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  Shamanism As Social Catalyst (excerpts from Terence McKenna's "Food of the Gods")

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Author Topic:   Shamanism As Social Catalyst (excerpts from Terence McKenna's "Food of the Gods")

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posted June 07, 2009 06:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Valus     Edit/Delete Message

In claiming that religion originated when hominids encountered hallucinogenic alkaloids, Wasson was at odds with Mircea Eliade. Eliade considered what he called "narcotic" shamanism to be decadent. He felt that if individuals cannot achieve ecstasy without drugs, then their culture is probably in a decadent phase. The use of the word "narcotic"-a term usually reserved for soporifics-to describe this form of shamanism betrays a botanical and pharmacological naivete. Wasson's view, which I share, is precisely the opposite: the presence of a hallucinogen indicates that shamanism is authentic and alive; the late, decadent phase of shamanism is characterized by elaborate rituals, ordeals and reliance on pathological personalities. Where these phenomena are central, shamanism is well on its way to becoming simply "religion."

And at its fullest, shamanism is not simply religion, it is a dynamic connection into the totality of life on the planet. If, as suggested earlier, hallucinogens operate in the natural environment as message-bearing molecules, exopheromones, then the relationship between primate and hallucinogenic plant signifies a transfer of information from one species to another. The benefits to the mushroom arise out of the hominid domestication of cattle and hence the expansion of the niche occupied by the mushroom. Where plant hallucinogens do not occur, cultural innovation occurs very slowly, if at all, but we have seen that in the presence of hallucinogens a culture is regularly introduced to ever more novel information, sensory input, and behavior and thus is moved to higher and higher states of self-reflection. The shamans are the vanguard of this creative advance.

How, specifically, might the consciousness-catalyzing properties of plants have played a role in the emergence of culture and religion? What was the effect of this folkway, this promotion of languageusing, thinking, but stoned hominids into the natural order? I believe that the natural psychedelic compounds acted as feminizing agents that tempered and civilized the egocentric values of the solitary hunter-individual with the feminine concerns for child-rearing and group survival. The prolonged and repeated exposure to the psychedelic experience, the Wholly Other rupture of the mundane plane caused by the hallucinogenic ritual ecstasy, acted steadily to dissolve that portion of the psyche which we moderns call the ego. Wherever and whenever the ego function began to form, it was akin to a calcareous tumor or a blockage in the energy of the psyche. The use of psychedelic plants in a context of shamanic initiation dissolved-as it dissolves today-the knotted structure of the ego into undifferentiated feeling, what Eastern philosophy calls the Tao. This dissolving of individual identity into the Tao is the goal of much of Eastern thought and has traditionally been recognized as the key to psychological health and balance for both the group and the individual. To appraise our dilemma correctly, we need to appraise what this loss of Tao, this loss of collective connection to the Earth, has meant for our humanness.


We in the West are the inheritors of a very different understanding of the world. Loss of connection to the Tao has meant that the psychological development of Western civilization has been markedly different from the East's. In the West there has been a steady focus on the ego and on the god of the ego-the monotheistic ideal. Monotheism exhibits what is essentially a pathological personality pattern projected onto the ideal of God: the pattern of the paranoid, possessive, power-obsessed male ego. This God is not someone you would care to invite to a garden party. Also interesting is that the Western ideal is the only formulation of deity that has no relationship with woman at any point in the theological myth. In ancient Babylon Anu was paired with his consort Inanna; Grecian religion assigned Zeus a wife, many consorts, and daughters. These heavenly pairings are typical. Only the god of Western civilization has no mother, no sister, no female consort, and no daughter.

Hinduism and Buddhism have maintained traditions of techniques of ecstasy that include, as stated in the Yogic Sutras of Patanjah, "light filled herbs," and the rituals of these great religions give ample scope for the expression and appreciation of the feminine. Sadly, the Western tradition has suffered a long, sustained break with the sociosymbiotic relationship to the feminine and the mysteries'of organic life that can be realized through shamanic use of hallucinogenic plants.

Modern religion in the West is a set of social patterns, or a set of anxieties centered on a particular moral structure and view of obligation. Modern religion is rarely an experience of setting aside the ego. Since the 1960s, the spread of popular cults of trance and dance, such as disco and reggae, is an inevitable and healthy counter to the generally moribund form religious expression has taken on in Western and high-tech culture. The connection between rock and roll and psychedelics is a shamanic connection; trance, dance, and intoxication make up the Archaic formula for both religious celebration and a guaranteed good time.

