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.

 

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Journeying in the Inner Landscape

Here at Atheopaganism, we have discussed ritual skills quite a bit. Developing the skill sets that help people to attain the Ritual State (or “trance”) is key to our ability to be  effective ritualists who can transform consciousness in empowering ways. Click here to see previous posts tagged as “Ritual Technologies and Core Skills”.

Thus far, these posts have been about using skills and technologies to induce the Ritual State. But today we turn to another question:  what to do once you get there?

Trance is powerful, and can be experienced simply as a glowing, liminal state within which to conduct ceremonial activities or contemplation…or it can be the context for ritual leaders to introduce suggestion and narrative to take participants on an internal “journey”.

This is old, old magic. It is the stuff of “spirit journeying” as practiced by many cultures throughout the world. The anthropological term for this type of activity is shamanism, from the Tunguskan word of indigenous Siberian people, for those who “journey inward” to interact with “spirit beings”: images and characters in their minds.

Anthropologically speaking, these “journeys” may involve “tunneling down through the Earth” into an Underworld, or “flying high” to reach an Overworld. The character of the experience will vary depending on the psychological nature of the journeyer. But just as in dreams, the experience can be anything that the trancing person can imagine.

The practice of this kind of “voyaging” is so ubiquitous among humans that it can be argued to be an inherent human characteristic. For after all: what is storytelling, or reading, or radio drama but verbal guidance through an inner landscape of visualization?

On your own, while in trance you can create and travel through a landscape of your choosing, and you will be surprised at the characters that will arise unbidden to meet and communicate with you. Often these are family members, ancestors, animals or fantastic beasts such as dragons. Their messages to you come from your deep mind, and are worthy of contemplating carefully.

But it is also possible to define the experience for trancing listeners: to take them on a spoken-word narrative journey to a particular place and to have a particular experience. In Western societies, we call this technique “guided meditation”.

There is an art to creating an effective guided trance journey. Participants must be relaxed and comfortable, feel safe, and then go on a “journey” to a place that feels special and unique. Often there are “guides” there, characters who impart wisdom and encouragement.

Vocal tone. When narrating or reading a guided trance journey, keep your tone low and even, melodious. Make sure that your vocal tone is consistent with being relaxed and comfortable.

Structure. Here are steps to include in a successful trance journey:

1)  Get comfortable. Participants can sit or lie down, but being physically comfortable is very important because discomfort will keep drawing attention away from the journey and back into the body.*

2)  Relaxation. Spend a few minutes relaxing the body and the mind with some simple visualizations of a calming and relaxing setting. Use descriptions of all five senses to paint a vivid picture of this place, which could be a calm meadow, a tranquil beach, or anywhere else that communicates ease and comfort.

3)  The Descent. The Descent is a trance-deepening technique used in hypnotherapy, wherein the guided instructions describe a journey, typically through a natural landscape—up a mountain, down into caves, through a forest, etc., although it can of course go anywhere.  The instructions send the journeyer deeper and deeper into relaxation and a sense of calm, present well-being. This often manifests as a “countdown”, as, “As you descend the stairs, you feel your relaxation and trance deepening: one step, then two…three…four…five. You are now completely deep in trance, relaxed and safe. You have arrived. [insert description of the setting where they have arrived].”

The Descent is sometimes an “ascent”, in that the imagery is of climbing instead of descending: up a ladder, or a tree, or stairs up, or climbing a vine or a beanstalk or simply flying up into the sky.

4) Revelation. After “arrival” at the end of the Descent, the journeyer finds what they have been seeking: animals or characters with instructive advice, magical tools or powers, wise ancestor figures, or visual images that have metaphorical meaning. Crafting this part of the guided journey is particularly sensitive, because you need to be descriptive while allowing enough flexibility for each listener’s mind to create a unique experience for that person.

(Steps 3 and 4 can be repeated if you want to guide participants to multiple “locations” before “returning” to the waking world.)

5)  Return. In the Return. the journeyer “retraces their steps” back to the relaxed setting where they began. This doesn’t have to take as much time as did the Descent.

6) Awakening. The final step in a guided meditation is gently to bring the journeyer back up out of trance and into the waking world.

Accompaniment.  Trance or guided meditation journeying is often accompanied by relaxing music or steady drumming or rattling (either a slow heartbeat rhythm, or a rapid repetitive beat), but it can also be done in silence.

Integration with larger rituals. Trance journeying can be incorporated into a larger ritual. Be aware, though, that because participants are still during the journey, it is important to have activities in the ritual to get bodies moving and “bring up the energy” after a guided meditation.

