“While our modern secular culture denies the existence of a spiritual dimension to life, many of our popular postsecular movements of mysticism still refuse to address the question of spirits. Philosophers such as Ken Wilber tend to reduce them to psychological tropes or delusions. Based on my own experiences, I strongly suspect we need to attain a more sophisticated understanding of how spirits may operate, as well as a set of techniques for dealing with them, before we can approach higher states and stages of development. We cannot have “Spirit” without spirits.” –Daniel Pinchbeck, Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, p. 4
I begin with Daniel’s quote because not only did it speak to me personally when I first read it, but no doubt if you are a member of Reality Sandwich/Evolver, you also share this sentiment. Perhaps you, like me, wonder whether and how the paths of yoga and shamanism intersect, and how accessing non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) might be helpful for us yoga practitioners in the West. You might also have wondered what use psychoactive aids, or “plant sacraments,” have for the contemporary yoga practitioner, especially those of us who have told that it is not a “pure” yogic path, and not one that has much to do with the ultimate goal of moksha (liberation).
Let’s begin by looking at how yoga and shamanism can be seen as distinct disciplines, viewing it from the perspective of a very well-regarded scholar of yoga, Georg Feuerstein, who has done quite a bit of research into this very subject.
Feuerstein’s most current published view on the relationship between Yoga and Shamanism to date is as follows:
“The development of Yoga’s heritage spans at least five millennia and may go back into the dim past of the early Neolithic age. Conceivably, Yoga emerged out of the Shamanism of the Paleolithic, but at this point in our knowledge of Yoga’s history this is mere speculation. Certainly Yoga and Shamanism have many features in common, though the final purpose is quite distinct: Whereas Yoga aims at spiritual liberation (moksha), Shamanism is primarily concerned with what in Yoga would be called the ‘subtle dimension’ and with so-called magical feats and healing service to the community.” (p. 35)
That said, Feuerstein will be the first to admit that
shamanism is widespread even today in India, particularly among the Shaivites, or yogis who follow the tradition of Shiva. Thus in the 2005 film, “Origins of Yoga: Quest for the Spiritual,” Feuerstein makes the following assertion:
“Many yogis also fulfill the role of the shaman, whereby they serve the community as healers, magicians, wise men, and so on.”
One only need look at the practices and of the Naga Babas (the most radical of Shaivites) to see unmistakable signs of shamanism: Use of psychoactive herbs (ganja, datura, etc.), ecstatic dance and song, the use of the dhuni (firepit) which confers healing and blessing upon the community, asceticism, siddhis (magical powers), initiatory rites, etc. Dr. Wolf-Dieter Storl, writing in his book Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy, comments that, “When confronted with the image of Shiva, an anthropologist will most likely think of a Super-Shaman,” (p. 34), as Shiva, in the form of Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, carries a drum in one hand, and a fire in the other.
Feuerstein’s reply to this is that, yes, it is true that many yogis fulfill the role of the shaman, yet the domain of the yogi (or yogin) extends beyond that of the shaman:
“The yogin’s ultimate purpose, however is to go beyond the subtle levels of existence explored by the shaman, and to realize the transcendental Being, which is transdimensional and unqualified, and which the yogin knows to be his innermost identity. Thus, whereas the shaman is a healer or miracle-worker, the yogin is primarily a transcender. But in the spiritual ascent to the transcendental Reality, the yogin is likely to gather a great deal of knowledge about the subtle realms (sukshma-loka). This explains why many yogins have demonstrated extraordinary abilities and have long been looked upon by the Indian people as miracle workers and magicians. From the yogic point of view, however, the paranormal abilities possessed by many adepts are insignificant by comparison with the ultimate attainment of Self-Realization, or enlightenment.” (The Yoga Tradition, p. 95)
In other words, to use the language of Ken Wilber, the yogi “transcends and includes” the shaman — the role of the shaman tends to be part of the yogi job description, yes, but that job description also entails exploring and embodying the causal realms, not only the astral planes. Yet it is important to note here that Feuerstein does not discount the importance of the yogi’s consciously familiarizing him or herself with the subtle planes of existence (via astral travel, use of psychoactives, etc.), both for the sake of her own evolution, but also to serve as a healer and intermediary for the community. In other words, while not the goal, for Feuerstein there’s certainly a place for shamanism in Yoga.
