Cosmic Consciousness

Over at The Morning News, Tim Doody has published a powerful piece on Dr. James Fadiman and his lifelong psychological research into, and on, psychedelics. It is a long story that will reward your time. It is also timely for my summer course, in which we’ve just finished a section on altered states of consciousness and animist-shamanist worldviews.

In a superb article we read for this section, Stanley Krippner states that “for the shaman, everything provided knowledge about everything else, and the whole of being was fundamentally an immense signal system.” This particular sentence caught our collective attention in class, and seems a good entry point into this portion of Doody’s story:

Staunch materialists might argue that exogenous, psychotropic molecules had simply transformed their three pounds of gelatinous gray head muscle into funhouses for a few hours. But [Dorothy] Fadiman, [Francis] Crick, and most study volunteers say something quite different—that the psychedelics they ingested acted as a sort of antenna, allowing them to receive rather profound transmissions that they couldn’t typically access during their ordinary states of consciousness. Such a claim is not without precedent.

Ever since people first altered their surroundings with celestially aligned rocks, they’ve also been altering their inner landscapes. Though Albert Hofmann’s [LSD] recipe is entirely modern, tribes and other pre-industrial societies from Australia to Mesopotamia have long been mixing the medicine into brews, snuffs, and powders. In rituals, often of a collective nature, they’ve ingested these substances and then sung, drummed, and channeled to access insights, archetypal beings, and alternate realities. While these societies are as eclectic as orchids, they share at least one characteristic: Their rituals have served as an axis mundi, a psychic compass that simultaneously situates and provides direction to both individual and community. As a result, matter and consciousness are experienced as entwined, purposeful, and sacred.

On stage and page, [James] Fadiman has argued that, in marked contrast, most members of post-industrial societies perceive themselves as happenstance cogs in a clockwork universe, and consequently, exhibit a profound and increasingly dangerous alienation. The dissociation of self is so fundamental that bioregions are sub-divided into tract housing, resources into quarterly earnings, and people into one-percenters and the rest. For Fadiman at least, even traditional Western therapy, which seeks to re-align a sick individual to this worldview, must necessarily end in a cul-de-sac.

Marlene Dobkin de Rios, a medical anthropologist, has argued that there is a strong correlation between centralized power and psychedelic prohibition as authoritarian leaders have perennially associated these substances with insurrectionary tendencies. Indeed, whether in 17th-century Europe or 19th-century America, even as proponents of church and state enclosed communal lands and subjugated the inhabitants therein, they especially targeted those deemed most resistant to ideological control—the shamans, witches, magi, occultists, and others who concocted, imbibed, and distributed psychedelic substances, and believed themselves to be in an ongoing discourse with land, non-human species, and spirits.

The !Kung (tongue-click then “kung”) is one of the psychedelically-augmented, anarchistic societies that had survived these purges well into contemporary times. A nomadic people, they’d harmonized with the austere rhythms of the Kalahari Desert for thousands of years. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who lived with them during the 1950s, writes that the !Kung recognized an illness called “Star Sickness,” which could overcome members of the community with a force not unlike gravity and cause profound disorientation. Unable to situate themselves in the cosmos in a meaningful way, the afflicted displayed jealousy, hostility, and a marked incapacity for gift-giving—the very symptoms that plague many Westerners, according to Fadiman (and, certainly, quite a few others).

To cure and prevent Star Sickness, the !Kung conducted all-night trance dances around a bonfire four times per month on average, often augmenting them with psychoactive plants including dagga (marijuana) and gaise noru noru (more than marijuana). As dancers sang, stomped, shook rattles, and spun, a boiling force called n/um collected in their abdomens and sometimes flowed out through their heads, causing them to soar over fantastical terrain. These grand vistas were said to provide the necessary perspective to re-align community members both to the stars and one other.

Surely, the !Kung’s chosen mode of governance reflected these regularly-scheduled astral tune-ups. Until the 1970s, when apartheid-era colonizers irrevocably altered the flora, fauna, and flow of the Kalahari, the !Kung had organized through leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, coupled with a bawdy humor that infused even the most sacred moments to dispel tension and check the power-hungry. This sort of power-sharing sounds not dissimilar to what Occupy Wall Street protesters attempted last year with their General Assemblies and Spokes Councils. Perhaps both Occupiers and the !Kung have tapped something primordial: When researchers isolate heart cells on a Petri dish, the cells bounce to their own idiosyncratic rhythms. But placed beside one another, they self-organize into a collective beat.

The urge to connect with the numinous remains strong throughout the world, including the West—even as medical experts pathologize it, monotheistic bureaucrats neuter it, and Madison Avenue spellcasters exploit it. Of course psychoactive plants, fungi, and synthetics aren’t the only way to sate this urge: Sufis spin, musicians riff, and physicists formulate….

