Debate Magazine

Cosmic Consciousness

By Cris

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.

Cosmic Consciousness


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