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Coca and the War on Drugs in Bolivia


Drug enforcement officials in Bolivia


Chapter 7 in Wrangham and Peterson’s Demonic Males describes a scene of surprising brutality. In the middle of the night, two male chimpanzees in the Arnhem Zoo attacked the alpha male of the colony, almost like a mutiny. Toes, fingernails, and testicles were found on the floor in the morning, and the alpha male, now a victim, died the next evening. The chimp who led the attack assumed his position as alpha male. “The ape struggle for power was indeed political,” say the authors, “And like human politics, it led to violence when negotiation failed” (Wrangham and Peterson 1996: 127).

Like the chimpanzees that used aggression to gain authority, human societies have long been engaging in violence for the sake of power. Throughout the course of this semester, we have learned that no matter where we look, no matter which society, violence has a central role in the fluctuating emergence of power among groups and individuals. Using archaeological evidence, we have primarily focused on indigenous societies’ behavior before their encounter with colonialists, before the balance of power shifted radically in favor of the Europeans. The conflict of pre-European North American Indians, for example, shows a pattern of revenge killings and tribal feuding that would last through generations. One group would raid the other, avenging past deaths and reclaiming their dominance. The cycle would continue, leaving archaeologists with striking evidence that these were relationships in which power was lost and then sought, time and again.

While these fundamental patterns of power struggle are still manifest in modern warfare, they have also morphed drastically, in part because power is so heavily concentrated in the hands of few. The post-WWII era has brought with it an increasingly globalized world were war is no longer between kin groups, but between major international players with vested interests. The imbalance of power is greater than perhaps ever before, and war is playing out in completely new ways, begging the question: what happens in conflict between profoundly unequal sides of power?

Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest nations, is caught in these shifting tides of power and globalization. Over the last three decades, a pattern of violence has emerged upon the homelands of indigenous coca farmers, fueled by the conflicting interests of the United States, the Bolivian government, coca farmers, and international cocaine trafficking- all because of the coca leaf. (cont.)

coca leaves provide a living for farmers

Coca, a stimulant that has long been chewed by Andean people, is also the source from which cocaine is made. As such, it has become the center of much heated political controversy, and as this paper will show, violence. In 1983 the U.S. began a military presence in the heart of Bolivia’s coca country in order to crack down on cocaine trafficking. Emboldened by the “War on Drugs,” the U.S. joined with Bolivian police and began efforts to eradicate most of the country’s coca farms. Peasants and farmers who depend upon the plant for livelihood have resisted such measures, forming unions like the Cocaleros and leading protests, often facing violence. Though the rhetoric of the U.S.’s mission is peaceful, there are numerous stories from farmers and civilians about human rights abuses, torture, and massacre backed by the U.S.

cocaine paste is extracted from coca leaves after lengthy process, including soaking leaves in diesel gasoline.

While government and official sources have cited the progress being made in Bolivia towards abolishing cocaine trafficking (Sanabria), the purpose of this paper is to present evidence that the U.S. presence in Bolivia may in fact have caused more harm than good, and that the “war” language used in drug policies might, in some ways, be a reality. My question is: Could the U.S. War on Drugs in Bolivia be characterized as an actual war?


For thousands of years, the story has been the same. Coca is a way of life- a staple to the diet, the economy, and the social lives of Andean people. “Coca nos da todo” (coca gives us everything), says the Morenos family, who depend on coca for their livelihood (Huffington Post 2009).

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, 51% of Bolivia’s people live in poverty (2012). With few other options, tens of thousands of families in the Chapare, the main coca-growing region, have continued to turn to coca cultivation to survive. With an estimated export value of $600 million, more than all other exports combined, as well as four yearly harvests, it is little wonder why families make the viable choice. The dried leaves are easy to transport, making them ideal to sell year-round, whether at city markets or into cocaine production. The increasing international demand for cocaine further exacerbates farmers’ cultivation of coca for income; coupled with the nation’s extreme poverty, this is often the only choice.

In 1859, German chemists discovered the process that extracted the pure alkaloid from the coca leaf. The alkaloid suffix “ine” was added, and the new product was called cocaine. Originally a popular stimulant for upper-class Europeans, cocaine quickly spread to the U.S. in the form of coca wine, which combined the alkaloid elements of cocaine with wine. Georgia was the first state to outlaw the sale of cocaine in 1902, but it remained legal throughout the rest of the U.S., although a stigma of criminality tended to surround its use (Wikipedia 2012). At the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, coca joined the list of internationally outlawed substances. The convention outlined a twenty-five year grace period to phase out the traditions of coca chewing, after which all use of the leaf would be totally abolished. These lofty goals have yet to be accomplished; in fact coca cultivation has soared in Bolivia, coca chewing remains a strong tradition, and the demand for cocaine has rocketed.

