- Ayahuasca and the Twelve Steps: An Anonymous Friendship - May 3, 2019
Heroin needle marks on my neck, benzodiazepines with alcohol in the mornings, and frequent crack-cocaine binges; that was my life for well over 20 years. I was in the bottom of the 9th inning of the dangerous game I was playing. And I was losing… badly. As I write this, I am two weeks away from celebrating 10 years of continuous sobriety.
The preamble to the Twelve Steps, as it is originally found, begins this way: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1992, p. 58). Undoubtedly, the key word in this sentence is “thoroughly.” It is also the most elusive. I think that many would agree that the Twelve Steps have the power to dramatically transform a life when they are fully embraced. But, though they are simple, they are certainly not easy. Finding a sufficient amount of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to actually take these steps in their entirety is almost impossibly hard, even for those most desperately in need of them.
In a similar way, many agree that ayahuasca is an immensely powerful psycho-spiritual tool. It can uncover a vastness of hidden memories, can evoke wondrous and ineffable peak experiences, and maybe, just maybe, able to help an individual to positively alter his or her life. Possible applications of these profound, visionary encounters fill our imaginations, but there is a shortcoming. Ayahuasca is an engine that needs a transmission for its benefits and blessings to endure. Many discussions these days center on integration. But what exactly does that mean for an addict, and what might it look like?
Well, here we have two worthy, valuable candidates; each is single looking for a partner. One is a catalyst, the other is a container. One is a seeker, the other is a map. Benny Shanon describes ayahuasca this way: “The ayahuasca experience is like music played on an instrument which is the human soul. And this music is a perfect mirroring of one’s entire being”.1
A door to the possibility of change is opened; through it, a gift of hope may be received.
In other accounts of ayahuasca’s inner terrain, one hears words like “mystical,” “transcendent,” “oceanic,” “awakened,” and “reborn.” Whatever the specific language or conceptions might be, it is clear that those ingredients so essential to the Twelve Step approach, “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness,” can become richly available. A door to the possibility of change is opened; through it, a gift of hope may be received.
The Twelve Steps comprise a ready-made system with multiple adaptations. They provide a straightforward set of spiritually-informed instructions whose goal is to lead one to “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism,” or whatever other “ism” one might suffer from.2 The formal version of the process uses the phrase “spiritual awakening.” The meaning in this context is the same: “a new state of consciousness and being,” with respect to one’s human condition.3
These principles are firmly rooted in truth and love. Their practice enables one to see through the false self and its various projects and disguises, and to find a god of his or her own understanding.
These principles are firmly rooted in truth and love. Their practice enables one to see through the false self and its various projects and disguises, and to find a god of his or her own understanding. Dogma is not—or at least shouldn’t be—part of the path. The entire aim of the process is summarized in Step Twelve: “Having had a Spiritual Awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all of our affairs” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1992).
Contemplation and Action
It is about connecting, or reconnecting, to human community with greater sensitivity, creativity, and effectiveness. It is a path of waking up and growing up.
The structured, systematic nature of the Steps is centered in contemplation and action. Taken together, this coupling helps to ensure a lasting, grounded psychedelic transformation. It is vitally important for this pattern to be followed. It helps keep one from moving into what, Alcoholics Anonymous’ co-founder, Bill Wilson, called “the world of spiritual make-believe” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1992). In the words of philosopher Huston Smith, “the goal of the spiritual life is not altered states but altered traits”.4 Yes, the initial intention is to get and to stay sober. But it is much more than mere abstinence; it is about sobriety of both spirit and emotions. It is about connecting, or reconnecting, to human community with greater sensitivity, creativity, and effectiveness. It is a path of waking up and growing up.
It is clear, at least to this practitioner, that these two modalities can be powerful, natural allies. But is there an immediate love connection? Well, the answer is a little more complicated. As much mutual affinity as they may have for one another, there is considerable antagonism between the respective parties. That is unfortunate but somewhat understandable.
The Twelve Steps are typically found in settings that identify as “total abstinence” programs. The conflict here is obvious. All intoxicants are strongly discouraged. The idea of deliberately altering one’s mind is counterintuitive. To do so is to invite a relapse into active addiction. Furthering this resistance is the fact that many, if not most, people in recovery programs these days have had plenty of experience with psychedelics at some time in their lives. No permanent benefit was achieved then, so why should now be any different?
