Today, we are joined by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D., who describes a Dionysian spirituality in the pursuit of a shamanic approach to addiction recovery. This essay was originally published at Mellinger’s blog, Doing Modernity: Using Cultural Interactionism to Study Everyday Life.
This paper advances a “shamanic approach to drug abuse and addiction”, what I will call the Amethyst Path. What our modern culture typically calls “addicts” are misguided shamans who, having had a “thirst for wholeness” and sacred ecstasy, ventured into the realm of substance use only to end up compulsively consuming their “drug of choice”. While their “Will to Party” might be an innate, natural and healthy urge, without the shamanic wisdom of “controlled use”, many end up in self-destructive cycles of misuse and over-consumption. But, thankfully, these misguided shamans can become “wounded healers” with the gift of bringing health and happiness to others who suffer. While ceasing to use totally or perhaps just ceasing to over-consume substances, it is imperative that they find healthy ways to “dance with Dionysus”, keeping sacred ecstasy as part of their lives.
In the early 1980s, after graduating from college, I moved to San Francisco to begin the next phase in my life journey. Within a few months of being in California, I became deeply interested in exploring the possibility of finding a religion that was “non-patriarchal”, and that considered the Earth as a sacred and living organism.
This exploration led me to the fringes of contemporary American religions. Soon I was immersed in studying feminist spirituality, Wicca, and other non-traditional spiritualties. As someone with a Northern and Western European ancestry, I was particularly intrigued by Celtic Paganism and attempts to re-construct the “Old Religion” of many of my ancestors. Moreover, my studies were informed by anthropological research on shamanism. I learned that the polytheistic religions of agricultural societies emerged from earlier shamanic religions of pre-agricultural people and maintained essential shamanic elements.
The Shamanic Use of Entheogens
Long ago across this glorious planet our ancient ancestors lived close to the Earth in small bands of nomadic foragers. Several thousands of years ago before the advent of agriculture this was the dominant form of social organization among humans. We often learn about these people as “hunters and gathers,” although scholars now debate how much hunting compared with foraging actually composed their everyday lives and food collection practices. Moreover, any notion that you might have had about primitive “cave men” having lives that were “nasty, brutish and short”, to cite Thomas Hobbes’s grim estimation, has been replaced by notions of these people occupying the “original affluent society” with lives of abundance, health, relative harmony and what I have called a “mass psychology of connectedness”.
While much diversity existed among these early humans, anthropologists agree that they often shared a spiritual worldview centered around 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 trance, song and dance or other consciousness-shifting techniques (i.e. rhythmic drumming, fasting, etc.). What you might have heard called “witch doctors”, “medicine men”, or “primitive healers” were individuals employing a sophisticated set of practices that were central to healing, community integration, and spiritual life.
Shamans are often experts in plant and animal lore, the keepers of many vital cultural traditions, and very special community leaders. Some of them were probably what we might consider “deviants”: some lived as cross-dressers, some had periods of what we might consider to be “madness”, some choose to live at the edge of the community in other ways. The religions that they practiced and the type of medicine they employed often involved the consumption of mind-altering substances. In fact, many of the substances that in modern society are known as “drugs” had their original human use in shamanic rituals (i.e. opium plants, coca leaves). Of course, for the shaman, these were not recreational drugs with which to “party”; these were 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 have contact with plant and animal “allies” that would aid in the healing. The shaman would often bring back healing messages from this Otherworld. This brief summary grossly simplifies the complex range of behaviors found across the planet and employed in these ancient religions.
The Genealogy of Drug Abuse and Addiction
I have spent some time researching the link between the shamanic use of plant-gods and the modern compulsive use of “drugs”. My essay, “On the Genealogy of Drug Abuse and Addiction”, traces the history of substance use among humans, argues that a “Pharmacratic Inquisition”, 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.
Specifically, the use of en-theo-gens (those psychotropic plants which “manifest the divine within”) was highly proscribed in these ancient shamanic cultures. How the plant was procured and consumed was highly controlled through time-honored traditions that ensured that sacred use did not become compulsive use. This “controlled use” was the wisdom of countless generations and was strongly enforced through various sanctions. Moreover, the “set and setting”, as Timothy Leary described them, in which these entheogens were consumed was also highly monitored and 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.
