Transpersonal States of Consciousness : Illusion or Spirit ?
There is something more to human consciousness, to our whole experiential journey through life, than we currently acknowledge.
Interpretation of the nature of religious experience or ‘transpersonal states of consciousness’ varies widely. Many people who have experienced the integrative healing, creatively inspiring and psycho-spiritually transformative power of transpersonal states are less likely to dismiss their experiences as neuro-chemical aberrations, accidents, or self-hypnosis. Impressed by the extremely coherent information and stunning organisational complexity of visionary journeys, they are more likely to be left with a revived sense of wonder and conviction that there is more – in some sense – to human consciousness, to our whole experiential journey through life, than we currently acknowledge.
This does not however mean we need immediately to adopt simplistic spiritualistic or religious ideas. Religious vocations originally developed around maintaining the tenuous relationship with transpersonal dimensions of consciousness, and preserving the cumulated knowledge of these shamanic journeys. But when the experiential basis is lost, this cumulated knowledge degrades into static dogma that can be twisted and bent to exercise power and prejudice, and the rituals that once constituted the symbolic scaffolding for journeys into immaterial information fields (Bricoleur 2003) become empty re-enactments without any authentic dimensions.
Yet despite the memetic theory of religion espoused by popularist scientists such as Richard Dawkins, there exists a latent and biologically grounded potential for the human psyche to undergo reorganisations, an integrative arc of healing, that includes encounters with experiential realms strongly reminiscent of world spiritual mythology. This visionary or shamanic transformation can induce integrative healing, creative inspiration and existential transformation. It is this visionary journey into the endogenous imaginal dreamtime that is the psychobiological ground of most spiritual mythology and imagery.
Today our extreme occupation with the seemingly external has reduced our ability to enter mytho-poetic states. Scientism and the devaluing of the arts pervade the education system. Anyone expressing behaviour beyond the norm, risks loosing everything to a primitive system of medical psychiatry. Modern psychiatry, maintained by the mega-profitable pharmaceutical industries, has an institutional ignorance of the powerfully cathartic and complex dynamics of transpersonal states. Its implicit materialist and linear paradigm and poorly trained workers are ill-equipped to deal with the crisis and transformation of meaning and flux of axioms in peoples lives.
Yet, the shamanic narrative persists and has growth throughout the 20th into the 21st century, disseminated by radical anthropologists, ethnobotanists, scholars, artists, and therapists. The message remains that humanity has a dual nature, a life of the external world, and the life of the inner, unconscious. And that if these worlds can be reconciled, and made one again, then the fertility circuit will be maintained, and the human condition in time redeemed.
The rediscovery of the dynamics of transpersonal healing is one of the exciting aspects of the times we live in. It opens up therapeutic forms that do not depend on external verbal exchanges but through opening doors to dynamic experiential journeys whereby the self-healing capacities of the psyche can come into play. However with transpersonal healing comes certain challenges, including confrontation with pain and fear, the death of old ways of seeing the world, and inner journeys involving phenomenological realms and powers that mainstream society does not accept the existence of.
Shamanism and Mythic Recreation in Capitalist Cultures
Many people earnestly wish to work toward a mythic restoration of the West. Thousands of westerners are working toward an actualization of latent potentials via a revival of Shamanic ritualistic forms. Much modern interest in shamanism has focused on the use of psychoactive plants intrinsic to the healing and visionary practices of shamans. Yet the Westerner must be very careful in any approach toward integrating the plant traditions. We lack an integrative framework and wise experienced elders.
Particularly, the background of sickness, drug abuse, illusion, escapism, trend, toxification and destruction of our bodies and environment endemic to our society may taint our notions of psychoactive plants. In this context we may use them as unusual means of hurting ourselves. Without deconditioning from these unconscious self-destructive behaviors it is very difficult to approach the profound reality of shamanic practices without dragging in the dysfunction of our own culture.
That said, entheogenic plants are powerful tools and it is quite possible to use them in a truly life-positive manner to provoke growth in new directions and to creatively solve challenges on ones life journey. It is said that shamanism is not about the nature of reality, but about the life and death of human beings. In short, these tools can enable us to live better and cope with the prospect and passage of dying better.
