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The Reunification of the Sacred and Natural
Aug 1997
Published in Eleusis, No. 8
I summarize my thesis in two statements: one -- the relentless exploitation and destruction of the biosphere by the capitalist-industrial growth machine around the globe is rooted in a pathological domination complex of "civilized" humans toward the natural world. And two -- the revival of interest in animistic worldviews and in the shamanic practices of traditional peoples, including the intentional use of hallucinogenic2 sacraments, is among the hopeful signs that the split between the sacred and the natural can be healed again.

In order to provide a context for this discussion, I begin by briefly describing my own history of experience and research in this area. As a psychologist, I have been involved in the field of consciousness studies, including altered states induced by drugs, plants and other means, for over 35 years. In the 1960's I worked at Harvard University with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, doing research on the possible therapeutic applications of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin. During the 1970's my work focused on the exploration of non-drug related methods for the transformation of consciousness, such as are found in Eastern and Western traditions of yoga, meditation, alchemy and newly discovered psychotherapeutic methods using deep altered states. During the 1980's I came into contact with the work of Michael Harner and others, who have explored shamanic teachings and practices around the globe, primarily those involving non-ordinary states of consciousness induced by drumming, but also hallucinogens. I studied shamanic practices from various cultures, including those involving fasting, wilderness vision questing, sweat-lodge and others. My interest shifted more towards psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants, which have a history of use in shamanistic societies, rather than the newly discovered powerful drugs, the use of which often involves unknown risks. In the last few years, I have come to see the revival of interest in shamanism and sacred plants as part of the world-wide seeking for a renewal of the spiritual relationship with the natural world.

A recognition and respect for the spiritual essences inherent in nature is basic to the worldview of indigenous peoples, as it was for our own ancestors in pre-industrial societies. In shamanistic societies, that is societies in which the reality of other, non-material worlds is recognized, people have always devoted considerable attention to cultivating a direct perceptual and spiritual relationship with animals, plants and the Earth itself in all its magnificent variety. Our modern materialist worldview, with its obsessive focus on technological progress and on the control and exploitation of what are called "natural resources", has become more or less completely dissociated from such a spiritual awareness of nature. This split between human spirituality and nature has roots in the ancient past, but a major source of it was the rise of mechanistic science in the 16th and 17th century (Metzner, 1993). The revival of animistic beliefs, the deep ecology and ecopsychology movements and the renewed interest in shamanic practices, including the use of hallucinogenic or entheogenic plants, represent a re-unification of science and spirituality, which have been divorced since the rise of mechanistic science in the 17th century. I believe spiritual values can again become the primary motivation for scientists. It should be obvious that this direction for science would be a lot healthier for all of us and for the planet, than science directed, as it is now primarily, towards generating weaponry or profit.

Common Elements of Shamanic/Hallucinogenic Experience
In order to focus the discussion on hallucinogenic plant sacraments, I will begin by quoting from the notes I made of my own first experience with ayahuasca. I came into contact with this Amazonian plant-medicine through an ethnobotanist who had researched the practices of Peruvian mestizo shamans, and had prepared the medicine according to the traditional recipes. The setting was a spacious house in rural Northern California. The attitude was open and respectful, treating the medicine as a sacrament. Here is the account:

We drank the brew, which has a taste that is a strange mixture of bitterness and syrupy sweetness, in almost total darkness, with only a candle or two. We listened to Mayan music. I began to feel very relaxed, heavy and soft, but also as if my head were expanding. A swaying tapestry of visions comes into view, at fist mostly geometric patterns, then shapes and forms of plants, animals, humans, cities, temples, flying craft and the like. Particular images from time to time emerge out of the continuous flux, and then are re-absorbed back into it.

As the images of forms and objects recede back into the swaying fabric of visions, I realize that I am seeing them as if projected on the twisting coils of an enormous serpent, with glittering silvery and green designs on its skin. I cannot see either head or tail of the serpent, which gives me a rough sense of its size: it encompasses the entire two-story building. Curiously, the sight of this gigantic serpent does not evoke the slightest fear; on the contrary, my emotional response is one of awe and humility at the magnificence of this being and its spiritual power. I had heard that in the Amazon, the ayahuasceros regard the giant serpent as the "mother spirit" of all the other spirits of the forest, of the river and the air.

