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 Scientific Evidence that Enchantment in Nature Heals Us

I want to share excerpts from two articles recently published by the Sierra Club, “The Science of Awe” by Jake Abrahamson and “Outdoors for All” by Richard Louv. These essays explore this extraordinary power of awe/enchantment in Nature to heal us, physically, psychologically, and spiritually:

“Scientifically speaking, the state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.

IT WAS ONLY 11 YEARS AGO that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation… Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” Continue reading “The Scientific Evidence that Enchantment in Nature Heals Us”

Shamanic Song in the Treatment of Addiction

Our society is well aware of the addictive siren song of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and chemically-degraded tobacco, all derived from originally sacred, healing plants. Yet little is known of the power of psychoactive plants to heal addiction, especially as mediated by shamanic song. We would like to share with you how one Westerner, a French doctor named Jacques Mabit who trained in the Amazonian tradition of vegetalismo, uses icaros, songs that embody and transmit the healing power of plants, to guide his patients into realms of healing and self exploration.

The House that Sings:
The Therapeutic Use of Icaros at Takiwasi
by Susana Bustos, Ph.D.

This article originally appeared in Shaman’s Drum, Number 73, 2006.