In 2005, the cocaine trade within the U.S. was estimated at $70 billion street value (Wikipedia 2012).  According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, North Americans consume 41% of the cocaine produced in the world, an estimated 5.7 million users, with the U.S. consistently being the source of the greatest demand in the world (United Nations World Drug Report 2011). The Office on Drugs and Crime 2011 Report also stated that the West and Central European $33 billion cocaine markets are slowly reaching that of the U.S. ($37 billion), in part because use within the U.S. may be declining in recent years (2011).

In the face of this demand, the U.S. has used war-like rhetoric and metaphors to discuss the problems of the drug trade, beginning with President Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of the “War on Drugs.” In 1986, President Ronald Reagan stated that drug trafficking posed a major international security threat, implicating the need for military action (Malamud-Goti 1992). Statements like those made by Nixon and Reagan laid the groundwork for military action abroad, but coercion was already being used to sway Bolivia’s policy decisions.

U.S. Presence in Bolivia

Though Bolivia is an independent state, its policies have been largely molded by international forces, especially through the leverage of countries that provide aid. The U.S. is one of Bolivia’s biggest sources of aid, giving it heavy influence in how the War on Drugs has played out.

In 1989, the Bush administration’s “Andean Strategy” launched an effort to decrease cocaine production by sending military forces strait to the source. The Strategy gave Andean countries, including Bolivia, incentive to carry out coca eradication by offering increased police and military aid, training, and equipment to those whose eradication efforts were deemed sufficient. In 1990 and 1991, Bolivia received military funding that increased its total by 30% (Youngers 1991).  In addition, U.S. supplies to the Bolivian military  included “helicopter and airplane parts, six new UH-IH helicopters, maintenance and repairs for the entire air fleet of the Bolivian air force, and eight river patrol boats for the navy,” all for coca eradication (Youngers 1991, no page numbers). Finally, the Strategy outlined procedures for the Bolivian army to provide assistance to UMOPAR, making antinarcotic forces a joint military-police effort.

The Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (UMOPAR) is Bolivia’s antinarcotics police force, created in 1983 through U.S. funding and training. UMOPAR troops are currently directed under the DEA and have been provided equipment through the U.S.’s “Operation Snowcap” and continued funding (Youngers 1991). Working in direct conjunction and often side-by-side, the DEA and UMOPAR are Bolivia’s on-the-ground force in coca eradication, based in the Chapare region. They were especially active under Law 1008, perhaps the most drastic antinarcotic measure Bolivia has taken, from the direct pressure of the U.S.

Law 1008 essentially paved the way for the eventual eradication of all coca in most of Bolivia; excluding areas of the Yungas where coca was highly traditional (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997). All coca that was grown outside the area was considered excess, and farmers were therefore obligated to ‘voluntarily’ eliminate their own crops in exchange for government subsidies, or else have crops destroyed by antinarcotics forces with no repayment. The Law also made possible the imprisonment of civilians on nothing more than suspicion of drug-related offenses, however minor they might be (Human Rights Watch 1995).

The War on Drugs

The violence associated with the War on Drugs in Bolivia takes two forms: first, Bolivian and United States forces have continually committed major human rights abuses under the guise of the antinarcotic mission, especially against poor and indigenous farmers; and second, coca farmers who gather in resistance against restrictive policies have been repeatedly and violently repressed.

The passing of Law 1008 prompted widespread criticism, mounting to protests, marches, and increased violence between law enforcement and coca farmers (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997). Scholar Madeline Barbara Leons calls the law “draconian” (1997: 22),  and Human Rights Watch called for the law to be amended to allow a fair trial for citizens arrested for anti-narcotic violations (1995). Further, according to Linda Farthing, to enforce Law 1008 required major bureaucratic infrastructure, which Bolivia simply did not have. She said, “Law 1008 has been superimposed on an extremely weak judiciary, which although declared independent in the Bolivian constitution, is in fact highly susceptible to outside pressure, particularly from the executive branch” (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997).

