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Why Psychedelics Make Avatar More Sophisticated

There is a scene that is conspicuously absent from both the theatrical release and extended DVD release versions of James Cameron’s Avatar; the scene of the “Dreamhunt.”  The inclusion of this scene, as originally depicted in the Avatar script and then included as an incomplete scene as a DVD extra in the special edition release, would have lifted the story of Avatar to a whole new, and more complex, level.  Had this scene been included, the roles of entheogens and relationship to the biosphere would have been a literal, rather than just implied, theme within the film, and would also have been more true to the indigenous roots of inspiration for the film.  Furthermore, it would have raised more realistic and complex spiritual questions in relation to the film’s primary themes. Additionally, it raises interesting questions about the process of self-discovery and choice of identity. To my mind, it’s a shame that the scene wasn’t included.  Perhaps it was due to time and the economy of storytelling that Cameron chose not to include the “Dreamhunt.”  Perhaps he considered the scene too controversial.  For whatever reason, it didn’t make it in.  I’d like to consider how the film would have been richer, had Cameron chosen otherwise.

The film, as it is, features our hero, Jake Sully, having to pass one final test in his arduous journey to become “one of the people” and be accepted as a member of the Na’vi.  He describes this test as being all important and uses it to justify to Colonel Miles Quaritch why he has to stay longer among the Na’vi and not give in to the desire to abandon his journey into the indigenous and return to Earth to get a new set of legs and thereby end his days of being bound to a wheelchair.  We then see Jake transfer his consciousness into his avatar body and the ceremony among the Na’vi commences with Jake being painted with a white paint or clay, in preparation for what is about to occur.  However, in the very next shot, Jake is emerging from the roots of the great Home Tree, suddenly accepted as one of the Omaticaya people.  We, the audience, are left wondering: What happened?  What was the one final trial that Jake had to endure before making this triumphant transformation?  What was the act that allowed him to claim that he had now successfully been “born” a second time, now as one of the people?

The answer, as revealed by the inclusion of incomplete scenes in the extended DVD release special features, is the Dreamhunt of the Na’vi, which, like many indigenous cultures, past and present, includes the ingestion of psychedelic alkaloids.  How might the inclusion of this scene have changed our appreciation of the film and  its message?  Before answering this question, let’s consider some of what was included in the film and what it presents to us.

Upon the release of Avatar, the entheogenic/psychedelic community was a-buzz with excitement, given the seemingly obvious nods to ayahuasca shamanism and culture within the film.  Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew made by indigenous South American cultures that contains the monoamineoxidase inhibiting vine of Banisteriopsis caapi and the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing Psychotria viridis leaves.  When these two plants are combined together, they allow for potent entheogenic experiences to ensue for those who are brave enough to consume the often-nauseating drink.  Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  More recently, syncretic religious traditions in Brazil, such as the Santo Daime and Unio Do Vegetal have also incorporated ayahuasca-based drinks into their religious practices.  Beyond the Amazon, ayahuasca culture and consumption is rapidly spreading around the world.

Entheogenic shamanism and religious-based practices have a long and significant role in human cultures, religions, and belief systems.  In some cultures, consumption of entheogens, or plants or fungi that contain psychedelic alkaloids, is a primary feature of the culture and tradition, such as with South American ayahuasca shamanism.  In other traditions, use of entheogens has been limited to a select few or a minority of the tradition, such as Sufi Muslim use of an ayahuasca-analogue drink and the proposed use of psychedelic mushrooms by early Christians.  Though it is often not recognized in contemporary culture, entheogen use has been a part of human understanding of its place in the cosmos for a very long time.  And for many cultures and traditions, entheogens are crucial in the personal quest for understanding the self and identity..

