I had not yet tried and experienced ayahuasca at the time of the conference. In fact, I was leery of any drug as a spiritual path. Although the conference changed my mind on this issue, more or less, I still held out trying it...until very recently...over eleven years later. Now I see ayahuasca as a research tool. I have since relegated 'structures of consciousness' theory to the dustbin, even though it makes for a convenient and intriguing template in some respects.
Intro and Context
At the beginning of the conference my mind began chattering with itself. I jotted down the following notes:
The inebriant (visionary medicine) disables the mental rational. One then has access to the archeo-magic/mythic, unsuppressed by the mental and unyoked from the rational. The imagery here is the genetically encoded “akashic record” of these ancient consciousness structures. In fact, this meme treasure trove, delivered to the mind, is the psyche emptying its dualist, emotive, pict-o-grams.And on the last day of the conference, as Alex Polari de Alverga began speaking, I jotted this down:
Love of visions and images as a dialogue with creative powers – a kind of sensory appetite for re-creation of self or self-knowledge – can be a seduction itself if it accepts the exploration of mind as reality-truth – an enhanced desire for the phenomenal through obsession with the trans-phenomenal.After the conference and after finishing my two texts (see footnotes 4 & 5, infra), I still hold these views. And throughout this paper I will return to develop them.
One bias of mine is that I am naturally suspect of “big names” who went to Ivy League schools. I had seen Ralph Metzner’s photo in the CIIS catalogue and knew something of his recent work through a friend who had participated in the Manaus conference, Franco Giunta. I first made contact with Dr. Metzner about a year ago on a CIIS boat outing on the bay. After a short how-do-you-do conversation with him I was left with my assumptions and beliefs about him more-or-less intact. That is, my first impression of Ralph Metzner was that he was a kind of older, burned-out hippy-white-man academic, not particularly friendly, who had little baraka or electricity in his human contact. About a year ago, my IND mentor, Monte, had urged me to take Ralph’s class on psychedelics, but I resisted because I was ill-disposed toward hallucinogens as a spiritual path or a self-research tool. I was of the opinion that they were a “poor man’s spirituality” for those who could not achieve much spirituality in their lives in a more “natural” way, i.e., through just plain love, constancy and hard work. I had experienced various natural and synthetic hallucinogens back in the late 60s and early 70s, rarely if ever with the proper set or setting. I had an intense, young man’s curiosity but also saw this period of my life as a despairing desire for self-abnegation in the face of conventional consensual reality (a popular sentiment during this time of flower power, Vietnam, and socio-cultural malaise). Not surprisingly, perhaps, I suppose that I concluded from these experiences that one can go out into the great beyond, have some mind-blowing thrills, but will always return to the same old shit. I tried after that to find my ecstasy and fulfillment in the mystery of “just plain life.” Since that time I have knocked around on the quest circuit and have achieved little success at traditional meditative-type contemplative practices, though I have reached a modicum of awareness that has provided me some sort of contentment, in spite of myself and my bumbling way.
Handicapped by my biases, shortcomings and predispositions, there I sat at the ayahuasca conference anxious to learn what I could find out about the secret knowledge that ayahuasca was purported to precipitate. Not since I had read in Playboy magazine in the late 60s about William Burroughs being one of the few white men to have experienced yagé had I felt such a captivation with learning more about the cornucopia of wisdom this visionary medicine reportedly offered. My studies at CIIS were leading me to re-evaluate all available blueprints for exploring the psyche and retrieving the dissociated pieces of our selves – pieces which are sectored off perhaps in previous lives, in utero, at birth, and early in life (and continually reinforced) by our dissociative keepers, peers and others; the developmental culture trance conditioning we all undergo as we are taught to embrace consensual mental-rational reality, the seemingly normative pathological condition that is dominant these days in the Western world and whose influence has spread worldwide.