Albert Einstein, who navigated the twilight turf between consciousness and matter for much of his life, argued that “Man” suffers from an “optical delusion of consciousness” as he “experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest.” His cure? Get some n/um. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” he said. “It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.”

There are those who will treat all this exactly as Doody predicts: staunch materialists will insist that what is being experienced is epiphenomenal, having little or nothing to do with a certain conception of “reality.” But as we’ve learned in class, there are worldviews in which these kinds of experiences are just as “real” as physical or empirical ones.

If I were forced to choose between hard-headed (or close-minded) materialism and more expansive possibilities, I’d tend toward the latter. Fortunately I don’t have to choose or be certain. I’m rather enjoying my oscillations between the antipodes, reveling in the mysteries of both.

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5 thoughts on “Cosmic Consciousness

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Boredom and complacency – two great threats to a productive human, to a vibrant community. One curse of our big brains is its craving for excitement and stimulation. And this feeds our seemingly innate belief that all hidden things offer us some opportunity if we could just discern it, and pose a threat to us if we do not. Shaman, mystics and hippies have turned to various chemical, kinetic and meditative techniques to open that third eye. Scientists build bigger telescopes, microscopes and more diverse mechanisms to heighten our sensitivity to, our perception of, that which is hidden. Success means opportunity, failure poses risk. Complacency will leave our rivals to learn of these first and take their advantage or (possibly even worse!) – leave us bored!

    I strongly suspect Fadiman of promoting urban myths. While his claims may seem intuitive, and hard sadistics (vs. us too common sadists) are hard to come by, what I have seen says that Aboriginals have bigger mental health problems than moderns (3 to 5 times more in these figures):
    From Australia:
    5.8 Mental health
    Data on hospitalisations for mental and behavioural disorders provide a measure of the use of hospital services by those with problems related to mental health. In 2005–06 there were more hospitalisations of Indigenous males and females than expected based on the rates for other Australians for most types of mental and behavioural disorders.[64] In particular, hospitalisations for ‘mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use’ were almost five times higher for Indigenous males and around three times higher for Indigenous females.[65]
    Hospitalisation rates for intentional self-harm may also be indicative of mental illness and distress. In 2005–06, Indigenous Australians were three times more likely to be hospitalised for intentional self-harm than other Australians.[66]

    From Canada:
    Thirty percent of First Nations people have felt sad, blue or depressed for two or more weeks. (First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey, 2005)
    Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. (A Statistical Profile on the Health of First Nations in Canada for the Year 2000, Health Canada, 2003)
    First Nations youth commit suicide about five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth.
    The suicide rate for First Nations males is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal males.
    For First Nations females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to only 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal females. (Canadian Institute of Child Health, 2000)
    Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average
    As those among the !Kung with “Star Sickness”, mental health has been an issue among humans long before civilization.

    As for Marlene Dobkin de Rios, most psychoactive substances have really only been recently actively controlled, and that based on significant evidence of anti-social behavior among the users. Marlene is trying to foist a political agenda and to do so is pushing the cart out in front of the horse. States were not ‘especially targeted those deemed most resistant to ideological control’, but the individuals actively resisting ‘social’ controls. In a ‘traditional’ society, any troublemakers are thrown out. In a structured society, troublemakers are suppressed. If consistent habits are identified with troublemakers, those habits are targeted as well. All societies must police themselves to some minimal extent, or they will fail.

  2. Cris Post author

    I can’t say that I’m surprised to see you citing post-contact, post-colonial, post-imperial, post-reservation, and post-cultural destruction indigene statistics to prove whatever point you are trying to make.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Can we say: Oxymoron?
    Now I did apologize going in for the quality of the statistics. Like Heisenberg trying to measure an electron or a photon, evaluating the mental health of a pre-contact individual presents some uncertainty (in principal). We could, of course, turn to our good friends and paragons of pre-contact social health, the Neanderthals (Family of 12 cannibalized by Neanderthals):

    And my so regularly turned to ‘War Before Civilization’ of Lawrence H. Keeley. We can only get another indirect reading, unfortunately, but from those same Canadian brethren a noted post-reservation living drop in homicides from about 30% down to single digits – roughly a factor of 10 improvement. A phenomenon Keeley refers to as ‘the Kings Peace’ (enforced by the Mounties, etc.). From a simple body count, the poorly adjusted reservation dwellers are markedly better off now than before and with far better overall social health.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    My point is that the evidence quite rejects the specific suggestion of James Fadiman who ‘has argued that most members of post-industrial societies … exhibit a profound and increasingly dangerous alienation.’ Whatever he may know of pre-industrial society, his translation to post-industrial society is problematic. I am challenging any belief that what works for the !Kung will necessarily work for anyone raised in a Western democracy. You have to be real careful passing prescriptions for mental health across cultures.

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