Altered States, Shamanism, and the Joy of Psychonautics
Few among men cross over to the other shore;
the multitudes who remain run to and fro on this shore.
-the Buddha (Dhammapada, canto VI:85)
Throughout human history, our instinctual drive for spiritual truth has often driven
members of our species to the painful edge of rational knowledge and sensation. We have always been compelled to directly discover and face the bogeyman hiding off in the trees, or the great force who lifts the sun out of the darkness every morning. The record of our spiritual yearnings is as old as the record of human civilization- man, as Aleister Crowley said, is "a spiritual animal." Since as far back as we can tell, there have always been those who have journeyed to the pale of known things and found that netherworld wherein forms change into their opposites and our very characters seem to be reflected back at us in inanimate objects.
We have chanted, drummed, prayed, flagellated, spun, smoked, tripped, fasted, meditated, and pounded ourselves throughout our known existence, at all places, for just one shred of light to make its way from that ethereal paradise into the mundanity of our everyday lives. We have always sought altered states of consciousness, self-induced or not, drug-inspired or not, in order to get to that place where we might encounter the truly sacred, where we might encounter what the Hebrews call kadosh; the awful otherness of God.
In our modern, scientistic, technocratic paradigm, long-steeped in Protestantism
and capitalism, the pursuit of altered states of consciousness in order to achieve spiritual union or rapture is generally frowned upon. There is a long-standing taboo against ingesting naturally-occurring, psychoactive substances which, I believe, stems from the history of 'civilized' people trying to distance themselves from the 'uncivilized' of the world. Smoking a pipe or ingesting an entheogenic mushroom, especially for religious or spiritual reasons, smacks of primitivism; there is no place for that in the synagogue, the mosque, the church, anymore than in the statehouse, the capitol, the schoolroom.
However, the objective sought in fasting, holding 'all night vigils' as the fathers of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam did, in praying in a desert for forty days, or prolonged chanting and drumming, is all the same; that of the elevation or temporary disintegration of the conscious, logical mind, or ego. Why attempt this? Because, as is phenomenologically available to every person, when we push ourselves to the fringe of 'normal' consciousness, and maybe past that frontier, a vast and terrifying, awe-inspiring world of real Gods and Devils, of real reality, real life and real death, is experienced in a so-real way. The dream state is similar to this, but its chaotic and generally baffled nature is due to the lack of conscious intention. Experiencing a state of non-regular consciousness deliberately brought upon oneself, with a stated purpose, is far more powerful than normal dreaming, although dreaming can actually be, just like every second of one's life is, an incredibly powerful place to do spiritual work.
The endeavor of this paper is to explore the use of altered states of consciousness,
in many of their various forms, for psychological healing and spiritual work, what we
have always called "initiation" or "salvation," in some form. I want to also explore the office or role of 'shaman,' in indigenous cultures such as the Amazon basin or the highlands of Siberia, and then in a modern context, to try to see if the responsibilities and journey of the shaman might be realizable within our modern, exhausted paradox. I will try to present a few simple ideas about how this could manifest in our cities and suburbs, in our bedrooms, at the supermarket, at the nightly serving gig.
It is my knowledge that, underneath, or in-between everything, "all . . . existence
is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass and are done; but there is that which remains (Liber al vel Legis, II.9)." It is "that which remains" which we want to extricate, or rescue, from the passing shadows and phantoms of this earthly kingdom. Once the 'other world' is glimpsed, once its breeze is felt on one's skin, once one soars through its skies, and sees how much more painfully real it is than the earth, it is very difficult to ignore and not long to return to. It is an alchemical pursuit; to free spirit from the "loathsome lust" and cold confines of matter. And it appears that the shaman, in addition to the western Magician, eastern Yogi, or any other brand of mystic, happens to be somewhat of a professional in this field of mind surfing, or 'psychonautics.'