In the earlier phase, before I became aware of the giant mother serpent, I experienced the geometric patterns I was seeing with distaste verging on disgust: they seemed tacky, plastic and artificial, like the décor of a shopping mall or a Las Vegas casino. As I searched for the meaning of my reaction, I was shown how this was the human technocultural overlay on the natural world: I was looking at the human world! Then, as I accepted that, albeit with some regret, I was able to see through it to the pulsating energies of the real, spiritual world of underlying nature, embodied in the form of the giant Serpent Mother.

Then I meet another serpent, more "normal" in its dimensions: in fact it is about the same size as me. It enters my body through my mouth and starts to slowly wind its way through my stomach and intestines over the next two or three hours. When it gets to the gut, there is some cramping, and incredibly loud sounds of gurgling and digesting are coming from my viscera. I become aware of a morphic resonance between serpent and intestines: the form of the snake is more or less a long intestinal tract, with a head and a tail end. Conversely, our gut is serpentine, with its twists and turns and its peristaltic movement. So the serpent, in winding its way through my intestinal tract is "teaching" my intestines how to be more powerful and effective.

Then I see several black-skinned people, dancing as they come toward me and recede away. They are always in pairs, like twins, moving in parallel fashion: I wonder whether they represent the spirits of the two paired plants of the ayahuasca tea. Then, as I'm lying sideways on a couch, a jaguar suddenly comes into me. It is an enormous black male, and he enters my body assuming the same semi-reclining position I was in. Shortly after I notice it, the jaguar is gone. Another time, as I am on my hands and knees, I distinctly feel a bird landing on my back. I am being briefly introduced to some of the different spirits that the ayahuasca medicine can access. The realization grows within me that with practice and increased concentration, I would be able to hold the encounters with the different animal spirits for longer -- and then be able to question them for divination. Don Fidel, one of the old ayahuasceros, says: "the visions come into you and heal you."

Many images of old Mayan gods and underworld demons dancing: skeletal, crippled, diseased, skin flapping, blood dripping, pustular, bulbous, with gaping wounds and cut-off heads, toads on their necks, pierced with thorns. Their message, repeated several times, is: "you don't have to do anything". By incorporating death, decay and disease and other unimaginable horrors into their dance of transformation, a deep inner healing takes place, totally independent of any personal involvement on my part. I am astonished at being initiated into this ancient lineage of visionary healers.

It is late in the evening, and I am again on my hands and knees, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by this gut-wrenching, yet soul-refreshing journey through the netherworlds of jungle, river and serpents. I lower my forehead to touch the ground: then I realize I am falling slowly through the earth, through soil and rock, moving faster and faster, and then dropping out the other side into deep space, vast in its darkness, exhilarating, filled with countless points of light, scintillae, luminous streaks and stars of the universe.

This account exemplifies several many of the common elements that can be found in the anthropological literature on shamanism and the use of hallucinogenic plants, and that also tend to show up in the experiences of people taking such medicines in religious or therapeutic context. I will simply list these features, since there is not the space here to document them extensively:

(1) The importance of set and setting, or intention and context, in determining the nature of the experience. This was a finding that came out of the psychedelic research in the 1960's (Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1979).

(2) The experience can be healing on physical, psychic and spiritual levels; this healing may involve the experience of being first dismembered, destroyed, or "killed", and then reconstituted with a healthier, stronger body. The experience of dismemberment is a classic feature of shamanic healing worldwide. The "levels" are analytical concepts; during an actual experience they are not separated, but simultaneous and co-existent.

(3) The experience can also provide access to hidden knowledge, -- this is the aspect of diagnosis, divination, or visioning; people come to refer to these plants as "plant teachers".

(4) There is a feeling and perception of access to other non-physical worlds, variously referred to as inner worlds, spirit worlds, otherworlds, alternate realities. The access may come through a journey to that world, or the spirit beings of that world may appear in our world, or the usual boundaries between the worlds seem to become permeable.

(5) The experience may involve the perception of non-material, normally invisible, spirit beings. Such spirits are recognized as being associated with particular animals (e.g. serpent, jaguar), certain plants, trees or fungi, certain places (e.g. river, rainforest), deceased ancestors, and other non-ordinary entities (e.g. extra-terrestrials, elves). It can include the experiences of actually becoming or identifying with that spirit (e.g. the experience of becoming the jaguar); the healing and visioning is experienced as being done by or with the assistance of such spirits.

