Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Drug use for spiritual purpose- a few thoughts

Before you start reading, I thought I should clarify my position on illegal drugs.  I don't like them, and that comes from personal experiences with drug users.  Those drug users have caused a great deal of harm to many people.  The drugs are only partly to blame, but they were very much a factor in these people's behavior.  Medical marijuana is a tricky issue for me; I have seen people's suffering eased by it, but I have also seen it misused.  I don't think that the average addict should be put in prison, and I think that rehabilitation would be a kinder, wiser move than incarceration.  I also think that citizens of the world need to have some very frank discussions with our governments about drug use.  Cycles of violence, poverty, and mental health problems tangle with enforcement of drug laws worldwide.  Until we understand the variables, the "War on Drugs" will continue to fail.  That being said, there are long and valid traditions of mind altering drugs used for spiritual reasons worldwide.  Because of this, I think the topic needs to be broached.  -CK

As an anthropology student, I was treated to some interesting looks into the spirituality of other people in the world.  Snake handlers in the Appalachians, shamans in the rain forest, "witch doctors" in Africa, which as I write this, strikes me as a bit odd that none of these are women , but Anthropology just began to realize it's masculine bias in the last forty years, so it's not that surprising. Anyhow, back to where I was going before I got distracted by that shiny new thought, mind altering states are common spiritual practices worldwide.

For pagans and New Agers and non-traditional (read that as not part of the Abrahamic traditions, by and large, since there are exemptions to my rule), the altered mind states are known, even if the practice of those is widely variable.  Meditation, self-hypnosis, ecstatic dance, and trance work are common.  Less common, or possibly just less commonly discussed, are other ways of altering the mind.

In many cultures, hallucinogens and plant based drugs have been used to open spiritual doorways.  Infamously, well known, if controversial, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon tried out some of Yanamamo's concoction of choice while studying them in the 1960's. You can watch the bizarre results in the ethnographic film, The Axe Fight, if you'd like (take what you see with a pinch of salt as it's a controversial topic that has long embroiled the anthropological community, and will likely never be sorted).  It's sometimes hard to reconcile drugs, as they are defined and thought of in Western societies, with this other idea, as helpful spiritual tools.

On one hand, for most of us, is drugs that are supposedly intended to heal and those that are illicit, insidious, and illegal (not all of these are all three).  There are drugs to treat things and drugs for recreation.  There is also a whole lot of money being made off both, and that muddies the waters further about what is and what isn't good for us, as individuals and as human beings.  These mind and body altering substances also lack a corresponding spiritual and sometimes over social customs. they lack ritual and tradition, and sometimes, I wonder if that isn't a big part of how they become addictive.

If, as is supposed by the various governments who police drug use, mind altering drugs, used without a prescription from a licensed and insured professional, are bad, why didn't other cultures have insane rates of drug addiction?  We suppose things about drugs: They undermine society; they endanger all of us, and they will spread the disease of addiction throughout the lands.  We never look at what have been used for, why they might have purpose in other aspects of our lives.

Doses of mind altering substances opened the gates for initiates and shamans into Otherworlds.  They have been the lubrication that makes travel to and from the intangible worlds our bodies cannot touch.  Some are driven to madness by these experiences, and others return safely after having their minds opened to the spirits, the gods, the ancestors so that communities can touch these worlds safely through their spiritual leader.  The use of these substances was regulated by tradition, by ritual and long history.  There was a time and place for these practices that was clearly defined by their societies.  We don't have that space.

As spiritual people, especially pagans, where do we stand on this topic?  I'm sure responses will vary widely, as they do for nearly every issue facing us.  It's something to think about.  Personally, I find information to be the ultimate in mind alteration.  I also have addicts in the family, so I'm hesitant to endorse any drug use, even if it may, technically, be legal (legalization of certain drugs is a minefield issue that should have far more honest scientific evaluations and better dialogue from all sides).  I might see a benefit to some people to use marijuana medicinally, but you'll never convince me that meth has a saving grace.  On another level, I don't like to dictate other people's spiritual paths.  I can appreciate the cultural differences that divide some of us from other belief systems.  Before trying anything like this, though, I would encourage you to get informed about what you're doing. Be mentally prepared, and be safe.  And if in doubt, don't do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment, share or ask questions, but please, keep comments in good taste and respectful.