The global triumph of Western values means we, as a species, have wandered into a state of prolonged neurosis because of the absence of a connection to the unconscious. Gaining access to the unconscious through plant hallucinogen use reaffirms our original bond to the living planet. Our estrangement from nature and the unconscious became entrenched roughly two thousand years ago, during the shift from the Age of the Great God Pan to that of Pisces that occurred with the suppression of the pagan mysteries and the rise of Christianity. The psychological shift that ensued left European civilization staring into two millennia of religious mania and persecution, warfare, materialism, and rationalism.

The monstrous forces of scientific industrialism and global politics that have been born into modern times were conceived at the time of the shattering of the symbiotic relationships with the plants that had bound us to nature from our dim beginnings. This left each human being frightened, guilt-burdened, and alone. Existential man was born.

Terror of being was the placenta that accompanied the birth of Christianity, the ultimate cult of domination by the unconstrained male ego. The abandonment of the ego-dissolving rites of the visionary plants had allowed what began as an individually maladaptive style to become the guiding image of the entire social organism. From within the context of an unchecked growth of dominator values and history told from a dominator point of view, we need to turn attention back toward the Archaic way of vision plants and the Goddess.


The drive for unitary wholeness within the psyche, which is to a degree instinctual, can nevertheless become pathological if pursued in a context in which dissolution of boundaries and rediscovery of the ground of being has been made impossible. Monotheism became the carrier of the dominator model, the Apollonian model of the self as solar and complete in its masculine expression. As a result of this pathological model, the worth and power of emotion and the natural world have been devalued and replaced by a narcissistic fascination with the abstract and the metaphysical. This attitude has proved a double-edged sword, it has given science explanatory power and its capacity for moral bankruptcy.

Dominator culture has shown a remarkable ability to redesign itself to meet changing levels of technology and collective selfawareness. In all its manifestations, monotheism has been and remains the single most stubborn force resisting perception of the primacy of the natural world. Monotheism strenuously denies the need to return to a cultural style that periodically places the ego and its values in perspective through contact with a boundary-dissolving immersion in the Archaic mystery of plant-induced, hence mother-associated, psychedelic ecstasy and wholeness, what Joyce called the "mama matrix most mysterious."


This is not to imply that the life of the nomadic pastoralist is free of anxiety. Doubtless jealousy and possessiveness persisted among mushroom-using archaic humans, if only as a vestige of hierarchical organization in the social forms of protohominids. Observation of modern primates-of their dominance games and their violently enforced hierarchical structure-suggests that protohominid societies that were premushroom may well have been dominator in style. Thus, we may have experienced no more than a brief abandonment of the dominator style-a brief tendency toward a true dynamic and conscious equilibrium with nature, at variance with our primate past and too soon crushed beneath the chariot wheels of historical process. Since the abandonment of our sojourn with mushroom use in the African Eden, we have only become progressively more bestial in our treatment of one another.

An open and nonproprietary approach to sexuality is fundamental to the partnership model. But this tendency was synergized and strengthened by the orgiastic behavior that was certainly a part of the African Goddess/mushroom religion. Group sexual activity within a small tribe of hunter-gatherers and group experiences with hallucinogens acted to dissolve boundaries and differences between people and to promote the open and unstructured sexuality that is naturally a part of nomadic tribalism. (This is not to imply that contemporary mushroom rituals are "orgies," despite what a small sensation-hungry segment of the public may choose to believe.)


The Bwiti cults of West Africa, discussed in Chapter 3, offer an instructive example: use of a hallucinogenic indole-containing plant provides not only visionary ecstasy but also what its users call "open heartedness." This quality, a caring awareness of others, is widely believed to explain the internal cohesiveness of Fang society and the ability of Bwitists among the Fang to resist commercial and missionary incursions into their cultural integrity:

Neither Bwitists nor Fang felt they could eradicate ritual sin or evil in the world. This incapacity means that men have to celebrate. Good and bad walk together. As Fang frequently enough told missionaries, "We have two hearts, good and bad." Early missionaries, aware of these self-confessed contradictions, evangelized with the promise of "one heartedness" in Christianity. But Fang by and large did not find it there. For many, Christian one heartedness was a constriction of their selves. While "one heartedness" is celebrated in Bwiti, it is a one heartedness which is coagulated out of a flow of many qualities from one state to another. It is goodness achieved in the presence of badness, an aboveness achieved in the presence of belowness. It is an emergent quality energized in the presence of its opposite.

