Sitting in a darkened, smoked filled room, I breathe deeply, inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of the burning herbs. I find myself mystified by the sacredness of the moment. A group of us are sitting comfortably in a circle, watching in unison while our host ceremoniously packs the bowl of the pipe with artful precision tempered by years of experience. With intense anticipation we await our turn to gently bring the pipe every so gently to our expectant lips. I am awakened to sensations that I find almost overwhelming. My body is burning with a desire that intensifies with every breath, as the pipe is slowly passed from person to person. My cravings for this sacred herb cause my body to tremble ever so gently, ever so powerfully. I am reminded of the hunger I have felt when a lover has been away for too long. I grow increasingly impatient to feel the softness of her skin, the familiarity of her fragrance, and the warmth of her touch. This longing grows increasingly powerful as the time of our reunion dwindles down from days, to hours, to minutes, then to precious seconds. The moment before we embrace I am paralyzed by the anticipation of being reunited. Looking into her eyes, we pause briefly, before holding each other, unconsciously dreading the pain of future, inherent separation.

Finally, the two of us reach out to each other and unite as one. In that precious moment we are, as was meant to be, lost in an embrace of mystical and epic proportions. My body silently sighs with relief, finally being reunited with the one I love. Being together once again, feels so good, so right. Like a man having gone without food and water for days, this emptiness is momentarily quenched. My mind, despite obsessing about such a reunion, is much more detached from the cravings of a bodily nature. The mind has the ability to rationalize about the hunger that will soon be fulfilled. The mind, similar to the body, realizes this hunger will perhaps be fulfilled, only for a brief, passing moments. Knowing the obsession will return again, we cling to each other, vowing falsely to never part ways again.

Mesmerized, I am gently jolted back to reality, feeling the anticipation of my turn to partake of the communal pipe, going from hand to hand, mouth to mouth. We, who gathered in this sacred circle, are kindred spirits sharing a similar craving, a similar desire, to nurture an opportunity to fill a void. Perhaps it is this emptiness that ultimately is the force that brings us together. We, brothers and sisters, find ourselves sitting at a communal table seeking nourishment to feed ours souls, tired and weary from the painful reality of life. Being reminded of my wounded past I become focused on my fix and the promise of momentary relief. The orange glow of the burning embers becomes increasingly magical as she creeps every so slowly towards my grasp. Vicariously I taste the flavorful smoke as she is inhaled by those fortunate to sit to my right. I remind myself of a need for patience, reminding myself I will soon be in the company of the sacred herb.

My impatient body, accustomed to a need for instant gratification, trembles in anticipation. Magically, I am provided a momentary reprieve from my physical discomfort. I become mesmerized by the smoke as it spirals its way upwards, dancing towards the heavens above. Transfixed by this sight, my mind is calmed of the normal distractions of everyday life. Briefly, I am relieved of thoughts pertaining to self imposed tasks concerning business and personal issues. Momentarily, I am also relieved of mundane thoughts, both meaningless and energy depleting. My mind, accustomed to continually judging both myself and those around me, silently observes my surroundings.

The circle looks and feels comfortingly familiar. The room is dimly lit by sunbeams gently dancing through transparent curtains, lightly soiled by previous gatherings involving the burning of various substances. A colorful abundance of vibrant, luscious plants add life to the room. Framed photographs proudly exhibit decades of growth starting with black and white pictures of infants in the arms of beaming parents. The personal histories of the same children are highlighted by photographs of confirmations, graduations, and weddings. I smile as I notice recent pictures of proud grandparents holding newborn grandchildren the same size as their own children born decades ago. The smell of smoldering herbs is enhanced by the fragrance of scented candles flickering in a lukewarm, comforting breeze. Unlike cigarette smoke, the cloud of smoke filled air is pleasant to my nostrils. Earthy is the only way I can describe the smell. I am reminded of burning leaves and campfires of my youth. These memories comfort me, reminding me of my innocence and a childlike sense of awe and wonder. These are qualities, as an adult, I strive to maintain with varying degrees of success. The stillness of the environment is hauntingly familiar. In the wordless silence the sounds of inhaling and exhaling the sacred smoke becomes exaggerated. This reminds me of the sound of footsteps echoing on solitary hikes while exploring the mountains of the Roaring Fork Valley.