In The Invisible Landscape, Dennis and Terence Mckenna write that "the vocation
of shaman is found in nearly all archaic cultures, from Australian aborigines to the Jivaro Indians of central Ecuador and Peru to the Yakut tribes of Siberia (p. 9)." A certain kind of power is held by the shaman, a power seldom understood to us moderns. He is able to access planes of awareness, levels of consciousness, or other dimensions than the rest of the tribe. He is able to see the spirits of the dead, or those that have "wandered off" from their bodies, as in coma or possession. He is sought by the members of the tribe as a source of wisdom beyond their scope, and often to divine the future, or the inner, unseen turmoil and dis-eases of individuals. It is this power which demands of a shaman. He must be 'a sick man who has been healed,' one who has seen the 'other side,' 'born again.'
According to anthropologist Michael Harner, the main defining characteristic of a shaman is that he or she is someone "who enters an altered state of consciousness . . .usually induced by monotonous drumming or other percussion sound, in order to make
journeys for a variety of purposes in what are technically called the Lower and Upper Worlds . . . to interact consciously with certain guardian powers or spirits there (p. 3)."
The shaman is usually a character on the outskirts of the village, as well as his society or culture. He is a silent presence, yet more powerful than the chief or king, wielding a power which all must obey. Often, a shaman has some sort of predisposition to mania and/or trance states, an almost anti-social focus on the unseen. He sometimes undergoes a serious sickness or horrific accident, barely escaping death, and after beating the scythe is thought to be imbued with supernatural powers or insight. A future shaman might be born deformed, or with some sort of taxing physical issue, which might set him apart to the tribe as 'special' or 'different,' much like the "village idiot," "fool," or "jester" of the European middle ages.
The shaman's over-arching purpose and field of influence include nothing less than the spiritual evolution of his tribe. He has made himself identity-less, an empty
vessel which has become a conduit for the "crazy wisdom (Schmidt)" of the otherworld,
the spirits, or 'the collective unconscious.' As one heretic explained, "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3)." The shaman is a psychopomp who maintains the spiritual equilibrium of his people, through ritual, healings, divination, and prophesy, using altered states of consciousness to bring what we call divine Wisdom down into three-dimensional space/time.
The anthropology of shamanism a vastly important key in the study of the shaman. From the infinite varieties of the role in the world's cultures, from the Hebrews
to the Tamang of Nepal, the Lakota Sioux to the ayahuasqueros of the Amazon basin, all reflect each other in many remarkable ways, from the minutiae of ritual elements; to methods of entering and maintaining trance states, to their place and function in society, and so on. These subjects can be explored in many interesting books- the best of all, even though dated in its outlook, might be The Golden Bough by James Frazer. However, our purpose is to explore the dynamics of the shaman's use of altered states of consciousness in order to achieve certain ends in this consciousness.
First things first, we need to define "consciousness." Consciousness, basically, is
thought. It is made of thought- the chitta or 'mind stuff' of the Hindus, or pure
information. Each of us, through our nervous systems, and really at base in our DNA,
have access to a particular band of this spectrum. We can think of the spectrum itself as 'god' or 'the source,' for now. Our species, naturally, has evolved and is always evolving to be availed of a particular channel, or frequency, in that spectrum, much as the color yellow is a particular frequency of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Each of us, due to biological and neurological constitution, with some variance but not much, participate in a kind of consensus reality, or realization of consciousness, which is basically homogenous. We call this "ordinary," "waking" reality.
This "waking" reality can be seen to have a huge variety of influences- from eating a gigantic meal, to falling in love, or climbing a 14,000 foot peak, or losing a loved one. It can also be tampered with mechanically, chemically. A certain amount of alcohol can bring exalted inspiration and artistic genius, that of marijuana allows for increased sensory receptivity and a certain lightness, the ability to derive creative images and ideas, motifs and systems from experience with delightful ease. A dash of cocaine can send one's internal chariots into the flames of adventurism, scrambling up trees and through books and ideas with an unquenchable zeal. Five to ten hits of LSD seemingly allows your nervous system to reach out and actually touch the world, and to be presented with incredibly beautiful, incredibly present and real, multicolored matrices of light and impossible patterns, the ability to be made aware of all of one's true faults and blocks, as well as one's true strengths and purpose. There are countless others. I only spoke of these
as a means of distinguishing the shaman's use of entheogenic substances from those of the rest of us.
