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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Alcohol, Transformation and Spiritual Intoxication

The word "alcohol" is derived from the Arabic alkoh'l, meaning collyrium, a metallic powder obtained from distilling the bark of the kohl tree that was used as a glittering eye-makeup in the mid-East. Small wonder, then, that mystic Sufis (an esoteric branch of Islam) used alcohol, particularly wine, as a metaphor for higher spiritual experience and consciousness. The product of distillation (including the distillation of their greatest spiritual wisdom) made everything seem more beautiful, it seems.

This explains, at several levels, the oftentimes startling use of drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication and higher consciousness by some of Islam's greatest poets - Rumi, Khabir and Omar Khayam, for example - a daring and meaningful metaphor considering, particularly, that there is a strict proscription against drinking alcohol and taking intoxicants in Islam. The great Sufi teachers seem to have intuitively known the truth realized centuries later by the great psychologist, Carl Jung: that the drunkard's thirst for alcohol is "on a low level the thirst of our being for wholeness, in medieval terms: union with God."

Consider the following description of "the tavern" by renowned poet and best-selling translator of Rumi's poetry, Coleman Barks:
"In the tavern are many wines - the wine of delight in color and form and taste, the wine of the intellect's agility, the fine port of stories, and the cabernet of soul singing. Being human means entering this place where entrancing varieties of desire are served. The grapeskin of ego breaks and a pouring begins. Fermentation is one of the oldest symbols for human transformation. When grapes combine their juice and are closed up together for a time in a dark place, the results are spectacular. This is what lets two drunks meet so that they don't know who is who. Pronouns no longer apply in the tavern's mud-world of excited confusions and half-articulated wantings."

"But after some time in the tavern, a point comes, a memory of elsewhere, a longing for the source, and the drunks must set off from the tavern and begin the return. The Qur'an says, "We are all returning" The tavern is a kind of glorious hell that human beings enjoy and suffer and then push off from in their search for truth. The tavern is a dangerous region where sometimes disguises are necessary, but never hide your heart, Rumi urges. Keep open there. A breaking apart, a crying out in the street, begins in the tavern, and the human soul turns to find its way home."

"It's 4 a.m. Nasruddin leaves the tavern and walks the town aimlessly. A policeman stops him. "Why are you out wandering the streets in the middle of the night?" "Sir," replies Nasruddin, "if I knew the answer to that question, I would have been home hours ago."

[Coleman Barks, "The Essential Rumi," p.1.]
Welcome home, my friends in recovery! Let the grapeskin of ego break and the pouring begin! Let the fermentation lead to human transformation!

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