Author’s Note: Life has been extremely busy and changing for me lately. I apologize to you who are following me that I have not posted in quite a while. This may continue for a time, but I will occasionally post items that I find interesting. I hope that you will enjoy them, also.
Here is an intriguing article from a Christian site that outlines the plans for a kind of new “Good Friday Experiment” with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) offered to long-time meditators and also to traditional active clergy members.
“Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, is leading the new research, which stems from findings that volunteers who’ve taken psilocybin in a wide variety of research settings often report profound mystical experiences.”
The goal is to see if the use of this entheogen will present to the participants a truly mystical experience–one of the same order as those achieved by practiced meditation masters (in particular).
For many orthodox, traditional clergy, however, accepting this offer would mean facing the first such mystical experience of their lives. It seems the study’s organizers are having difficulty recruiting the clergy members for reasons that can be interestingly speculated upon.
I have never been a member of an official clergy, but my own experiences in living and deep-studying Christianity through my first forty years and also in researching and writing a book on New Testament interpretation, lets me identify with a clergy man or woman who would be in a quite similar life situation when suddenly offered the chance to work with psilocybin. Before I decided to encounter Ayahuasca in the Amazon in 2006, I had never used any form of recreational drugs, not even tobacco or any form of alcohol. I still don’t use those particular chemical “allies” today. As one might expect, my initial encounters with Ayahuasca were raw and force-filled. They were the most intense and life-changing mystical or religious experience I could ever have imagined. The experience was not “fun.” It was fear-facing, awe inspiring, and love-power-energy filled. Like prophets of the Old Testament, I trembled and threw myself on the ground. I passed tests and followed a symbolic path to personally encounter and interact with a true Spirit Being. It was far more than and vastly better than anything I had expected, but exactly what I had hoped and worked for.
It seems that my attitude towards encountering the unknown is rare. In the case of this new Johns Hopkins experiment, the clergy have not responded to this opportunity to make such an encounter. Mike Young, one of the participant subjects in the original 1962 Harvard “Good Friday Experiment” speculates:
“It’s still the kind of thing clergy are scared to death to get close to,” he said. “We’ve portrayed drugs as demonic for so many decades. … It’s still toxic.”
Citing a book titled: Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by Bill Richards, a veteran psychedelic therapist who is working with the team at Johns Hopkins, a more profound reason is speculated for the reticence of clergy to engage in this study:
“Could it be that a factor is fear of encountering what the theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the really real God’? ‘Revelatory experiences may have been fine for Isaiah and St. Paul, but for me?’
It takes a great deal of courage and a proactive attitude of desiring truth at any cost to take on a personal expedition to meet, perhaps, God himself, or to find out that the idea of God one has in their mind is inaccurate–or is something Else altogether.
Ayahuasca and Psilocybin (and the other natural holistic spirit medicines) are not for everyone. Although often misused as such, they are definitely not for “recreation” as drugs. Rather, they are a technology for entering the unknown. They are like a cosmic icebreaker designed and capable to take the intrepid explorer on an extreme challenge to an alien land. It very well may be a challenge to their primal understanding of reality and of themselves. That is scary. No question about it.
“I would rather know a fearful truth
than to remain deceived by comforting falsehoods.”
(David Crews – 1990)
I just came across this interesting article on the brain’s structure and the nature of consciousness that was published by Wired last year:
For the last 15 years, I’ve been exploring consciousness from a deeply shamanistic perspective with my main purpose to attempt to determine the borders of ontology. This is a quest to determine what is actual and real as opposed to creative fiction. Humans are very good at creative fiction and many idea structures, especially religious ones, are fully and totally believed by many, as if they are real even though they cannot be shown to be ontologically “real.” I – my own consciousness – was subsumed into a fully Christian belief system for the first 46 years of my life. Others have been and still are fully subsumed into that and other, incompatible belief systems. In order to try to get a more reliable view or a better understanding of that border between what exists outside of human interpretation and what is caused by human invention, I have been led to work with some of the great “visionary plant medicines” of the world that seem to transport us into other realms and give us a perspective on our normal, mundane perceptions.