Shamanic ecstasy is so innate, primary, rooted in biology, and transcending of cultural differences, that shamanism is theoretically recoverable by even demythologized Westerners. It is very helpful to look to others cultures, whose Shamanic traditions are relatively more intact, for the purpose of reviving the techniques of ecstasy and ritual approaches, in order to develop a pan-Gaian shamanism appropriate to our global civilization and contemporary knowledge of ecology and cosmology.
In the New World, Shamanic practitioners are the keepers of an incredible amount of ecosystemic knowledge, such as the seasonal variations governing foods and medicines. Before the genocidal invasions of the Europeans, this sophisticated; highly connected knowledge enabled sustainable agricultural practices that supported millions of people. The peoples of the Amazon live within the infinitely complex ecosystems of the Amazon Rainforest, abundant with reptiles, insects, amphibians, birds and mammals, rivers, and forests. Accordingly, the plant kingdoms of the rainforests are a primary orientation of life, spiritually and physically.
In the Mestizo populations growing on the banks of major Amazon tributaries throughout Peru, the shaman of plant knowledge and medicine, who communicate with Sacha Runa (elemental spirits of the plants), are known as Vegetalista. The vegetalista regards plants as teachers, hosts to elemental spirits that can communicate with human beings. Ayahuasca is a revered and respected sacred medicine, considered a spiritual and physiological panacea par excellence. Ayahuasca is regarded as a Grandfather or Grandmother, because its medicine can instruct in healing, visionary insight, and the art of using other plants for various purposes. Sometimes it is referred to simply as la medicina – the Medicine. It is employed across the Amazon basin for the treatment of disease and to access to the visionary or mythological world that provides revelation, blessing, healing, and ontological solace (Dobkin De rios 1972, Andritsky 1984).
Ayahuasca Tea : La Purga
The use of Ayahuasca may well be primordial, its use extending back to the earliest aboriginal inhabitants of the region (Schultes and Hofman 1992). The ethnographer McEwan (2001) believes that abstract liminal patterns such as zigzags, serrated lines and geometric forms found on traditional textiles, pottery and body art of various tribes represent the perceptual threshold between everyday and transpersonal realms of consciousness. These relics, combined with an abundance of myths describing the origin of Ayahuasca as deeply intertwined cosmologically with the creation of the universe, earth, and tribal people, indicate a long history of human use.
Banisteriopsis caapi, often refered to as Yage, constitutes the common base ingredient of Ayahuasca tea. B.caapi contains beta-carbolines that exhibit sedative, hypnotic, anti-depressant, monoamine oxidase inhibiting, and occassionally entheogenic activity (McKenna DJ, Callaway JC, Grob CS 1996). The vine is traditionally married with another plant – Ayahuasca is a synergystic potion. Typically it is mixed with a tryptamine carrying plant. The foliage of Psychotria viridis (Chacruna) is the principle admixture of Ayahuasca potions employed throughout Peru and Brazil. In Columbia and Amazonian Ecuador, the plant Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga) is often used instead. The combination of Yage vine with Chacruna or Chaliponga is sometimes known as a marriage of power and light . This marriage is necessary to unlock the shamanic mareacion and its visionary mythological vistas. Without marriage, the Yage vine alone is a purifier, a purgative, a physical medicine and anti-depressant but generally not a visionary catalyst.
It is a consistent belief that for Ayahuasca to teach its medicine it is necessary to follow a program of cleansing via diet, sexual abstinence and purgatives for at least 6 months during the period of apprenticeship, for preparing the body and mind of neophyte so he becomes perceptive of Sacha Runa and other energetic forces. This may be prolonged to several years in one has a true vocation to becoming a powerful, disciplined shaman. In some cases the spirits will appear and prescribe the duration and character of the diet. No salt, sugar, alcohol, pork, peppers, fats, farm chicken, certain fruits and vegetables and cold beverages can be ingested (Dobkin de Rios 1973, Chevalier 1982, Luna 1984). The most important food prohibition is the avoidance of pork. The idea is that pig, farm chicken, fish and cold beverages espantan a los vegetales – make the plant spirits escape. Some of the plant teachers can be jealous; if the diet is broken they may punish the offender by causing an illness. This is expressed by the saying that the plants kutichiy , which means to take back teachings, good luck or health that has been imparted by the medicine plants.
