself a well-deserved glass of red wine across the table from me, I felt not a trace of yearning arise in my being.

After relating this story, I received this message:

I have had a complicated relationship with alcohol for years. Just last night I was alone and decided to have some beers while watching hockey. I ended up drinking too much. It hurt my work production today and I decided to go and do some errands. That’s when I heard you talk.

Hearing you tell your red wine entity story was the second thing that was hugely helpful. The first was that over the weekend I had a powerful dream. I was in a big, old library with the comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, who is sober and in his mid-forties like me. Greg was guiding me through the shelves and we were looking for a spirit.

At one point, he disappeared and it was just me. I knew the spirit was just around the corner and suddenly I was terrified. I let out this huge scream that scared the crap out of my wife. She said it sounded as though I was going to attack something.

This dream really rattled me. Then yesterday I didn’t plan on drinking but I just did. Then I heard your red wine story and I immediately knew that there is a spirit of alcohol that feeds off my energy.

Is this so strange? Do we not call distilled alcohol “spirits”? Don’t we celebrate so, from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to the Captain Morgan rum ads, where a piratical, intensely colorful, mischievous spirit manifests like a jinn in the company of young drinkers at a party?

From an indigenous perspective, it isn’t odd at all. As anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin points out, among traditional cultures,

Concerted actions between humans and certain non-humans that have been crucial for human welfare and carried out over long periods of time have given rise to entities, or rather beings, who embody those concerted actions. For example, the soil becomes Mama Allpa, a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience and responds to the actions of humans. In modernity the soil has become a “natural resource” bereft of agency, sentience and understanding.

If this has been characteristic and true (the enthnographic records clearly indicate it is) for human culture for thousands of years, why should we be an exception? Why should alcohol, to whom we do indeed offer up a steady stream of addict’s prayers and offerings, not be an entity in its own right?

My own innate resistance to this concept, which I presume is shared with most of my readers, is actually a product of my own historical conditioning, As Apffel-Marglin points out regarding ancestral practices of making offerings to the Earth,

The Reformers in 16th century Europe called such rituals “magic” due to their insistence on the total separation between humans, non-humans, and the religious, namely a God removed from the material world. For the Reformers, agency, voice, and meaning became exclusively human attributes. Ever since the Reformers’ separation between matter and spirit, such rituals of regeneration could only be understood as humans representing symbolically or metaphorically the non-humans who became passive and silent.

Does not her argument, which applies to all concerted action between human and non-human agencies carried out over long periods of time, apply equally well to alcohol? Are we really justified in claiming that all the spiritual manifestations of alcohol are mere representations of something actually inert and without sentience?

For “passive and silent” alcohol is not, not by a long shot.

This essay is not, by the way, an argument for a ban on alcohol or any other consciousness altering substance. It’s a call to get our relationships straight with them, which indigenous peoples can teach us a lot about. Whatever our take may be on the metaphysics of indigenous world views, their efficacy is undeniable.

Wine with admixtures was once used medicinally in medieval Europe, tobacco and coca in indigenous ways are sacred plants which allow us to commune with divinity and heal, and if I’m ever seriously injured, please give me a preparation from the opium plant! Opium, according to the indigenous ancient Greeks, is sacred, a gift to humanity from Prometheus. I have entire faith in its curative properties.

By treating our plant allies with respect and veneration, we protect ourselves. A quick glimpse at any tobacco addict, who believes tobacco a mere “natural resource” and consumer product, is sufficient to support that argument!

II

Philosopher Simon May in his work Love: A History offers a definition of love that relates profoundly to healing:

Love, I will argue, is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life. It is a rapture that sets us off on––and sustains––the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs.

If we all need to love, it is because we all need to feel at home in the world: to root our life in the here and now; to give our existence solidity and validity; to deepen the sensation of being; to enable us to experience the reality of our life as indestructible (even if we also accept that our life is temporary and will end in death).

This is the feeling I call ‘ontological rootedness’––ontology being that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and experience of existence. My suggestion is that we will love only those (very rare) people or things or ideas or disciplines or landscapes that can inspire in us ontological rootedness. If they can, we will love them regardless of their other qualities: regardless of how beautiful or good they are; of how (in the case of people we love) generous or altruistic or compassionate; of how interested in our life and projects. And regardless, even, of whether they value us. For love’s overriding concern is to find a home for our life and being.