Researching the anthropology and history of substance use among humans, it was clear that the substances themselves were not the problem. For tens of thousands of years, substances were used productively as sacraments in healing ceremonies. When the “set and setting” are conducive, the precursors of modern addictive drugs were employed without major problems. Thousands of years of these forms of substance use have perhaps shaped our urges to consume substances, so that now the our urges to consume mind-altering substances, our “Will to Party” (Mellinger, 2009), is innate, and perhaps hard-wired into our brains.
What I am calling, “critical drug use theory”, examines how the economic mode of production of any society impacts the use of mind-altering substances. For example, hunting and gathering, agricultural and industrial societies each might potentially have distinct forms of substance use which are shaped by their “economic base”. Compulsive “drug” use in modern societies is a complex social phenomenon that has no simple etiology. However, it is clear that the conditioning of our mind / bodies to consume substances over thousands of years combined with the modern destruction of the wisdom of “controlled use” is a lethal combination that has wrecked havoc upon contemporary societies.
Unfortunately, much scholarly research on substance use in modern societies is tainted by a pervasive “drug war ideology”—combinations of lies, misinformation and disinformation that smears all substance use as “evil” and lumps together diverse behaviors. A mythology of the “dope fiend” underlies these ideologies. In this myth, even a single use has brought someone to the point of addiction, because of the ever-present phenomena of “tolerance” and “craving”. Any notion of controlled use of substances has been erased from our collective memory. Of course, this is not to deny that for many people in contemporary societies, substance use has become highly problematic. Quite the opposite, I hope here to propose a rationale for sobriety from a shamanic perspective.
As stated, I first became intrigued by the Greek god Dionysus in San Francisco in the early 1980s, and have continued to explore facets of his myth throughout my life. At first, I embraced him as “the god of ecstasy”. Many people know Dionysus as the god of wine–Bacchus to the Romans–for whom intoxication is way to transgress the boundaries of conventional society. Later, reading Nietzsche, I explored other Dionysian aspects of our culture–celebrations of “unreason”. Here, I advance a Dionysian spirituality in the pursuit of a shamanic approach to recovery.
The Dionysian Mysteries were a complex set of religions found among the ancient Greeks, known for their use of intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques, such as music and dance, to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a more natural and primal state. Dionysian religion has been called “the voodoo cult of the Mediterrean”. Taking place four days every two years on Mount Parnassus, the ecstatic cult of Dionysus was centered on the sacramental use of wine and other intoxicants, possibly including the fly agaric mushroom (amanita muscaria). The rites were based on a death-rebirth theme and on spirit possession. Maenads and satyrs went wild. The constraints of civilization were tossed out. Oppressed outsiders, such as women, slaves and foreigners, were momentarily liberated and transgressively inverted in their roles. The activities of the devotees of Dionysus are interpreted as cathartic, liberating, invigorating and transformative. “Evoi!” they shouted.
Dionysian religion, as I imagine it today, invokes 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 notion of “controlled use” are absent, where prohibition ideologies and practices are carried out by the State, and in which the mass psychology is quite different from our pre-modern ancestors.
While the controlled use of entheogens is certainly possible and desirable for many, for others it might not be possible or desirable. We must, of course, differentiate between substance use, substance abuse and compulsive use. “Drug war ideologies” have erased from our public understanding any notion of non-abusive or functional use. Moreover, the forms of use that might have worked for earlier societies might no longer work because both the “set and setting” have radically changed.
While responsible substance use was clearly a part of the ancient Dionysian religion and can continue to play a vital role in modern Dionysian spiritualities, alternative forms of ecstasy need to be embraced for those for whom substance abuse has been a problem. Substance abuse and compulsive use are failures to follow the guidance of Dionysus. 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, sexual longings. These transgressive practices of sacred psychosis work to dissolve the ego.
Nietzschean Affirmations of Life
My understandings of Dionysian spirituality have been greatly enhanced by my studies of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche proposes that the movement of humanity for survival has been guided by a sacred general economy. On the one side we have order, law and creation—represented by Greek god, Apollo. On the other side we have chaos, transgression and destruction-represented by Greek god, Dionysus. On the one side we have Apollo, who represents beauty, permanence and perfection. On the other side we have Dionysus, who represents tragedy, intoxication and reverie.