But what of Feuerstein’s supposition that the shaman does not access the causal dimensions, while the yogi can and does? Is there any evidence to support such a claim? This brings us back to the original quote from Daniel, and into a scholarly debate that has been going on for some time between Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber.
I’m not sure how aware Daniel was of this debate when he made his criticism of Wilber, but Grof and other transpersonal psychologists have been leveling similar critiques for years. In his critical essay, “Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Psychology,” in which Grof confronts Wilber on a number of key points, Grof makes the following statement, almost as if directly responding to Feuerstein as well:
“Shamanic literature, as well as the personal experiences of many anthropologists with shamans, leaves little doubt that they regularly have spiritual experiences not only of the subtle realms, but also of the causal realms.”[i]
No doubt Feuerstein would argue that we’re talking here about the over-arching goals or premises of shamanism and yoga, not what some yogis or shamans might actually access in their own personal experience. Both Feuerstein and Wilber seem to hold the great Indian sage, Ramana Maharishi[ii] in very high esteem, and they would no doubt suggest that in the world of shamanism we don’t find individuals who have similarly attained to Ramana’s level of consciousness.
While this is a point well worth deeply considering and probing, Grof would no doubt suggest that shamans are on the same path of integration, and access many of the same levels in their NOSCs, as perhaps even Ramana Maharishi did in his years of solitude on Arunachala on his way to ultimately becoming the universally honored sage he subsequently became.[iii] However, as I am not as familiar with shamanism as I am with yoga, I cannot directly point to a personage in the wide world of shamanism who clearly reached a similar pinnacle in their evolution.
Let me just add a personal note here, though, and say that during my own initial ayahuasca experience — the most harrowing, hallowing episode of this earthly incarnation, I hasten to add (next to my birth, which I don’t remember) — I did feel as if it were a kind of shamanic initiation, involving a profound sense that egoic body-mind complex was being dismembered and ultimately reconstituted. Once the final re-integration was complete, I experienced myself (Self) as “pure awareness” devoid of egoity. At that point, there were no more “vrittis,” or mental modifications, to use the language of the Yoga Sutras, I was truly in the state of Yoga. In simpler terms, I was experiencing the causal ground of Being, at this point, not any astral dimension but a “transpersonal” state of consciousness.
Put simply, my shamanic journey took me through the astral into the causal, and ultimately back into a sense of “ahamkara,” or narrow self-consciousness — “The Box” — though a considerably expanded box, to be sure.
Now, Wilber does not deny the reality of these experiences for the experiencer, but he does seem to distinguish between what he calls “back door” (or “regressive”) transpersonal experiences, and “front door” experiences. The former are induced via therapies such as Holotropic breathwork, rebirthing, psychedelics, hypnosis, etc., whereas the “front door” experiences come about spontaneously through practices such as meditation and other “consciousness disciplines.”[iv]
To get a better understanding of what Wilber means by all of this, let’s “listen” to an excerpt from a somewhat less formal talk with the Integral philosopher. Please note that here Wilber’s humorous but derogatory designation “druggies” could substitute for the “back door” men, and “meditators” for those who do It through the front door:
“My sense is that the people I know that have done it responsibly, have gained a lot from using psychedelics to open up a certain space. But there are downsides. Particularly in this movement, you find there are two general approaches to consciousness studies. One is the druggies, and one is the meditators.
“And the druggies are into altered states, and the meditators are into stages. And the meditators believe that you have to actually discipline and work and it’s four years, ten years, fifteen years, to reach a stable realization of these higher states and stages. And the psychedelic or drug side is much more into altered states, ayahuasca, LSD, any sort of number of altered states, and they don’t tend to get into permanent realizations based on these things.
“I happen to believe that both of these models — I use states and stages — I believe both of them are required. But there’s kind of an acrimony between these two groups. There are very few people that do drugs and are serious meditators. And the people that only do drugs, I think eventually it kind of tends to catch up in a way. I don’t see permanent realization coming from these things, I don’t see permanent access to some of these higher states, and I think at some point the simple neurological noise of the ingredients starts to almost outshine the luminosity that was there, perhaps, at the beginning.