In the film, Avatar, there are many elements that are reminiscent of ayahuasca and South American indigenous traditions, though Cameron himself has stated that it was North American indigenous cultures that were the primary inspiration for the Na’vi and their cultural life-ways.  We learn in the film that the Na’vi’s spirituality is not just a system of belief, but actually grounded in direct experience of their deity, Eywa, which is described as the consciousness of the planet Pandora itself.  All living beings on Pandora communicate via electrical signals, which, for plants, is accomplished through the roots, and for animals and humanoids, through their queue, a sinuous collection of neural fibers that, when joined, connect two living beings together directly via their nervous systems.  The Na’vi word for this feature of their symbiotic biology is tsaheylu.  What makes the communication possible is the transfer of consciousness through energy and electrical signals.

With their queues, the Na’vi are able to link their minds to their chosen animal companions, at times creating life-long bonds.  They are also able, through linking to the Tree of Souls, to communicate directly with the consciousness of their ancestors.  The Tree of Souls, which is depicted as a luminescent willow tree, serves as something of a network link-up for the Na’vi, who are able to transfer their consciousness completely into Eywa upon death.  This is accomplished by the tree extending the tendrils of its roots out of the ground and encasing a dying Na’vi, providing the most direct link to Eywa.  To access these forms of consciousness, the Na’vi link their queues to the luminous vines of the tree.

We are provided with two different scenes in the film where characters link directly to Eywa via the root tendrils: the first is when the Na’vi attempt to save Grace, who has been shot, by transferring her consciousness directly from her human to her avatar body.  The second is at the conclusion of the film when Jake willingly, and successfully, does the same, abandoning his frail human body forever and permanently joining his consciousness to his avatar body.

Though obviously a fictionalized and mythologized story, there are important connections to ayahuasca in the Na’vi’s relationship to their environment.  Perhaps the most significant is the idea that there is something tangible about the people’s connection to their environment; something that goes beyond mere “belief” and “superstition.”  Among ayahuasca using cultures, the ayahuasca itself is viewed as this tangible connection.  It is through the medium of the visionary and energetic ayahuasca brew that the people are able to directly connect with what they view as a larger, more expansive environment.  The name itself reflects this understanding: The Vine of Souls, or the Vine of the Dead.  Simply, and perhaps misleadingly put, the drink allows for individuals to connect directly with “the spirit world.”  More precisely, it puts people directly and intimately in contact with a rich experience of energy and consciousness.

Yet even here, there is a contrary message in the film, Avatar.  At one point, the scientist, Grace, defends her interpretation of Na’vi spirituality by claiming that it is empirical: It is based on energetic neural connections.  In other words, it has a physical basis.  She issues this argument as a response to the question of “What have you been smoking out there?” thereby implying that an entheogenic/psychedelic practice has less validity than what is offered by scientific proof.  Later in the film, when Grace is at the point of death and attempting to transfer her consciousness, she proclaims to Jake that “Eywa is real,” and she knows this because she is “with her.”

Grace’s moment of “belief” comes when her consciousness must pass through the “eye of Eywa.”  Graphically, the event is depicted in a way that is very reminiscent of a DMT experience.  The same holds when Jake must also make the same journey.  However, even here, we are presented with a representation that makes the experience less “mystical” than ayahuasca, because it is accomplished through direct physical connection via the root tendrils.  Ayahuasca, in contrast, would still seem more “mystical” in that it opens an individual to a private experience of energy and consciousness, and any link of the “vine of souls” is chemical, through ingestion, rather than a physical and direct neural link to the “Tree of Souls.”

From the scientific perspective, as presented in the film, there is an empirical reality to Na’vi spirituality, even if it still might be dismissed as “tree huger crap,” as expressed by Jake early on in his journey to becoming a Na’vi.  Grace, the scientist, can appreciate what the Na’vi believe because she understands the science behind it.  Jake, though immersed in it through his training as a Na’vi, is still skeptical, though admittedly drawn in through his attraction to Neytiri.  What, if anything, could truly change Jake’s mind?