I take a few moments to observe the diversity that surrounds me. This gathering is comprised of various ethnic backgrounds, men and women, hair varying shades of color and body builds, from short to tall, thin to obese. I feel myself inconspicuously blending into the collective consciousness of the group. I am reminded of the connection I have experienced in countless circles involving a diversity of individuals. Friends, lovers, acquaintances, and a few I have considered to be enemies, have all graced me with their presence in similar settings. Internally, I recognize a profound sense of community. In this oneness, I feel a distinct sensation of inclusiveness, a feeling contrary to normal perception. Frequently, in every day life, I have a sense of looking at others from the outside in. For a few precious moments, I am blessed with a contrary point of reference and feel a sense of belonging. I consciously take a moment to affirm this positive affirmation, attempting to breathe this memory into every fiber of my being. I envision the sensation of a parched sponge absorbing the liquid it comes into contact with. The feeling of belonging is like sweet and succulent nectar that momentarily drowns out the bittersweet flavor I have become accustomed to.

Perhaps it is this elusive sense of belonging that inspires me to return to similar rituals on a regular basis. Swirling in my own thought I am brought back to the room as I am gently nudged reminding me of my surroundings and my intention. I look down and briefly pause, as I silently admire the precious herb filled pipe, gently burning, softly inviting me to take her into my body. Surprisingly, with no sense of urgency, I savor the time it takes me to ever so slowly reach down and lovingly take the pipe in my hands.

I gently caress the wooden stem, and allow myself to feel the energy of the limb of a tree that gave of itself, to be utilized for such a purpose. My left hand feels the warmth of the bowl. I am comforted by this sensation. My body relaxes, ever so slightly, as I prepare to partake of this ancient practice. I sense the impatience of the person sitting to my left. I hold steadfast to a desire, a need, to prolong the experience. Tenderly, lovingly, I pause with my left hand on the bowel, my right hand on the stem. Silently, as tears begin to well up in my eyes, I offer thoughts of gratitude.

I think of all my teachers, both current and from the past. I also give thanks for teachers that one day will come into my life and bless me with their wisdom. I give thanks for my family, especially for my parents, who are both elderly and are fortunate to be of such good health. I think of my friends and the community of men in recovery who share a house with me. I am grateful for Jack Rosenbaum, my sponsor, Andre, a sponsee and those I will be mentoring in the future. I give thanks for Alcoholics Anonymous, for the Twelve Steps, and for my brothers and sisters seeking recovery. I am thankful for my dog Buddy. I am thankful for having such a beautiful place to live, for my professional activities, for my health and well-being, for all the abundance in my life, and for the opportunity to be of service to others. I offer gratitude for the sacred Native American ceremonies I have the honor of participating in; the sweat lodge, the smoking of the Sacred Pipe (Chanupa), and the Sun Dance. I give thanks for the ancestors that have kept these teachings alive for generations.

Silently, I seek guidance from my heart, and continue my prayers. I remember those I continue to hold resentments towards and sincerely pray for their well-being. I humbly ask God to remove my shortcomings. I lift up those I am aware of who are in need of healing. As an active member of Grace Sanctuary, I pray for those on our prayer list. I pray for those suffering from addiction, for the homeless, for the poor, for those suffering from abuse and neglect, those who are incarcerated. I pray for the perpetrators and the victims of crimes. I pray for all those involved in wars and pray for peace in this world asking for an inner tranquility that will be transmitted outwardly. I pray for the healing of the earth and ask that as guests of this planet we treat her with reverence and respect. I pray for blessings to be bestowed upon all humankind. I pray that we acknowledge each other and ourselves as precious children of the same God. Silently, I pray for the unspoken prayers on my heart adding the desire that no harm comes to myself nor others in the answering of these prayers. I finish by giving thanks for the answering of these prayers.