At CIIS I had studied holotropic breathwork in an introductory course offered by Stan Grof. And I took a weekend workshop on “kundalini jazz” presented by Stuart Sovatsky. I felt that each of these techniques would likely be efficacious in making swift and potent contact with the psyche and would likely allow the practitioner to retrieve, begin to heal and integrate, and then move onward into more transpersonal realms of being and becoming. There certainly are other paths toward wholeness, each one unique to the individual’s needs. My personal and professional goal is to restore and integrate the totality of a phylogenic self while aspiring toward the trans-rational as an on-going completing or self-knowledge. Now I am considering this third ayahuascan shamanic technique – perhaps not as “unnatural” or out of tune with “just plain life” as I had heretofore judged it to be.
My doctoral interests include structures of consciousness theory, viz., Jean Gebser (1) and Eric Neumann’s work (2), further developed, integrated and popularized of late by Ken Wilber.(3) Structures of consciousness theory assists the researcher by positing certain contents and qualities specific to human evolutionary development as it proceeded through the archeo/magic, the mythic, mental, mental/rational and now emerging integral ways of being in and perceiving the world. As a framework for intuitively grasping the essences of phenomena, it hopefully provides a kind of trans-cognitive template for exploring non-ordinary reality states such as the ayahuasca experience.
This paper will discuss through the lens of structures of consciousness theory various points picked up at the presentations during the conference and in two texts: Ralph Metzner’s, Ayahuasca: Hallucinogens, Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (4)and The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (5), by Jeremy Narby.
Ayahuasca: Exploring the Abnormative/ Exposing A Fragmented Self:
What is the psyche? What is the soul? Could the soul be the unique individual’s grasping of a world-soul called psyche, which tries to hold onto a stream of metaphorical image/sound-messages, this “global network of DNA-based life.”(6) ? What if all of the biospheric energies of DNA-based life resonate in a diaphanous jumble of morphogenic (7) frequencies – and the non-DNA physiosphere is the basin attractor that allows these infinitely interweaved fields to localize on a planet, accessible in time and space to life forms at once embedded in and capable of noospheric interpretation of its multivalent manifestations? Can we call these morphogenic resonances the “spirits” or “holographic inner essences” or “Platonic forms” of living entities? Are we being anthro-snobs by allowing that only humans possess “souls,” and relegating all life forms of lesser neurological development to one, separate designation of possessing “spirit”? Are there and should there be developmental levels within Spirit, that all-embracing synonym for the collective repository of psyches or the world-souls of eternally infinite universes? And when we exit time and space by accessing the achronon (8) can these world-souls be experienced without their being bound to their phenomenal, substrate material? Indeed, how essential is material existence to the realm of the psyche? Is it an absolute precursor for the birthing of psychic elementals? Do these psychic elementals then continue on in the universal web of psyche after they cease to be hosted by DNA-life? Does inanimate matter or non-DNA life host such psychic elementals? Or do the forms “exist” autonomously, hosting DNA-life for a while as a kind of flowering and then re-release themselves back into the psyche? To what extent do humans participate with psychic elementals in a symbiotic synthesis, bestowing meaning and hence a categorical existence to them as parasitical to human knowing? Or is it the other way around? Is it possible that humans leech onto bits of psyche, the world-soul playing host while we vampirize it to support whatever twisted sense we can, given the limitations of our meaning-making abilities? Are those abilities “caged” and thereby “pre-determined” by our “phylogenic passing through” so that our ontogenetic reality is both produced by and producing magico-mythic images to feed those very meaning-making capabilities?
