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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, February 28, 2010

Intoxication and the Spiritual Life

Look at the caravan, O guide, all the camels are lined up drunk
King drunk, teacher drunk, friend drunk, all else drunk
O Gardener, the musician’s thunder brought forth the cloud of the wine-bearer
Garden drunk, meadow drunk, rose drunk and thorn drunk
O revolving skies how many times upon this path are wayfarer
Dust drunk, water drunk, wind drunk, fire drunk
The visible is in such state, questioning the invisible yourself spare
Soul drunk, and mind drunk, imagination and thoughts drunk
I cry out and sing for Beloved; for the Beloved much I care
Voice drunk, and harp drunk, plectrum and strings drunk
The lone spiritual monk and the wise mendicant Sufi dare
Robes and gown tear, through the market place pass drunk
Each drunk in his own way, in the limits of his own share
O awake and observe how even every cloud is drunk.

— Jalaladdin Rumi in the Divan-e Shams translated by Shahriar Shahriari

Okay, here’s my thesis: We were born for joy. I repeat. We were born for joy, that state of happiness, felicity and delight which, often contrary to what may seem obvious, is our common birthright. I know how it can seem contrary to what we may have experienced in our sense of separateness, of isolation, in the face of such sadness as many of us have had to endure. However, even within our isolation we can almost always feel a seed of knowing there’s something more. We find it in our longing for another. We glimpse it in all our desires. The longing itself suggests something we might yet find.

Of course we too often confuse the matter. We have a thirst and we think if we get that object of our desire, our thirst will be quenched. But, it rarely turns out so. Too often, we can’t put a stopper on the desire and it becomes compulsion, either for one thing after another, or for one thing that we return to and return to, even though it never satisfies. Instead of joy we find frustration, and sadness, our sense of isolation confirmed.

Compulsion and addiction are those irresistible and persistent impulses to some action. Those who’ve been caught up in this experience know it can feel like it comes from outside of us. And it can be overwhelming. Much hurt follows when we confuse this longing for joy, for connection, for knowing our true selves with some object outside of us; say sex, or drink, or drugs, or, well, I suspect you can name it for yourself.

But here’s the rub. Those places, sex and drink and drugs and, well, I suspect you can name it for yourself; they can also be gates to the great joy, a leap beyond obsession with ourselves, and through that outside to a place beyond that outside, to a place which is our experience of connection to each other and the great world. This joy is fluid and a constantly renewed discovery that what we should call ourselves does not end with our skin. A persistent metaphor for this knowing is intoxication, a divine intoxication. This encounter is the pearl of great price; it is our own personal discovery of that joy for which we were born.

So, while knowing there are dangers involved, considerable dangers, my own family and the hurt and death which followed depression and addiction bare witness to the dangers; still, I know considering intoxication as a key to a deeper knowing can be worth reflecting on. In fact, I think, we need to.

Every culture knows intoxication, both the sad kind and the joyful kind. And that’s why in some, in fact most spiritual traditions we find cautions and simultaneously calls to our fundamental joy as a kind of divine intoxication. Among the Sufis in particular we find this divine drunkenness as a persistent image. But there are Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Taoist allusions to this, as well. The earth-centered traditions make much of this. Only the Buddhists seem for the most part wary of the use of intoxication as an image of that gateway. A caution we should be aware of. Particularly as some traditions use that smaller intoxication as a vehicle to the larger.

The phrase divine intoxication describes the experience we all can have when we bring our separateness and our unity into our hearts, and it becomes how we see the world. Part of the power of the image of intoxication, is that we have all seen what can go wrong, how dangerous intoxication might be, can be, is. And so, we who have committed our lives to this spiritual enterprise, we all have our stories. Some are helpful, direct pointers. Others, well, perhaps they’re more cautionary.

So, for instance, as most know, I came of age in the nineteen sixties in the San Francisco Bay Area. This all by itself says a great deal about me, more than I can comfortably describe. One area at that uncomfortable edge was how those of us caught up with spiritual questions were as a group enticed toward drugs and religion, and particularly what I like to call techno-shamanism, reconstruction of the shamanic quest as a spiritual discipline. Or, without the gilding, getting high as a spiritual practice.