(6) Listening to music or singing, or singing oneself, is an essential ingredient for productive hallucinogenic experiences. The rhythmic drive of the icaros in ayahuasca ceremonies, like the rhythmic pulse of the drumming in drumming-journeys, gives support for moving through the flow of visions, and prevents getting "stuck" or "hung up" in frightening or seductive experiences.

(7) The traditional ceremonies are almost always done in darkness or low light; this apparently facilitates the emergence of visions. The exception is the peyote ceremony, done around a fire (though at night); here participants may see visions as they stare into the fire.

Some classic ritual forms for hallucinogen use
If we accept the idea, growing out of scientific research, that set and setting are the crucial determinants of the content of a hallucinogenic experience, then the use of these substances in a ritual setting, with careful attention paid to conscious intention, is in fact the logical, as well as the traditional approach. Shamanic rituals involving hallucinogens are the intentional arrangement of the set and the setting for purposes of healing and divination.

The traditional shamanic rituals involving hallucinogenic plants are carefully structured experiences, in which a small group (12 - 15) of people come together with respectful, spiritual attitude to share a profound inner journey of healing and transformation, facilitated by these powerful catalysts. Music and/or singing is invariably a part of such rituals. There is a significant role and function of the guide or medicine person who conducts the ceremony. The traditional shamanic rituals involve very little or no talking among the participants except perhaps during a preparatory phase or after the experience to evaluate the teachings or visions received.

A second kind of ceremonial form has evolved in the Brazilian syncretic religious movements that use ayahuasca or hoasca. There are three such ayahuasca cults that have arisen in Brazil since the 1950s: Uniao de Vegetal, Santo Daime, and Barquinia. These differ considerably among themselves, but share some common features: they typically involve large groups of people, from around 30 to 40 to several hundred; they all involve some kind of chanting or singing, often rhythmic, and some involve dancing as well. Like the shamanic ceremonies, there is little or no overt discussion or description of experiences or of psychological issues.

Both of these kinds of ceremonies -- the shamanic and the syncretic religious -- are quite different from the psychotherapy rituals involving hallucinogens, group or individual, which have arisen in the West, and which one could call syncretic therapeutic. From an anthropological point of view it is perfectly appropriate to call psychotherapy a kind of ritual, -- a purposive, intentional structuring of a state of consciousness. Psychoanalysis (originally called the "talking cure") and most forms of psychotherapy use verbal dialogue as the means for exploring consciousness. In recent times more "experiential" forms have arisen, that may use breathing methods, movement, bodily contact, music, or hypnotic regression to induce profoundly altered states of consciousness. The use of psychedelics or empathogenics (such as MDMA) in individual or group psychotherapy can be considered in that context. Their use in structured ritualistic experiences represents a radical departure from conventional psychiatric practice with psychotropic medications, where drugs are simply given to the patient and assumed to work without the conscious participation of the patient or the doctor (Adamson, 1985; Grof, 1980).

I will briefly mention some of the variations on the traditional rituals involving hallucinogens. In the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church, in North America, participants sit in a circle, in a tipi, on the ground, around a blazing central fire. The ceremony goes all night, and is conducted by a "roadman", with the assistance of a drummer, a firekeeper, and a sageman (for purification). A staff and rattle are passed around and participants sing the peyote songs, which involve a rapid, rhythmic beat. The peyote ceremonies of the Huichol Indians of Northern Mexico also take place around a fire, with much singing and story-telling, after the long group pilgrimage to find the rare cactus.

The ceremonies of the san pedro cactus, in the Andean regions, are sometimes also done around a fire, with singing; but sometimes the curandero sets up an altar, on which are placed different symbolic figurines and objects, representing the light and dark spirits which one is likely to encounter.

The mushroom ceremonies (velada) of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico, involve the participants sitting or lying in a very dark room, with only a small candle. The healer, who may be a woman or man, sings almost uninterruptedly, throughout the night, weaving into her chants the names of Christian saints, her spirit allies and the spirits of the earth, the elements, animals and plants, the sky, the waters and the fire.

Traditional Indian ceremonies with ayahuasca ceremonies also involve a small group sitting in a circle, in semi-darkness, while the initiated healers sing the songs (icaros), through which the healing and/or diagnosis takes place. These songs also have a fairly rapid rhythmic pulse, which keeps the flow of the experience moving along. Shamanic "sucking" methods of extracting toxic psychic residues or poisonous implants are sometimes used.

