“True healing requires a change of consciousness.”
On a sunny afternoon in late summer, I rode my bike to Logan’s central park and lay under a tree. I stared up at the tree for a long time, thoughts wandering. Light illuminated the leaves’ intricacies and exaggerated the dark branches’ rugged shape, and my eyes relaxed upon the scene. Nothing around me changed but suddenly, my perception of it was wholly transformed. The tree that shaded me exposed itself as my own veins outside myself, only bigger. In its shape was displayed the shape of life itself; branching, branching. I saw the way life mimics the patterns I found in the branches and roots, and how the tree mimics the grand patterns of genesis, growth, and end. It was the creator and created in one moment, suddenly sacred.
I felt at that moment that I had reached an understanding, however superficial, of the universal tendency among earth-centered traditions to see the self and nature as not separate, but one. The temporary lapse from the rational and categorical mind created a space wherein the sacred could be found in every object. Had I entered the ‘savage mind,’ where the natural world is conscious, and intimate as my own body? Had I seen the tree of life? Like a typical student of anthropology, I thought I had experienced the indigenous spirituality.
While it would be an oversimplification to talk about the indigenous spirituality, I felt like what I experienced was something ancient. Various states of consciousness, we have learned this semester, are central to the shamanic tradition; transformation occurs within the individual through conscious intention, and altered states provide a deeper level of insight than our ordinary mentality allows. I have learned that a consciousness that facilitates oneness and intimacy with our surroundings is indeed ancient, and the ability to enter that consciousness is the purpose of shamanism.
In The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner writes about shamans as being those with the ability to “pass freely” from the realm of the ordinary to the realm of the unordinary (Harner 41), having mastered their own fluid consciousness. He characterizes them as seers – those who can see what is usually inaccessible to others, so much so that his definition of ‘Core Shamanism’ is a “set of methods for altering consciousness” (Harvery 142). In class, we have talked about the Pachakuti Mesa tradition as a personal tool for ‘the time of great turning,’ meaning, in one way, the turning or transformation of our consciousness. This paper will discuss the nonordinary states of consciousness, such as the spirit journey, dreaming, and ingestion of entheogens, focusing on the transformative power they contain for shamans and their communities.
As the world’s first religion, shamanism contains uniquely universal and timeless ways of accessing the divine. Mary Pat Fisher, in the book Living Religions, states that “archaeological research has confirmed that shamanic methods are extremely ancient- at least twenty to thirty thousand years old,” and that “ways of becoming a shaman and practicing shamanic arts are remarkably similar around the globe” (36). The similarities of shamanistic practices worldwide seems to speak to the fundamental importance in the common realities of people around the world. These commonalities, perhaps some of the most deep-seated, are manifest in the way shamanic traditions play with, explore, reign in, and utilize human consciousness.
Michael Wickelman’s article “Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing,” focuses on the biological basis for altered states of consciousness. He argues that since the appearance of ASC in shamanism is so universal, there must be a physiological structure that supports their adaptive advantages. “The near-universality of institutionalized altered states of consciousness,” he says, “reflects their inherent basis in human biology and the fundamental similarity of the brain responses produced by a variety of conditions, activities, and agents” (471). These responses, he says, serve multiple purposes, such as the integration of knowledge and the solidarity of community, both of which contribute to survival.
First, altered states of consciousness create an integrative whole in the normally separate operators of the unconscious and the conscious mind. This integration allows pre-linguistic and basic body-level knowledge to surface in the mind, allowing for a greatly “increased coherence of the potentials of many parts of the brain” (482), according to Winkelman. Second, altered states of consciousness have the pattern of breaking down social barriers, especially when used in ritual. These states break down normal conditioned responses, increase suggestibility, often elicit positive emotive memories, and reduce ego-centeredness that inhibits community bonding. Together, these integrative and bonding capacities have become the ritualized spiritual experiences of shamanic traditions, facilitated through the shaman.
The shaman takes the role of facilitator, mediator, and bridge between worlds. “If there is an above and a below,” Harvey writes, “shamans mediate between them. If there are masculine and feminine genders, shamans mediate between them. If the sea and land are, in some senses, culturally dichotomous, shamans mediate… In some cases at least, the whole system of the way the world is, is encapsulated and performed in the being and living of shamans” (149). As the cosmological between, shamans utilize altered states of consciousness to leave this world and journey in the next. Often, this is achieved through ingesting sacred plants such as Ayahusaca, “little death.”
Kjellgren et al’s article “Experiences of Encounters with Ayahuasca- ‘Vine of the Soul’” outlines the basic experiences that are reported by users of Ayahuasca in five stages. First, the participants identify a motivation or aim before ingesting the brew, being aware that the intention often has heavy influence on the journey of the “little death.” Little death is… Second, individuals reported an intense discomfort, including sickness and paranoia in the first 30 minutes after ingestion, even mounting to terror and flashbacks of traumatic experiences. For many people, this stage feels like approaching insanity, or even death. After this dark phase, participants often experience intense vomiting and diarrhea, after which a sense of extreme peace and euphoria sets in. The authors called this the transitional phase, and participants compared it to going from hell to heaven. This phase lasts the longest, and individuals usually experience profound insight into their own lives, and a deep sense of oneness with others and the natural world. The fifth phase that was usually reported was a reflection period in which participants would recall their insights and gain meaning from the lessons learned during their journey. Finally, participants overwhelmingly reported a sense that their view of the world had changed in fundamental ways; they had become more open, empathetic, and loving towards others, and had an increased sense of the connectedness of humans with non-human nature.