The extensively-documented use of psychotropic, or entheogenic substances
amongst shamans, as well the history of this phenomenon, are the focus of several classic books. Among them are Robert Graves' Food for Centaurs, Gordon Wasson's Soma:
Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of
Ecstasy, and Dennis and Terence Mckenna's The Invisible Landscape. There is ample
evidence that, for instance, the inspiration for the Vedic civilization and Hinduism was the amanita muscaria mushroom, spoken of as "soma" by the Rig-Veda. Speaking of this collection of second-millennia Indian scripture, Wasson states that "the whole corpus of hymns, and the Avesta [Zoroastrianism of Persia] as well, must be re-read in the light of the discovery that a divine mushroom was in the center of these religions, was the focus of these poets (Wasson, 68)." The use of ayahuasca and psilocybin by Amazon basin and other indigenous American shamans is "widespread and occurs in every region of the globe where the plants occur (Mckenna, p. 15)" Amongst the ancient Hebrews, the priests were known to wear elaborate hats which closely resembled the amanita muscaria. The record of the use of these substances, from the ingestion of ergot (the fungus being the chief ingredient of LSD), two thousand years ago on the sixth day at the mystery schools of Eulysis, to the peyote sacrament of the Native American Church, is a rich and intriguing account. It would behoove us well to explore these frontiers, as the proud pioneers of the home of the brave and the land of the free that we are.
For now we will move onto the main objection of this paper, which is to explore
altered states, specifically in their efficacy towards spiritual wisdom, or gnosis.
Much attention is paid to the supposedly daring or dangerous use of psychedelic or
entheogenic drugs in modern culture, and in what could specifically be called 'alternative spirituality.' However, as aforementioned, there have always existed groups, from "primitive" to "highly civilized," who used these substances in order to attain to certain states. The altered states were a means to an end, and that end is, in short, to do spiritual work in rarer dimensions of consciousness. This work has been highly developed and brought into extremely complex, scientific structure by many cultures in history, such as Raja-Yoga in Hinduism, Ceremonial Magic in Europe, and as Shamanism amongst indigenous peoples.
We know that there are three basic brain states, or frequencies; beta, alpha, and
delta. These are electro-magnetic wave frequencies which can be mapped by an
electroencephelograph (EEG). The beta state is normal waking consciousness, the one we drive around, go to school, and wake up in. Its frequency is anywhere above 12 Hz per second. The alpha state represents the state usually associated with daydreaming, sleep dreaming, trance states, and so on. It is characterized by high activity in the visual cortex during an idle state. Its frequency is between 8 and 12 Hz per second. The third state, delta, consists of frequencies under 3 Hz, and is present in stages three and four of deep sleep, dreamless sleep, non-REM sleep.
It appears that the middle state, alpha, is particularly conducive to doing work of
an imaginative, creative, or spiritual nature. There is a certain power in this state; the mind creates what it wants, reality seems to bend into strange and impossible forms, and we come face to face with the images and emotions arising from the unconscious. One can attain to this state anytime one wishes to. Common means are prolonged chanting, drumming, or any kind of rote activity which one can 'lose oneself' in. I used to mow lawns every week and could easily get into this state when I was doing that- the body still operating properly and with precision, the mind in a fantastic netherworld. There is ample evidence that certain ascetic practices such as fasting and abstaining from sleep, or standing on one leg for a long time, bring about the alpha state as well.
The recent interest in "lucid dreaming," one of the more popular in the new age
bazaar of ideas erupting into mainstream consciousness these days, necessitates this brain state. By simply using one's own imagination, and through consistent practice in prolonged concentration and holding thought-forms in the mind, it is possible to place oneself in a psychodrama, which can be guided or not, and can turn into a gate through which one can pass through the doors of imagination, and into a truly different world- a world obviously not merely of one's own imagination. Carl Jung referred to this as "active imagination," and insisted upon its importance in working with the psyche.
Having introduced my ideas of the nature of consciousness, and the simple mechanics and potentialities of the brain using the alpha state, to say nothing of "drugs,"
as well as a note on shamanism and the function of the shaman in society, I wish to speak briefly of two spiritual traditions which correspond interestingly to shamanism. The focus on 'altered states' continues.