“There it is.. the 27 hectares of the coca leaf crop- the sacred leaf of the Incas”
“Captain, we found the weapons of mass destruction we’ve been looking for.”

Harry Sanabria, in his article “The Discourse and Practice of Repression and Resistance in the Chapare” retells numerous coca farmer’s personal accounts of abuse by UMOPAR, saying that in his conversations with farmers, “Leopardos (slang name for UMOPAR) were always viewed by Pamapenos as thieves constantly profiting from their official roles” (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997: 182), and Human Rights Watch points out the UMOPAR reputation as “thieves and thugs” among locals (Human Rights Watch 1995, Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997:264).

Further, the NGO Andean Information Network reported cases in which UMOPAR had tortured victims, sometimes during interrogation. The report included “spontaneous acts of violence as well as systemic and elaborate forms of torture,” including being “shot, submerged under water, beaten while suspended in the air, burned with cigarettes, forcibly injected with unknown substances, tortured with electric shock, severely beaten and repeatedly threatened with death” (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997:264).

The United States’ role is one of complicity. DEA officials often accompanies UMOPAR on eradication missions, or else directly oversee the missions (Youngers 1991).  According to Human Rights Watch, when a senior DEA official was questioned about interrogations that included torture, he responded that UMOPAR “has its own way of doing things,” and the U.S. is not required to interfere (Human Rights Watch 1995: no page numbers). Further, while the U.S. has historically used its leverage to sway Bolivia’s policy-making, it could do the same to ensure that just and non-abusive procedures are enacted.


Law 1008 and subsequent abuses sparked an energetic series of protests, marches, and strikes by coca farmer unions (Sanabria 1996).  While the law was in congress and on the verge of passing, the Cocaleros mobilized in protest. Around 4,000-5,000 occupied the town of Villa Tunari on June 27 1988, taking control of UMOPAR barracks in search of evidence for rumors that herbicides would be employed for eradication under the new law. UMOPAR and by some accounts DEA reinforcements arrived by helicopter, laying out a violent crack-down upon the Cocaleros (Rensellear 1989). Between ten and fifteen farmers, and one policeman, were killed in the battle. According to W. Lee III’s summary in “The White Labyrinth,” three of the Cocaleros were killed by gun fire, and more than ten were forced into the Chapare River, bordered by steep embankments, where they drowned (1989). The incident is now referred to as the Villa Tunari Massacre, and has remained in the consciousness of coca growers who face continued threats of violence. Current president Evo Morales recalls the day: “I was a witness to how the gringos from the DEA fired upon us and the Villa Tunari massacre was made. Later, we recovered cadavers drowned in the river and others with bullet wounds. It was all for the defense of the coca leaf against Law 1008″ (Wikipedia 2012).

The Villa Tunari Massacre, though more deadly than most encounters, is not an isolated incident in the history of coca farmers’ resistance to antinarcotic repression. In May 1987, coca farmers set up a blockade on three of the major roads into Cochabamba in order to halt antinarcotic officers. Five farmers were killed in the fight with police that followed (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997, Youngers 1991). On June 27 of 1991, hundreds of coca farmers marched to the city of La Paz in protest of the militarization of the Chapare, calling for “dignity and sovereignty.” As the protesters neared the city of Cochabamba, they were met by army troops who violently forced the group to disband. One person was killed in the dispute, and many were wounded. (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997, Youngers 1991). In 1995 alone, according to Leons and Sanabria, over six coca farmers were killed and ten wounded during confrontations with the police. That same year, the government of Bolivia declared a state of siege. According to Sanabria, this was in the midst of “escalating, and sometimes armed, clashes (that) were so severe…that one peasant leader is quoted as having said that ‘we were living in a state of war between peasants and Leos (the UMOPAR)” (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997: 185).  (cont)

The Assiociated Press further reported in 2002 that thirty-nine coca farmers, police, and soldiers had been killed since 1997 during violent confrontations (Associated Press 2002). The CNN article “War Between Coca Farmers, Bolivia Rages On” tells the story of Maximo Rivero, a 65-year-old coca farmer who was captured by police in a night-raid and beaten in interrogation. After police conceded that Rivero had no information, he was thrown out with head injuries and a broken leg. “If there is no more coca,” he says, “my people will have nothing. Everybody has a cause to die for- this is ours” (Associated Press 2002: no page numbers).