Use of psychoactive drugs. In many cultures throughout the world, shamanic journeying is associated with the usage of psychoactive drugs (also known as entheogens) such as psilocybin (mushrooms) and mescaline (cacti such as peyote and San Pedro cactus). These substances would obviously increase the vividness and emotional impact of the visualized experience. In some areas usage of these drugs is illegal.

An example.  Here is an example of a guided journey that was incorporated into this year’s Atheopagan ritual at Pantheacon, which was titled “Arming the Earth Warriors: An Activists’ Ritual”:

First, make yourself comfortable: sit or lie down, whichever you prefer. Feel the weight of your body pressing down into the Earth, and as you do, you can smell grass. You hear a soft breeze waving the grass back and forth. Back and forth.

Now, comfortable there, you can feel the kiss of a light mist on your face. It’s cool; the sunlight on your eyelids is diffuse and comfortable. It feels good here. Feel yourself relax as your breath slowly goes in and out. One breath; another; another.

Another. You are in the meadow, and you are at peace.

As you lay there, you sense a faint whiff of wood smoke. Just a bit, then it is gone. But it comes back.

You stand, and open your eyes. All around you is the mist of a low bank of clouds, settled over the meadow but steaming away under the growing sunlight. It is beautiful. Birds have begun to sing, and the trees of the forest surrounding the meadow become visible as the fog lifts.

Then you see it: the mountain. With a trail leading up.

You take a step forward, and then another. The Earth is soft and comfortable beneath your feet as you approach the trail. Your body feels strong and the pull in your legs is satisfying as you climb the mountain.

You are climbing quickly. Rounding a turn in the trail, you come to an Overlook with a wide view in two directions.

Looking out to your right, you see a magnificent vista of mountains and forests, with a twinkling lake far in the distance. This land is lush and green, healthy and beautiful. Take in the beauty of this spectacular view.

Now turn to the left.

There, the landscape is similar, but much of it is on fire. Smoke billows up into the sky, and you can see the stab of bright plumes of flame as they consume the green woodlands. Faintly, on the smoke-flavored wind, you hear the roar of the flames.

The fire is out of control, and though still far away, it is coming closer.

You turn back to the trail. You are almost at the top of the mountain. As you climb, your strong legs moving you up to the peak, you see that at the very summit there is an opening to a cave in the ground.

You step down into the cave, and go inside. There, a wide open cavern awaits you, glistening with stone draperies and stalactites. You can smell wet stone and hear the faint trickle of water. A dim glow suffuses the chamber.

On a low table of stone in the midst of the cavern chamber are some objects of metal. In the dim light, you can see that the Inspiring Activist you called out to at the beginning of our ritual is standing next to the table.

As you approach the table, your Inspiration speaks, saying, “These are for you. They will serve you well as you carry on my work and that of countless others who have come before you.” They pick up the first object, a shimmering shirt of fine chainmail links, and slide it over your head. It is light and flexible, but you can tell it is strong.

“This is the power of Humor. It will protect you from being harmed as you go forward to do what is right.” The chainmail shirt sinks into your body, becoming one with you. You feel a sudden urge to smile.

Next, they take a brilliant emerald amulet and press it against your heart. “This is the Amulet of Health. It will remind you to care for yourself, to pace yourself with patience so you can keep up the good fight for many years.” The Amulet, too, sinks into your body and you feel a surge of wellbeing.

Your Inspiration picks up a large, clear, faceted gem. “This is the Lens of Clarity. It will keep you focused on the goal, and give you a clear understanding of complicated situations.” Pressing the Lens into your forehead, they seal it with a thumb and you feel a still, wise awareness rise within you.

Finally, they raise a glittering sword with a glowing ruby pommel and press the grip into your hand.

“This is the Sword of Courage. It is an extension of your Will, and it is what will carry you through the adversity and challenges that your opponents will attempt to put in your way. It will always be available to you. It will always be at hand.”

The sword does not disappear. It rests in your hand, as power and courage course through you. You can do it. You can make a difference.

You can change the world.

You humbly thank your Inspiration for the gifts, and turn to climb out of the cave. As you descend the trail from the cave, once again you arrive at the Overlook. The fire is noticeably larger. There is much work to do, but you know you have what it takes to do it.

You descend the trail to the Meadow, where you were before. It seems different now: smaller. And you are larger, stronger, more capable.

You walk onward into the world, filled with the power of the gifts you have received, with purpose, and with grace.

Now, when you are ready, open your eyes, rise and join us in a circle, holding hands.

