Substance Use, Background Noise, and Reenchanting the World

I’m drinking a beer as I write this.

That’s not a big deal. I’m not drunk and I don’t intend to have another. But I’m sitting at my local with a laptop, and I’m surrounded by a typical Friday afternoon crowd, which will swell considerably after 5:00.

People in my society drink. They drink alcohol, and they drink tremendous volumes of coffee. And quite a large number of them regularly smoke pot, too. I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s legal in California now, but I encounter the smell of burning weed so frequently that I don’t even register it any longer.

And though the numbers are dropping, a lot of people—particularly poor and working class people—smoke cigarettes repeatedly every day, addicted to the vicious central nervous system depressant nicotine.

I mention all this because this is “normal”. It’s background noise. It’s rarely remarked upon because here, it’s as ordinary as breathing air.

It can’t always have been so.

Humans have been pretty seriously invested in getting high by various means since the earliest days of our history. We see it in little kids, who will spin around until they fall down with dizziness, enjoying their ability to torque their ordinary sensorium into something strange and exhilarating.

Sufi Dervishes do that today, still, as a sacred rite.

When we look at the ancient world, we see places that invested tremendous resources in brewing beer and fermenting wine. In the Americas, tobacco was cultivated from at least 6,000 BCE. And in other places, intoxicants such as khat and kava and psychoactive fungi were and are carefully cultivated, all to give human consciousness a pleasurable tweak.  It is conjectured that even before we were modern humans, on the African savanna, some honey and water in a gourd canteen would inevitably have led to the discovery of mead. Alcohol has almost certainly been with us for as long as we have been human.

But I have to imagine that in all those cultures, there was a time when the intoxicants were rare and precious. And there would have been sacred rituals that grew up around them, to frame and shape the experience of taking them.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it resonated with me: supposedly, one of the things Native Americans who encountered European-derived settlers would say about them is that they “smoked tobacco every day”.

In other words, they turned something sacred into something ordinary.

I am a product of my culture. It’s hard for me to see alcohol and tobacco as sacred when they’re available in gross tonnage at any neighborhood store.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

I have always had a laissez-faire attitude about substance use in ritual. I find that personally, a single beer or glass of wine is perfect for me prior to ritual, helping to dispel stage fright, improve my ability to be in the present moment and open to my emotional self. More than that is a bad idea. I know this.

I know folks who swear by various substances as their “ritual allies”, ranging from marijuana to LSD. Some don’t do nearly as well as they think they do when altered by these substances, but others are deeply magical and amazing when on them. I have no judgment about it, so long as they aren’t messing things up for others: they’re finding their own ways.

This is meandering, but I guess where I’m going is a meditation on the sheer gluttony of our modern society. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate and marijuana aren’t special experiences here; they are ordinary, quotidian, banal. You buy them, you consume them, you do it again.

Imagine what it would be like if only once each year, during a high festival of celebration, there was alcohol.

Or if coffee was rare and only available through initiation into the Coffee Cult.

Would that not drive us into creation of meaningful rituals and sacred moments, instead of crass banter at the bar?

There is so much about our world of instant gratification that robs us of experiences of uniqueness and magic. Our surfeit of luxuries makes us tourists, gobbling up experiences instead of savoring them and connecting them with deeper meaning about our lives.

By gouging 2.3 times the world’s resource production out of our single world each year, we have enabled ourselves—those of us who are privileged, anyway—to wallow in what would ordinarily be rare and special.

It makes us dull-witted; insensitive to the magical specialness of each of those things that should be lifetime rarities instead of daily ordinaries.

If we are to reenchant the world, we must regard everything we take for granted with new eyes. A cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee, nor a glass of wine a glass of wine. These are alchemical dances of sun and soil and climate, brimming with chemical magic to change and enlighten us.


If we are to reenchant the world, we cannot be asleep. We must recognize each remarkable, unlikely gift that comes to us in our lives for what it is. We must express thanks for our food to the Earth, the Sun and the many hands that toiled to bring it to us. We must toast the brewer, and the barley farmer, and the teamster. We must know that the chocolate square, the marijuana bud, the twist of tobacco is a generous bestowal from the living Earth and from a long line of laboring hands that made it possible.

And when they wonderfully, pleasurably turn our minds to new channels, we must be grateful.

For “just” is a lie. “Just”—the trivialization of the marvelous, the assertion of ordinariness—is the mainstream culture turning magic to gray concrete and ashes.

Enjoy what you do, friends. But know that it is sacred. Know you are gifted—blessed, even—by the generosity of a world that piles gifts so deeply at your feet that it is hard to remember that each solitary one is magic.

That each one would have been the memory of a lifetime for someone 5,000 years ago.


5 thoughts on “Substance Use, Background Noise, and Reenchanting the World

  1. James

    Beautifully written, Mark. I heartily agree. I feel similarly about things that go cycling with the seasons such as eating certain fruits or vegetables only when it’s their time to ripen locally. Growing your own fruits and vegetables as we do makes us really enjoy the chiles for example when they’re ready because we’ve waited so long in anticipation and because we and others cared for them each day. Or because we raise our own cattle, it makes us think about the life of the steer or heifer that we sacrificed to feed our bodies. We do not each much meat and knowing the animal that we will eat gives us the desire to give it the best most enjoyable life possible while its alive.

    Liked by 2 people

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