Purification through purging and diet allows one to exist in a higher energetic state. Ajo Sacha – Mansoa hymenaeamanilkara, and Mucura – Petiveria alliacea are both used in limpias , cleansing baths, and are considered to aid in the expulsion of saladera (phlegm) from the organism. The curanderos prepare the leaves of Mucura or Ajos Sacha into an aqueous infusion, then the client washes themselves with the liquid and rinses the mouth out to cleanse them of the accumulated saladera that is causing bad luck and ill health (Dobkin de Rios 1981). The vegetalista whistles the appropriate icaro over the patient whilst painting the person with the liquid (Luna 1984).
Ayahuasca changes perceptual modalities in a dynamic yet nonetheless lawful way. This aspect of pattern within its effects makes the visionary state an inter-subjective territory and opens the way to interesting forms of healing and communication.
An Icaro is a magical song, a prayer, a melody – either whistled or sang – that functions in such a way. These songs are vibrations that smash the symmetry of the air into patterns, and these patterns are carried via the nervous system into consciousness, where the magic melody asserts energetic effects. They are forms of prayer that induce psychobiological effects and prevents people from becoming stuck in an aspect of the visionary experience. Don Francisco Montes Shuña (a Pucallpa-born maestro, of Capanahua descent, founder Sachamama Ethnobotanical Garden, cousin of Pablo Amaringo) defines the icaro as an “air or force charged with positive energy” – i.e. with healing power – “that all curanderos store inside their body”, and are used to pull out the negative energy from the body of a patient. The plant with which a curandero has dieted, is regarded as the teacher of these power songs. A plant maestro may have learned many songs that to a great extent represent his power within the realms of Ayahuasca healing and visionary gnosis.
The Ucaylai, one of the headwaters of the Amazon has a reputation within Peru for being an area of intense shamanic activity. For the Shipibo, Conibo and Stetebo who live in this region, patterns elicited by shamanic states of consciousness are regarded as a synaesthetic ideographic language that has become integral to their aesthetic sensibility. 200 years ago their buildings, skin, ceramics and textiles, as well as mysterious shaman books (now lost, see Gebhart-Sayer, 1985) were all adorned with their distinctive, delicate pattern style.
Shipibo-conibo vegetalista say that geometric visionary designs are the symbolic visual aspect of healing songs (icaro s). The shaman says, “My song is a result of the design image”. Nishi Ibo (the spirit of Ayahuasca) reveals before the shaman quiquin design medicine, as luminescent geometric configurations. The shaman heals his patient through the application of the song-design, which saturates the patients body and is believed to untangle distorted physical and psycho-spiritual energies, restoring harmony to the somatic, psychic and spiritual systems of the patient. (Gebhart-Sayer, 1985)
“Essentially, Shipibo-Conibo therapy is a matter of visionary design application in connection with aura restoration… the shaman heals his patient through the application of a visionary design… every person feels spiritually permeated and saturated with designs. The designs remain with a persons spirit even after death…” (Gebhart-Sayer, 1985)
“I asked Don Basilio what comprised the arkana (shamanic defenses) he had sung over me… He took one of the beautifully decorated skirts used by Shipibo women, and pointing to the design, he said to me, “I put these in your body.” This was a confirmation of the work carried out by Angelika Gebhart-Sayer in which she shows that the patterns used in the body paint, textiles, ceramics and other utensils of the Shipibo are symbolic representations of songs (icaro s) (L. E Luna, 1991)
There is clearly a great deal of valuable traditional knowledge that has developed over countless generations of humans working with Ayahuasca. But what does it feel like to imbibe such a magic potion ? Describing such states of being is a challenging creative task. In fact Ayahuasca is so tremendously novel a potion that even for regular drinkers the territory can be unpredictable, and responses also vary between different physical and mental constitutions.
Drinking the tea often entails a phase of purging and resolving traumatic experiences that have imprinted and in some way constrained the body and mind (see the work of Stan Grof and Christopher Bach etc.). This purging is a deep cleansing, thorough and not an easy thing to experience. It could be described as something of an ordeal. As part of this process, conventional ways of organising or ‘thinking about the world’ are undermined through a shift that occurs deep in our emotional body. This phase has been described in the ethnographic literature of shamanism, as a shamanic initiation involving dismemberment. An author, writing of the state of psychiatry in the 1960’s, spoke of ‘decompartmentalisation’. All the conventional categories are flooded to breaking point, the dams burst, and new connections are made.