The ceremonies involving the African iboga plant, used by the Bwiti cult in Gabon, also involve an altar with ancestral and deity images, and people sitting on the floor with much chanting and some dancing. Ceremonies in North America and Europe in which I have been a participant-observer, have combined certain elements from the shamanic ritual form while keeping intact the basic essentials: the structure of the circle; the dedication of sacred ritual space with the invocation of protective and teaching spirit allies; the cultivation of a respectful, spiritual attitude; the semi-darkness; and the use of music, singing, rattling and drumming; the presence of a more experienced elder or guide. Some variation of the talking staff or singing staff is often used: with this practice, which orginated among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, only the person who has the staff sings or speaks, and there is no discussion, questioning or analysis (as there might be in the therapeutic formats involving psychedelics).

While there are numerous other kinds of set-and-setting rituals using hallucinogens in the modern West, ranging from the casual, recreational "tripping" of a few friends to "rave" events of hundreds or thousands, combining Ecstasy (MDMA) with the continuous rhythmic pulse of "techno music", my research has focussed on the traditional and neo-shamanic "medicine circles", and what kind of transformations are undergone by participants in such circles.

Basic features of the emerging worldview associated with shamanic-hallucinogenic practices

The basic model of reality, the understanding of the cosmos, that is revealed by such experiences, is basically similar to that shared by indigenous shamanistic cultures, and radically different from the prevailing Western paradigm associated with mechanistic science. (However, many features of the traditional shamanic worldview overlap to a considerable degree with the most recent and growing edge theories and findings of post-modern science). Since there is no space here to document these basic ideas, or present the evidence for them, I will merely state them here, at the risk of oversimplification. I believe that were one to question a number of long-term shamanic practicioners, with or without hallucinogens, in traditional and modern societies, something like this worldview would be shared by most of them.

* The fundamental reality of the universe is a continuum, a unitive field or fabric, of energy and consciousness, that is beyond time, space and all forms, and yet within them.

* In traditional Asian religions, this unitive field is variously referred to as Tao, or Brahman. Some Native North Americans refer to it as Wakan-Tanka, the Creator Spirit. In the systems language of post-modern science it is seen as an infinitely complex system of interrelationships, or "web of life" (Capra, 1996; Goldsmith, 1993).

* The world or cosmos is multidimensional. In most shamanic traditions we have upper, middle and lower worlds; in some mythic-shamanic traditions we have five, seven, nine or more worlds; in esoteric traditions there are usually seven "levels of consciousness". In modern systems theory, we speak of the multiple levels of wholes and parts: clusters of galaxies, galaxies, solar systems and planets; biosphere, ecosystems, populations and species; societies, sub-cultures, organizations, tribes and families; organisms, organ systems, cells, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles.

* The universal unitive field or cosmic continuum has a basic symmetrical polarity, referred to by names such as yin/yang, light/dark, positive/negative charge, male/female, electric/magnetic, Father Sky - Mother Earth and numerous others. These polarities can be observed and experienced at all levels of reality, from the macrocosmic to the microscopic.

* The symmetrically polarized basic continuum differentiates, at all levels, into an infinite variety of names and forms, images and objects, identities and beings. We can recognize this multiplicity at the level of galaxies, stars and planets; in the biological diversity of plant and animal species on Earth; in the cultural diversity of human societies; and in the psychic multiplicity of our inner life.

* Since we are part of the unified system of interdependence, just like every other being, we can never actually be outside of it, like a detached "objective" observer. But since the unified field is energy, we are energetically connected to every other form and being in the universe. And since the field is consciousness, this enables us, as human beings, to attune with, identify with, and communicate with any and every other life-form, object or being in the universe, from the macrocosmic to the microscopic.

* It will be seen that the the above is a re-statement of the belief system of animism3 -- which sees all material and biological forms as animated by life and consciousness; and of shamanism, which practices methods of intentionally attuning and identifying with all kinds of forms and beings, via the unifying field of consciousness which links us all. * Whereas the so-called "higher religions" associated with literate, urban, industrial civilization tend to be monotheistic, with a single (usually male) deity; the religious beliefs associated with animism and shamanism is polytheistic, with an enormous variety in the names and forms of gods and goddesses, particularized for each culture and its mythic tradition. It is not uncommon for participants in sessions with hallucinogenic plants to perceive or feel the presence of deities or spirits from many different cultures, including some with whom they have no genetic, biographical or geographical connection.

