“A prophet is not without honor except in his own country. . .”
An observation about reintegration and sharing one’s non-ordinary experiences for good or for ill.
Anyone who has worked authentically with Ayahuasca, gaining sight and knowledge, healing and wisdom, is partaking in the mythic Hero’s Journey. He or she is a legitimate explorer–one who travels to dangerous places, passing barrier guardians, personally encountering the divine Spirit or Spirits, and willingly undergoing tests and challenges that are often terrifying and that threaten survival. When the exploration ends, we who have so ventured return to our mundane world once again, full and overflowing with what has been taken in and we are electrically charged with it. It is a boon for ourselves (this is why we took on the challenge). We wish it to be one for our friends, our family, our tribe: those who did not and would not ever cross the border we crossed; those who would or could not face the challenges and return with the great wealth.
One of the most challenging parts of the Hero’s Journey then, is the return: the reintegration into the “normal” everyday world and trying to fulfill our role as conveyors of the treasures we found and the discoveries we made during our dangerous endeavor. It does not always work, this re-entry into our old world and it can redound to our discomfiture in our relationships with others. Joseph Campbell put it this way:
“[Prior to the Hero’s return from] the mystic realm into the land of common day. Whether rescued from without, driven from within, or gently carried along by the guiding divinities, he has yet to re-enter with his boon the long-forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete. He has yet to confront society with his ego-shattering, life-redeeming elixir, and take the return blow of reasonable queries, hard resentment, and good people at a loss to comprehend. . . .
. . . As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.
. . . How to render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?”
This, Campbell says, is “the hero’s ultimate difficult task.”
–Joseph Campbell “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1949–Second Edition, 1968), pp 216-218.
After my first, most powerful and transformative foray into the realms of the Other, I naively presented my journey’s logs and observations to those who are close to me. The reaction was something like that one described by Campbell–the semantic and ontological challenges the very same as he outlined. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have done it, for he also wrote of the hero who might be tempted to “commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if (an obstruction to his retreat has been placed), then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.”
[ibid, p. 218]
And, so I continue to share what I have experienced. I do so in diverse ways, including (especially) in this blog.
I believe it is a valuable exercise and privilege to be allowed to see ourselves from a completely different perspective – one from the “outside.” For Westerners, our civilization and culture dominates our worldview so thoroughly that it is difficult to find such an “exterior” assessment of our own ways. Here is one – one that is authentic. This article from The Guardian features some of the observations of Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, one of the most influential tribal leaders in Brazil and an Amazonian shaman. As article author John Vidal says,
“In the past 25 years, he has travelled widely to represent indigenous peoples in meetings and, having lived in both societies, he has a unique viewpoint of western culture. With the help of an anthropologist, Bruce Albert, who interviewed him over several years, he has written his autobiography. It is not just an insight into what a Yanomami leader really thinks, but a devastating critique of how the west lives, showing the gulf between primordial forest and modern city world views.”
A few choice excerpts from that autobiography (from the article):
On western wealth –
“Their cities are full of big houses and innumerable possessions but their elders never give them to anyone. If they were really great men, should they not tell themselves that it would be wise to distribute them all before they make so many more?”
On shopping –
Their thoughts are constantly attached to their merchandise. . . .They do not seem concerned that they are making us all perish with the epidemic of fumes that escape from all these things. They do not think that they are spoiling the earth and the sky, and that they will never be able to recreate new ones.
On western cities –
Their cities are beautiful to see, but the bustle of their inhabitants is frightening. People there live piled up one on top of another and squeezed side by side, as frenzied as wasps in the nest. . . . I can never think calmly in the city. . . .Whenever I stay there too long I become restless and cannot dream.
On the environment –
When they speak about the forest, white people often use the word “environment”. What they refer to in this way is what remains of everything they have destroyed so far. I don’t like this word. The Earth cannot be split apart as if the forest were just a leftover part.
To my thinking, agreement or disagreement with this shaman’s specific views would be beside the point. What is important is listening to him and others like him – finding perspective and truth in the refreshingly honest view of ourselves and our culture spoken by those who live in another, nature-based society. Especially so, as their worlds are being so impacted by ours, whether they wish it or not.
The autobiography is:
“The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman” by Davi Kopenawa and
Bruce Albert, published by Harvard University Press.
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.
All of my life I have deeply loved books and libraries. As just a small boy, I remember how I felt when I first learned about the famous destruction of the Library of Alexandria in ancient times. What an inconceivable loss it was for humanity – setting us back perhaps a thousand years in terms of knowledge and progress. To my child’s mind, it was a horror: the unspeakable loss of all that knowledge and of the wonderful physical books themselves. It may have been the first time I felt an intense exasperation over senseless injustice caused by the actions of ignorant people – something that still manifests in the modern world.
I know now that whether human caused or the result of natural disasters, all collections of knowledge are vulnerable to eventual destruction, especially the individually curated and conserved libraries that we carry around with us through our lives: our personal knowledge and experiences, our stories, our memories, and our philosophies. Each of us contains an amazingly vast repository of these things, and the human brain is still the most complex object known to exist in the universe. As we know too well, however, we are individually subject to dangers and death, and even if we live a full life, natural death will eventually close our library forever. In a strangely real sense, every person is a Library of Alexandria, doomed to destruction.