I sense the circle silently acknowledge my reverence. Like a life preserver thrown to the rescue of a drowning man, I lovingly cling to this sacred tool. I realize how dependent my life has become on these traditional ways, these sacred rituals that remind myself and others of how beautiful and precious life is. While I lift the Sacred Pipe to my grateful lips, my body lovingly surrenders to this magical moment. The faint smell of burning sage is soon overpowered by the intoxicating fragrance of tobacco and sacred herbs. My lips gently suck on the hand crafted wooden stem that symbolizes the masculine aspect of creation. I gently inhale the aromatic blend, and allow the smoke to swirl inside my mouth. Holding the smoke for a moment my hand feels nurtured by the warmth of the bowl carved from pipestone gathered from a sacred quarry in Minnesota. The bowl represents the feminine aspect of creation. When the stem and bowl are united as one, the pipe is said to be “alive” and creation takes place. I gently exhale and watch the smoke slowly rise towards the sky where our prayers will be answered. I slowly and consciously inhale the smoke once again, exhale, touch each shoulder with the stem of the pipe, bless my heart chakra in a similar fashion, and briefly bow my head. Quietly I say the words, “Mitakuye Oyasin”, Lakota words whose literal translation is “we are all related”. Internally feeling warmed by being with the medicine of the Sacred Pipe, the Tree of Life, I lovingly hand it to my brother who is sitting to my left. In a slightly altered state, I absorb the preciousness of the remainder of the ceremony. The Sacred Pipe is reverently passed from relative to relative. Each one appears to fully grasp the sacredness of our communal experience. Once the tobacco mixture is completely smoked out, the sound of a drum beat echoes throughout the room. Inspired by this cue, the group harmoniously signs a traditional song to signify the end of the ceremony. The Elder offers prayers of gratitude, looks lovingly around the circle, lifts the sacred tool towards the heavens, and gently dismantles the Chanupa.

Dating back to the dawn of humankind rituals have been an integral part of daily life. There is a need to look more deeply into the word ritual to recognize varying degrees of the sacredness of such acts. One definition of ritual is, “A procedure faithfully and regularly followed.” Taking this into consideration it becomes evident that ritualistic behavior is a constant in our lives. Just getting out of bed and greeting the dawning of a new day is filled with habitual behavior. Starting with a hot cup of coffee, brewed just the right way, and flavored to our taste is just the beginning of personal procedures faithfully and regularly followed. Through out the day we habitually reenact personal preferences with varying degrees of consciousness. Sleepily we can flavor a cup of coffee just right and may not realize the importance of such a trivial act. That is until the convenient store runs out of our favorite form of vanilla half and half and our disappointment can linger long after the cup of coffee is consumed.

Another, more profound definition of ritual is, “A ceremonial act or a series of acts”. Of course on a baseball diamond a batter can ceremoniously tap on his batting helmet, spit into his batting gloves, before being prepared to face the pitcher. The pitcher has also gone through a similar series of elaborate preparations to deliver a pitch. Important to some degree, the author wishes to acknowledge rituals more spiritual in nature. All of us have been personally influenced by ceremonial acts of sacredness. Such acts of “godliness” have stood the test of time and have transcended cultural barriers. Similar types of rituals have been and continue to be a vehicle in which we can find a deeper meaning for our existence in the Universe. Such holy rituals nurture an inherent and ancient human need to connect more deeply with ourselves, with others, and the world around us. Ideally such ceremonial behavior is spiritual in nature and quenches a thirst to experience, as AA states it so well, “A power greater than ourselves”.