I was very much aware of what alcohol could do to people. My father’s drunken haze throughout my childhood and the dark consequences for us as a family was something of a caution. But I was on the dumber side of the human intelligence spectrum and I bought the fashionable rhetoric that while alcohol was stupid, pot was delightful, and LSD was sacramental.

It was all very spiritual. The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was background music, Timothy Leary was in full hedonic swing, and backyard shamans everywhere were mixing up and offering shortcuts to mystical experience at very reasonable prices. There was even a whole literature emerging. In particular I’d read a lot of Aldous Huxley, including his two small treatises on psychedelics, the Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell.

I was maybe eighteen when with a small band of friends I dropped acid for the first time. Within twenty minutes the world had taken on some very strange shapes indeed as we wandered through the Anthony Chabot Regional Park in the East Bay’s Oakland Hills. I may not have been the sharpest tack in the box, but I quickly noticed the world was not as I’d previously thought. The wind sang, trees bowed and the grass whispered. Instead of a walk along the surface of things I noticed how I’d fallen through the Rabbit’s hole into some strange, very strange wonderland.

All went pretty well until I looked up into the sky, and felt it open, and open. I peered into the dark night, even though it was a full on California summer afternoon. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Ray Milland in the Man With the X-Ray Eyes. It comes to a bad end when Milland’s character sees into the center of the universe and finds an all seeing eye. If I recall the film correctly, it doesn’t actually say the eye was malign, but as I began to see that eye, I picked up it wasn’t friendly. And I felt that wasn’t a good thing. I peered ever more deeply, beginning to fall into the eye, despair began to envelop me, a smothering cloak.

And then a hand rested on my shoulder and a friend said, “Whoa, James. Look at this.” I turned my attention from the sky, a twirl of light, and saw he was holding a small pebble resting on his open palm. I was entranced with its beauty. As Blake sang, “to see a world in a grain of sand/and a heaven in a wild flower.” Then the kaleidoscope shifted to something else. The next hours were a hobbit adventure wandering through the Shire until the effects of the drug passed away together with the afternoon.

Who knows why things turn out the way they do? For me this psychedelic adventure, although intense, was brief. I had persistent suspicions that chemicals weren’t what it was about. What, after all, does a hobbit walk, or even a malevolent eye watching all, have to do with melding into God, with finding the truth? I suspected strongly what the mystics were describing, which I read voraciously, despite Huxley’s guidance, weren’t the same thing as I was finding in psychedelics. And, so, as most here know, I ended up entering a Zen monastery. The people not strong on intoxication as a metaphor for awakening to who we really are.

A couple of years later when I returned to the world, as it were, the psychedelic era had disintegrated, Haight-Ashbury, the cosmic center, had become a denizen for speed freaks and heroin addicts, and a very dangerous place to visit. The whole enterprise appeared to have fallen into madness, and as far as I was concerned the techno-shaman experiment had failed. I admit I have friends who beg to differ. And, to be honest there was one legitimate lesson I learned from the spiritual use of drugs, and that was the world, indeed, is not how we normally think it is. That is an important lesson. But that’s, near as I can tell, pretty much all the spiritual teachings drugs offered me, and I suspect, offer. And, truthfully, you can find the same lesson by just sitting down, shutting up, and paying a little attention to what’s going on.

We were born for joy. I repeat. We were born for joy, that state of happiness, felicity and delight which, often contrary to what may seem obvious, is our common birthright. And, everything is an intoxicant. Everything. Whether it be a pebble or grain of sand or a friend or a lover or a bottle of wine. However, there are those two kinds of intoxicants, those that diminish us, and those that expand us.

And, this world is so complicated in some ways; the truth is each thing may be either. And sometimes both. So caution. Be careful. We need to live our lives in a dangerous world. But, if we are careful, and if we are just a little lucky, as we give our attention to what is in front of us, strange and beautiful things can happen.

May I suggest, for us, for you and me at this time and this place, the best way to throw ourselves wide, to find that divine intoxication, that joy which the universe has promised us from before when our parents were born is, really, simple enough.

Our guide on this way can be the belle of Amherst, who lived a narrow life, but had a gigantic soul. Her narrow shoulders fit just right through the gate. And she points the way for us.

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

Let us join together in that drunkenness.