Paradoxically ibogaine, the indole hallucinogen responsible for the pharmacological activity of the Bwiti plant (Tabemanthe iboga), is widely recognized both as a factor holding married couples together in the face of Fang institutions like easy divorce and as an aphrodisiac. It is perhaps one of the few plants of the many dozens claimed to be aphrodisiacs that actually performs as advertised.' Most other candidates for the title are in fact merely stimulants that can cause a generalized arousal and sustained erection.

Ibogaine seems actually to change, to deepen, and to enhance the psychological mechanisms that lie behind sexual drive; one experiences a simultaneous sense of detachment and involvement that is empowering. Yet in situations where sexual activity is neither sanctioned nor appropriate, ibogaine does not cause, or even raise the possibility of, sexual behavior. In these situations it functions much as ayahuasca functions among its traditional users; as a boundary-dissolving visionary hallucinogen. Here is another example of research only waiting for social attitudes to change in order to be done. If the impact of ibogaine on sexual dysfunction is found to be congruent with its folklore, then further research might be especially promising.

These powerful plants that change our relationship to our sexuality, and our view of self and world, are the special province of peoples whom we are accustomed to thinking of as primitive. This is but one more indication of the extent to which unconsciously imbibed dominator attitudes have robbed us of participation in the wider and richer world of eros and the spirit.

For easily discerned reasons, the dominator societies that arose to replace partnership societies were far less eager to suppress group sexual activities than they were to suppress the hallucinogenic mushroom religion. Group sexual activity without the dissolution of the dominator ego would help the most ego-obsessed males gain power and rise in the social hierarchy. Since domination of others ultimately includes sexual domination as well, this would explain the persistence of orgies and group sexual activities in many of the mystery religions, at the festivals of Dionysus and the Roman Saturnalia, and within paganism generally long after the heart of the pagan world had ceased to beat. Eventually, however, the dominator anxiety about the establishing of clear lines of male paternity outweighed all other considerations. Then ego domination finally achieved complete preeminence. Through Christianity's ruthless extermination of all heterodoxy, orgies were recognized and suppressed as the subversive, boundary-dissolving activities that they are.


Several important contrasts emerge from a comparison of the egobased dominator society and the nonrigid, psychologically unbounded partnership society. Much diminished in the partnership model is the proprietary attitude of men toward women that is so centrally a part of the dominator model. Less prominent as well is the tendency for women to seek extended commitment to pair bonding from men in the pursuit of security and vicarious social ranking. Family organization is not rigid and hierarchical. Children are raised by an extended family of cousins and siblings, aunts and uncles, and former and current sexual partners of their parents. In such a milieu, a child has many different relationships and a variety of role models. Group values are not usually at odds with that of the individual or his or her mate and children. Adolescent sexual experimentation is expected and encouraged. Couples may bond for any number of reasons related to themselves and the welfare of the group; such bonding may be-but is not necessarily-lifelong. Sexuality is rarely taboo in such societies, only becoming so as a result of contact with dominator values.

In dominator society, men tend to choose sexual partners who are young, healthy, and capable of bearing many children. And the strategy of women within a dominator society is often to bond with an older man who, by being in control of group resources (food, land, or other women), could ensure that a woman's worth won't be devalued as she becomes older and passes out of her childbearing years. In the ideal partnership society, older men may have
sexual relations with younger women, but without threatening the bonds that have been formed with older women; however, women are not driven to seek reproductive security under the protection of older men.

This situation arose because power did not lie exclusively with aging and powerful males. Rather, power was distributed between men and women and through all age groups. Ultimate power in such societies was the power to create and sustain life and so was naturally imaged as female-the power of the great Goddess.

Jean Baker Miller pointed out that the so-called need to control and dominate others is psychologically a function, not of a feeling of power, but of a feeling of powerlessness. Distinguishing between "power for oneself and power over others," she writes: "In a basic sense, the greater the development of each individual the more able, more effective, and less needy of limiting or restricting others she or he will be."'

Partnership societies do not simply replace a patriarchy with a matriarchy; such concepts are too limited and gender bound. The real difference here is between a society based on partnership and roles appropriate to age, size, and level of skill and a society in which a dominance hierarchy is maintained at the expense of the full expression and social utilization of the individuals within the group. In the partnership situation the lack of concepts based on property and ego inflation made jealousy and possessiveness less of a problem.

The generally hostile attitude of dominator society toward sexual expression can be traced to the terror that the dominator ego feels in any situation in which boundaries are dissolved, even the most pleasurable and natural of situations. The French notion of orgasm as petit mort perfectly encapsulates the fear and fascination that boundary-dissolving orgasm holds for dominator cultures.

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