“And so the people I know that I’ve watched over thirty years that have done only drugs have becoming increasingly, frankly, unpleasant people, and disillusioned, and sad, in certain ways. It’s not to say that meditators do all that much better, but there is at least a chance with meditators that you can have a permanent realization that is enduring and not merely a transitory state.
“I think people do better if they either have a judicious combination of the two, or if they do mostly meditation. And my recommendation is don’t just do drugs, because people tend to get into trouble, and the theories I see coming out of people that just do drugs are frankly pretty wacky theories. They don’t take enough evidence into account, they are not inclusive enough, they don’t include other types of data and evidence and I think they’ re very partial.”[v]
So there you have it. Of course, although Wilber doesn’t mention Grof or Mckenna by name, they are to be numbered among “the druggies” whose theories are “pretty wacky.” You’ll note that this interview was from April, 2001, almost exactly one year after Mckenna’s passing due to brain cancer, possibly caused by extensive use of high doses of psychedelics (Terence himself suggested it was due to his cannabis use).[vi]
Although I sense that there is general support for the Pinchbeck-Mckenna-Grof side of things among those who are reading this essay, and my own current view is that it seems about time that we emerging yoga shamans start to use “any means necessary” and available to us to explore the inner and outer Cosmos, I do feel that Wilber’s general point here is very valid, namely that a combination of entheogens AND meditation seems to be the wisest route. Let ayahuasca be the means of cleansing the doors of perception, if that is your path, but further elaborate and deepen into such expanded states of consciousness via slower, more stable means such as a meditative discipline.
That said, I don’t know that we can really make such sweeping judgements about “druggies” like Mckenna. I don’t see him as having been unpleasant, disillusioned, or sad, as Wilber suggests (nor Grof, for that matter), and actually I feel much more inspired by him and Grof at this point than I ever have by Wilber. I sense the reason could be that Wilber’s use of psychedelics is rather limited — he openly admits that one long LSD experience in college pretty much scared him away from psychedelics, until he got into MDMA in the early 80s, making a point to note that it was still legal then (though E is not a psychedelic per se) — and I really feel that it is a cardinal principle of debate that one really shouldn’t theorize about what one has not personally experienced in a direct, intimate way. How can Wilber really talk about these Transpersonal therapies without taking them for a spin himself? Test out an actual sacrament like ayahuasca, else be accused of armchair philosophy!
To be fair, perhaps Mckenna, Grof, and company also have not done their homework in terms of having a spiritual discipline that they can use as a framework to inform their own models of reality, and it could be that they do not fully comprehend what Wilber is getting at. The same might be said for those of us who would throw out the guru model and eastern metaphysics without actually ever having had a deep encounter with them. I sense that this may be one of the greatest blind spots of the contemporary entheogenic community.
For myself, though, I appreciate that neither Mckenna nor Grof were ever bent on establishing a Kosmic “theory of everything” as Wilber has been. I see that rather, they have always been more intent on pointing to the Dark Side of the Moon, to the Mystery, and showing us ways that we can become more Wonder-filled by invoking and evoking the Mystery. So to invoke Ken Kesey’s immortal words:
“The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer — they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”
I would add that the need for experience of the Mystery is what I’m getting at. Theories and models will always have their value and use, because really only experience + understanding will equal a true change in perspective, but when it comes down to it, talk is cheap, and the hard work is actually taking the plunge into the Unknown and then coming back down to earth and actually embodying the wisdom we’ve been gifted.
Bringing this Back Down to Earth…
So to bring this all into the intense present moment, there is a shift happening in the world of yoga in connection to shamanistic practice, particularly the use of plant sacraments like ayahuasca. This has actually been happening for some time now, but it’s really only the past few years that the older generation of yoga teachers who had been using ayahuasca for decades have begun to speak about it more openly. To take one example, Ganga White, one of the top yoga teachers in the world, quite openly spoke on the subject in his recently published, Yoga Beyond Belief:
“I touch on the topic of plant sacraments because it is a timely subject and something I am repeatedly asked about.”