Apparently, it was the scene that we, the audience, never got to see: the Dreamhunt.  Significantly, the set-up for the initiation in the final film is quite different from the scene as it was originally intended.  In the finished film, Jake claims that he must go to a ceremony for his final initiation and rebirth as a member of the people and nothing more is indicated.  In the Dreamhunt scene, Jake claims that this is his final test, but there is more that is revealed.  For one, Grace tells Jake that this will be very dangerous for him and that he is indeed risking his life, for he is to go on a dreamhunt.  The ritual consists of the initiate having to eat a worm as well as endure the sting of a scorpion-like creature.  The worm is significant as it eats from the “sacred tree,” presumably the Tree of Souls, and contains a psychoactive alkaloid.  The scorpion provides a potent neuro-toxin that brings the Na’vi close to death.  When combined together, the two compounds unleash a powerful psychedelic experience that allows for the initiate to go on a “dreamhunt” and attempt to contact their “spirit animal.”  Grace is concerned that Jake is about to get himself killed by this unpredictable experience and the chemicals involved.

Jake is insistent that he must go and do this, however, for he has every intention of becoming one of the people.  He wants this so badly that he’s willing to risk his life on it.  It is then that reality sets in: Grace informs him that he will never truly be one of them and will never truly be able to be with Neytiri, for this body in the wheelchair is who he truly is, and his avatar is merely an extension of all of their technology and industry.

Clearly Jake is struggling with this reality and he is torn by his heart and his desire to be with Neytiri and the culture he has fallen in love with.  It is then that he admits to Grace that he’s been working for the Colonel all along, and that no matter what, the plan is to destroy Home Tree and drive the Na’vi out.

The significance of this exchange is that Jake is now ready for his vision quest in the sense that he has confronted the truth of the situation.  Until this point, he had been living in a fantasy, so to speak.  Given his identity as Jake Sully, ex-marine and avatar driver, it’s true; he can’t really be with Neytiri or the Na’vi.  He’s been lying to them and himself about that.  And he’s been lying to Grace and the others in the avatar program about his role in their work.  The truth has now been exposed.  Granted, the Na’vi are not yet privy to all this information, so Jake hasn’t been completely forthcoming, but it is the beginnings of honesty and at least internally, Jake is no longer able, or willing, to live the lie.  He’s beginning to understand that he has to confront the truth and that living in fantasy is a recipe for disappointment and disaster.  Confronted by this reality, he proceeds to the ceremony of the dreamhunt.

It is also significant that Jake is willing to die for this.  The journey into truth and self-realization is so important for Jake that he is willing to risk his life for it.  Though it is not a feature of every entheogenic experience, passing through what is often identified as “ego death” is a highly salient feature of doing entheogenic work.  In order for an individual to expand completely into their infinite nature, he or she must be willing to “let go” of everything that they think and believe about oneself: The individual must be willing to surrender completely and, in essence, “die.”  The physical body doesn’t die, however.  It is only the individual’s sense of self, or ego, that actually “dies” in the process, yet the continuity of the individual’s consciousness and sense of being continues.  It is when the ego is completely out of the way that the individual can experience the genuine nature of the self and come to a new, more expanded, sense of identity and being.  Those who let go of the ego are privy to deep revelations about the nature of the self.  Those who refuse to let go and latch onto their fear of dying are doomed to struggle and suffer, and are left at the mercy of their often confusing visions and psychedelic experiences.  To truly do the work requires a deep level of personal willingness and trust.

The ceremony itself takes place in a secluded area of what appears to be Home Tree.  After being properly painted, Jake descends into the spiraling roots to assume his place in the center of the circle of those gathered for this crucial ritual.  One Na’vi plays a water drum while others chant.  Neytiri’s mother presents the worm to Jake, who holds open his mouth and extends his tongue to take the proffered sacrament.  Then from behind, Neytiri’s father brings forth the scorpion, which stings Jake in the back, twice.  He has consumed his medicine.  It is time for the visions to begin.

There is no direct, physical, neural contact for this vision.  Jake is alone, connected to the wider energetic environment solely through the psychoactive alkaloids coursing through his body.  He has not attached his queue to any roots or any other living being. He is all on his own.  He is on his private dreamhunt.

