Dionysus: Search for Ecstasy

I stopped drinking alcohol around fourteen years ago, after my freshman year of college, and have only touched it a handful of times since then. I usually say I quit during my time living at an ashram as I lost my desire for it while immersed in the divine, but that’s a lie—I quit way before the ashram.  It was difficult to admit to myself why I stopped drinking and now my body seems to have lost the ability to digest it at all. That used to make me sad and now I find it rather enjoyable that one taste of wine makes me tipsy (some call this a cheap date, while I call it an extreme highly sensitive person reaction).

But it didn’t always used to be this way. Freshman year of college was full of all the things I was ashamed to do before…all the things a “good girl” shouldn’t do--I drank a lot, took my clothes off a lot, and did drugs--and I had never been more joyous. For the first time in my life I really let loose…and then it all changed.  I was at a party and found myself 10 beers in and in a room with a man I didn’t know. He began touching me and I remember being so scared I was paralyzed in fear, too afraid to say no and too drunk to fight back. It was the beginning of my sophomore year and while I won’t share details (I fear it is all too a familiar story of women in college), it was the first time I understood the vulnerability of losing control and shame that comes with it.

The rest of my sophomore year and a lot of my junior year, I was deeply depressed. I barely ate, mostly kept to myself (despite living in a sorority house), and felt desperately alone with my shame and fear. Now, many years later I feel grateful for the entire experience in transforming my relationship to shame and joy (and alcohol). The stunning extremes of ecstasy and addiction (hopefully with rebirth), exemplify the planet Pluto to me. (Though addiction is also closely associated with Neptune.)

The past several years I have been deeply honoring my suffering, darkness, and process of transformation associated Pluto and now feel prepared to explore the more jovial expression—Dionysus (that and I just got back from wine country).  Dionysus has always been one of my favorite gods in Greek mythology. He was the youngest on Mount Olympus and was half-man and half-God (a son of Zeus with a mortal). While his mother was killed in a plot by jealous Hera, he grew up in the forest with the large cats and goats (I love both). However, my favorite part of his mythology surrounds his wife, Adriane. They are the happiest couple in all of Olympus and when she dies he put her in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis.

Who wouldn’t want to be married to Dionysus? Plenty of wine, dancing, and good parties. He is both the fire of the heavens and the sensuality of Earthly pleasure. (I also bet he was great in bed, being the archetype of surrender and orgies.) One of my favorite books, Ecstasy: Understanding the psychology of joy by Robert A Johnson speaks to the expression of Dionysus as what is missing in our culture (and what it seems I have been missing the past 14 years besides wine).

Historically, Dionysus was worshiped across Europe and Asian as early as 13th century BCE. The Greeks had a five-day festival to celebrate him in the springtime when the grapevine began having leaves. They honored him with comedic plays (not the normal solemn temple tradition more popular back then) and goat worship. Interestingly enough the celebrations didn’t include drinking and many Dionysus’ followers didn’t drink at all. As Johnson explains, They knew divine ecstasy was found in being conscious, as you can’t be joyous and wasted simultaneously.  We drink for the first sip, to enter a new realm where we can let go a bit of our burdens and surrender into ourselves. (And now this is where I stop drinking otherwise I feel sick.)

“Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so also this teaching and discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.” The Buddha

I don’t judge people who drink or do drugs, but I just don’t understand it. After I stopped drinking and graduated college, I became a spiritual seeker. I started a hatha yoga practice (hard to believe more than a decade ago), joined a Buddhist Sangha, lived at an ashram, started a meditation practice, attended many churches, and I still felt a void. I was attempting to escape my pain a different way, through spiritual bypassing. I attempted to use spirituality to easy my sense of lack, but it was the realm of the sensuous surrender that ultimately healed me—the world of Dionysus and Pluto.

Here are some ways to celebrate and honor Dionysus without drinking (or spiritually bypassing):

  • ·       Being naked (enough said)
  • ·       Dancing (especially naked)
  • ·       Fire rituals (hello Burning Man)
  • ·       Listening or reading Rumi or Hafiz poetry
  • ·       Sacred sex practices, Dionysus enjoyed sensual pleasures!
  • ·       Practicing being irrational, allowing the rational mind to rest
  • ·       Appreciate the balance of androgyny (Dionysus was both nurturing and complete)
  • ·       Listening to Beyonce’s “Drunken Love” song on repeat (because well, the name says it all)
  • ·       Joy v happiness (exultation of spirit, gladness, delight)
  • ·       Attending or creating ritual (not goat sacrificing, unless you really want to)
  • ·       Writing poetry or creating art (Dionysus buddies were the Muses)
  • ·       Going to a comedy show or movie as an expression of joy and laughter
  • ·       Vulnerability and surrendering into a loss of control

 Johnson says, “Addiction is the negative side of spiritual seeking.” Johnson suggests we fill this emptiness by attempting to find our own dormant ecstasy. Truth is that I don’t miss drinking, only the me I am when I drank…the one more connected to her sensuality and relaxation. I’ve spent fourteen years (hello Saturn cycles) trying to recover from fear and control. As if I had to swing so far to the other extreme where I finally feel ready to go back--to feel safe enough in myself to let go a bit. 

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” ~Nietzsche

Ultimately, this is what we all want, a feeling of Dionysian ecstasy, or as Johnson puts it “…to touch the irrational wisdom of the senses and experience joy.” It doesn’t mean we stay here always, but to know we have access to it at any time with or without substances. As Jung points out, we are no longer in a phase of either/or, as integration of the whole requires an either-and-or way of thinking. When we bring back ecstatic experiences into our lives instead of ignoring them and manifesting as the shadow of addiction, we honor Dionysus. When we no longer attempt to transcend the pain and suffering of the material realm through drinking or drugs (or spiritual bypassing), we remember the joy found in the sensual, Earthly existence.

According to Johnson, it was around 186 ACE with the rise of the patriarchal Roman, Jewish, and Christian traditions that Dionysus followers were prosecuted. They confused him with the drunken god Bacchus and began uplifting the god of light, Apollo, and forgetting the ifemininite god of “down here,” Dionysus. Johnson says with this loss of spiritual ecstasy in the Western society we began filling it the only way we knew how…with danger, excitement, and addiction. Without the inner experience of ecstasy in our lives we look for its physical equivalent and as we cannot find it in our materialistic world this craving manifests as addiction.  

I'm done with the current model for ecstasy based on alcohol and escapism and ready for joy and one sip of wine to become worship. Our society, without reverence for the human, chaotic experience has lost itself in wanting to escape it and I'm ready to own it fully. While I probably won’t become an official follower of Dionysus (those seemed to disappear around early ACE times and I'm not really into goat sacrifice), I certainly wouldn't mind making it more official how much I adore him.  I did something really right in college by diving deep into ecstasy through alcohol and substance, and then stopping to dedicate myself spiritually. Now, as the grapes have ended their harvest season in nearby wine country and I've healed my shame, I’m intoxicating myself with the delicious divine through the ecstatic senses and my one, small sip of wine.