It is interesting to note that many of the ceremonial behaviors of addicts, active in their addictions, have many similarities to more conscious and mindful practices of ritual. The act of artfully uncorking a favorite bottle of wine can add vastly to the experience of drinking the fermented beverage. The very act of dispersing powdered cocaine on a mirror followed by the tapping of a razorblade on the polished glass can be a profoundly meditative experience. Each and everyone of use, as alcoholics and addicts, have honed our skills while pursuing the elusive, ultimate high. Jackson Browne said it so well by saying; “I’m just a day away from where I want to be.” As addicts we have a similar experience of being a hit, or a drink away from where we want to be. We may have glimpsed such perfection, yet we continually strive to reach an unattainable altered state whose elusiveness haunts us.

One of my favorite ritualistic acts as a connoisseur of an abundance of varieties of cannabis available during my college days was emptying a bag of pot de jour into a cardboard box top. I would proceed by meticulously shaking the container allowing the seeds to roll slowly away from the treasured leafy morsels that waited to be gathered. Once this mission was complete the leaves would be gently separated from the brittle stalks. Occasionally I would set aside these twigs to be later brewed into a hot and bitter tea. Satisfied with my efforts I would continue by gathering the harvest, carefully rationing the goods to be consumed at the appropriate time. Of course, it was necessary to sample a few tokes while undergoing such a procedure.

When it came time to be rewarded for my efforts, the procedure would be similar to preparing and partaking of a meal. Like a chef who is satisfied with the gathering of his or her ingredients, I would begin to prepare these fine herbs for personal or communal nourishment. While gathering the necessary ingredients I would feel myself being drawn into a heightened and mindful state of being. Similar to the ensuing high, I was slowly hypnotized into a slightly altered state. Lovingly, I would activate the sticky seam of a rolling paper with a moistened tongue. With a sense of calmness I would meticulously gather just the right amount of my sacred leafy herb. Similar to adding a pinch more of a spice to a flavorful dish, I would add a little more of the marijuana. I was never an advocate of tightly wrapped skinny joints. A little more was always a lot better. Someone would inadvertently say, “Man, you’re really stoned.” I’d quickly answer, “Hey, I only smoked one joint.”

I would continue with artful precision, learned after rolling literally miles of rolling paper. Continuing my mission, I would conscientiously press the pot towards the palm of my hand. I became so focused on completing my task the room could have caught on fire and I would not have noticed such a danger. I continued by slowly pressing my fingers towards my thumbs, carefully condensing the leafy substance. Great care would be taken to ensure the rolling paper would not be damaged. Zig Zag was a personal favorite. I would become extremely frustrated if one precious sheet would be torn by my clumsiness. Similar to knowing when hand made bread dough had been kneaded enough, I would know the precise moment to begin the next step. Finally, I would tighten and shape the mixture into a cigarette like, if not cigar like, circular shape. Instinctively I moisten my lips, then tenderly lick the end of the rolling paper. After securing the joint with both hands I would adjust the shape and press exposed leaves into both ends of the joint. A similar and less elaborate ritual would be conducted when utilizing the simplicity of a pipe.

In my personal history of alcohol and drug use, which eventually lead up to abuse, there were countless habitual patterns evident in my behavior. Fortunately, I was reared by parents who taught their three children, the need to be responsible. Due to our parents influence, the three of us share what is considered to be good work ethics. I, like my two sisters, regularly show up to work on time, am highly responsible and conscientious, follow through on assignments, and rarely take a sick day. As a “responsible” alcoholic my drinking and drug use were limited to certain blocks of time. Rarely did I ever drink or use drugs while on the job. I can count the number of times this happened on both hands. This would be entirely true if I excluded a job I had as a young adult.