Ceremonial magic could be called the yoga or shamanism of the West. It developed into a high peak during the seventeenth century in western Europe, with an obvious and considerable widespread rise of Rosicrucianism, re-interest in alchemy, and
in the dealings with angels, demons, and other praeter-human entities. It undoubtedly had a characteristically Christian flavor. Many of the 'adepts' of this tradition, from Cornelius Agrippa to Eliphas Levi, Charles Stansfeld Jones to Dion Fortune, considered themselves first and foremost to be Christians, and secondarily magicians. Even "the wickedest man in the world," the Great Beast 666 known as Aleister Crowley, quotes the Bible in his mammoth corpus of writings with more authority, understanding, passion, and frequency than any "occult" authority I have read.
The object of ceremonial magic, much like shamanism to the shaman and yoga to the yogi, is to seek and acquire knowledge, wisdom, or gnosis from these other planes,
entities, and/or brain states. Whether they are projections of broken-off pieces of the psyche, or they are actual independent beings existing on other planes, is immaterial to the practitioner. Although its a fascinating question, I think it can be more of a stumbling block than anything. These are the kind of metaphysical staggerings which the Buddha admonished his followers to disregard. The truth is, we have absolutely no good way to describe these phenomena, and when we start trying to cram them into our logical little idea-boxes, we run the risk of disfiguring them. There must always remain room in our conception of reality for the inescapable mystery.
But, the alpha state is necessary for doing magic. More than any ritual, tool, or
means of invocation, the alpha state is the lynchpin of doing magical work. In his Magick in Theory and Practice, Crowley wrote that The whole secret may be summarised in these four words: "Enflame thyself in praying." The mind must be exalted until it loses consciousness of self. The Magician must be carried blindly by a force which,
though in him and of him, is by no means that which he in his normal state of consciousness calls I. Just as the poet, the lover, the artist, is carried out of himself in a creative frenzy, so must it be for the magician (p. 129).
Ceremonial magic is cultivating within oneself this state, and performing meditative practices and psycho-dramatic rituals, much in the same way that a Catholic priest performs rituals for his congregation. Instead of relying upon the supposed saintliness or divine inspiration of a priest, though, the magician initiates within herself the journey to the pale of normal consciousness, in order to increasingly know herself, to heal herself, and to know more about the universe around and within her. This is why witches, magicians, alchemists, seers, and mystics have always been burned alive at the stake: they provide an example which, if caught on to by a critical mass of the society, might ensure the dissolution of that culture's need for an organized, dogmatized religion, and most importantly; its attendant priest classes. The great psychotherapist and occultist Israel Regardie provided the following explanation of magic in his The Middle Pillar: Every technique of Magic is intended in various ways to widen the field of vision of the conscious ego to the deeper, more spiritual aspects of the divine nature- which, in reality, is his true or higher Self . . . [enabling] man to become an engine capable of harnessing and directing the enormous power that lies within. A multitude of basic principles are utilized to this end. Adoration, which is essential to attaining a sense of unity with Godhead, concentration, development of will and use of it to accomplish a given
purpose, achievement of self-awareness, and the ability to breathe properly [are the outcome of even basic magical practices] (p. v).
The means by which one, when practicing formal, ceremonial magic, might attain to a desired altered state is through the manipulations of his surroundings. He creates of
his sacred space an almost laboratory-like environment, wherein every aspect of the space is aimed towards the evocation of certain feelings and mental states. For instance, if one were to desire a better understanding of communication and speaking, of finding and nurturing one's own inner voice and allowing that voice to be heard it should be, or perhaps of mediating conflict and understanding the dynamics of intrapersonal communication, one might consider the following. There are god-forms, god-names, incenses, stones, colors, numbers, planets, symbols, shapes, metals, drugs, scriptures, and the like which correspond with the addressing of such problems. Mercury, Hermes, Hanuman, Odin and Thoth relate to communication and speaking in some way.
