At a recent panel on ayahuasca at the conference of The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness at U.C. Berkeley, I was intrigued to hear a social critic question the “inventive ‘religious’ mystifying of ayahuasca today in northern hemisphere circles,” stating that “we need to acknowledge that, and question whether the elaboration of further mythology is really ‘healing.'” Finally, he raised the serious question: Can healing arise from self-delusion? That same day, returning home I found this query, the sort that as a writer on Amazonian shamanism and a guide for groups down to the Peruvian rainforest I occasionally receive. With my ears still ringing from the critic’s frontal assault on the most cherished tenet of work with ayahuasca, it struck me as particularly timely:
What are your feelings towards Americans who, without ever having traveled to visit a real Amazonian curandero, take it upon themselves to brew their own ayahuasca? I currently work with a gentleman who has been doing this for nearly a year now, I believe … ordering the components of the brew and making it in his kitchen. He claims that the ayahuasca ally herself told him that he was doing a good job and that he should continue. But as an individual he seems to have a tenuous hold on reality and handles his day-to-day affairs and those around him with an almost frightening lack of compassion. As well, he always describes his experiences with ayahuasca as “tripping”, and has even taken to mixing his hallucinogens (DMT with mushrooms, LSD with ayahuasca). I fear for him, because he does seem to possess a level of self-delusion I’ve never encountered before.
Just curious about your take on situations like that.
Here’s my two cents. As the native America writer Vine Deloria Jr. put it, Western society is a culture of “rights” rather than “responsibility.” Without an internal lodestone of instinctive veneration to guide us, it’s all too easy in this consumerist culture to appropriate ayahuasca as just another personal spiritual trip.
In indigenous cultures – our first teachers in approaching these sacred brews which were, after all, their discovery – such plants are never done isolated from the guidance of a shaman and a larger communal context that tests and verifies experience. To some Westerners this regime may sound like an infringement upon their individual freedoms. But experience teaches that this tradition, like the toad, ugly and venomous, carries a precious stone in its head. There is a lineage, extending over millennia, that discovered and made allies of these plants, learned how to direct them toward healing, a lineage who many mature shamans say continue to work “from the other side.” Whether we like it or not, veneration of the ancestors is essential to enter that way.
For Western culture, so long cut off from the sustaining powers of the Earth, such guidance is, in my experience, particularly necessary. Otherwise, work with ayahuasca and other entheogens runs the risk of becoming a “head trip,” a privileged vertical jaunt into other realms of consciousness without the horizontal work of embodiment. What good are transcendental insights if you behave like an asshole to your kids? Or make yourself insufferable due to the special privileges you give yourself because you’ve been “enlightened” by a sacred plant?
Of course, after the question, “Can we be healed by self-delusion?” was raised, another presenter, describing his intense initiation and healing at the hands of a curandera in Iquitos, stated “If the healing of my severe asthma, which had debilitated me from childhood, was a delusion, I’ll take more of it, please!”
The real point for me, which may have gone unnoticed, was that latter presenter’s healing occurred under the guidance of a female shaman in Iquitos who had prepared and administered his brew in a traditional way. It did not resolve the fundamental issue raised previously: How can we distinguish between self-delusion and healing, especially without the guidance of a mature practitioner in the beginning stages of our work?
Before attempting to answer that question, I should clarify I’m not a traditionalist in the narrow sense of privileging native spirituality as primary and entheogenic practices in the West as secondary, imitative offshoots. Many of us stumbled upon the healing effects of entheogens in quite non-traditional contexts. We know the taste of that experience, the gratitude that arose from it, and the freedom that the loving embrace of plant-sentience gave us.
Beginner’s luck, if you like.
As in the practice of Buddhist meditation, however, the choice eventually arises whether to remain a dilettante kicking around at the entryway or to embark upon the path of the ancestors. Much like the arrival of Buddhism in the West, I believe that the resurgence of these shamanic traditions in our materialist culture is to be embraced and our work lies in receiving the best transmission we can, while adapting the practices to the needs of our present circumstances. Shamanism, like Buddhism, is evolving as it enters the West, but will lose its virtue if it is cut off from its origin.
To return to our question, I think the key to distinguishing self-delusion lies in a correct definition of terms. The “self” the researcher was referring to is no doubt the Cartesian one that rules our modern sense of consciousness, a torturous epistemological “dualism” which is a good candidate for “delusion” itself. According to Richard Tarnas, from the Cartesian outlook, “rational man knows his own awareness to be certain, and entirely distinct from the external world of material substance, which is epistemologically less certain and perceptible only as an object. Thus res cogitans – thinking substance, subjective experience, spirit, consciousness, that which man perceives as within – was understood as fundamentally different and separate from res extensa – extended substance, the objective world, matter, the physical body, plants and animals, stones and stars, the entire physical universe, everything that man perceives as outside his mind” (277-78).
From the indigenous perspective, which entheogenic work is reintroducing into the West, that very concept of the self is mad as a hatter. Where else does shamanic healing and knowledge arising from immersion in the greater sentience of the cosmos come from, except from plants and animals, stones and stars? We could even say our culture’s metaphysical division of experience into a res cogitans and a res extensa is the delusion of our era, and that spiritual isolationism, masquerading as an individual right to exclusive, personal experience, is the trap that users of entheogens are most prone to fall into. Or worse.
We have to admit that for some Westerners the voice of a psychoactive plant can be a siren’s rapturous song, offering them a false intimacy with a plant consciousness that understands all their suffering and gives them a sense of meaningfulness such as they’ve been deprived of for their entire lives. Suddenly, they’re the recipient of a special, privileged communication, as if from God. Without a mature practitioner around to kick their butt, they may never recover from such spiritual stink.
In our present literary endeavor, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience(to be published by Inner Traditions in December of 2012), we explore the indigenous and shamanic roots of our Western tradition in Homer’s The Odyssey and argue that Western society actually does have a touchstone by which to evaluate the legitimacy of our newly evolving shamanic practices. It lies in going native again.
As the poet Gary Snyder put it, “for non-Native Americans” (and we could throw in civilized Europeans in relation to Europe as well), “to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent” (43). We must rediscover “the passage into that myth time world that had been all but forgotten in Europe,” crossing “an almost visible line out of history and into the perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature”* (15).
Nature is our touchstone, in the same non-dual perception once declared by the Zen Buddhist master Dogen: “Clearly I know, the mind is mountains, rivers, and the great earth; sun, moon, and stars.” Shamanism, as well is a communion with the larger sentience of the cosmos, an experience which can be verified and confirmed by a community of practitioners. Without that passage into “indigenous” experience, we will remain stuck in the epistemological prison cell bequeathed to us by Descartes, and our ayahuasca healing will be self-delusion indeed.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 1990.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
*For Native Americans as well, the rupture with the sentience of the cosmos has occurred as a consequence of the invasion of the Westerner Europeans. As I heard a Native American state ruefully in a tipi gathering, “Our ancestors could once speak with the animals, but we’ve lost that ability nowadays.”