Skywriters in Hades (Pt. 1)

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With thanks to Mrs. Kephas: the perfect listener.


“Don’t scorn the word: Poets, the world is noisy and silent, only God speaks.” —Antonio Machado

Pornography and Shamanic Healing

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow

In 1992, Giacomo Rizzolatti and a team of neuroscientists accidentally discovered mirror neurons while experimenting on monkeys. The monkeys had their brains wired up in order to observe how motor neurons related to hand movements, and when a monkey picked up a peanut, the neuron fired. But to the team’s surprise, the same motor neuron also fired when the monkey was watching a lab assistant pick up the peanut. Apparently, to the monkey’s brain, seeing someone grabbing a peanut was a similar experience to grabbing the peanut itself. Action and perception were “tightly linked.” The neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran believes that the discovery of mirror neurons for neuroscience is equivalent to the discovery of DNA for biology, and that the “fifth revolution” is the neuroscience revolution (following Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA).

Before we look more closely at what mirror neurons are, I’d like to begin by citing an interesting demonstration of how they function, using for an example a subject we are all acquainted with—pornography. The following is from “Porn and Mirror Neurons,” by Jonah Lehrer.

“But how does porn work? Why do humans (especially men) get so excited by seeing someone else have sex? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching porn triggers an idea (we start thinking about sex), which then triggers a change in our behavior (we become sexually aroused). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Porn is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work.

“But this straightforward answer is probably wrong. Porn does not cause us to think about sex. Rather, porn causes to think we are having sex. From the perspective of the brain, the act of arousal is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via the television or computer screen. The act itself is the idea. In other words, porn works by convincing us that we are not watching porn. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.”

Now let’s reframe this argument and apply it instead to a shamanic healing ritual.

How does shamanic ritual work? Why do humans get healed by seeing someone else perform a ritual? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching a ritual triggers an idea (we start thinking about healing), which then triggers a change (we are healed). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Shamanic ritual is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work.

But this straightforward answer is probably wrong. Shamanic ritual does not cause us to think about being healed. Rather, shamanic ritual causes us to think we are doing the healing. From the perspective of the brain, the act of healing is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via watching the shaman. The act itself is the healing. In other words, shamanic ritual works by convincing us that we are not watching a shamanic ritual. We think we are the shaman, doing the ritual.

This interpretative model can be applied to absolutely anything within the parameters of human experience; but what we are interested in applying it to here is writing, most specifically journal writing, which involves the observation of behavioral patterns. What are the ways in which writing can be used to hold a mirror to our psyches and develop empathy for ourselves, as well as for others? How is isolating ourselves from the input of others a means for self-examination and a way to become more integrated into the community? What is a group mind, how is it formed, what makes its hold upon us so complete, and how does writing help to break that hold? What is individuation, how does it pertain to finding our own unique “voice,” as writer-programmers of our reality—and what does all this have to do with porno and shamanism?!

Stay tuned, all will be revealed.

Reality as a Language-Based Construct

“The linking and relinking of objects by the Brain is actually a language, but not a language like ours (since it is addressing itself and not someone or something outside itself). We should be able to hear this information, or rather narrative, as a neutral voice inside us. But something has gone wrong. All creation is a language and nothing but a language, which for some inexplicable reason we can’t read outside and can’t hear inside. So I say, we have become idiots. Something has happened to our intelligence. My reasoning is this: arrangement of parts of the Brain is language. We are parts of the Brain; therefore we are language. Why, then, do we not know this? We do not even know what we are, let alone what the outer reality is of which we are parts. The origin of the word ‘idiot’ is the word ‘private.’ Each of us has become private, and no longer shares the common thought of the Brain, except at a subliminal level. Thus our real life and purpose are conducted below our threshold of consciousness.” —Philip Dick, Valis

As many of us have long known (or are beginning to suspect), writing is a lot more than just marks on a page or pixels on a computer screen. Computer programming and html code are helping us to conceptualize reality as a language-based construct, and however foreign, even revolutionary, this idea is, it is not without its precedents. In fact, biology’s discovery of DNA and genetic code has already established this idea for several decades, but because DNA is something few of us have direct knowledge of, it remains a largely abstract hypothesis. With computer programming, however, the idea that a series of letters could give rise to material reality—image—is something that we get to experience for ourselves every time we boot up our PC. We all know that code creates images, and images reflect (and can pass for) reality.