Working extensively with ayahuasca has opened me up to a frontier of exploration into a state that is beyond our everyday perceptions and it may represent a valid window or portal into another dimension of reality. Just as physical tools like microscopes and telescopes have, for the purposes of knowledge acquisition as well as of beauty and wonder, given us a view into worlds vastly smaller and larger than we can personally otherwise “visit,” these substances might be giving us an extremely useful view that we cannot normally access.
The question of ontology is not easily resolved, however, and that is due to our lack of understanding about the nature of consciousness itself, and how the brain functions in that regard. Much has been written and speculated about this, of course, and no one has the answer, but new ideas are emerging. This article is from a neuroscientist, Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and is from a basically reductionist viewpoint (although he delightfully calls himself a “romantic reductionist”): that any and all systems that are complex enough in the right ways, can be considered to be conscious. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Koch: “It’s not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they’re not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they’re wired up.”
WIRED: “I still can’t shake the feeling that consciousness arising through integrated information is — arbitrary, somehow. Like an assertion of faith.”
Koch: “If you think about any explanation of anything, how far back does it go? We’re confronted with this in physics. Take quantum mechanics, which is the theory that provides the best description we have of the universe at microscopic scales. Quantum mechanics allows us to design MRI and other useful machines and instruments. But why should quantum mechanics hold in our universe? It seems arbitrary! Can we imagine a universe without it, a universe where Planck’s constant has a different value? Ultimately, there’s a point beyond which there’s no further regress.”
WIRED: “I’ve read that you don’t kill insects if you can avoid it.”
Koch: “That’s true. They’re fellow travelers on the road, bookended by eternity on both sides.”
It’s interesting to follow this article’s discussion as it traverses that narrow, fuzzy zone between empirical science and “faith.”
I am, however, attracted to this view of the physicality of consciousness. It seems more “right” because it is more holistic and scaleable. It neither arbitrarily excludes non-human systems from being capable of consciousness, nor tries to place human consciousness on some magical platform of superiority. Where such structural views or mappings of the machinery of consciousness can be limiting or “go wrong” is in stopping with the understandings we gain about the tool itself and deny or disregard the information that comes through that tool (the brain in our case). This hurdle manifests every time someone claims that consciousness altering plants or medicines are “just drugs” or cause “only hallucinations”.
As humans, some of us will certainly continue to push the frontier of knowledge in this direction, however obscure our pioneering pathways or how strongly we may be rejected or vilified in our pursuits. Perhaps soon, however, we may also witness other “self sentient” beings, such as a truly self-aware internet, come into their own consciousness – beings who will be able to assess their own experiences and develop their own data. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare notes.
Check out this fascinating short animation called “Trip” from a duo based in Sao Paulo. They choreograph projected animated characters onto real life backgrounds.
The film illustrates the journey many are now making from traditional religions to the direct experience of shamanism, especially through personal interaction with vision producing plant medicines like Ayahuasca.
As I prepare myself for a series of ceremonial Ayahuasca sessions in June, I’m reading and re-reading many things about the great spirit medicine. I always enjoy Steve Beyer’s blog on Ayahuasca and I wanted to share a link to one of his very best essays from about a year ago, called “What Do the Spirits Want from Us?”
Link to article here.
In an orthodox, received-religion setting, this might remind us of a question posed by a preacher or teacher who rhetorically asks, “What does God want from us?” and then proceeds to answer their own question (often at great length) based on his or her own ideas – their own presumptions, fed by their own interpretations of the sacred texts they’ve “received.”
In the case of Ayahuasca and shamanism in general, it is very different. When Steve or his shaman or someone taking Ayahuasca asks this, he is being literal and expects an answer to come from without, not from within our ego mind. That is, he looks for an answer in the form of information available to be gained when we enter sacred dimensions and literally ask the spirits themselves. This is not a presumption. Anyone can go do this and see for themselves what they will see and ask what they will ask. The spirits are there whether we approach them or not. If someone does not “believe” in spirits but never approaches them in the way that those who do so find effective, then that person is speaking an opinion, not an observation based on knowledge or experience, which is to say it is also presumptive.
In his essay, Steve speaks about how we cannot be a tourist when dealing with the spirits, while being on a vision fast, engaging in a talking circle with others, or within our dreams. Doing these things requires a commitment and one’s full involvement and attention – a “being there” in the moment and being fully engaged.