According to The Table of Correspondents (Crowley), the correspondent stone is opal,
the plant moly, the perfume storax, the color orange, etc. Using these details, the
magician would affect his ritual space accordingly, the idea being that all of these affects, and the more and dramatic the better, will have an impact on his unconscious which will bring about the desired change in the psychological constitution. Evocation is the process of bringing a piece or complex of one's mind out into the open- perhaps even materializing in incense smoke or as blue light hovering in front of one. The idea is nothing different than performing surgery on the psyche. There is an unhealthy trait, memory, or hateful grudge of some kind which one wants to get rid of, and so one uses magic to evoke the "demon" (archaic terminology) in order to fully see it for what it is, and finally banish it for good. Of course, chanting, drumming, circumambulation, and the like have their place in ceremonial magic as well, and are quite common means of bringing about an altered state; especially when working with a group.
Magic is a system of applied psychotherapy, and can be done individually or in a
group. All of the ritual elements listed above are a means of bringing about an altered state of consciousness wherein the block between conscious and unconscious mind is temporarily removed; much as is necessary in hypnosis or psychotherapy.
We can see even from this terribly brief perusal of the subject that ceremonial
magic is very similar to shamanism. In both, the practitioner must enter into an "exalted" state, "enflamed," in order to seek and gain conversation of the disparate intelligences existent in his psyche (or in the universe at large). These practices cannot be accomplished without entering into this altered state. All of the tools, weapons, paraphernalia, utterances and details are secondary to the swoon.
Another science of psychonautics, which developed in a very different part of the
world from ceremonial magic, issuing from a very different kind of culture, is that of Yoga. Meaning "to yoke" or "to bring into union" in Sanskrit, Yoga is an art and science which was first admitted to paper and set down into concrete structure by as early as the eighth century AD, with the Yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. It has many different schools or branches, all of them being the freeing of the spirit in man from the chokehold of body and matter.
In its more available and popular form in the west, yoga is most likely thought of
as a series of bodily exercises consisting of hold the body in cantankerous, pretzel-like positions for extended periods of time. There is a school of yoga, the most basic, called Hatha-Yoga, which consists of stretching the muscles, massaging the organs, and gaining physical strength, flexibility, and health. Hatha-Yoga also consists of learning to breathe, sleep, sit, stand, and eat properly, in a way which fosters and maximizes the health, awareness, and efficiency of the body. However, there are many branches of yoga. Of the ones higher on the metaphysical tree, the most rarely sought and most potentially rewarding would be Raja-Yoga. Raja-Yoga consists mainly in working with the mind to attain states of consciousness whereby one becomes aware of the true nature of his mind, and importantly, how to 'stand behind the mind' and witness its leaps and bounds, its weaknesses and potential. The Raja-Yogi trains his mind through concentration, meditation, withdrawal from the objects of sensory perception, etc, in order to push his mind out of its imposing restrictions, allowing it to 'expand out from the brain', as it were.
Swami Vivekananda, the great patron saint of yoga who delivered so many talks and
wrote so many books to a western audience at the time when World War I was ravaging
the western hemisphere, speaking of the aim of Raja-yoga while perhaps unknowingly
addressing the shaman as well in a particular statement, in his Raja-Yoga said that "the aim of all training should be to make the man grow. The man who influences, who throws his magic, as it were, upon his fellow beings, is a dynamo of power, and when that man is ready, he can do anything and everything he likes (p. 239)." This is exemplified by Christ's retreat to the desert to meditate for forty days. It is this type of mental training which, in the case of Raja-yoga, reaches a highly scientific form.
The itinerant differences between shamanism on one hand, and Yoga and ceremonial magic on the other, is that the former has usually always come from societies without a written language, and hence no written record, whereas the latter have come
from highly literate and record-keeping cultures; India and Europe. Ceremonial magic
and yoga, due to the development of book printing and its increasingly efficient means of transmitting information, had the opportunity to refine themselves and change in an academic way, whereas classical shamanism hasn't been afforded this exposure to widespread evolution involving a large (comparatively) segment of the population. It can be seen in these three instances, however, that altered states are not only an intrinsic part of deep, life-and-world-changing spiritual work, but they are a means to that end, the vessel by which one goes out into the black ocean of the collective unconscious.
