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.
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.”
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”
- Helen Keller
[click for larger image]
Perhaps, as we gaze into the bright blackness of space, we may come to consider a compelling idea: that the portals and pathways to other worlds are not necessarily paths of simple distance or simply-ticking time. Perhaps, the portals we seek are of a different fabric and shape. It may be that they are not far away, not far away at all, though we think them unreachable except in our fantasies and myths. These endless other realities could be only a strange but simple turn away, just one small turn into a passage that we did not see, even though it was there next to our chair all along.
Let’s go look.
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]
This coming Monday (October 14) is a Federal holiday in the USA called Columbus Day. As a person with some Native American blood and as an American who has worked with and honored native peoples, spiritual traditions, and cultures in the USA and in South and Central America, I refuse to honor it as such.
Christopher Columbus, was an amazing human man – amazingly murderous, greedy, sadistic, and foolish, that is. He caused devastation to the indigenous inhabitants of the western hemisphere that prefigured the terrors and ruin of the Spanish conquerors to come. He was truly something on the order of a Hitler or Stalin, concerned only with his own enrichment by any means while treating the people of his “new world” in ways that would make any thinking, feeling person blanch, recoiling in horror.
Over the centuries, he and his story were mythologized and spun to make him into the European noble explorer, finding a pristine new world and bringing goods to Europe while bringing civilization and the Christian religion to the “innocent natives.” If you are not familiar with his true story, this graphic cartoon version from The Oatmeal is a concise and effective primer. This author also offers a wonderful alternative to Columbus Day in the story of Bartolomé de las Casas, titled “Defender of the Indians”: the man we SHOULD be honoring on this day or any other. Please read and share this information with those who still hold the extraordinarily false myth in their minds of a benevolent and honorable Columbus.
Screengrab from The Oatmeal. Click to read the entire thing. It’s good.
Be sure to click here or on the image and read the entire cartoon.
Columbus Day is simply shameful, and it’s far past time it was changed.
My friend, Graham Hancock, is exploring the ancient megalithic site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe. It dates back an amazing 12,000 years to a time when conventional historians have humans in hunter-gatherer societies. Here in this very large site, we have many huge carved stones weighing 20 tons and more, arranged in numerous great circles similar to Stonehenge but much older, taking history back to the edge of the last ice age and the cometary destruction that likely caused it to end. Graham is writing a sequel to his most popular book, Fingerprints of the Gods, showing new evidence like this site that will shine new light onto our forgotten human heritage from a time before currently accepted history.
I want to pass along a couple of links, first to a fine essay speculating on the true nature of Ayahuasca and other psychedelic visions. It’s from Teafaerie, titled “Virtuality,” posted on Erowid’s site HERE. Teafaerie talks about visions and even our own everyday reality as composed of sets of information and data, but no matter what form or format one postulates for the emergence of sophisticated and unexpected, complex imagery in visions and dreams, the data must reside somewhere! Very interesting rabbit chase along some intriguing paths.
Found a link to this essay from another interesting article titled “Can Psychedelic Drugs Help us Speak to Aliens?” by David Jay Brown on the SantaClaraPatch site, HERE.
My main zone of interest regarding Ayahuasca visions centers around ontology: the consideration of what is real vs. what is imagined (and all the possible crossovers of that). You can read about my own experiences with Ayahuasca in the Amazon in my five part series, Ancient Songs and Green Magic, starting HERE. In it, I explore my own psyche-newbie intellectual’s approach to the ontological question after experiencing a set of strong and truly amazing visionary encounters.
As I suspected, this discovery helps to show that the Mayan “End of the World” is not literal, but rather a change of time or a transition to a new era. This is similar to the same end-of-the-world phrases in the New Testament that actually spoke of a fundamental change of the social, political, and religious “world” of that time.
What might our new “world” look like? Will the transition seem slow or fast? The modern Mayans I’ve spoken with know no more than we do.
Endless was my journey over broken
Lands and through forests green;
Between great white mountains,
Across cobalt deeps – desolate seas:
Ahead, my goal. My path a road – now a trail.
Steps pursuing lands of promise. I was not
Where I should be. I must campaign to the end.
At last I carved a path from unknown soil
To reach that storied land. I could not stop. I was
I stood at last upon a jutting rock,
A stony islet black as a forgotten dream.
Vast waters lay ahead. Somber waves roiled against
My feet, then became singularly quiet.
Receding spume erased my former trail. The
Setting sun reflected in darkling waters, now still as
I gazed up at two golden towers. Needles –
Silent gnomons attesting a single message:
There is no East or West. There is no
South or North. There is no Down.
We speak for the Zenith. Look
I looked into the fading air above,
My wandering paths all lost from view,
Nor any new paths seen. Only the sharp tips of
Gold and the sweet air beyond.
There is but this one place – this one
Here, all the pieces of Time collect and
Converge around a mass that compels
All to become one moment, ever moving,
Ever lasting, ever evolving, ever
The Mystery opened my soul,
And I knew I was where I should be,
At the Center. where all things are – beneath
The Gates of Forever.
The word “zenith” is derived from the Arabic: “samt ar-ras”, meaning “the road above one’s head.”