Is it possible to love the Earth with such rapture, such a sense of indestructible grounding, that certain places––a river, a moor, a forest, a desert––give us “ontological rootedness,” a home for our life and being? Would we not make pilgrimages to these places, immerse ourselves in them whenever possible, and find healing and renewal in them? I think so, and it follows that spiritual practices grounded in “ontological rootedness” in the Earth and the cosmos can heal conditions like addiction. Certainly, my own long-standing alcoholism, as I must now call it, was healed in through that rootedness.

The healing arose in the midst of crisis: separating from my beloved wife, struggling with the traumas and ancestral suffering inherited from my original broken family, I asked my spiritual parents Ann Rosencranz and Bob Boyll, to lead a series of sweatlodges for me so I could pray for guidance and healing.

Sweatlodges recreate the beginning of time. They are oriented to the sacred directions, and their construction is modeled after the turtle from which the native name for the Americas, “Turtle Island,” originates. Within the lodge, enclosed in utter darkness, the stages of the coming of the Sky Woman to Earth and her first healing are recounted as the ritual progresses. The water, falling upon the super-heated red glowing stones, explodes with the sound of distant thunder as the steam heats the interior to a degree so hot it can be barely endurable. Songs are sung and prayers made, and as the peyote medicine used sacramentally by the NAC moves the participants into a state of permeable consciousness, healings of the body and mind, teachings, and atunement to the cosmos occur.

There are four stages to the ceremony, which can last for many hours, but a sense of chronological time is lost in that womb of the Earth.

When the ceremony concluded, and most of the participants had crawled out into the sunshine, I remained behind with Bob. I asked him if I could take a vow upon the stones, who are held as ancient beings of great wisdom. Boyll told me, “You can do whatever you want.”

Addressing the stones, I forswore all alcohol, an addiction I had never managed to fully kick, for the following year. At that very moment, a hue and cry went up outside the sweatlodge. Bob looked out the flap and reported to me, “An eagle just sailed over the lodge.”

I was astonished. Bald eagles were unheard of in that part of the California mountains, such a place being far from their usual range. Afterwards, the locals told me it was the first sighting of an eagle that they had had the entire time they had lived there.

I felt as if Zeus had sent down an eagle to confirm my prayer. If my own sense of the sacredness of my vow before the ancient ones hadn’t been sufficient to hold me to it, this sealed the deal. My prayer had been heard and ratified. I had barely a withdrawal symptom, and I have lived free of alcohol ever since.

The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again

There is an old paradox discussed by Heraclitus, that great ancient philosopher of impermanence, called “The Ship of Theseus.” It poses this question: “Consider a ship that has, over its long lifetime, had every part replaced during its repair so that not even a single nail from its original construction remains. Is it still the same ship?”

There have been many solutions offered to this puzzle down through the centuries, and I can’t think of a moment where it’s more relevant to our generation than with the burning of Notre Dame. Already the international community is rallying and pledges towards its rebuilding are flowing in. The French president says that it will be “more beautiful than ever.” Yet will it be the same cathedral? Will it be Our Lady? Or will it be a replica, such as the pseudo-Cave of Lascaux, the reproduction of the original Paleolithic temple created to protect the original from destruction by tourist hordes? Beautiful, yes, but not the Cave.

Of course, our own bodies contain not a single molecule of our original version while purportedly containing atoms that once helped embody Shakespeare, Hitler, and Alexander the Great’s mortal frames, so from the perspective of this radical impermanence, all things really are essentially empty and utterly interconnected. Yet it’s impossible to shake that sense of continuity, of the accumulation of something called a “soul,” that remains the Ship of Theseus, even after all its timbers, ropes, and sailcloth have been replaced. It’s the “aura,” as the philosopher Walter Benjamin called it, which is accumulated through time and which cannot be replaced by “mechanical reproduction.”

The outpouring of grief over the immolation of Notre Dame is because, I believe, millions of us venerated Her as not just the heart of France, but as “ensouled.” For many of us, regardless of religious background and creed, She was a living being who we loved, with whom we had a personal relationship that has graced our existence.