This is especially important for me as I contemplate what I “want” from my ceremonies, and how I should approach those rituals and the spirit beings themselves in terms of attitude and expectations.
“We cannot just go to the spirits and expect them to give us what we want. They may well have other plans for us. In fact, rather than asking — or, as some people do, demanding — that they heal us, or transform us, or make us into someone else, we should just pour out our hearts to them in prayer. We should not go to them with requests or demands or even expectations.
We should tell them what we need; tell them what we fear; tell them what we regret. We should speak to them honestly from our hearts, and then listen devoutly with our hearts to what they tell us.”
In my initial ceremonies back in 2006, I found this to be true. Once I stopped listing out what I wanted to see and experience, I was able to listen, comprehend, and receive the wisdom, love, healing, and guidance I was hoping for. I had to get my own ego out of the way and out of the process by basically telling it to shut up and sit still for a while.
One of the most important points Steve makes is one I try to remember within the consensus reality of our everyday lives. This is the understanding that the Spirits are not “elsewhere” but are with us always and can and do influence our lives. We, ourselves, are Spirits as part of our constitution as human animals. Whether we envision them in this way as part of our own Self (which they are) or see them as alien entities (which I believe they also are), we can work in harmony with them and the energies they bring to us if we are aware and open – listening and understanding what we are shown with a heart open to love.
I am in the greater void.
Infused with intensity,
Straining for sustenance,
Comforted by reason.
Overjoyed by love,
Amazed by the newly seen,
Grasping for a higher throne
Made solid by the hand and mind
Of my recast soul.
There is much I would like to know about the nature of God,
but I should be satisfied with startling him.
Zozobra is “Old Man Gloom.” (Zozobra is “anxiety” in Spanish.)
Here is a link to a short (4 minute) film I made showing the ritual burning of the Zozobra in Santa Fe. It includes video, effected still photos, and some of my own original deep ambient music tracks. Run full size if you can, and please enjoy it!
Zozobra represents or symbolizes troubles, worries, and the problems of life. Once each year in September, the city of Santa Fe hosts a very unusual ritual: the burning of the Zozobra. This 51 foot tall statue is made mostly of paper and is actually a marionette – the world’s largest – which is ritually burned in front of tens of thousands of yelling participants, thus releasing all their collected sorrows and problems into the ether and bringing peace and happiness to all who engage with the rite. This ritual has been conducted every year since 1924 – for 88 years as of this year’s event.
[Click on any photo for a larger, higher quality view.]
I was lucky enough to be in Santa Fe on just the right day to attend, and I was truly fascinated to see this essentially pagan, shamanistic ritual played out in front of, for, with, and to a mostly typical American audience. Unlike some of the neighboring pueblo religious events, dances, and rituals that can be attended by non-Indians if they remain quiet and do not disturb the proceedings, this event, invented by a white man, is participatory by everyone and anyone. It is made to be palatable and acceptable to this presumably mostly non-pagan audience by one overriding fact: it is conducted as a very broad, humorous, tongue-in-cheek event. No one really appears to take it seriously and everyone has a party good time.
It struck me, however, that this is actually a very powerful ritual taking place here. Even through the fun and games, the essential and actual power of the symbol comes through for everyone who participates. It might be at a sub-conscious level, or buried under a layer of smirks, but there is no way such a grand metaphor, played out in live action, movie-climax style, cannot be effective as advertised. I have conducted similar rituals at home with friends and a backyard fire pit, casting our slips of paper all inscribed with our regrets and sorrows into the flames, and that was powerful even at that level. This ceremony is public, gargantuan, and potent.
Zozobra is an older manifestation of the modern “Burning Man” event in Nevada each year, but the shamanic ideas and the ceremony of the fire go much farther back in time than even Zozobra, of course. Shamanism is the oldest of the “religions” of mankind and one would think it to be fully buried and fossilized, but that is not the case. Shamanistic societies, tribes, and individuals thrive all across the world. Once in a while, a manifestation of it shows up like a lava intrusion into the solid granite of the orthodox religious cultures of our modern world. Zozobra is one of those, even if it is, perhaps, not intended to be by those who conduct the rite.