The effects of the alkaloids come on quickly.  The others crouch around Jake as his vision and other senses begin to distort.  Jake struggles with the alchemical mix inside him as he begins to journey into the unknown.  As the experience deepens, he beings to let go of his struggle, which, in the incomplete scene, is depicted as Jake disassociating from his physical body.  His physical body is shown as face down, likely to purge, but his “energetic” or “spiritual” body is shown as sitting on the ground, his arms out in front of him in a relaxed symmetrical posture as his head lifts up and moves into the energetic perceptions generated by the medicine.

As Jake’s awareness of himself changes, he begins to ascend.  He sees Home Tree as a vast network of complex energies that are continuous with the energies of his body.  He ascends up into the vault of the enormous tree, spiraling upwards like the thick branches of the tree itself.  Moving ever upwards, his energetic vision expands outwards.  Jake is no longer witnessing the tree: He is seeing the pure energy of being.  Here, his vision shifts into a vast and complex energetic array that is presented before him symmetrically.  Though there is no narration, the import is clear: Jake is merging with the totality.  He has completely passed into an energetic state of being and is no longer bound by either his body or his ego, his sense of self.  There is nothing but pure energy.  He has fully let himself “die” to the experience and is ready for his coming “rebirth”.

In a psychedelic or entheogenic experience, this would be considered the peak, or the most intense moment of the journey, where all boundaries dissolve and all things are seen as they truly are: infinite.  It is quite common, when visual, for such experiences to be primarily geometric, and highly sophisticated, in appearance.  As in Jake’s vision, the appearance of bilateral symmetry is extremely common in such visionary experiences, as is evidenced by the preponderance of this theme in both ancient and contemporary visionary art.  Radial geometry and symmetry is also quite common, though not depicted here.

Personally, I find the appearance of bilateral symmetry in visionary experience to be highly significant.  As I understand it, the entheogenic experience is always an experience of the self, and primarily it is a reflective experience: It is a glimpse into the infinite mirror of the self.  As physical beings, humans, or in the case of Avatar, humanoids, exhibit bilateral symmetry in the physical structure of their being.  This also indicates that energetically, humanoids are also bilaterally symmetrical.  Even in an experience that is seemingly “beyond the form” of the physical, the archetypal energetic structure remains within the vision.  It is the self observing the true nature of the Self as pure energy, but still within a recognizable geometric form.  It is an energetic mirror reflection, infinite, but structured, patterned, and organized.

Phenomenologically, it is very common for highly geometric visionary states to transform into more recognizable forms with the appearance of visionary beings, scenes, and experiences.  It is as though the mind is not able to sustain pure geometry, and in order to make sense of the experience, forces it into images that can be related to more directly.  In my analysis, this is a result of the ego, or sense of self, that struggles to relate to the pure energetic form of the self, and as a result, starts to project imagery into the geometric mix in order to communicate with itself symbolically.  When confronted with the infinite, the ego struggles and asks, “Who am I?/What is this?”  If it can remain within the raw energetic truth, it will accept that the self is the pure presentation of energy.  Otherwise, the ego must relate to the energy through visionary content and through imagery.  Many entheogen users consider this to be an opportunity to learn about the embodied self and address the question of who one is and what one’s place is in the universe.

It is at this point in the scene that Jake then sees his dream spirit animal: Toruk.  Toruk is a large, fierce, dragon-like creature that has been ridden by a leader of the Na’vi only five other times in their history.  In his vision, Jake sees the Toruk and then sees the shadow of the Toruk flying over a devastated landscape, charred with burning trees.  Tellingly, we are seeing the scene through Jake’s eyes and can see that conjoined with the shadow of Toruk is a rider upon his back, who is obviously Jake.  Jake and the “Last Shadow” are one.  They share the same perspective.  They are one identity.

Jake emerges from his vision, screaming and jolted back into his awareness of his physical body. The dream is over.  He tells no one of what he has seen, and he is escorted out of the ritual room and greeted as one of the people.  He has passed his test.  He has withstood the demands and uncertainties of the vision and is now one of the people.  He has died and has been reborn.