I would like to share a story of Notre Dame that I hope will illustrate why. Continue reading “The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again”

Journey to the Heart: 12-Day Amazon Plant Medicine Retreat For Men at Mayantuyacu Dec. 28th to Jan. 9th

Juan Flores

Join your guides Robert Tindall (author of The Jaguar That Roams the Mind) and Brian James (yoga teacher & musician) on a special men’s retreat at Mayantuyacu, located deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle and situated along the sacred boiling river, for a 12-day Ayahuasca & Plant Medicine Retreat. Mayantuyacu is a centre dedicated to the study of sacred plants and preservation of indigenous knowledge and is home of the Asháninkan curandero, Maestro Juan Flores.

The intention of this pilgrimage is to give us men the opportunity to touch the core of our experience together: the wounding, passion, bliss, and fear of it all.

We men are carrying around a massive amount of shadow materials right now. In this retreat, we create together a container that is safe, immersed in the life of the rain forest, and held in a strong prayer. By peeling back that tough guy persona we men have to wear, we can be actual warriors instead, having the courage to finally bring forth our deeper selves. A lot of it comes from authentic listening, both to one another and to the medicine. As Christ put it in the Gospel of Thomas, where he says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” Continue reading “Journey to the Heart: 12-Day Amazon Plant Medicine Retreat For Men at Mayantuyacu Dec. 28th to Jan. 9th”

Congressman McClintock Denies California is Burning

In an astonishing bit of pseudo-scientific sleight of hand, Congressman Tom McClintock effectively denies our beloved California is burning, and that it is going to keep burning for the foreseeable future.

How?

He does it by denying Humanity’s hand in shaping the climate. Ever since Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific explorations in the late 1700’s, it has been clear that our conduct shapes the health of our ecosystems. This is an absolute no-brainer.

Of course, it took climate science a while longer to understand the more subtle details, such as how the European Medieval warm period and subsequent Little Ice Age (which Congressman McClintock describes below) had clear human causes: the native peoples of the Americas conducted a continent-wide summer burning of forests before the arrival of Columbus, and all the released carbon actually warmed the entire planet! Thus, those vineyards in Greenland. The subsequent Little Ice Age was triggered because, with the extinction of 95% of the native population of the “New World” the burning ceased and global temperatures plummeted. Thus, ice-skating on the frozen Thames and famine stalking the land.

Here is how Congressman McClintock turns this careful scientific research upon its head:

Thank you for contacting me regarding global climate change.

I firmly believe that the United States should not hamstring its economy in an attempt to combat global warming.

The Earth’s climate is constantly changing and has been since the planet formed over four billion years ago. We know that during the Medieval warm period, from the 10th through the 13th centuries, wine grapes were grown in northern Britain, and Iceland and Greenland supported a thriving agricultural economy. We also know that during the Little Ice Age that followed, the Thames River froze solid every winter and advancing ice sheets destroyed many towns in Europe.

Simply adding more regulations based on suspect science will not change natural climate patterns. Such regulations will, however, devastate our economy and make America less competitive with nations like China and India, who refuse to strangle their economies. For these reasons, I will not support them.

Sincerely,

Tom

“Natural climate patterns”? “Suspect science”? Particularly disturbing is Tom’s total lack of familiarity with the famines that regularly devastated Europe — it’s as if we either happily drank wine or enjoyed frosty cones, oh, even though admittedly we did lose a couple of villages to advancing ice sheets… Congressman McClintock is oblivious, or lying, about the human cost of climate change in exchange for short-sighted economic growth.

Thomas Jefferson, who mistrusted merchants and their loyalty to money, believed that our country would be at its strongest and its liberty best kept by a population of farmers, men and women who raised their own food, lived in close contact with the Earth and its climate, and who heeded scientific discoveries to improve their happiness and prosperity. For Jefferson, happiness only arose from connection to the Earth.

He also said, “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.”

I recommend to Congressman McClintock that he take a page from Jefferson’s book.

The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world

There was a time when scientists weren’t ashamed to go on record contemplating the meaning of the cosmos as revealed through the scientific method, and one of the great practitioners of this genre was Loren Eiseley. While waiting to take my daughter to school this morning, I came across this passage in his book, The Unexpected Universe, published in 1964 — one year before I was born.

