The Animistic Revival And The Transformation Of Society

Having presented some of the fundamental features of the animistic, indigenous worldview that is associated with the revival of interest in shamanic practices, including the use of hallucinogens or entheogens, I now want to address the question of what this may mean 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?

To return to the argument I proposed in the Introduction, I am saying that the unprecedented industrial-technological assault on the biosphere we are witnessing in our time is rooted in the mechanistic scientism of the modern world, which deliberately divorced itself from spirituality, values, and consciousness. There exists a vast 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 reemergence of the ancient integrative worldview that sees all of life as an interdependent web of relationships that need to be carefully protected and preserved.

The history of the reemergence of hallucinogens and psychoactive plants in the West proceeded in several stages. There are some remarkable synchronicities (C. G. Jung's term for meaningful coincidences) in this history, of which the discovery of LSD is the most dramatic. In 1942, at the height of World War II, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, working at the University of Chicago, succeeded in triggering the first nuclear chain reaction, thereby setting the stage for the construction of the first atomic bombs. The power of these bombs exceeded existing explosives by a factor of one thousand. In 1943, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, working with ergot derivatives at Sandoz laboratories in Basel to find treatments for migraine, first accidentally absorbed a tiny amount of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). He then tested the drug and found it to be the most potent hallucinogen ever known, exceeding mescaline, the best-known psychoactive at that time, by a factor of one thousand in potency. Thus, in the 1940s, we saw the simultaneous development of atomic energy and a psychoactive drug that acts like an atomic explosion on the human mind, changing forever the worldview and basic life-orientation of all who experienced it.

As the second note in a Gurdjieffian octave of cultural transformations, the decade of the 1950s saw the introduction into the culture of several mind-expanding plant-based shamanic spiritual movements. In 1957, the American banker and mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson rediscovered the sacred mushroom ceremony of the Aztecs under the guidance of the Mazatecan curandera Maria Sabina. The publication of his observations in LIFE magazine triggered a surge of experimentation and consciousness exploration in which tens of thousands of young North Americans and Europeans started experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms, both in Mexico and elsewhere. Also in the mid-1950s, a Brazilian rubber tapper named Gabriel de Cos-„, having experienced the hallucinogenic potion ayahuasca, received a vision that he was to start a church in which this "tea" was the central sacrament, the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), now probably the largest and most tightly organized of the three Brazilian ayahuasca churches. The other two—Santo Daime and Barquinia—also grew and attracted increasing numbers of followers during this period. While separate from the shamanic rituals, the Brazilian ayahuasca churches maintain a respectful and spiritual attitude toward the use of the visionary plant medicines, and a strong feeling of connection to their indigenous roots in shamanic healing practices. The spread of hallucinogenic mushroom use and cultivation connected the psychedelic movement to age-old animistic, shamanistic traditions.

Then, in the 1960s, experiences with consciousness-expanding drugs and plants moved out of the psychiatric clinics and laboratories and triggered a series of profound cultural transformations the full dimensions of which have yet to be fully appreciated. In the early 1960s Timothy Leary and associates began their research with psychedelics at Harvard University, and in 1963 Leary, Metzner, and Alpert published The Psychedelic Experience—A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Around the same time, in California, novelist Ken Kesey and his associates, called The Merry Pranksters, staged a series of rock concerts, called "acid tests," in which thousands of people took LSD while listening to music and watching light shows. Thus was born a revolution in collective consciousness, in which hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, had one or more profound, life-changing psychedelic experiences.

Along with this transformation of collective consciousness, and often involving some of the same people who had experienced psychedelics, the 1960s saw the beginnings or the vitalization of several other sociocultural change movements with profound and lasting impact: the ecology and environmental movement (for which Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring was a major catalyst); an upsurge of creative innovation in music, the arts, fashion, and literature; the women's liberation movement, with its "consciousness-raising" circles (for which Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique was a major catalyst); the sexual revolution and increased freedom of sexual expression, catalyzed by the contraceptive pill; the civil rights, antidiscrimination movement, inspired by Martin Luther King; and the antiwar movement, galvanized by the televised horrors of Vietnam.

In each of these movements, which started in the United States and spread from there throughout the Western-influenced world during the 1970s and 1980s, there was a transcendence, a breaking of what were perceived as the restrictive conventions and social norms of the 1950s and before. This kind of transcendence of conventions, the going beyond the hitherto accepted paradigms of reality and identity that we see in each of these social movements, is basically characteristic of psychedelic and hallucinogenic experiences. It is tempting to speculate whether the introduction of powerful mind-expanding agents, both drug and plant, into the culture, might somehow relate, at some deeper cosmic-karmic level, to the mounting crisis in world civilization.

