Technique of Ecstasy
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 quite pleasurable.
"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 of dying".
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 it.
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 from use.
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 dangers.
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.