On the other side, there is the polite but palpable dismissiveness from the sacred-plant world toward Twelve Step models. Whether consciously or not, many in the brave old world of visionary substances look at that approach as a dinosaur leftover from the ineffectual mainstream. “Please,” they say, “anything but that.” The idea that one is “powerless” or has a “disease,” or that one needs to “make confessions and amends,” elicit stern, visceral displeasure. Memories of being court-ordered to such programs rouse deep resentments. And the “god” word is simply beyond the pale and is the final nail in the coffin for many. Ok: deep breaths; things are not as futile as they seem. A pleasing and fruitful relationship is possible; only a fresh look is needed.
Ayahuasca is Safe from an Addiction Perspective
Hedonistic pleasure-seeking is rarely a motivation for using ayahuasca for several reasons. While the brew can grant moments that are “en-joyable,” it is not a reliable euphoriant in the way other problematic intoxicants generally are. Neurochemically speaking, ayahuasca’s alkaloids are not thought to cause pathological reinforcement in the pleasure centers, such as the nucleus accumbens.5 Also relevant is that psychedelics, in general, do not cause the accumulation of the transcription factor, delta fos b, in the reward pathway. Studies increasingly suggest that this neuronal protein may play a common role for all types of addictive substances.6 Biomarkers such as these do seem to support the idea that ayahuasca’s potential for abuse is quite low. Moreover, tolerance and physical dependence are not observed in ritual users of ayahuasca.
One important caveat should be noted here: Ayahuasca-induced flights into visionary realms have been known to inspire fantasy and fascination in some users who approach the experience with unsound and ungrounded intentions. Addicts and alcoholics should pay especially close attention to this point and they would do well to invite the observations of others into their process.
Building New Pathways; Creating New Lives
The ayahuasca experience can help a person learn to love themselves. More importantly, it can enable one to truly and effectively love someone else. Love, in its highest sense, is a verb.
Integration is less about talking than it is about actually doing. Being integrated is simply acting, thinking, and feeling with integrity. With honesty and humility, we clean up the clutter of our own yards. We then find ourselves empowered to help improve the neighborhood. The reciprocity is beautiful; the more we give, the more we receive. Practitioners accept the world and its people as they are, not fatalistically or cynically, but dynamically and compassionately. Twelve Step groups call this “living life on life’s terms.” The ayahuasca experience can help a person learn to love themselves. More importantly, it can enable one to truly and effectively love someone else. Love, in its highest sense, is a verb.
Studies suggest that ayahuasca heightens neuro-plasticity, both during and immediately after consumption.7 When the sessions are followed with constructive and redemptive actions, this enhanced impressionability can foster the growth of new neural pathways along healthier psychological lines. In this manner, one quite literally acts his or her way into new ways of thinking and feeling.
Through the mutual actions of these two paths, communion with one’s chosen higher powers and with one’s higher self is possible. An opportunity arises for a reunion with the human family. As someone who has personally walked both roads, I can heartily praise them as worthy and vital companions. I found that the objections they once had for each other tended to evaporate in the light of newfound well-being. They reveal themselves to be precious gifts free to all who would ask. Sober life is good!
- Shanon, B. (2002). The antipodes of the mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ↩
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (1992). Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. 4th Edition. New York City, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ↩
- Wilson, B. (1953). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York City, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ↩
- Smith, H. (2003). Cleansing the doors of perception: The religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications. ↩
- Leister, M., & Pricket, J. (2012). Hypothesis regarding mechanisms of ayahuasca in the treatment of addictions. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 44(3), 200–208. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/25128457/Hypotheses_Regarding_the_Mechanisms_of_Ayahuasca_in_the_Treatment_of_Addictions ↩
- Nestler, E. (2012). Transcriptional mechanisms of drug addiction. Clinical Psychopharmacological Neuroscience 10(3), 136–143. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3569166/ ↩
- Clave, E. D. (2016). Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience, and therapeutic potential. Brain Research Bulletin 126(1), 89–101. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297891050_Ayahuasca_Pharmacology_neuroscience_and_therapeutic_potential ↩
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