Certainly, it is not difficult to 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 toward 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 healing modalities with less reliance on high-tech interventions; and in several other philosophical, scientific, and religious movements including bioregionalism, ecopsychology, living systems theory, creation spirituality, ecotheology, and others.

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

In considering the Brazilian ayahuasca churches, some provocative speculations have occurred to several observers. These groups, which along with the Native American Church and the African Bwiti cult, can be considered genuine religious revitalization movements, have expanded their base during the 1980s and 1990s, spreading from Brazil to cent~^ in North America and Europe, and attracting thousands of people. On the face of it, ayahuasca, with its powerful emetic action and sometimes shattering self-revelations, would seem to be an unlikely candidate for a religious sacrament. But it has become just that and has acquired a near-legendary reputation for its healing and empowering attributes. I have myself seen remarkable transformations of personality in people who have become involved in one or another of these churches.

What is happening here? Could these churches become widely popular religions in the twenty-first century? Two thousand years ago, three monotheistic religions arose in the desert borderlands of the Middle East. As the ecologist Paul Shepard has argued, the often harsh and unforgiving environment may have contributed to the idealization of transcendence found in monotheism, as well to its "authoritarian, masculinist and ascetic ideology" that has come to dominate the world stage. In the Brazilian hoasca churches, as well as the Amazonian sha-manic traditions from which they originally, though indirectly, derived, the underlying ethos and imagery is very different. Here the essential imagery is of flowing waters and growing plants. The river flows, the inebriating vision-drink flows, the purging vomit flows, the feelings of joy and sadness flow; plant and animal life grows in the luxuriant green abundance of the richest rain forest on Earth. The ultimate theology of these churches is very different. There are hymns, prayers, and invocations of biblical figures, but also the spirits of the forest and the sea, the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and various indigenous deities. This is polytheistic, animistic nature religion, bringing about a reunification of the sacred and the natural.

An even more radical set of questions arises from the visions of some Western and Northern ayahuasqueros, particularly those steeped in evolutionary and ecological biology. Why do so many plants carry psychoactive tryptamines and other chemicals that are capable of producing profound consciousness-transforming perceptions in human beings, opening them up to the deepest mysteries of life and death? On one level this confirms the basic unity of all life on Earth, the oneness of the molecular genetic code. But the usual Darwinian assumption is that nothing evolves by chance—natural selection works to favor those structures and capabilities that are adaptive in some way. So how is it adaptive for plants to produce alkaloids that seemingly serve no other particular function, and yet provide profound healing or insight in the human?

There seems to be some kind of strange symbiosis going on. We know there are many aspects of what has been called "the great symbiosis" between the plants and the animals in the biosphere of Earth. First, there is the constant invisible worldwide exchange of gases: the oxygen breathed out by the plants is nourishment for the animals, and the C02 emitted by the animals is breathed in and converted by the green plants. At the level of fruit-bearing bushes and trees, the symbiosis is more visible: plants produce fruit, which are seed packages. Animals eat the fruit, and the seed kernels inside get propagated some distance away, where they will have more space to grow. So we animals are basically working for the plants, one could say, as seed carriers. But it is a fair and even abundant exchange: most of our nourishment, most of our medicine and healing, all our tonics and extracts for well-being and longevity come from the plant realm.

So with these "plant teachers," as ayahuasqueros call them, there must also be an exchange. We get knowledge, insight, psychic or physical healing from the plant teachers. In exchange, we should give something back. Individuals who have found themselves at this juncture may at first not know how or what to give back. If they then ask the plant teachers, or ask themselves, how do we give back, how do we repay what appears to be a gift of astounding generosity from the plant teachers, the answers are remarkably consistent. They have to do, as one might expect, with practices that reduce our adverse impact on the ecosystems, and with the preservation of wilderness and the essential diversity of life. That's why so many people who have experienced ayahuasca (as well as other psychedelics, other shamanic practices, near-death experiences, or the death of a loved one) become deeply involved in ecological preservation and sustainability projects, as well as in efforts to preserve the culture of indigenous peoples.

There may be a profound and mysterious shift occurring in the balance of life on this planet. The dominant and dominating role of the human in relation to the natural world has brought about unparalleled ecological disaster, degradation of habitats, and loss of species. Could be that the profound consciousness-raising and compassion-deepening effects of the visionary plant brews and tinctures are signaling an evolutionary initiative coming from other, nonhuman, intelligences on this planet? Instead of the usual attitude of arrogant and exploitative superiority, those who have experienced ayahuasca and other entheogens are more likely to find themselves humbled and awed by the mysterious powers of nature, and strive to live in a simpler way that minimizes environmental harm and celebrates the astonishing diversity and beauty of life.

riOTES on

0 0

Post a comment