My first exposure to what might be considered
shamanic ideas began some time ago with the reading of the works of Carlos
Castaneda. However, even after getting more familiar with the ideas expounded
with Don Juan's warrior philosophy, I didn’t really equate this with a general
understanding of shamanism. Castaneda does not use the term. Don Juan is
presented as a particularly unique individual. He is referred to as ‘a man of
knowledge’ or a ‘sorcerer’ rather than anything else. So, while these
works included for me the most completely profound and practical philosophy that
I had ever come across, I didn't necessarily connect these ideas with the figure
of the shaman.
The first real exposure to the terminology came
through reading Terence McKenna's definitions in the opening
chapters of his
book 'The Invisible Landscape' (co-written with his brother Dennis). Before
this, I have to say, I had avoided McKenna's work for a long time. He seemed to
get a lot of publicity and attention for being 'far out'. I thought he was
probably the sort of wild man that helps give psychedelics a bad name, and I did
not anticipate that he could offer me anything that I had not better found with
Don Juan's philosophy. In particular, I felt that the warrior’s emphasis on
sobriety and the importance of living an immaculately tight life would be
absent, in favour of merely ‘getting high’. However, my preconceptions had
to be altered after reading.
To be honest, I found a great deal of 'The
Invisible Landscape' very difficult to get through. In parts I had to agree with
the way one reviewer put it, it is dense, technical and infuriating,
but also marvelously weird. And there is nothing gratuitous or sloppy about it
either. It doesn't seem to pander to hippie cliché, terminology or ideals. The
work is dense and difficult to be sure, but also charged with a kind of
energetic intensity. It's coming from somewhere.
In the opening chapters McKenna gives some
background and offers some elucidation as to what the shaman is. He includes
reference to Mircea Eliade’s description of the shaman as a manipulator of the
sacred, "whose main function is to induce ecstasy in a society where
ecstasy is the prime religious experience. Thus, the shaman is a master of
ecstasy, and the art of shamanizing is a technique of ecstasy."
This idea, that a shaman was a practitioner in
techniques of ecstasy, seemed strangely compelling. Part of the compulsion was
tied up by the use of this keyword ecstasy. While I was intrigued
as to what it meant, I was at the same time suspicious of it. The connotations
seemed contrary to my ideas about the necessary rigours of enlightenment,
offering instead a tantalising but potentially deceptive immersion in a purely
sensory realm. I was not sure what it was all supposed to mean.
It was shortly after reading McKenna’s account,
quite late during the mushroom season of 1998, that my brother and I, in a
mountain climbing mood, determined that we would tackle Ben Lomond. The plan
entailed getting up in the morning quite early to make use of the available
daylight. However, after starting off we soon realised that we had let ourselves
in for some hard work. Feeling particularly fatigued we laboured up hill with
frequent yawning, admonishing ourselves for not having prepared properly by
going to our beds earlier, and wishing we were still asleep.
I tried to make the best of it, drearily putting
one foot in front of the other in a half-wakened state. It seemed a shame though
that we were not alert and able to fully enjoy the magnificent scenery, - a bit
of a wasted trip.
My brother seemed to be even more tired than me
and even harder on himself. "Why can’t I stop yawning?"
It occurred to me that to struggle like this was
to actually waste more energy. So I decided to yield somewhat to my dozy state.
With eyes half closed, taking little baby breaths, I found that one foot in
front of the other was not so bad. The fatigue, when yielded to, was actually
"Why am I so tired?" asked my brother.
Seeming somehow able to also talk, as well as
doze and walk, I said, "Why don't you have a little sleep then? That’s
what I’m doing."
G~ said dramatically, "Because I am afraid
He had a point. I felt this was something that I
was already dimly aware of, but his articulation of it seemed to allow a
formulation. A voice that seemed to come from outside of me but through me said,
"Let the fear of dying and the pleasure of sleeping co-exist, experience
both at the same time". I walked on by.
We proceeded up the mountain for a good hour
without saying anything more. I was immersed in my experience and the pleasure
of walking, breathing and sleeping at the same time. This seemed perfectly
counterbalanced by the awareness of being halfway up a mountain and the
necessity of not falling right off.
When G~ did speak to me it confirmed that he was
having similar experiences. We felt we had discovered something for ourselves.
