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Wayne Mellinger: The Amethyst Path

Addicts as misguided shamans can become wounded healers

Could the spirituality of our ancestors from pre-agricultural societies hold a key to treating addiction? It could be argued that understanding the spiritual uses of “drugs” among so-called “primitive” people is essential to the recovery process.

Hunting and gathering societies were the dominant form of social organization among humans prior to the advent of agriculture in about 8000 to 5000 B.C. They often shared spiritual worldviews centered on shamanism. A shaman is a woman or man who “journeys to the Otherworld,” often through the use of psychotropic plants (“entheogens”), or through the use of other consciousness-shifting techniques. The religions that they practiced and the type of medicine they employed often involved the consumption of mind-altering substances.

For the shaman, these plant substances were not recreational drugs with which to “party”; these sacred “plant-gods” were treated with the utmost respect and allowed the shaman to have access to non-ordinary consciousness — a plane on which healing would take place.

Typically, the shaman would ingest the plant substance, which would induce a trance-like state. While in that state the shaman would have the experience of “journeying” to the “Otherworld” and having contact with plant and animal “Allies” that would aid in the healing. The shaman would often bring back healing messages from this Otherworld. This sacred global institution lasted for many millennia.

A “Pharmacratic Inquisition” (Jonathan Ott), which began in the fourth century of our era, and in which patriarchal church and state conspired, virtually destroyed the last remnants of shamanism in European “civilization.” European empires have continued their prohibitionist campaigns so that much of the wisdom of shamanism has been destroyed. American “drug wars” continue this approach, which imagines no role for sacred ecstasy in our lives.

The use of entheogens (plant-substances that “manifest the divine within”) is tightly proscribed in shamanic cultures. How the plant is procured and consumed is strictly controlled through time-honored traditions that ensured that sacred use does not become compulsive use. This “controlled use” was the wisdom of countless generations. Moreover, the “set and setting” in which these entheogens were consumed were also highly managed. Those who partook in the sacred ceremonies had the right “mind set” and did their activities in the right physical and cultural settings. Often, initiation involved years of training and was guided by seasoned experts.

Modern societies have a far different social organization than pre-agricultural societies. Industrial capitalism, rationalization and urbanization have created situations ripe for the emergence of substance misuse and abuse. Given the near destruction of the wisdom of “controlled use,” we largely have Dionysian countercultures divorced from any knowledge of ritualized restraints demanded for the sacred potential of substances to reach their potential. Moreover, a mass psychology of misery has replaced the connectedness that once was the zeitgeist of archaic human communities. Within this immiserated context, drug use is not a ritualized sacrament, but is often used to self-medicate symptoms of psychological pain and alienation.

Dionysian religion, as I imagine it today, can invoke the spirit of these ancient revelers while adapting it to modern times. This means creating an approach to spirituality grounded in our “will to party,” that is our innate urges to find ways of experiencing ecstatic frenzy, while acknowledging a context in which notions of “controlled use” are absent, where prohibitionist ideologies and practices are carried out by the state, and in which the mass psychology is quite different from our pre-modern ancestors.

The essence of Dionysian spirituality is the celebration of the whole self through ecstatic rituals. Modernity tends to identify with the rational self and to displace irrational elements — emotions, fantasies and sexual longings. The transgressive practices of sacred psychosis can work to dissolve the ego, revealing the whole self.

“The Amethyst Path” is my name for a shamanic approach to drug abuse and addiction centered on the principles of Dionysian spirituality. The classical Greek word “amethystos” can be translated as “not drunken.” The light purple crystal amethyst was
considered by the Greeks to be a powerful antidote against drunkenness, which is why wine goblets were often
carved from it. For many the gemstone still symbolizes sobriety. The legend of the origin of amethyst comes from classical Greek mythology.

Dionysus, the god of
ecstasy and intoxication, was angered one day by an insult from a mortal who would not acknowledge his divinity and he swore revenge on the
 next mortal that crossed his path, creating fierce tigers to carry out his wish. Along came
unsuspecting Amethyst, a beautiful young maiden on her way to pay tribute to the goddess Diana. When the tigers were about to devour her, Amethyst cried out to Diana, who then turned Amethyst into a stature of pure crystalline quartz to protect her from the brutal
claws of the tigers. Dionysus wept tears of wine in remorse for his action at the sight of the beautiful statue.
 The god’s tears stained the quartz purple, creating the beautiful gem we know today.

People who have pronounced problems with alcohol or other drugs are misguided shamans who, if they had lived in earlier times, might have become the true shamans of their tribes, with the expertise of techniques of ecstasy. But living in modernity, without the wisdom of “controlled use,” has led these people to enter Dionysian countercultures and become self-destructive in their substance use.

If ecstatic frenzy is essential to individual and cultural balance, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, is there a way for recovering addicts to retain their pursuit of mystical or mind-altering states while maintaining sobriety? Can Dionysian religion and a shamanic orientation to life aid the person moving out of substance abuse?

Addiction is a “spiritual emergency” — people are looking for someone “more” in life — something deeper, more meaningful, something transcendent. And while the use of alcohol and drugs did not provide what they were looking for, we should not lose sight of their lofty goals and that for which they were seeking.

Addicts or drug abusers moving into recovery can come to redefine themselves as “misguided shamans” and as “wounded healers.” Defining themselves in this way, I believe that they can connect to a universal truth about their affliction, come to place their ecstatic-seeking behavior in a spiritual context, and enhance their potential to be of service to others.

Entering into recovery, the former substance user needs to find his or her “tribe.” It is essential that this be a healthy non-using group of individuals with whom the person can be honest, get supportive attention and who will hold the individual accountable to their goal of maintaining sobriety. It is also essential that the individual work on their “other” issues — that is, the often-underlying psychological challenges that are there.

The rebuilding of the person’s self-identity is key to the recovery process, and the role that the new tribe will play in this process is essential. That is because our sense of who we are is intimately tied to the reflected appraisals of others. Moreover, other forms of negativity pervade the addict’s ways of thinking and can be changed through counseling.

Recovery is a “turning point,” a social process in which an individual undergoes a massive transformation in identity accompanied by the introduction to new significant others (their new “tribe”) and new ways of defining the events of their life. By defining ourselves as “wounded healers,” addicts take on a time-honored role for the tribal shaman. Wounded healers serve a vital purpose for their tribe — using their own insight into the dark journey of the soul to bring light to others who still suffer.

Spiritual emergencies, such as addiction, are more than just periods of soul searching, for they often are physical as well as psychological, and lead the person to momentarily step away from everyday life. I have stressed the importance of finding new ways to embrace sacred ecstatic frenzy, for I believe that our yearning to “dance with Dionysus” leads to our addictive behavior. Yes, what I have elsewhere called our “will to party” is an innate need and biological urge to transgress the boundaries of conventional society. As recovering addicts we have come to see that the Dionysian pursuit may be noble in purpose, but it must now be done without the use of mind-altering substances.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is social worker with a passion for helping those who suffer on the streets move forward productively with their lives. He holds a certificate in alcohol and drug counseling from Santa Barbara City College.

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