Significance of the animistic revival in the present world situation
Having presented some of the fundamental features of the animistic, indigenous worldview which is associated with the revival of interest in shamanic practices, including the use of hallucinogens, I now want to address the question of what this means in the context of the present world situation. What does it mean that people in large numbers are now returning to these ancient traditions of spiritual and healing practice in our world of multinational industrial corporations, of computers and electronic networks?

It is widely understood that the capitalist-industrial growth system, which now dominates the world both economically and politically, is ravaging the biosphere life-support systems and shredding the very fabric of life on this planet. The annual State of the World reports issued by the Worldwatch Institute document the full extent of the catastrophe with depressing regularity (Brown et al., 1997). In 1992, over 1500 scientists from 69 countries issued the World Scientists Warning to Humanity, which stated: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.... A great change is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated." Human civilization on this Earth appears to have produced a situation of ecological melt-down.

To return to my earlier argument, I am saying that the unprecedented industrial-technological assault on the biosphere we are witnessing in our time, is rooted in part in the mechanistic science of the modern world, which deliberately divorced itself from spirituality, values and consciousness. There exists a vast separative gulf in common understanding between what we regard as sacred and what we regard as natural. And yet, out of the experiences of millions of individuals in the Western world with hallucinogenic sacraments, as well as other shamanic practices, we are seeing the re-emergence of the ancient integrative worldview that sees all of life as an interdependent web of relationships, that needs to be carefully protected and preserved.

One can see the parallels in several cultural movements that seek to correct the dangerous imbalance in humanity's relation to nature: in deep ecology and ecofeminism which call for a respectful, egalitarian, ecocentric attitude towards the natural world; in the organic gardening and farming movements, which seek to return to traditional methods avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides; in the movement to increased use of herbal, nutritional and complementary medicine; and in several other philosophical, scientific and religious movements including bioregionalism, ecopsychology, living systems theory, creation spirituality, ecotheology, and others (Ruether, 1992; Spretnak, 1991; Metzner, 1997; Weil, 1990).

In these diverse movements, from many disciplines, to transform our human perceptions, attitudes and practices in relation to the Earth towards a healthier, non-exploitative, non-dominating recognition of interrelatedness, the respectful use of entheogenic plant medicines in spiritual/therapeutic contexts may yet come to play a highly significant role.

References #
  1. Adamson, S. (1985) (ed.) Through the Gateway of the Heart - Accounts of Experiences with MDMA and other Empathogenic Substances. San Francisco, CA: Four Trees Publications.
  2. Brown, Lester et al. (1997) State of the World - 1997. Worldwatch Institute. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  3. Capra, F. (1996) The Web of Life. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
  4. Goldsmith, E. (1993) The Way - An Ecological World-View. Boston: Shambhala.
  5. Grinspoon, L. & Bakalar, J.B. (1979) Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Grof, S. (1980) LSD Psychotherapy. Pomona, CA: Hunter House.
  7. McKenna, T. (1991). The Archaic Revival. HarperSanFrancisco.
  8. Metzner, R. (1993) "The Split between Spirit and Nature in European Consciousness". Noetic Sciences Review, Spring, 1993; also in The Trumpeter, Vol 10:2, Winter 1993; and in ReVision, Spring 1993, Vol 15:4.
  9. Metzner, R. (1997). Spirit, Self and Nature -- Essays in Green Psychology. Forthcoming.
  10. Ruether, R.R. (1992) Gaia and God - An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
  11. Spretnak, C. (1992). States of Grace - The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
  12. Weil, A. (1990) Natural Health, Natural Medicine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Notes #
  1. This paper is based in part on a presentation made at the conference of the International Transpersonal Association (ITA), May 1996, in Manaus, Brazil.
  2. A note on terminology: I use the terms "psychedelic", "hallucinogenic" and "entheogenic" interchangeably. Some object to the term "hallucinogenic" since a hallucination is an illusory perception and these substances do not in fact induce hallucinations. But the original meaning of the Latin alucinare is to "wander in one's mind"; and travelling or journeying, in inner space, are actually quite appropriate descriptive metaphors for the experience induced by these substances. So I would like to rehabilitate the term "hallucinogen".
  3. Terence McKenna (1991) has written of an "archaic revival", but to my mind it is the revival of animism that is the crucial paradigm change here. The fact that animism held sway in the archaic period is in some ways besides the point.