I believe that the above preliminary questions beg to be answered within the context of any phenomenological exploration. Particularly when we begin speaking about the ayahuasca experience, people wildly attribute personal meaning to it, barely ever questioning the fundaments of their own mind-machinations. This is not to demean or marginalize the heuristic enterprise, quite to the contrary; bio-assays (9) can help us to begin uncovering the layers of confused imagery that enmesh us as much in consensual reality as in such abnormative forays. And this is the point: while we cannot use the same thinking to solve the metaphysical riddle of self and self-in-the-world, we need not jump to other ways of knowing only to go back to articulating our discoveries in the old manner of processed mental-rational thinking that habitually and almost inevitably resurfaces. The pathos of consciousness in the dominant Western model is one of leading us to ever-extrapolate into finer abstractions as we conceptualize – in an egoistic and body-distancing way – accounts that are as partial as our own personal development. That is, not only have we largely disconnected from the body, nature, feeling and emotion, the imagination, archetypal notions of various descriptions such as the feminine, a sense of unity and cosmic wonder (all of which, according to structures of consciousness theorists, find their home in the magic and mythic) – we are trying to live our lives by leaving these treasures repressed and non-integrated while making a move toward the integral, or next structure of mind. We are transpersonal fish trying to learn how to walk in water, forgetting we have no legs; we are fixated on and seem content masturbating-our-brains, forgetting that the mind resides in every fiber of our bodies’ DNA, as well as in the world of the “water within which we swim or try to walk.” For humans as for all life (to various degrees), the mechanisms of molecular biology support the hermeneutical ability. Plants “know” in a primordial way that water and photons will nourish them and they open themselves to both. Animals smell or taste a thing and “know” that it will help sustain them and so they eat it. Humans know that they can find nourishment in the communicative social intercourse in which they often incessantly engage. Once stimulated, there is some degree of meaning being made by all organisms.
Let us first try to approximate the method by which humans perceive and make meaning. According to Gebser, in this era of the mental-rational self, consciousness, the ego, the human that is affected by the dominant Western way has a mind that functions like this:
perspectival (eye/brain) outer-relating to space, characterized by a directed dual oppositionality in cerebral functions of reflection, abstraction, will and volition, emphasizing a causal and directed rationality that conceptualizes and reflects, sees and measures using thought and ideation to perceive a materialistic reality from an egocentric [inflated self/other, ego-enthroned subject/object] representation-conception of the world, through projective speculation toward a predominately future orientation to time (in purpose and goal) and within a patriarchal social system that is bonded through religion, characterized by believing-knowing-deducing. (10)I am wondering whether ayahuasca helps to reconnect us to nature, dethroning the ego from its over-emphasized place in our minds, helps us to restore and reintegrate the dissociated fragments of our minds, and then helps us to cut through the distorted welter of the mental-rational. Again according to Gebser, this new integrated or integral mind would perceive and make meaning in the following manner:
aperspectival (vertex => crown of head) inward-relating in a space-free, time-free “inhalation,” characterized by presentiating in a diaphanous “rendering whole” in integral functioning of concretion-verition, emphasizing an acausal, integrated arationality of verition transparency, using openness and spirituality to apprehend an amaterial, apsychic reality of ego-freedom in a world-perceived mutivalence [pluralism] within a social system that is an integrum of feminine/masculine energies, infused by a praeligio of presentiating-concretizing-integrating.(11)I wonder if aboriginals who have been faithful to their traditions are, as a result, more naturally integrated and less “Western pathologized” by the rational (deficient mental) because they have preserved and integrated the archeo-magic/mythic and mental structures in their minds. If so, then it seems likely that they are also making strides in developing themselves toward the more complex emerging structure of mind, the integral. With ayahuasca to help precipitate the integration and the structuration of mind process generally (and I suspect this to be the case), it is among the aboriginal tribes of the world that humanity might set its gaze to discover what kind of future is in store for the planetary mind. With these thoughts percolating, let us turn to the conference notes to see how they might provide support for such ideas.