While in my early twenties I decided to return to school to earn a culinary degree. For financial reasons I decided to move back into my parent’s house for a brief period of time. While living with my parents I was working full-time for a Long Island icon in the field of catering. Due to previous experiences as a cook I was hired as an assistant manager in the garde manger department. I found the job to be incredibly fulfilling. It was there I learned the craft of hand carving various fruits and vegetables into a variety of artful decorations. I persistently honed my skills while learning to create such products as a “bird of paradise” from an apple. Like a kid in a candy store, I could hardly wait to show up to work, grab my paring knife, and be instructed by my boss Al K. For a year Al took me under his wing and passed on a dying art form. Under his mentorship I meticulously carved food items such as radishes, beets, mushrooms, oranges, and tomatoes into various floral designs. Of course some creations were harder than others to perfect. Because of this, a cook in charge of making soups always had an ample supply of mangled mushrooms. There was a collective sigh of relief from many of the employees, who had their fill of cream of mushroom soup, when I finally perfected transforming a mushroom into an eloquent garnish.

Not only was I honing my skills as a chef. I was also introduced to the practice of drinking on the job. Previously a foreign concept, I quickly became adept at drinking while at work, under self proclaimed parameters. The catering hall I was working for did most of their business on the weekends with parties tapering off after a normally busy Sunday lunch crowd. I worked full-time, four days weekly. When I showed up for work on Thursday, our department had a list of all the parties for the weekend. I started my work week by compiling an extensive list of the number of items the department was responsible for. As a department we worked entirely with dishes served cold. An advantage of working on the “cold side” of the kitchen was that a vast majority of our food would be prepared, dished up, and ready to be served before the guests starting arriving on Friday night. Besides some odds and ends, over the weekend, my main task was to organize and distribute the food to the appropriate banquet rooms.

Once this routine was established, I would give myself permission to consume alcohol under certain conditions. First, most of the hard work had to have been completed. Once this imaginary line was passed I was ready to begin drinking for the evening. Before my first drink, I would proudly exclaim to fellow workers that I no longer would be available to use a knife. It didn’t take new staff to know what that meant. To be “responsible” I vowed never to handle a knife while drinking. I pretty much kept this promise. After all, I was concerned for my own safety and didn’t want to put the establishment in danger of paying out workman’s compensation on my behalf. Safely removed from any knives, the party began.

In my position as a department supervisor I had certain privileges. One advantage was that I could disperse food items as I saw fit. Normally, staff was only permitted to eat employee meals. All other food consumption was thought to be off limits. Of course I knew this and would make certain deals with those in power, mainly bartenders. By handing out a few delicacies to the right people, I and others in our department had an unlimited amount of alcohol for the weekend. Initially, I and others would normally drink for a couple of hours until quitting time that ranged from 8 to 9 pm. Soon, it became more common for the party to continue off premise. Slightly buzzed, we would gather at a local shooter bar. After a “few” shots that accompanied every beer I drank, I’d weave my way home only a short distance away. I thought then it was okay to drive home because it was only about 2 miles to my house. This “rational” completely discounted my first alcohol and drug related accident that occurred a couple of years earlier, a half a block from my parent’s house. I now find it both humorous and disturbing that my noble gesture of not picking up a knife while drinking on the job was discounted when I put myself behind the wheel of a car, in a much more inebriated state.

Fortunately, disregarding a car fender I dented while backing out of the parking lot of the shooter bar, I was not involved in any car accidents at that time. For some reason I have been fortunate in this regard. Similar to most, if not all alcoholics, I am privileged to still be alive. I could have been involved in about a dozen near tragic accidents while driving under the influence. In these cases I could have fatally harmed myself. Even worse, I could have fatally injured someone else. Also miraculous is the fact I never received a DUI. On numerous occasions I did deserve to be pulled over and charged with such an infraction. The earliest brush with death I had occurred when I was living at home while on summer vacation from college.

I was returning home from a friend’s home who lived about 5 miles from my parent’s house. Through my best friend at the time, while in high school, I was introduced to an ongoing party hosted by a friend’s father. As for most alcoholics, I had no trouble realizing my friend’s father was an alcoholic, while denying I had a similar disease. Of course the assessment was made while I had a beer in my hand and was waiting to be passed a joint that a friend was possessively “bogarting”. My friend’s father was inspired to host the parties out of concern for those of us who regularly attended such gathering. His rationalization was that for our safety he would provide a safe haven to insure we weren’t driving all over town going to bars. Conveniently left out was the fact that about half of us had to drive home after a night of partying. This was similar to my “rational” involving not using knives while drinking at work, and then driving home blitzed out of my mind.