White continues, “There are neural pathways in the brain that are more ancient than our beliefs, philosophies, and religious proscriptions. There are keys to the doorways of the rich interior landscape that open dimensions of beauty, order, intelligence, immense complexity, and sacredness beyond measure. These realities can be so powerful, brilliant, and intense that, while visiting them, our world seems like a distant hallucination, in the way that these other realities can seem hallucinatory from this one. Seeing and being touched by these mystical experiences can change us and help us in positive ways with insights into self-healing, enlightened living, and the wholeness of life. Our bodies and brains operate on chemical messengers and information exchange systems in nature. Some scholars and evidence show that medicinal plants were probably at the origin or religious and mystical experience. To say plant sacraments are unnatural, and practices, rituals, and belief systems created by man are natural, is an absurdity. It is a shame that fear and conditioning can preclude the greatest journey…within.”[vii]
Now, these are the words of a master Hatha yogi who has been on the yoga path for some 40+ years and has himself studied with some of the great yoga masters, and I for one did not take them lightly when I read them a couple of years ago. Indeed, White’s comments were one of the factors that influenced me to further explore plant medicine, and to write a book on the subject. This was not an easy decision on my part, because I, like many Hatha yoga practitioners, was so very careful of what I put into my body and had a great fear of causing it permanent damage, not to mention simply messing with my yoga practice. But what I subsequently learned from my plant journeys, interestingly enough, is that it is precisely the over-identification with the body (bordering on obsession, for some) that needs to be released in order for one’s ego boundaries to be bridged. Again, this is an understanding that would seem to be of utmost value to those who are utilizing the technology of Hatha yoga as means of self-transcendence.[viii]
There are many other reasons why a yoga practitioner might find taking ayahuasca helpful, both personally and for the healing of our communities and planet. As for the latter, I appreciated what Daniel said during his dialogue with Sharon Gannon on ayahuasca[ix], particularly his points that the yoga community has tended to become insular and elitist, and his suggestion that we’re in a time that calls for people like us modern yogis and yoginis, who are already familiar with moving through uncomfortable spaces, to consider the value plant sacraments might have for us now in this time of rapid shifts on the planet.
I can relate to these points as I’ve experienced the insularity and elitism firsthand, the kind that sadly shakes its head when the subject of “drugs” comes up, and I have also seen for myself how the ayahuasca experience can move one through some very uncomfortable spaces, thus making it that much easier to deal with real world events and issues. Of course, this is what work “on the mat” does, albeit in a slightly less dramatic way (though even that can be very intense for some — a Bikram class, for example); a plant shamanic journey just accelerates the process. That certainly was my experience. If I may paraphrase Timothy Leary’s famous quote slightly: I learned more during my first session with ayahuasca than I had in 13 years on my yoga mat.
We can also look at it this way: Some of us now have spent years disciplining our bodies in a rather extreme way, supposedly so that we might prepare our physiology for intense “Samadhi” moments, to become fit vessels to “hold” an intense amount of energy and not get fried, but rather be able to navigate “uncomfortable” spaces in a fully conscious way. Well, if you’re like I was, you might well wonder from whence such experiences will come? They probably won’t come from Hatha yoga itself, and also almost certainly not even from Raja yoga (the path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), unless you are a very devoted, disciplined meditator. No, it seems to me that such experiences will come through shamanic journeying, and particularly through the use of plants in a sacramental, yogic way. Could it be that this is why we have been doing all of these intense practices, contortions and the like?[x]
Here’s a wonderfully expressed statement from a RS/Evolver member who is also a yoga teacher who uses ayahuasca as a sacrament, having been influenced to do so by another internationally recognized yoga teacher of the older generation. In a private email interview, I had asked her what ayahuasca meant to her as a yoga teacher and practitioner, and here’s what she replied:
“Like many yogis, I am very interested in the nature of consciousness. Isn’t that why we do yoga? As such, I’ve explored both traditional and less traditional ways to shift my perception of reality — and, yes, that includes working with various entheogens in a sacred setting. Without getting into the details of when, where and with whom, I’d say I have done a reasonable amount of work with ayahuasca and I’ve always experienced it as a powerful medicine — healing, transformative and liberating on the most profound levels. I so appreciate the fact that the work I do in ceremony builds on, and is harmonious with, the work I do on my mat. For me, ayahuasca is a teacher who speaks poignantly to the challenges of the Kali Yuga [the so-called “dark age of materialism”]; little wonder she is slowly finding her way into the mainstream.”