Evidence Tending to Support the Above Ruminations
During the conference Ralph Metzner described ayahuasca as a perception-enhancing tool and made the following assertions:
• The ayahuasca experience is subjective, with a highly emotional charge and is not reproduceable (in the sense that an empirical experiment might be);
• Animism is the oldest worldview (that everything is animated by consciousness) [but cf., e.g., Erich Neumann’s definition of consciousness as the mental/mental-rational only; a more accurate expression might be “morphogenic resonance” or some degree of “vibratory life force”]. Animism values spirit, subjectivism, dreams and [the experiences of mind which he called] consciousness;
• There are multiple levels of reality and other realities are inhabited by different entities;
• Ayahuasca precipitates a kind of dream injunction leading to instruction which we can apply or integrate; a “seeing” that calls on us to “act”;
• Ayahuasca taps into a kind of “Janus-faced god” of past and future, and imparts assistance in divination, visions, healing, etc., which are the same, but interpreted in different directions, so that we access a variety of visionary outcomes:
1) future work: inclines you toward doing some special life work; the green man archetype [Khidr, the guide for seekers of God in the Islamic/Sufi interpretation] as an ecological metaphor of preserving and restoring the Earth;
2) knowledge: Jeremy Narby discusses this at length in his work wherein molecular biologists use ayahuasca as a tool of perception or “psychic microscope” for exploring at the cellular level;
3) precognitive: one may see oneself in a scene from a future state; a multilayered visionary experience in which one connects to another visionary experience which in turn connects to another across space and time;
4) planetary visions: collective and karmic resolutions [similar to Grof’s work], or prophetic visions (of undersea communities, for example);
5) past lives: in the cultural unconscious or “river of letting go” one might experience a past life state or trauma that might help to explain why some certain thing has been dogging one around in this life.
Other observations included the fact that 25% of pharmaceutical products come from plants and half of those plants are located in the Amazon. The ayahuasca experience has nurtured a general awareness of the incalculable natural value of the Amazon, leading to the notion of “conservation through transformation.” An early pioneer in this work, Michael Harner, founded the Shamanic Conservancy as a result. So interest in ayahuasca is drawing people to the forest and toward a more Gaian mindset. And interest in entheogens has led to speculations that they have been instrumental in humanity’s awakening from ignorance. For example, a primordial human may have ingested a psychoactive mushroom which then started him or her wailing, beating something with a stick and making a rhythmic drumming sound – so that just this one entheogenic evolutionary trigger may have given rise to linguistic expression, technology and music. One panelist mentioned the “bird bringer myth” that says “ayahuasca will help you remember who you are” (I am not sure what one has to do with the other). Another mentioned late-breaking news from the Institute for Frontier Sciences.com of “energy medicines” that, when ingested, open a wedge in one’s aura for high energy to come in and go out of the head, reportedly recorded by a machine capable of detecting such subtle [morphogenic] resonances.
Campos reported in his presentation that extensive healings have been performed by ayahuasqueros who are able to move and balance energy in those who are ill; they are able to draw on the healing properties of a variety of plants, such as one that is reputed to open the heart and allows access to the emotional/affective level to release life-long, constraining repressions; healing through plants has been effective in “rejuvenating, childhood feelings”; helping to ground normally “ungrounded” people; revealing, clarifying and helping people to remember their dreams; and fortifying the body and soul through a deep cleaning or purging of the body.
Dennis McKenna (and others) reported that ayahuasca acts as an anti-depressant, an addiction interrupter for alcoholics and drug addicts, and is a treatment for mood disorders because it increases serotonin uptake activity.