Here is the kind of mythopoeic perception that Eiseley was capable to bringing to phenomenon that are now treated as mere cold facts:

A few days ago I chanced to look into a rain pool on the walk outside my window, and the beauty and the strange rhythm of the extending and concentric wavelets entered my mind. I saw that I was looking symbolically upon the whole history of life upon our globe. There, in a wide, sweeping circle, ran the early primates from whom we are descended; here, as a later drop within the rim of the greater circle, emerged the first men. I was the mammoths pass in a long, slow, world-wide surge, but the little drop of man changed into a great hasty wave that swept them under.

There were sudden little ringlets, like the fauna of isolated islands, that appeared and disappeared with rapidity. Sometimes so slow were the drops that the pool was almost quiet, like the intense, straining silence of a quiescent geological period. Sometimes the rain, like the mutations in animal form, came so fast that the ripples broke, mixed, or kept their shapes with difficulty and did not spread far. Jungles, I read in my mystical water glass, microfaunas changing rapidly but with little spread.

Watch instead, I thought, for the great tides — it is they that contain that planet’s story. As the rain hastened or dripped slowly the pictures in the little pool were taken into my mind as though from the globe of a crystal-gazer. How often, if we learn to look, is a spider’s wheel a universe, or a swarm of summer midges a galaxy, or a canyon a backward glance into time. Beneath our feet is the scratched pebble that denotes an ice age, or above us the summer cloud that changes form in one afternoon as an animal might do in ten million years.

This is mythopoeia. All of this from gazing into a little pool pelted by drops of water! It’s as beautiful as Shakespeare (who Eiseley loved as a gift from his father), and captures the exquisite drama of the human adventure in ways that few scientists’s writing can now do.

Eiseley concludes, “The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world of which we learn only through devised instruments. Through such instruments measuring atomic decay we have learned to probe the depths of time before our coming and to gauge temperatures long vanished.”

How akin Eisley’s “Where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world” is with W.B. Yeats’ “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

persephone page 13

The loss of the daughter to mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years…

The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one; it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter… Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

One definition of “myth” might be: “A once sacred narrative which has lost its original context.” Like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck on the high seas, we encounter fragments of myth, such as in Hesiod’s Theogony, drifting about detached from their original cultural setting and so read them as curious stories, quaint remnants, or illogical accounts of the cosmos.

What is lost in such fragments is the original wholeness of mythos, symbol, and ritual within which the myth had its transformative power. Continue reading “Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries”

Speaking Truth to Power

The president of Uruguay, Pepe Mujica, like a gadfly Socrates, lets the truth all hang out about the reality of economic progress in a recent meeting of world leaders in Rio:

For more info on this most remarkable of world leaders, who donates 90% of his income to the poor and chooses to live on his wife’s ramshackle farm instead of in the luxurious presidential palace in Montevideo, check out this BBC article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20243493

The Medieval Quest and Beheading Games with Green Men

Robert’s new book, The Battle of the Soul in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an exploration of the inner struggle of pilgrimage as it was enshrined in this most beautiful of medieval English romances, is now available!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 1380’s by a cleric immersed both in Arthurian and Celtic mythology as well as the mystical traditions of his epoch, has fascinated scholars and translators from J.R.R. Tolkien to W.S Merwin. Robert’s book is the first to draw the connection between the courtly narrative of the poem and the “entry into unknowing” of the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius.

For more info, click here,

Encompassing the Amazon: Ayahuasca, Vegetalismo, and Cultural Survival

We are happy to share that Ayahuasca, Vegetalismo and Cultural Survival is now available for viewing below!

Generations of shamans, mad poets and intrepid researchers labored to give birth to this event on the endangered practices of entheogenic plant shamanism and the Amazonian ecosystem at City Lights, the literary mecca of San Francisco, with

Robert Tindall, author of The Jaguar that Roams the Mind

Lou Dematteis, author of Crude Reflections, which documents the environmental and cultural devastation left behind by Chevron in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Ralph Metzner, author of numerous works, including The Psychedelic Experience with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, as well as the more recent Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, and Sacred Mushroom of Visions: Teonanacatl

Dale Pendell, author of the trilogy Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path

We were fortunate to have this historic evening — City Lights was the publisher of The Yage Letters between Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs 25 years ago — captured on video. This video is the first in a series — please find the subsequent sequences on YouTube!