Habit-Reinforcing Chemicals (Exogenous or Endogenous)

The most basic elements of ritual are group sacrifice (of time or other things) and changing mental states. “Mood-altering or consciousness-altering substances or techniques” is such a ubiquitous human pattern that it is included in Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals, features believed to be common to all human groups ever studied. Substances and practices can be incorporated into rituals to create pleasant moods and reinforce the ritual behavior.

Small-group rituals involving tea, coffee, or yerba mate are performed around the world. The psychoactive effects of tea are enthusiastically recorded in the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tung’s Tea Song of Yuchuan:

The first bowl moistens my lips and throat;

The second bowl breaks my loneliness;

The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find

Therein some five thousand scrolls;

The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration

And all life’s inequities pass out through my pores;

The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones;

The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals.

The seventh bowl could not be drunk,

only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves.

Where is Penglai Island, Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back.

(Some translations have the breeze emanating directly from the speaker’s armpits, rather than raising in his sleeves – a vivid sensory image that makes a lot of sense when you’ve actually drunk half a dozen cups of fine tea with full social focus and attention.)

Wine, beer, spirits, and tobacco all have their ritual uses, and are still currently legal in most countries. Any of these substances can be the focus of the ritual itself, or can be a flavor added to a ritual whose primary focus is on other things.

Substances are not the only way to accomplish this pattern. Our bodies produce many habit-reinforcing chemicals in response to stimulation, such as vigorous exercise or touch. The pleasure of partner dancing (such as contra dancing) derives in part from physiological responses to exercise and chaste, comfortable touch. Distance running, particularly non-competitive running for the pure physical pleasure, is highly habit forming.

Ritual and social context, for many groups, provide the moderating influence that keeps habit-forming substances and behaviors from being used excessively or harmfully. And sometimes a rare ritual, such as Purim, provides a ritual outlet for occasional excess. Used prudently, habit-forming or mood-altering substances are powerful tools for creating beauty.