I felt this quite personally when I was trying to record my Mother’s knowledge about a large collection of family photographs that range back into the 1800’s. Without her memories, many of these will become disassociated from their personal stories and history and flatten into what so many old photographs are: just an old, vintage photo. It saddens me to see such family images for sale in antique stores. Someone’s family heritage and history was lost. Their library “burned down” and there is no way now to recover the information. We can only look into the eyes of that long-passed person and wonder. There are thousands of such images in my family library and I wanted to preserve as much information as possible, so I began recording my Mother, who was happy to help until her health failed and we had to stop. Now, the opportunity has passed and, as much as my sisters and I may remember of it all, there is yet a large, deeper mass of information that has been lost permanently.
That is just one family and one person’s passing. How many billions of such libraries have perished? It boggles the mind to consider it and to imagine what has been lost along the way.
Writing, itself, is a human invention designed to transmit information over time and space, but it cannot contain all that might be recorded. With our modern electronic technologies, many are trying to address this issue by preserving not only books, but other forms of history and knowledge, including digital data, sound recordings, and photographs. Perhaps it will survive, but there are many who warn that our digital data is more vulnerable than the papyrus scrolls were, stacked in their racks in Alexandria. Perhaps some remote and massively secured vaults will protect some of it for a far future, but will anyone be able to make the ancient machinery work, or themselves make new machines that can access and display the data? Will future historians look upon our time as a sudden blank in history because all of our stories and information went into a technical form that cannot be retrieved? I wonder.
When we look back on ancient lands like Egypt, we should realize that 3,000 years ago is not so far back in time, really. Now, the papyri and the painted tombs are fragile and rare, deteriorating with every year that passes. What seems to stand the test of time best is the simplest and, some might think, most primitive technology: engravings into stone. In Egypt and other lands that so carved, even these records are shattered, chipped, scattered, and represent incomplete versions of their original states. It is disconcerting to realize that modern man has left comparatively little of our thoughts carved into simple stone.
So, in the end, even if that end is a far off future where our civilizations are as murky as Egypt’s or as vague and mythical as Atlantis, does it really matter? Should we be concerned, or try to make a deeper, more lasting mark that may, somehow, survive for our unknown future children? Yes, some are trying to archive and store mankind’s knowledge and they may succeed to some degree, but it is likely that most of it will be lost over vast ranges of deep time. We may, indeed, be living in a future time’s Atlantis – our reality a mythological place to those future kin. Ours a human world that may have existed in some form but can’t be proven. A dream out of Time.
In the final analysis, we cannot truly save our worlds. All is in constant motion and does not return again to the same place. Those that come later will have their own world and will not have time to relive ours, even if some of our knowledge may be useful to them, either as practical knowledge or, perhaps, as a warning of what to avoid.
These are melancholy thoughts, and for the majority of us, probably best considered once and then left behind as we pursue our own individual life paths. Perhaps, though, and at a personal scale again, we should at least think about preparing for our own Library to burn down someday and spend some of our time documenting the contents that we think our families, at least, might want to know later on.
We shall not be able to hold on to all we love, and that is just a part of how life is, but some in the future may truly desire to have even a small portion of what we know. I still wish I could have documented more of my family photographs with Mom before she was gone, and I still remember that little boy I once was and how deeply and personally hurt I felt at learning of the loss of the Library of Alexandria – something that happened some 2,000 years before I was born.
We may honor the past and future or desire them greatly, but we cannot live there. It is useful to remember that we honor and desire them in the present moment.
All that truly exists is NOW.
“A creature who has once passed from visible nature into the ghostly insubstantial world evolved and projected from his own mind will never cease to pursue thereafter the worlds beyond this world.”
-Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970, p. 151.
Stepping Outside the Shadow
In an earlier post, I spoke of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s metaphor of the stairs. It is a disturbing observation, precisely because it is the simple, honest assessment of the fundamental experience of all men and women. In his essay “Experience,” he states:
“Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.”
We, each of us and collectively, wake upon these stairs from a shadow of unknowing. Furthermore, we live our lives inside a kind of cosmic prison whose bars are made of unreachable stellar distances, vast time, and the necessarily precise material nature of our fragile yet essential protective physical environment. When our encased and brief life ends, we enter a shadow of greater unknowing – greater not by essence, but by virtue of our ability to perceive and anticipate it. It leads us, we know not where.
Is this our lot, not to know, not to ever understand? Are we mere chemical accidents–embodied processes running meaninglessly on for a brief moment? If not, and if we are more than that, can that part of our nature that is beyond the reductionist machine, give us the insight we seek? Can it give us energy and something of value to accomplish? How can mankind escape his prison of shadows?