Jonathan Ott, autodidact and psychonautical inner space explorer, presented his perspective in a way that made me wonder whether he had already shifted into Gebser’s integral structure of mind. He interposed complex abstract conceptual expression with imagistic prose, sometimes creating words (“ethnocognosci”) needed for his efforts. This kind of presentiating, aural hierolglyphic, affective connecting with his audience I believe is the communicative way of the future. His “pharmahuasca,” a synthetic, mimetic ayahuasca analog (among other permutative analogs, e.g., pharmapaena and bufotanine), holds promise for providing visionary medicine without hacking down the Banasteriopsis caapi vine and pruning the Psychotria viridis plant, and in instances when a local brew and an officiating shaman puffing on black tobacco are just not available. He masterfully fielded a question (in my opinion) on the issue of plant spirits being absent because of the inorganic origin of his analogs. He replied that “plant spirits” were “not a part of his belief or disbelief system, not a part of my reality,” adding that he assumes such beliefs are akin to a “ritual left over from another time, place and culture.” As a bold statement of how we naively tend to wildly attribute our visions to archaic fantasies, oversacralizing them as these psychic phantasms obligingly cooperate, Ott hit the mark of furthering the evolution of imagination by leaving past mythic imagery in its temporal grave. Alex Polari de Alverga, a leader in the entheogenic religion, Santo Daime, exclaimed that “existence on Earth becomes a mere abortion unless we wake up the divine spark within us.” De Alverga believes that entheogens are the original plant teachers/tools for leading us out of our worldly paradox-box, this “unholy union of materialism and nihilism.” (12) De Alverga described mystical consciousness states as finding a treasure in one’s heart +; This “+” must be “unburied” and used with discipline and determination, consecrated as something special, sacred. He described both opening a book and taking a psychoactive drug as equally efficacious paths in the search for knowledge. For de Alverga the founding and building of Santo Daime is the effort to create a community life that transforms knowledge into the union of community; to risk becoming an institution. The church’s end is to preserve a spiritual path by way of opening up in charity to community, as opposed to the solitary psychonautic navigator who is committed to his or her own voyage of discovery. For him, Santo Daime typifies the modeling of what we learn from our insights, by expanding consciousness through communion with spiritual elevation – this, for him, is an inalienable right and the true liberty of spirit.
We would be amiss if we did not mention other sensory phenomenona such as the aural hallucinogenic experiences induced by ayahuasca inebriation, the vomiting commonly induced by ingestion, and the bodily sensations of feeling oneself as a living, pulsating organism. The shamans say that each plant has its own song, and if you know the song you don’t need the plant – interesting. Indeed, a shaman at the conference whistled some of the plant songs into the microphone for us, which for me was rather meaningless. I suppose first impressions are misleading, a sub-theme of this paper. I conclude by continuing to wonder about all of this. If the plants themselves have revealed to psychonauts the inner properties of each, oh how much there remains to be discovered!
1. The Ever-Present Origin, (Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, Eng. trans. 1985, orig. pub. 1949 and 1953)
2. The Origins and History of Consciousness, (Mythos, 1995, Orig. pub., Rascher Verlag: Zurich, 1949; 1st Eng. trans., Bollingen Series XLII, Princeton University Press, 1954)
3. See, e.g., Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995)
4. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press (1999)
5. New York, NY: Tarcher/ Putnam (1998)
6. Id. 110
7. See generally, Rupert Sheldrake
8. Gebser, 284, 292
9. Jonathan Ott used the term “bioassay” at the Ayahuasca Conference, San Francisco on March 19, 2000 to describe his self-experimentation/ research by ingesting psychoactive preparations.
10. I am presenting this paraphrase of Gebser’s mental/rational consciousness (paraphrased from the table appended to the back of The Ever-Present Origin) as being identified most closely with populations in post-modern Western industrialized nations. It is my own contention that mental/rational consciousness, while universally “available” to populations and cultures of all nations, is adopted and “retrofitted” in part or in whole, according to the prevailing lifestyle norms, values, assumptions and beliefs in “non-Westernized” areas – or rejected altogether in pockets of relative changelessness, i.e., in populations wherein mental-rational consciousness barely comports with traditional ways of being and knowing, such as with certain aboriginal peoples worldwide. It might also be argued that certain populations are selectively accepting the mental, while rejecting rational (deficient mental) consciousness.
11. Id. (my paraphrase)
12. Quoted from Dan Chapman, the CIIS book dealer at the Ayahuasca Conference.