To return again to Daniel’s point about exploring the world of spirits, what in yoga is termed the astral or subtle realm, we live in such a materialistic society and age that even we yoga people need reminders that there’s a whole lot more going on here than what we experience through our five senses. And maybe the spirit world and beings from other star systems really do want to connect with us via these plant modalities?
Maybe we are meant to consciously alter our DNA as part of the next stage of evolution of humanity? Maybe the plant sacraments really are the true, original teachers of humanity who were sent here long ago to save us from ourselves — at this precise point in history? The evidence suggests that this is all the case, but ultimately we really don’t know.
What I sense we do know is that just understanding intellectually that “All is One,” and that we should just “Be Present,” or having someone tell us that some day some way we might have an experience that this is so, is really not satisfying. We want to fully have the experience first, and then use that experience as a model for how we might live more in union, in presence.
To truly arrive at a state of presence, there very well may be a lot of “shaking up” that might be required.
To sum up this “prolegomena,” which is to say this very preliminary discussion, what I have tried to open up as a possibility is our seeing that there really is a place in yoga for shamanic practices, particularly the use of “plant sacraments.” And to say not only is there a place for these things, but there might be a necessity for these things right now in terms of healing our fractured selves, communities, and planet, and that yoga is one of the most effective disciplines for “preparing the ground,” so to speak, for the harvest, as well as for “riding out the storm.” Oh yogi/ni, why have you made of your body a fit Temple for the Divine if not for this purpose?
[i] See Stanislav Grof, M.D., “Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Psychology,” @ http://primal-page.com/grofken.htm.
Another wonderful book by Grof which is really a must read for those interested in these subjects is Grof’s recent offering, When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Reality. Sounds True, Incorporated, 2005. Particularly interesting are Grof’s accounts of his meeting with Swami Muktananda, as well as his chapter on his experience with 5-MeO-DMT.
[ii] Here’s but one website dedicated to Ramana Maharishi (or, “Maharshi”): http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org . One book which I would highly recommend that everyone read or re-read is Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, particularly the chapter entitled “The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar,” as that goes into some detail about what the “subtle” (astral) and “causal” planes are like. Not that we should take this is as the last word on the subject, but just to familiarize ourselves with one highly influential view.
[iii] Grof quotes John Perry: “True mystics occasionally reactivate regressive complexes on their way to mature unity states,” and goes on to say: “In spite of the fact that Ken acknowledges frequent mysterious invasion of transpersonal insights in psychotic patients, mysticism remains for him miles apart from psychosis. It represents for him a purely transegoic progression, whereas psychosis is primarily characterized by a regression to early infancy in the service of the ego.”
[iv] See Ken Wilber, The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Shambhala, 1998, pp. 165-185. In these pages, Wilber for the first time in writing confronted Grof’s criticisms of his work. This needs to be read along with Grof’s essay in response (see above).
[v] Excerpted from a 2001 interview between Wilber and Piers Clement, available here:
[vi] There’s a discussion of what might have been the cause of Terence’s death @ http://www.shroomery.org/forums/showflat.php/Number/1696452.
[vii] Ganga White, Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice. North Atlantic Books, 2007. Danny Paradise is another top yoga teacher who has been an influential advocate of plant sacraments for many years. For an interview with him in which he directly speaks to some of the same issues, check out the following podcast: http://kmo.livejournal.com/408508.html.
[viii] From email correspondence with White and from speaking with one of his students, I understand that even though White made that statement, he still has been rather guarded about what he makes public about his use of plant sacraments. He apparently will only talk about it with his students when the subject is broached. I sense that this will all change in the next couple of years, that there will be far more openness in the yoga community about these subjects.
[ix] You can watch the video of their dialogue, “Asanas and Ayahuasca,” at http://www.realitysandwich.com/asanas_and_ayahuasca. You will also want to read all of the comments posted. My own view of what some called a “fiasco,” is that it might have gone over better if Daniel had been dialoguing with a yogini, such as Padmani, who is both a yoga teacher and a regular user of plant sacraments like ayahuasca.
[x] I also sense that it is precisely those of us who have been perhaps overly physically-oriented in our life and yoga practice that actually need a high dose of something, anything to bust through the layers of egoity. This idea will take a good deal of unpacking and Ill leave that for a separate piece.
Image by Ha Pe Gera, courtesy of Creative Commons license.