This experiential outline is significant because, although it was conducted with modern citizens who lived in industrialized societies, it offers insight into a general process of a sort of death, transition, and rebirth that is experienced by anyone who takes Ayahuasca. Anyone who endeavors to practice Ayahuasca can come by these same experiences, which is an essential component of the tradition’s beauty and broad applicability. Shamans have long been using the brewed vine mixture as a way to face the darkest enclaves of an altered reality in order to gain the transformative wisdom on the other side.
Like many religious traditions, personal transformation is sought through a confrontation with death, whether physically or through ritual. The confrontation with death renders the follower reborn or transformed. Death can by symbolized by a descent into unknown realms, darkness, or the loss of oneself. Fisher describes, for example, the typical shamanic journey of entering the Lowerworld, which is envisioned as a “spring, a hollow tree, cave, animal burrow, or a special ceremonial hole regarded as a navel of the earth (39).” These holes, she says, usually lead to bright landscapes, and often a river must be crossed from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Here the shaman can retrieve a lost soul or guardian spirit of the person who is sick, and wholeness can be achieved. Through this archetypal soul journey, the shaman faces death in order to maintain life. As a mediator between worlds, the shaman has the power to travel between worlds, achieving remarkable fluidity of consciousness into varying levels of reality.
We participated in this soul journey in one of the first weeks of class, entering a dark cave and meeting our spirit animals. The week after we did this, one of the members of class shared her amazing story, which followed perfectly the archetypal shamanic journey described by Fisher. She entered the landscape, which was brilliantly lighted and pleasant. After seeing a river, she decided to cross over the bridge, because it was the only way to go. When she got across the bridge, she wondered why she had done so- the landscape was suddenly dark, blurry, and unpleasant. As she recalled her experience, she talked about realizing that the step into the darkness was a necessary part of her journey. She could not have understood the light, or continued on her journey, without passing through the confusion, the unknown, the “little death.”
My experience with the soul journey was not as profound; after a vivid few minutes of entering the cave and stepping into the darkness, my mind became so relaxed by the rhythmic drum beat that I fell into a sort of half-sleep. My dreams during the first few weeks of class, however, involved repeated brutal violence and death. Like I retold in a reflection paper, I was a victim of the violence in some dreams and in others I was the perpetrator. I found it very interesting in light of the themes of death and rebirth we had been discussing in class. These dreams, which in part sparked my further interest in altered states of consciousness, seem to be explained in part by Louis Hagood’s article “Awakening to Dreams,” in which he describes shamanic and symbolic exploration of his own dreams. In one dream, he found himself running along a beach trail being chased by a black man. The man tackled him into the sand in a terrifying episode of violence. Hagood writes about encountering the “Other” within the self- the unknown, embodied in the image of the black man. “Through this transformation the false self…can encounter the true self in what appears to be a threat. Such is play in transitional space, in the imaginal, in dream”(161). Through these states of enhanced consciousness, such as dreams and spirit-journeys, the theme of death and transformation seem to play a central role in personal spirituality and healing.
In Harner’s chapter “Discovering the Way,” he describes in great detail his incredible soul journey given by Ayahuasca. After a feeling of numbness and heaviness, Harner describes witnessing a series of visions which led him to his own death, as if brought across waters on a boat. “Giant reptilian creatures,” seeming to come from within himself, appearing demonic and threatening, “reposing sluggishly at the lowermost depths at the back of my brain…I could only vaguely see them in what seemed to be gloomy, dark depths.” The creatures then revealed their power, showing that they resided in every living thing on earth and were the true masters. Feeling his soul would be stolen by the creatures, he forced himself to ask for medicine at the very last moment before his own destruction. After this frightening episode, Harner describes a relaxed state in which he could determine his own explorations in the mystical realm; traveling, taking journeys, and realizing fantasies.
When Harner told the shaman about his experiences, the shaman affirmed that he too had interacted with the reptilian creatures in his soul journeys, saying “you can surely be a master shaman.” Harner’s experience illustrates the soul journey, including descent and near-death, that transforms the individual into a seer. The ayahuasca facilitated a shift in consciousness that allowed Harner to face the deepest terror, an embedded yet foreign Other. This confrontation with the Other, with death, unknown, and darkness, allowed for a fundamental personal transformation; he had been to both worlds, and could now mediate between them.
“The concept of shamanism stands at a paradoxical cross-road,” says Winkleman. “On one hand it represents one of the most ancient of all human spiritual practices, while on the other hand, modified forms of it are being revitalized and spread in modern society” (Winkleman 185). In class this semester, we have experienced a modified form of the earth’s most universal and common spirituality. One of the most fundamental things I have learned is the power that is available through my own consciousness, by simple acts such as focusing my attention on my breathing, or understanding the mesa as a landscape of my consciousness, making those interior things manifest. While my experience with the tree in the park seemed like a rare gift, the practice of utilizing consciousness can create that sense of oneness- it is through this that shamanism, as a practice, can prompt personal and community transformation.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. 10th. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. Print.
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions: A Brief Introduction. 1st. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2002. Print.
Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. 1st. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.
Winkelman, Michael. “Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 3.4 (2009): 458-489. Web. 3 May. 2012. <http://encore.lib.usu.edu:50080/ebsco-web/ehost/detail?sid=a6c7a903-30b7-49d9-b500-c17f20e7ddbc@sessionmgr114&vid=1&hid=125&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ==
Hagood, Louis. “Awakening to Dreams.” Journal of Religion and Health. 45.2 (2006): 160-170. Web. 3 May. 2012.