A friend of mine named John described shamanism as the "granddaddy of all religions," and I think there might be some truth to that. He said that "a shaman is
someone who walks between the worlds," who is an "intermediary" for the tribe. I
question whether the role of shaman is available to us today, in our concrete and neon mazes.
Keeping in mind all we have covered, I think we can come up with some idea of how to seek and converse with one's own shaman-self, if you will. It is obvious that there
is a particular brain state which allows one to use one's own imagination towards, well, a lot of different ends. But our purpose is to understand how these states allow us to affect change in our lives, using supposedly "mysterious" ends. Its all very simple; the experiences which occur as a result are gigantic. Let's say there is an aspect of ourselves we wish to heal, a wound that was caused long ago and we haven't the courage to face it, to go back into that space. Often, shitty things that have happened to us, even if we don't think about them consciously very often, can have disastrous affects on our lives.
Whether it was early childhood or a year ago, we all accumulate baggage which proves to be quite heavy after some time. We've all heard about "venting" and "letting of some steam," either through playing football, the drums, shooting off a gun in the desert, punching a wall, or boring one's coworkers to tears. This is healthy, but it doesn't do anything to get rid of the simmering pot or the water. One has to get at the root, like with a weed.
A way of 'getting to the root' is to first of all find a space where one can be
undisturbed for a little while, and arrange it any way one likes; it should be a temporary representation of your inner temple, if you will; an extension of that just as much as for some a truck might be an extension of their character. Sit down, lie down, stand, it doesn't matter. Just be comfortable and aware. Close your eyes, and just let your head soar for a while. Observe the flow of thoughts as you would observe a river from the bank. Then start to rein in the monkeys, as it were, and focus the mind. It could be on a mental image, shape, idea, word, it doesn't matter. Just try to get all of yourself focused on one thing, and keep doing it for a little while.
Then, slowly enter into the imaginary mental space you decided upon beforehand as correct for confronting this person or issue face to face. A statement of intent for doing the meditation before starting it is pretty important. Just as a scientist wouldn't just wander into a lab and start carelessly and indiscriminately playing around with the equipment laying around, we shouldn't either when entering deep mental spaces.
Anyhow, once one is sufficiently in a trance-like state, 'lucid,' is when to initiate the confrontation with the inner dirt one is trying to bring to up into some light and face it and digest it, finally. The nuances of the way that a meditation like this might be set up and executed are legion. That's up to the individual. I am just trying to explain the general mechanisms involved, as I understand them.
Other means of initiating the closer connection to mind and matter is to go into this state and, again, if one is sufficiently 'daydreaming' and lucid, then just ask out loud or inwardly to see what is inside of you, what voices and roles exist in there, the collection of which you think to be a singular entity, "I." Personally, I find myself in a state where I am not in a forest or a room necessarily, but in a more or less deep-spacefeeling, weightless, hallucination chamber, best I can describe it. In this state, I can basically ask questions, and images fly through the brain which seem to relay, later on in a normal state, wisdom on the question.
There are elaborate dvd-cd-cd-rom software, virtual reality, and probably video
games to do this stuff with, and you can buy them. But its pretty simple to explore
yourself. Hell, when I was a little boy, when I was going to sleep, I would imagine that I was looking down at myself from the ceiling. I would fill in every detail as it would appear from that perspective. After a short time keeping to this, the imagination becomes dream, and there one is, floating at the ceiling, bumping into the walls.
The size of this work provides merely a theoretical skeleton, at best, of the use of
altered states by shamans and other mystics; it is really just a jumping board into the subject, and there are an infinite amount of resources on it. The important thing, to always keep in mind when exploring these realities, is to be able to keep one's feet on terra firma, as Dion Fortune said, and not to "confuse the planes" as Crowley said. Whether one ingests five dried grams of psilocybin, a "heroic dose" according to Terence Mckenna, or one is simply exploring "imaginative" mind-worlds on the bedroom floor which are neither 'out there' or 'in here,' one must keep one's wits, and sense of humor, about oneself. I've seen a lot of 19 year old wannabe gurus in my time, and there's nothing more embarrassing than that.
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