The clearer ones system, the better able one is to receive and integrate spiritual energies the knowledge of Ayahuasca. The concept of subtle body phlegm is an important one in New World shamanism. “Vegetalistas say that Ayahuasca is needed for cleansing all the flemosidades (phlegm formations) that accumulate in the intestines” (Luna 1984). The flemosidades are believed to arise from environmental toxins, certain foods, trauma (soul loss), and moral transgressions such as ill will, etc. Analogous to blockages of chi in the meridians, or prana in the nadis, flemosidades disrupt the smooth functioning of the body and mind. Clearing the flemosidades prepares the body to journey deeper into health and wisdom. Therefore, the clearer and healthier one is, the easier it is to manage the physical symptoms of Ayahuasca cleansing.
When the body is loaded with toxins, pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides from poor food, pyro-toxins from tobacco smoke, ozone and other oxidants from air pollution, chlorine, lead, phosphates and fluoride in drinking water, Ayahuasca gives the body an opportunity to expel some of these poisons via vomiting and diarrhea. Ayahuasca is known by Mestizo s as ‘la purga’. It is helpful to remember what purging represents – a state of purgatory, a sometimes-painful place where the light of heaven burns up ill deeds. The fire of hell is the light of heaven; they are one and the same emanation of the Clear Light of awareness upon which we project our benevolent and wrathful realities.
The purge is experienced as a radical detoxification occurring on physical, energetic, emotional, psychological and spiritual levels. The vine can feel like something living, snaking through the intestines then insinuating itself into every capillary of ones being, leaching out things that are causing harm. This phase of the journey can be driving, relentless and sometimes shocking in its similarity to ‘exorcism’. Alternately it can be experienced as incredibly gentle and merciful, like being in the infinitely tender arms of the Great Mother or angelic beings. Much is determined by how aligned and transparent one is, and how much one is able to witness and stay present rather than fall into reactive and defensive patterns. Staying present with humility of mind is a skill that some people progressively develop through drinking.
Journeys into Divine Creation
Many westerners approach Ayahuasca because they believe it may provide information that may elucidate the ‘meaning of life’. Rather than providing complete answers, Ayahuasca respects the great mysteries of life, and makes them more fertile. No final answers or conclusions snap into view. Like science, practices that facilitate transpersonal expansion of consciousness – yoga – are methods of knowledge, gaining information through empiricism.
Perception broadens, and so does knowledge of the weave of the world, which increases understandings of the patterns and forms of life, and this allows increasing levels of appropriateness and right relations within life praxis, because the relationship between self and world is better understood. But there are always fresh vistas, and no finalities have come into view. If anything, wisdom is shown to be responsive and dynamic, not a collection of static pieces of knowledge. There is a time for everything, and no single rule for anything. Only the fearful mind seeks premature confines, and in a ‘hermetic’ box life dies.
“The spirit is at play, energy is eternal delight, both matter, life and mind are expressions of the cosmic logos. This world is the expression of the divine logos that the primordial man and woman create through each other. At play in the fields of creation, characterized by differences and boundaries, Shiva and Shakti play in creativity and love. Shiva and Shakti is man and woman, liberated and in love, who have set each other free. This universe is an overflow of this love, an expression of the exuberance of this love.”
Ayahuasca unfolds experiential passages that can often constitute an organized, intelligent experiential journey. The sequence and content of the experience can appear lucidly intelligent and deeply meaningful for the drinker. These journeys can include deep encounters with ones biographic history, constitution, web of relationships, and even participatory engagements in mythopoetic realms of staggering realism, beauty, organizational complexity, and profoundly meaningful narrative, which subsequently catalyze changes to paradigms of cosmos and self.
Ayahuasca teaches that we often live in a habituated state of contraction and fear, and that it is possible through spiritual work, through listening to our voice of conscience, and through learning discipline and compassion to straight paths in our lives on earth, to move beyond this contraction and fragmentation to higher levels of our human nature, where our powers of imagination, intuition and sensitivity become abundant.