Modern humans have become debased by absolute adherence to order and stability. Through this Apollonian triumph we have lost our essential meaning and have become “things”. How we yearn to return to the immediacy of life at the edge of chaos. How we yearn to dance again with Dionysus! Nietzsche called for a return to the repressed side of the Dionysian, though he knew it was a Promethean task. “Are we up to it?”, he asked.
Nietzsche suggested that that which brings the greatest joy also brings the greatest pain, and that that which makes us suffer also keeps us going. This is the paradox of our drive for jouissance (ecstasy). You cannot close off all awareness of jouissance in a world based on the rational ego, capitalist production and bureaucratic efficiency. This is impossible. Jouissance will break out anyway.
Nietzsche’s concept of “Ur-eine” posits a Dionysian epistemology, or way of knowing, that treats the sacred ecstasy of sexuality and mind-altering substances as potential sources of truth. Our “Will to Party” leads us to transgressive acts in which boundaries are crossed, taboos are violated and mystical frenzies are achieved. These practices reveal of the flow of our desires. Nietzsche urged us to “Say yes to life!”. Our world is sacred, and humans, as part of this world, are thus also sacred. Nietzsche urged us to appreciate our earthly life and natures and to see our human natures as what is best in us and not as evil. Our bodies and instincts similarly are not base nor vile sources of “sin”, but are magnificient sources of meaning.
Rather than a focus on a future afterlife, Nietzsche suggests that the temporal focus should be on the present, for it is only in the present moment that we can assert our aliveness, take action, engage our projects or charge our directions. We need to find tremendous meaning and satisfaction in the finite endeavors in which we are engaged now and in this world. Nietzsche urges us to throw ourselves into life and take satisfaction with what we do. When we do things intensely and strive for advancement we grow and learn, even when we falling short of we goal. The meaning of life is to be found in the enchantment of this world.
Let me quote one section of Ecce Homo, in which Nietzsche discusses Dionysian philosophy:
“The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being–all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else through to date.”
Central to the Dionysian philosophy is the acceptance of suffering, amor fati (“love of fate”), saying yes to life, and remaining affirmative. I will leave it to the reader to ponder the above glorious passage which is filled in many deep insights.
The Amethyst Path
The legend of the origin of amethyst comes from Greek myths. 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. This is an often forgotten aspect of the Dionysian myths that we can draw upon in pursuit of a shamanic approach to drug abuse and addiction.
Using the Amethyst Path: Two Approaches
The “Amethyst Path” is my name for the shamanic approach to drug abuse and addiction I hope to articulate here. It might be used in conjunction with other approaches. It embraces a spiritual approach to recovery. I envision two “shamanic” approaches to recovery from what are often referred to as drug abuse and addiction.
(1) Traditional Shamanic Journeying
The first is a more traditional form of shamanism, such as found among ancient tribal people or among modern Earth-based spiritualities, employing “techniques of ecstasy” to alter consciousness. In this form the shaman-as-healer “journeys to the Otherworld” for the addict-as-client. Alternately, the shaman-addict might journey for themselves to the Otherworld. While a traditional shaman may choose to use entheogens as the “technique of ecstasy” employed to “journey” to the Otherworld to gain healing insights for the addict-client, alternative forms might also be used given our concern here. Rhythmic drumming has been found by many to be a safe and reliable form of trance inducement.
In 1981, while in San Francisco, I undertook a three-day intensive shamanic initiation with a medicine woman from the Bear Tribe. We worked exclusively with rhythmic drumming as a trance-inducement technique. As someone who has consumed plant-entheogens, I did not find the experience directly comparable. Basically, we achieved a yogic state of meditation while laying on the floor and then were guided by the instructor through what seemed like a visualization exercise. Emphasis was put on referring to this as a “different reality” and as a “journey to the Otherworld”. While in this state, we were led to encounter our “animal ally” and to ask them for a healing message to bring “back”. My understanding is that this conforms to the basic outline of the Harner Core Shamanism. Since that time I have done more training in shamanic counseling and extensive journeying.