Once upon a time this idea—and most of all the possibility of applying it—was restricted to the few. Once upon a time only initiates were privy to the occult knowledge required to activate “junk DNA,” raise the “Kundalini,” and recalibrate consciousness from human to divine frequencies. In Gnostic tradition, this self-activation process was symbolically described as moving up the chain of planetary “Archons,” using certain key words of power to get past each Archon or gatekeeper, until individual freedom was attained. These days, kids who don’t know an archon from their elbow are playing video games which require certain clues and passwords to get past a series of obstacles, or “gatekeepers,” in order to make it to “the next level.” Without digressing any further into the sacred science of occultism, you might say there’s been a progression from the magical tradition of spellcraft once reserved to the priestly caste, to government-sponsored biologists and neuroscientists tinkering with DNA and monkey brains, until today, when the oldest and most arcane art and science is being taught to pre-schoolers, and anyone with the time and patience to master computer-programming can summon occult forces and shape reality—via the power of words.

All of these various disciplines and media have one thing in common: language. Language is a series of symbols which only become meaningful once their meaning is agreed upon and they can be used to communicate. DNA, html code, god-names and video games are all metaphors, because in a reality that’s interpreted (and therefore shaped) via language, everything is metaphor. So what are they all metaphors for? In simplest terms, they are metaphors for the human psyche, and the process being described is that of individuation, or, to use another metaphor, the alchemical transmutation of consciousness. This is the “real life and purpose” which (writer) Philip K. Dick intuited as being “conducted below our threshold of consciousness.” It is happening right here, right now, beneath the surface and between the lines of our everyday narratives.

The Listener: Developing a Dialogue with Self

“In Genesis, Yahweh’s first instruction to Adam is not something practical such as how to make a fire or fashion a weapon. He teaches the first man to name all of His creatures. By this act, Yahweh emphasizes that naming is the most potent power He will confer on mortals. Through naming, Adam gains ‘dominion over all the earth.’ Naming confers meaning and order. To name is to know. To know is to control.” —Leonard Schlain, The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess

It is logical to presume that, before words were ever written down, they began as sounds. While we can only presume this about the species, we can observe it first hand when it comes to individuals. When a baby learns to speak it doesn’t build a vocabulary word by word (a process which begins later), it starts by making unintelligible sounds in imitation of what it hears. Gradually, these sounds begin to resemble recognizable language and verbal communication begins. Soon after this, the child learns to read and write and language becomes fixed, not only as sound but as image. It becomes script, code. Writing then introduces a new possibility, that of words separate from direct communication, and the corresponding possibility of communication occurring, not only across space, but across time. As Leonard Schlain writes in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, “The written word is essentially immortal. To a hyper-conscious primate who had become aware that death was inevitable, the discovery of a method to project one’s self beyond a single life span seemed nothing less than miraculous.”

There is another possibility which Schlain does not discuss, another purpose for writing which has nothing to do with immortality or even communication in the ordinary sense. That is the possibility of writing without any intention of ever sharing it with another human being—such as for example when writing a journal. Thousand, perhaps millions, of people do this every day (admittedly less so now that blogs and Facebook have opened up the possibility of communicating with strangers), and the assumed wisdom is that keeping a journal is a therapeutic process. If this is really the case, how does it work? The obvious answer is that writing a journal is a way to communicate with oneself.

“To start a dialogue, first ask: then…listen.” —Antonio Machado

Short of talking to oneself (which creates a very different effect), self-communication is only possible via writing. Writing down an account of one’s activities or thoughts creates a distance between oneself and the raw material of one’s existence, and potentially between one’s everyday “motor” self and one’s consciousness. As in good therapy, one is talking to an impartial, disinterested, but wholly attentive other, the difference being that, in this case, the “Listener” is oneself. This Listener is something we can all develop within ourselves, without which no real communication is possible. Before we can begin to listen to others, we have to learn to listen to ourselves. Only then can we find our true voice, because real speech can only come about as a response to listening, whether internally or externally.