In the context of what I had been reading, I felt I had learned something about
the value of the experience of ecstasy.
I reflected more on this during the descent. I
realised the ecstatic experience was available from all sorts of unlikely
situations and reckoned that, even though I did not think I had fully understood
McKenna's explanations, I had somehow been inspired by what I had read.
It seemed that I would have to get reoriented
with regard to the experience of ecstasy. I had seen that it required some
handling and wasn't inevitably decadent as I had suspected.
I still treasure the warrior philosophy and see
at as practically indispensable. However, in Castaneda’s books, when Don Juan
emphasises overcoming perceptual barriers in order to see energy as it
flows through the universe, this can be taken to mean understanding
though detached observation (or mistaken to mean that the phenomena
should only be purely observed). In comparison, the experience of ecstasy
is more like being touched by and merging with energy, losing ones identity in
In part I have had to review and overcome my own
conditioning. This is not to say that I had a particularly puritanical
upbringing, but rather, I have come to realise that, apart from in a very few
societies, which I now recognise and define as being shamanic, such direct
experience is considered taboo.
Now, if you haven't already guessed, the mountain
climbing experience related above involved psilocybin mushrooms. Again, apart
from in many shamanic cultures, another taboo. In fact, on this subject people
can become so prejudiced and hostile that it is difficult to remain unaffected.
By this I don't just mean being turned round instantly oneself and denouncing a
former plant ally, but at least into being surreptitious and clandestine. From
there to quite easily de-emphasising, then apologising for, and, depending on
how many steps you take down this road, eventually being discouraged altogether
The extent and the importance of the relationship
of shamanic cultures to the use of sacred plants is an aspect which has become
more apparent to me over time. One has to get past the prejudices of ones own
culture. Mircea Eliade, for example, is generally credited as being the founding
pioneer of shamanism in terms of identifying and bringing it to the attention of
the modern world. Though he somewhat and slightly modified his stance very late
on, his principal reaction to the use of psychedelics was to describe this as
degenerate, "the use of substances as an aid to ecstasy invariably
indicates a decadence or vulgarisation of the shamanic tradition". The
implication was that some purer form of shamanic practice had been somehow lost
or forgotten by these cultures and they had to revert to taking ‘drugs’ in
order to achieve the same effects.
Many people (though by no means all) would now
concede this as a highly prejudicial view. But, even for those who would like to
think that they have supposedly more up-to-date and correct sensibilities, it is
easier to identify stark historical opinions like Eliade’s than it is to
recognise the ambient prejudicial consensus in which we are still embedded.
I would hope that anyone with an interest in
shamanism would come to realise the significance that these plants play.
And, on the other hand, I have become very suspicious
of any de-emphasis or downplaying on the role of psychoactive substances and the
promotion of 'alternative' techniques.
Okay, so one may ask, "What if the promotion
of the use of psychedelic plants is not my own particular agenda? What if I
believe I have other efficacious, not so dangerous and in fact potentially
superior techniques, which I think instead should be emphasised as more suitable
for a greater majority of people?"
Well, in principle, I would say ‘fair play’
to this. The psychedelic issue is certainly a thorny one. There are legal
implications encouraging all sorts of disclaimers, more importantly, one should
point out the need for caution with regard to the real existential
So why bother at all? Why consider this path?
Well, it's simply that certain plant allies are the most efficient and effective
agents, enabling the most reliable and impressive access route
into shamanic realms.
Re-reading the McKennnas, in the ‘Invisible
Landscape’, they go further. In response to Eliade’s comments about
degenerate drug use they say:
On the contrary, the use of plants as an
adjunct to shamanism is widespread and occurs in every region of the globe
where the plants occur […] it appears that [the plant] experience and the
shamanic experiences are, in very numerous cases, one and the same, though the
plant experience must be moulded and directed by the symbolic motifs of ritual
to give it it’s particular shamanic quality.
It is our contention, to be amplified in later
chapters, that the presence of psychoactive substances is a primary
requirement for all true shamanism, and that where such substances are not
exogenously available as plants, they must be endogenously available, either
through metabolic predisposition to their synthesis, as may occur in
schizophrenia, or through the various techniques of shamanism: dancing,
drumming, singing and the confrontation of situations of stress and isolation.
Where these alkaloids are not present, shamanism becomes ritual alone, and its
effectiveness suffers accordingly.