From a Jungian perspective, the addict has a “thirst for wholeness”, but has lost touch with important parts of their self. Through various processes, including dreams, imagination and therapy, they can contact, reintegrate and celebrate their different parts, thus coming to know and express their true selves. When people do not deal with their unacknowledged inner challenges, what Jung called the “shadow”, symptoms can arise. In modern societies, we often find Dionysian countercultures divorced from the wisdom of shamanism. Dionysian spirituality embraces spirit possession and divine intoxication. When you subtract the divine from the Dionysian you are left with the Devil and addiction–the dark sides of the Dionysian archetype.
Taking these insights into the realm of shamanic counseling, we might see a parallel with the shaman’s use of “soul retrievals”. Soul retrieval refers to a shamanic practice that aims to reintegrate various aspects of the soul (let us say their self or identity) that might have become disconnected or lost through trauma. On the shamanic journey these fragments are gathered together in the Otherworld and then re-integrated with the client. The shaman might seek information from their animal ally on where to find the lost parts.
(2) Addict-as-Misguided Shaman
The second shamanic approach to recovery from substance problems that I am advancing is perhaps more metaphorical. Here I am arguing that many 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.
My understanding of substance abuse and addiction has not only been informed by my research on shamanism, but also by my studies as a substance abuse counselor and as a social psychologist. My experience as a substance abuse counselor has brought me into contact with numerous people for whom addiction is a “spiritual emergency”. Often these were people who were looking for something “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 loose sight of their lofty goals, what they were looking for. Their quest is a thirst for wholeness.
As a social psychologist, I spent considerable time thinking through the processes by which people enter into and exit out of drug-using behavior. My model highlights our human capacity to learn from our environment, particularly how we learn to define the world around us and put meaning onto it. Moreover, my model highlights people’s self-concepts—their images and feeling about themselves.
People enter social worlds as “outsiders”, not yet identifying with other participants, nor necessarily defining their actions similarly. Through sustained interactions with others in the subculture, they learn to define their actions in ways similar to that of members of that social world. As the individual takes on the subculture’s perspective, the new subculture becomes a “reference group”. As the newcomer continues to interact with the group, its members become “significant others”, who will shape the newcomer’s self-concept or sense of identity. As time goes on, the individual acts in conformity with their new self-identity. This general outline is a learning model that explains both entry into drug-using and non-using subcultures.
I am suggesting that those who are addicts or drug abusers moving into recovery can come to define themselves as “misguided shamans” and as “wounded healers”. Defining themselves in these ways, I believe that they can connect to a universal truth about their affliction, come to place their 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 loving support, and who will hold the individual accountable. In my experiences counseling substance users, I have found that many have poor self-concepts and in early recovery they want to beat themselves up. 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. As they say, recovery happens through our relationships with others. Our sense of who we are comes from how we imagine other people see us.
Recovery is a “turning point”—a social process in which an individual undergoes a massive transformation in identity. This is often accompanied by the introduction to new significant others (their new “tribe”), new daily rounds and routines, as well as new ways of defining the events of their life. In this brief paper, I have outlined a shamanic approach to recovery from substance abuse issues. This approach embraces spirituality as a tool in the rehabilitation process. Specifically, I have proposed two shamanic approaches. One is the traditional journeying of the shaman to the Otherworld to bring back a healing message for the client or to do soul retrieval.
Perhaps more pragmatic is the second approach, through which I have urged those going through the recovery process to consider themselves as “misguided shamans” and to embrace a notion of themselves as “wounded healers”. Substance users often have self-concepts that are wrought with negativity, and often beat themselves up over the whole process of getting heavily involved the consumption of alcohol or other drugs. By coming to see themselves as shamans, they can re-interpret their drug-using behavior in a spiritual context: they had noble intentions and valid purposes underlying the pursuit of intoxication to excess. Often, they can see their addictive life phase as a “spiritual emergency”.
Moreover, by defining themselves as “wounded healers”, they take on a time-honored role of 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. Similar to the service work connected with the twelfth step of AA and NA programs, the idea is to bring the insights of the journey through addiction to others out there who are still suffering.
The Amethyst Path treats the addictive experience as a “spiritual emergency”. Along the path to spiritual enlightenment, even the greatest mystics and sages have faced dark times, difficult struggles, and walks in the desert. I have called these “The Ordeal”, and have named the following poem with that phrase:
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