In my little film, I tried to show this multi-level contrast between the broad humor and the serious symbolic work by juxtaposing the circus aspects of the gathering and the undercurrent of true meaning by incorporating the intense, austere soundtrack of my deep ambient music. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m always interested in and open to your comments.
“As I walk, as I walk, the Universe is walking with me.”
(from the Navajo rain dance ceremony)
Digital artwork by David P. Crews
The shamanic path gives us direct, personal experience of non-ordinary as well as everyday reality. These shamanic experiences underlie all our religious ideas. I believe it represents the source experiences that establish our core humanity. It is our birthright, available to all who wish to experience the universe rather than just read about it.
“Could the prehistoric artists have been hallucinating and painting their visions? And was it possible that such practices could lie at the foundation of art and religion, the most exalted achievements of mankind?”
Graham Hancock, Supernatural – Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind (Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2005) p. 158
Towards an exploration of the mind of a conquered continent.
Sacred plants and Amerindian epistemology
By Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., Dr. H.C., F.L.S.
This excellent essay by Dr. Luna about shamanism and the use of sacred plants in the Americas, was recently posted on my friend, Graham Hancock’s, website. In it, Luna gives a useful overview of shamanism and its role in the pre-Columbian Americas and how it was repressed by the European influx (and is still repressed today).
In one of the most interesting aspects of this essay, Luna talks about how the Amazon is not the primeval wilderness we all think of, but is largely the result of massive human cultivation and manipulation over long periods of time. He says:
“The people of the Amazon live in one of the areas of the largest biodiversity on the planet. It is becoming increasingly evident that the biodiversity of the Amazon is to a great extent the result of the natural resource management of the pre-Columbian people. . . . To a certain extent the Amazon is an anthropogenic forest, a gigantic garden partially created by human beings through millennia of interaction with the natural environment.”
He also includes an interesting section on Shipibo shamanism and their wonderful geometric artwork. It’s one of the best explanations of the origin and function of the fractal-like designs I’ve read.
He also talks about the powerful cognitive transformations that can occur with plant teachers like ayahuasca. He relates an ayahuasca shape-changing vision that occurred to a French anthropologist, Dr. Françoise Barbira-Freedman, who took on the form of a jaguar (a common theme and experience in ayahuasca visioning). She said:
“Nothing I ever read about shamanic animal metamorphoses could have prepared me for the total involvement of my senses, body, mind in this process. . . . This vision engaged my whole self experientially in a phenomenological approach, which was blatantly at odds with the empiricist standpoint I intellectually favoured.”
He also relates Dr. Dennis McKenna’s transformation into a sentient water droplet who then directly experiences photosynthesis within a plant. Luna states that these kinds of experiences, “point to a new alter-ego, to an alternative epistemology: the gaining of knowledge through a radical self-transformation, by taking an alternative – non human – point of view, by cognitively merging with the focus of one’s attention.”
He concludes by stating that even though our science has explored the depths of space and the tiniest realms of quantum matter, “the exploration of consciousness is still a forbidden realm, vastly explored by shamanic societies yet neglected in contemporary science due to a great extent to religious preconceptions carried throughout centuries.”
I recommend this and other articles by Dr. Luna and also highly recommend Graham Hancock’s excellent book on shamanism entitled “Supernatural”.
“Perhaps time is after all merely a device to prevent everything from happening at once – or the illusion that prevents us from seeing that in fact everything is happening at once. For time really dwells within the vastness of Eternity – where all things exist simultaneously without any past or future: as that most ancient of all texts, the Rig-Veda, tells us so pointedly.”
– Paul William Roberts, In Search of the Birth of Jesus-The Real Journey of the Magi (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) 278.
Note: recently reissued (more appropriately) as The Journey of the Magi.
By the way, this book by Paul William Roberts is one of a very few that have actually changed the course of my life and my philosophy when I encountered it by chance in the mid 90’s. He traces the history of modern religions back through Zoroastrianism to the Vedas. That logically leads the intrepid seeker on back to shamanism. I highly recommend his book for its truly important insights, plus it is also a great travelogue and one of the most outrageously funny such books I’ve read.