 

*This step isn’t always necessary. If working with a group of entranced participants who are walking about a fire. for example, you can leave them in their walking meditation while leading them through the spoken-word journey.

Happiness, Ecstasy, and Threading the Needle

I stumbled out from the trees atop the mountain, Matagalls—the second-highest in Catalonia.

I was teaching at a children’s language camp, and at the end of the camp we had taken a day to lead the students on an expedition to climb the peak. Cold weather had moved in and many of them had remained in a meadow at lower elevation with the rest of the adults. But I and a handful of kids pressed on.

It was steep at the end, and my legs were burning as I climbed the forested trail to the summit. The scent of rain-dampened earth filled my nostrils, the cool air pumped smoothly in and out of my lungs, my heart beat in my temples and chest. I was alive.

I could feel that something was happening. Something was opening within me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my long time in Spain was coming to a close: that soon I would hit the road again, eventually to land back in California. Perhaps it was just that smell, the adrenaline, the gorgeous landscape of Catalonia.

I moved ahead of the children. I knew I’d have only a minute or two atop the summit by myself if I pushed on now, but it would have to be enough. I was swelling with joy; I could feel tears starting.

When I stepped out of the trees to the clearing atop Matagalls, I could see the whole world spread before me: a ragged blanket of clouds far below, peaks emerging like islands, the glint of a river through a hole in the clouds. Everything.

Everything.

And something grew to bursting within me. I began to sob and laugh at the same time. YES. 

YES!

All this, and me alive to experience it, in this little moment I am given. The blessed, Sacred world.


Recently, Rua Lupa and John Halstead have written about the ecstatic religious experience. John has written about its value; Rua cautions about pleasure-seeking for its own sake, warning of hedonism and suggesting that pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is wrong.

The thing is, they’re both right to a degree. Pleasure-seeking without regard to consequences is clearly unhealthy and destructive. And seeking the ecstatic religious experience is moving, transformative, and deeply pleasurable.

I disagree with Rua when she suggests that pleasure-seeking for its own sake is somehow wrong. There are plenty of pleasurable experiences that can be had which cause no harm to anyone else, nor to the Earth. What’s wrong with those? Why must pleasure-seeking have a “purpose”?

That said, I’d say that Rua puts her finger on one of the two major points to religion when she speaks of  contentment. Contentment is a baseline of happiness: a satisfactory level of felt wellbeing that leads to a sense of living as worthwhile and fulfilling. That baseline, however, is only a mean–in order for life to feel lived, you need some lows and highs by way of contrast. And among the highest of those highs are the experiences of religious ecstasy John cites.

Which brings me back to the basic question:  “why Atheopaganism?” The answer being, because it can help us to be happier, and because it provides a framework of values within which life can be meaningful and service to the Sacred may be inspired.

Do I think people who are constantly chasing the high of a peak experience are ungrounded and lost? Yes, I do.

Do I think that people who never seek such experiences are muted and kind of sad? Yes, that, too.

Mainstream values in the Pagan community tend towards the hedonistic. We value pleasure as a good in and of itself, so long as none are harmed. And while I think a bit more self-reflection would be a positive addition to that cheerful pleasure-seeking, at root I agree. I have no use for Calvinistic, greyfaced disapproval of fun and enjoyment. I want to grab life with both hands. I want the story of my having been here to be one filled with color.

That said, I’m not just here for me. My peak spiritual experiences have led me to deepen my commitment to the biosphere of the Earth and to redouble my efforts on its behalf. The two are not at loggerheads; they complement and reinforce one another.

I understand John’s point about religious ecstasy reinforcing a sense of connection with and commitment to That Which Is Larger Than The Self: The Earth, the Cosmos. And I understand Rua’s point about the kinds of practical religious experiences which can bring us more into harmony with reality, such as the fact that we are going to die.

But must pleasure always serve a purpose? Is there something wrong with pleasure that’s just…pleasurable?

I say there is not. If no one is harmed, if the Earth itself is not harmed, I say pursue happiness. Seek joy.

As Rua puts it, pleasure should not be the pinnacle, the sum total goal of religious experience. But that doesn’t mean that pleasure can’t be one of the goals thereof.

Pleasure is great, and I recommend you find as much as you can, within the constraints of care for others and for the Earth. And of the pleasures there are, few are greater than religious ecstasy, for it is not merely a cascade of serotonin and dopamine: it is a moment of profound understanding of life’s purposes, of what is important, of what is Sacred.

Which is what I found, weeping atop a mountain in Spain, with children coming up the trail behind me.

Shown: Matagalls, Catalunya.