In many ways, the scenes that didn’t make it into the film would have made the film a more complex one.  Though I won’t discuss other non-included scenes here, it suffices to say that the many of the nice, clean messages of the film are more complex.  Some of the “good guys” don’t seem as good or innocent, and some of the  “bad guys” aren’t as bad as they appear directly in the film.  Furthermore, the “pure science” of Na’vi spirituality becomes complicated by the mystical/shamanic/subjective nature of the dreamhunt experience.  Na’vi spirituality isn’t just empirical, after all, and has a deeply subjective, and entheogenic, experience, at its heart.  It’s the dreamhunt, after all, that allows for each Na’vi to undergo the necessary “second birth” in the process of becoming one of the people.  Linking directly to the Tree of Souls isn’t enough.  It is the personal ordeal of the entheogenic experience of each individual, alone with his or her mind and his or her private experience of energy and visions, that makes one a true Na’vi.

It also implies that as sentient and self-aware beings, the Na’vi have a different relationship to their environment and themselves than the other beings they share their world with, just as is true for humans.  It’s not as simple as merely being an integrated part of the forest, such as is reflected in the simplistic claim that indigenous peoples are “one with their environment.”  The entheogen use implies that as ego-centered beings, we are consciously separated at a deep level – a level that can only be overcome by going within.  No amount of external “tree hugging” will do the trick.  Overcoming our sense of separation and lack of knowledge of the true self takes self-sacrifice and the willingness to privately endure the most challenging of tasks: Facing ourselves in the most intimate recesses of our own minds and the expansion of our sense of awareness beyond the body and into our infinite natures.   True expanded awareness must be accomplished individually and privately.  And to do that, it takes the right kinds of tools, be it worm and scorpion, or leaf and vine.  When it comes to the deepest mysteries of the self, only the inward journey will suffice to bring true awareness and understanding.  Only they can we be reborn into the “real” world of enhanced understanding.

All of this makes Jake’s journey of becoming Toruk Makto all that much more complex and interesting.  Here, we see that the first true intimation of Jake’s relationship to Toruk was in the form of a psychedelic vision.  His journey is primarily one of identity.  In it, Jake must first expand his identity to include his avatar body.  Then, in his quest to join the Na’vi, his identity begins to shift his cultural and racial allegiance, a choice for which Jake must eventually face serious consequences.  Yet even here, his identity must shift again, for when he truly chooses the Na’vi and Eywa as his primary focus of identity, then he must face the challenge of Toruk.  This challenge was first intimated to Jake during his dreamhunt when he saw himself riding the great beast.  It was in his willing solo-journey into himself that this most crucial key was revealed.  He would never fully be himself until he found his genuine connection to the larger energetic reality: To be himself, to be reborn into himself, he had to embrace his greater nature as Toruk Makto and leader of the Na’vi people, fighting on behalf of Eywa, fighting on behalf of life.

It is true that in the end, Cameron presents the audience with a fairly simplistic moral tale, told in the style of a grand adventure.  Eywa, despite protestations that she “doesn’t take sides,” clearly does, in the film, and humans are forcibly expelled from Pandora and “Eden” is restored through Jake’s uncompromising willingness to be himself fully and completely, without regard to what consequences that might bring him.  He was willing to sacrifice everything to live true to what he already knew about himself.  It took more than love of a “woman” and a culture and an idyllic home to bring Jake to this, however.  It also took his dreamhunt, his psychedelic exploration into his deepest awareness where he and he alone could face the truth of who he was.  In the film, Jake becomes an extension of Eywa, acting selflessly on Eywa’s and the people’s behalf.  So who is Jake?  Is he the human?  The avatar?  Toruk Makto?  Eywa?  What is identity, and how does one know for sure, without clear introspection?

Beyond the easy and dualistic morality of the film lie deeper questions of the nature of the self, identity, and choice.  And these are important questions for anyone, not just characters in a film, for aren’t we all the main character in our own personal epic?  What is your place, and how can you know that if you don’t know who you are?  Hug as many trees and shift your identity as much as you like, but are you willing to take the necessary journey within to find clarity.

Image by harrynguyen courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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