On one, of many such occasions, I was mixing beer drinking with marijuana, while at my friend’s house. Initially a majority of my use involved drinking beer. From the first sip of beer, at the age of seventeen, I loved the taste of this fermented beverage. This is an interesting statement, due to my initiation into a history of alcoholism. My first night of drinking, 33 years ago, involved chugging seven lukewarm cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor. I could have drunk more if it was on hand. In retrospect I realize this was a warning sign. Most people my age, “normies”, would not have been able, nor want to consume so much alcohol, especially for the first time drinking. This was only the beginning of a long history of drug and alcohol abuse that spanned over twenty years.

On this evening we had the good fortune of securing some pot to compliment a seemingly unlimited supply of beer. As usual, we spent the evening clowning around, drinking beers and passing joints amongst ourselves. We increased our fun by turning on a black light to highlight specialty posters that included the likes of Jimi Hendrix, looking so cool with his puffed out hair. Next we turned on a strobe light and playfully threw pool balls at each other. Of course, this was quite a sight. In the darkened basement, pool balls would appear intermittently to come in our direction. Not surprisingly, a number of pool balls would get through our hands causing a few bruises on our faces. Luckily for myself, I played soccer religiously. Whenever my mother would question the bruises on my face I would brush away her concerns with, “It happened in a soccer game.” My poor mother must have thought soccer was a pretty brutal sport by the looks of my face.

Finally, after a night of fun, smiling widely and slightly bruised, I made my way home. I drove through a typically damp Long Island evening. There was a light drizzle as I weaved my way through neighborhood streets familiar to me. Speeding along the curvy and slick road I approached the street of my parent’s house. Clumsily, I pushed heavily on the brake, temporarily losing control of the car. The car began to fishtail. Instinctively, I struggled to regain control of the vehicle. I was slightly successful, as the car missed a telephone pole by about a foot. I was unsuccessful in an attempt to squeeze the car between a stop sign and a neighbor’s fence. Slightly shaken, I timidly drove the half block home, leaving behind a bent stop sign and a mangled pile of cedar fencing.
The next day my parents expressed their concern. I didn't’t say much. Being a “responsible” alcoholic, I fulfilled my father’s demand to repair the damaged fence. I paid for all the materials. This included a driver’s side car door my father and I found at a local junkyard.

In the mist of such insane behavior, I didn't’t think about how fortunate I was. In retrospect I realize that if the car would have swerved just a couple of feet to the right I would have hit the telephone pole head on. Even worse, if a car was traveling in the opposite direction, I could have been responsible for the injury or death of someone else. Of course these moments of clarity, during my days of abusing alcohol and drugs, were mere glimpses in the turmoil of erratic and insane behavior. Simply stated, while active in our addictions, the havoc we cause is similar to a car wreck. Speeding along, carried away by our disease, figuratively, if not literally, we impact countless others. Frequently, it is the ones that we love most, that we harm the most. Fortunately, the Twelve Steps offer us the tools to not only maintain our sobriety. These “suggestions” allow us to clean up the wreckage caused by our addictive behavior.

Presently, seven and a half years into my sobriety, my life continues to unfold in miraculous ways. I am finding that as my faith increases I am able to allow more and more of God’s presence into my life. As a carrier of the Sacred Pipe, the loading of my pipe has become a revered ritual. Sage, cedar, sweet grass, red willow bark, tobacco, and a host of other natural ingredients, are the sacred herbs I now utilize in traditional Native American ceremonies. Practicing such sacred ceremonies, combined with continually working the Twelve Steps, gifts me in countless and astounding ways. As stated in The Promises, I am becoming increasingly amazed with the realization “… that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”