Some of the deepest and simplest lessons that Ayahuasca has impressed upon me is to find my prayer and stay present and grounded in love, because life is a gift. What does it mean, to say life is a gift ? For me it means life is a very precious and beautiful thing, because it is the means to be in this chthonic, mineralogical, biological garden of innocence and experience. It is a fascinating, bizzare and wondrous space of experience, encounter, adventure and creativity. This is not to ignore its painful, traumatic and shocking aspects. But the terror of existence is fully balanced with its love and beauty, and death is the end of our limits, a wondrous, phoenix-like release from the bondage of gravity, illusion and pain.
In this way, Ayahuasca is not a means for escape or a catylist for transcendence. It is primarily a teacher of deep immanence. Whilst it reveals a greater backdrop of spiritual and cosmic/energetic interconnectivity, this great weave always re-converges in the dancing, sentient monads of consciousness that are the beings that create the Gaian web of life. Ayahuasca does not divest us of responsibility to ourselves, our families, our bioregions, our planet, or our relationship to God, Mystery, Great Spirit. Rather, it teaches and emphasizes deep interconnectivity.
One of the prayers recited to consecrate the space within Brazilian Santo Daime rituals talks of “perfect communion between my higher and lower self”. Ayahuasca brings the distant polarities of our being to bear upon each other, so that the light irradiates the unconscious, revealing the vistas of our ancestral and genetic karma, for forgiveness to be received. The aspects we carry that are incompatible with this vast vision of life are addressed and worked upon. The rigidity, pomposity and self-inflatedness of the ego-simulation are shown up for what they are – creations. And so an opportunity is presented to re-create ones life, through ones innermost attitudes and ethical praxis.
In the pattern of the human essence exists the impulse for creation: To create, play, evolve, and to explore the infinite varieties and manifestations of love. Humans reflect the cosmic creativity. Through this journey, the self accomplishes a regeneration of its imaginal capacity and its wholeness. Through unblocking the fertility circuit, unblocking tense, fear based control mechanisms, those pranic creative energies through which we are most aligned to spirit, can be expressed, as a gift to and from the source. As Tolkein has written:
“You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word … You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God… and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”
“I feel deep connection with the Earth, that this love is in some way coming from Gaia and through me like I am a channel. The love, freedom, peace and harmony of creation, her boundless love, too great to fully accept, we have so many partitions within us that prevent us from being clear channels, givers and receivers of Love, Peace and Harmony. Our Earth suffers through a split between our culture and the freedom and love of creation. We fear death and wall ourselves up in our ego, in mental constructs. We halt the flow and fresh prana turns to putrefying ponds within this creation. This is a shadow within the earth. I felt again the need for love, for love to come through us and return unto the winds, fires, waters and earth. And love to the forgotten and the cast-away, the dead and the despised – the cosmic placenta of creation. I gave love to the forgotten, the underworld. I felt immense compassion rising to meet the darkness for healing.”
Transpersonal ecstasy obliterates the fragmentation between organism and environment, soma and psyche, Thanatos and Eros. It is to heal in the most fundamental way, to move beyond the life and happiness squandering, agitating and knotting force of fear itself, beyond the dissociated, enclosed, contracted fear state that exists as the underlying tone of many peoples consciousness, the same impulse of fear that causes us to separate from nature, to wall ourselves up, to deny change, and so deny death and rebirth.
In shamanic states of being, relations with phenomena previously experienced as separate and conflicting become understood in their greater harmony. This is the unitive experience; of unity remembered, of re-cognising all animals, plants, the planet and the cosmos as aspects of a vast ecology of spirit. As Thomas Berry put it so well, “The universe is not a collection of objects, it is a community of subjects”. In the perception of this greater, divine unity, that tone of underlying fear is reduced. With reduced fear is the reduction of the urge to control. We begin to allow ourselves to be open system, in the flow of transformations and pattern of relations that is nature. Where this leads, is deeper and deeper into the profound mystery of Life, existence, eternity, and a renewal of the energies of healing and creativity, a reconnecting of the fertility circuit that is the foundation of life.
Shamanism is a means to perform this important work. One of the lessons of shamanic work is that of our deep unity with the creative force of the universe. This gnosis heals psychophysical blockages that have hindered us, it dissolves toxic shames and double binds under a sense of wisdom and love we may not have known we had in us. This is a recovery of something special and sacred, and perhaps innate and natural, within the profaned human condition.
This healing represents the end of survival – and the beginning of Life.