William Blake once wrote, “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.” Some say that all the apparent universe we see–all of reality–is literally created by our thoughts. That may be so, but the old stairs seem solid and unchangeable. It is unquestionable however, that we are unique beings that have the ability to create new things and new cultures from the images we conjure in our minds, images that arise out of veriest nothing. Images that have no source in the cold stairs of our cosmic prison. We have the ability and power to live another life concurrent with the merely physical, a life that constitutes a different universe and a new set of stairs created and described by our own minds and hearts.
With this ability, we can step beyond our restricting shadow-shell and use our new energies for either positive or negative ends, but we must choose our inner path with care. There are shadows here of a different kind. Carl Jung said, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
There is a balance to be obtained between the finite world of physical bodies within gross material life and the inherently infinite universe within our minds – that well of infinite possibilities that has propelled us so far as a species in so short a span of time. The Christian mystic, Thomas Traherne, put perhaps the finest focus on the matter when he wrote, “Infinite Love cannot be expressed in finite room: but must have infinite places wherein to utter and shew itself. . . . And yet, it must be expressed in a finite room. . .”
All of this is to paraphrase and restate a view expressed with eloquence by one of the last century’s finest essayists, Loren Eiseley. In The Invisible Pyramid, he writes:
“In man, moreover, consciousness looks out isolated from its own body. The body is the true cosmic prison, yet it contains, in the creative individual, a magnificent if sometimes helpless giant. John Donne, speaking for that giant in each of us said: ‘Our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are born Gyants. . . . My thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their Creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, anywhere, and any one of my Creatures, my thoughts, is with the Sunne and beyond the Sunne, overtakes the Sunne, and overgoes the Sunne in one pace, one steppe, everywhere.’
“This thought, expressed so movingly by Donne, represents the final triumph of (the) interior microcosm in its war with the macrocosm. Inside has conquered outside. The giant confined in the body’s prison roams at will among the stars. More rarely and more beautifully, perhaps, the profound mind in the close prison projects infinite love in a finite room. This is a crossing beside which light-years are meaningless. It is the solitary key to the prison that is man.”
[Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970, pp. 48–49.]
In this way and along this path, we can choose to express our inner creations for love rather than power, even as we are trapped, contained within the narrow prison of our bodies and lost somewhere along an unexplainable stairway. This is the difference between those shamans who choose healing over sorcery. It is the open heart that brings health and joy to our shadowed life. The words of Traherne again ring true:
“This moment exhibits infinite space, but there is a space also wherein all moments are infinitely exhibited, and the everlasting duration of infinite space is another region and room of joys.”
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.”
How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?
A new poem and artwork today.
It speaks of unfathomed dimension and scale in the human mind and soul.
[click image for larger]
The Stars Within
Are we so small?
And yet are we many,
Oh so many, glowing here and there?
Bodies of intricate illusion,
Tiny swirls of light and bone?
Each contains a galaxy.
Breath and beat, independent
Engines that move us,
Just like all the others.
Fear and happiness
Shaping the face
Our mind looks out of.
Step within to see the trick.
Vastness. Volume –
Filled with stars.
Each the color of a memory.
Ideas cluster and flare: suns
Lighting the dark lanes.
Hard and cold planets, some
Massive and others minor;
Worlds of water and storms;
Orbs of unspeakable beauty,
Filled with people and stories;
Turn themselves ’round
And whirl within.
Some we craft with careful
Intention, spinning each one
Lovingly. Returning there,
Spending time, comforted –
Renewed by loved lands and faces.
Others, uncalled for,
Rush up to surprise us –
Alien visions within our domain,
We wonder who made these
Worlds we did not plan.
Our galaxy is so vast.
The stars within swirl right around
And sing the strands of Life.
They swirl right ’round:
An unexpected gleaming nebula
Clothed in humble membrane.
An unchartable symphony,
An unexpected dimension within.
A million million stars and worlds
Dance and turn about
An invisible Center,
An obscured Mystery.
We are many and oh so small,
And when each one is no more,
A wide galaxy, a very Universe
Transforming, winks away
Into unknown night.
– – – – –
[© David P. Crews, 2013]
In a New Land
Long I have struggled in the valley, only
To look up at the end and realize with a
That I have arrived at the top of a
The view ahead is one of beauty
And favor. The path before me is
More hills in view, but
The slope is gentle
I’m anticipating a very big change in my life, which I will describe at the right time, but this poem came to me today to speak of the way change can sometimes come unexpectedly upon us, just when it seems that all things are stuck in an old pattern and won’t ever change. Maybe that valley we’ve been struggling through is not a valley after all. Maybe we will suddenly gasp as we gaze into a new vista. Then, we must not fear. We must take action and step confidently into our new world, creating it as we go.
A lifetime of knowledge earned
Along the paths of wisdom,
Will one day surely seem to you
Quite meager and in vain.
Not because you have failed to learn,
But that the universe has opened up
Infinitely before you.
– David Crews
The photo is of myself at Bonneville Salt Flats in the NW corner of Utah. It had rained recently, leaving a wonderful reflective mirror for the mountains to float above.
Ah, yes, those Bonneville Salt Flats. Thought I’d set a new speed record – for how slow I could go.