The article also recounts the violence in Sacaba, which also happened in 2002. After the government shut down one of the Chapare’s major coca markets in Sacaba, farmers occupied the town in an attempt to reopen the market. Clashes between farmers and police lasted four days, and three farmers and five security troopers died. As the U.S. continued to pressure Bolivia’s government into sustained eradication efforts, it was often the poorest Bolivians who pay the highest price (Barbara Leons and Sanabria 1997 and Sanabria 1996).


Like the patterns of warfare we have learned about in class, the war on drugs in Bolivia is systematic, highly planned, and organized. Like traditional wars, the conflict is over resources (coca), although the dynamic is different since governmental forces wish to do away with the resource. There are violent confrontations between organized groups, both of whom are armed, even if the weapons include rocks and slings. Like patterns of violence worldwide, the war on drugs is fought between males, most of them young, and older males tend to lead. Normal social functions are put on hold during these times of war, like we saw in the American Southwest when tribes would expend incredible energy to put food storage in near-impossible access points. In a similar way, farmers left their daily functions, and during the government declared state of siege, faced probable violence and arrest for the sake of their needed resources.

 While some of the traditional patterns of conflict do exist, the war is far from traditional when considering the uniquely modern extent of power difference. For example, archeological evidence in addition to ethnography indicates that traditional war tends to be fought between groups with relative equal weaponry. Sanabria writes about the difference of weapons used in violent spurts between police and coca farmers: “local defense committees seem no match for the ability of the state to quickly deploy massive force and firepower, and machetes are of little use against the rifles and other modern weapons. It would seem, then, that the cards are stacked against the coca cultivating peasants” (Sanabria 1996).

This is not to downplay the incredible resistance and resilience that coca farmers have displayed in the fight for their tradition and livelihood. This is, however, to highlight the imbalance of power employed in violent conflict. Unlike the traditional feuding of the Native North Americans, Bolivian farmers cannot retaliate against their enemies and reclaim their dominance, and unlike the chimpanzees, a planned mutiny would have little impact against the global cocaine trade and the interests of the U.S.

The U.S. war on drugs in Bolivia is occurring under the sweep of major power discrepancies. While the U.S. has the leverage to mold foreign drug policies, make way for its military in foreign countries, and back violent missions on foreign lands, the poor and indigenous people of Bolivia work under extreme poverty to keep their livelihood. Under this system, it is undoubtedly the least powerful of people who pay the highest price in the drug war.

References Cited

Associated Press; 2002 “War between coca farmers, Bolivia rages on.” Electronic document, , accessed April 30, 2012.

Barbara Leons, Madeline and Sanabria, Harry (editors)
1997 Coca, Cocaine, and the Bolivian Reality. State University of New York Press, Albany.
Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook

2012 South America: Bolivia. Electronic Document, , accessed April 30, 2012

Dangl, Benjamin; 2007 The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. A.K. Press, Oakland, California.

Huffington Post; 2009 Drug War Hurts Many Bolivian Farmers who Rely on the Coca Plant. Film, accessed April 30, 2012

Human Rights Watch; 1995 Bolivia: Human Rights Violations and the War on Drugs. Electronic Document. , accessed on April 12, 2012.

Lee III, Rensselaer W.; 1989 The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London.

Malamud-Goti, Jaime;1992 Smoke and Mirrors: The Paradox of the Drug Wars. Westview Press, Boulder.

Sanabria, Harry1996 The Coca Boom and Rural Social Change in Bolivia. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

United Nations World Drug Report; 2011 The Coca/Cocaine Market. Electronic Document. , accessed April 30, 2012

Wikipedia; 2012 Cocaine. Electronic Document. , accessed April 30, 2012.

Wikipedia; 2012 Villa Tunari Massacre. Electronic Document, , accessed April 30, 2012.

Wrangham, Richard and Peterson, Dale; 1996 Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Houghton Mifflin Press, Boston.

Youngers, Coletta; 1991  Washington Office on Latin America.  Electronic Document. , accessed April 30, 2012.

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Shamanism and Altered states of Consciousness

“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.


Works Cited

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. <

Hagood, Louis. “Awakening to Dreams.” Journal of Religion and Health. 45.2 (2006): 160-170. Web. 3 May. 2012.

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Sheryl Wudunn TED video

Sheryl Wudunn: Our Century’s Greatest Injustice

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Miss Representation Trailer

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Sheryl Wudunn: Our Century’s Greatest Injustice

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“Miss Representation” a definite eye-opener

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