We are all familiar with the phrase “to get something off your chest,” the idea being that, by talking about something that is causing us stress or discomfort, we can let it go, or at least see it in a less stressful light. The reason this works is that, by talking about something with a second party, we can see it from a different perspective, from the outside rather than the inside, and reduce its power to affect us. This can work when we have a sympathetic ear to vent our frustration to, but it tends to work better when we have a neutral ear, such as in therapy. Therapy allows us to re-experience our problem from the perspective of an impartial but curious observer who is devoid of any strong emotional reaction. This presence is the Listener, being at once both interested and disinterested, sympathetic but impartial, uninvolved. When we communicate with ourselves in this way, via writing, creative expression, deep thought or meditation, we bring forth The Listener—the part of us that is equivalent to a sympathetic but disinterested friend or a therapist—and can then reconceive the problem from a new perspective. The benefits of this are two-fold: not only do we experience our problem in a less stressful light, we also gain access to a part of ourselves that is able to rise above any problem because it is entirely uninvolved, while at the same time, privy to inside information about us. The Listener is our own inner therapist.

Whether by sharing with a neutral party or writing it down, what is occurring through the act of communicating is that we get to see what’s inside us in a way that feels safe to “take on board.” In terms of the issue being reconceived, if we are angry, we may describe our anger and the reasons for it, thereby seeing the shape of it and coming to “grips” with it. We can then own the anger in such a way that confronting the original cause of our anger becomes much easier and more straightforward. Instead of acting in anger, we “take” our anger to the person or situation and express it in a more balanced, less emotive fashion. Writing a journal, like talking to a therapist, is a way of testing the contents of our minds, both conscious and unconscious (writing will bring unconscious matter to the surface just as much as therapy), making sure that we have got to grips with it before letting others see it. It is a psychological rehearsal space in which we can see exactly what we are capable of and what we’re not—”where we’re at”—before going on stage and performing in front of a live audience.

This sort of dialoguing with the self can have an accumulative effect: it creates a recursive feedback loop in which, the more we reveal the contents of our minds to ourselves and integrate them, the more we accept ourselves as we are, the more we can open up to others, and so on. Alchemically speaking, we are drawing the lead into the laboratory of our minds and transmuting it, via awareness, over a long painful process, into gold. By establishing a different way of relating to ourselves through on-going dialogue, we are establishing a kind of private social identity which, little by little, we can take with us into the world. By strengthening our individual sense of truth, meaning, and value, we are slowly “finding our feet” in reality.


“Authors, the scene ends with a rule of theater: In the beginning was the mask.” —Antonio Machado

The Magikal Mirror

“Writing, I think, is not apart from living.  Writing is a kind of double living.  The writer experiences everything twice.  Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” —Catherine Drinker Bowen

Keeping a journal and performing a magical ritual might seem worlds apart, but there may be a common intent to both these activities. In the same way as we can bring aspects of our psyche to consciousness through writing, a ritual magician assumes certain roles with a desired outcome, embodying the god Mars in preparation for conflict or the goddess Venus in anticipation of love. By such archaic practices, the ceremonial magician is awakening parts of his (or her) psyche which he wishes to embody and integrate into his persona. In a similar way, a shaman dons animal skins as a means to summon “spirits” which “dwell” in his psyche and in that of his audience (or client): he or she is invoking (and evoking) the primordial forces by acting out a specific part of the group psyche, as a means to integrate it. This is analogous to group therapy also, when a ritual space is created within which normal social rules are suspended. This ritual space—be it the journal, the therapy room, the shaman’s hut or the magician’s circle—allows “the inexpressible to be expressed.” As already described, communicating with ourselves in this way develops our ability to communicate with the world. Then, as we begin to bring this new awareness and maturity into our interactions with others, so communicating with the world deepens our relationship to ourselves.

There is a well-known magical oath: “I pledge to treat every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my Soul.” While based on the metaphysical belief that the Universe is a “magical mirror” which constantly reflects back at us the internal conditions of our souls, this oath also sums up the tenets of existential psychology, as encapsulated by Carl Jung’s statement: “When an inner process cannot be integrated it is often projected outward.” On the individuation journey to self-knowledge, there are inevitably aspects of our consciousness which we are either unable to see or unwilling to look at in isolation. Just as there are gods which the magician is careful not to invoke until ready, there are subjects which we choose not to write about in our journal, often because we aren’t ready to even think about them. Once we enter into interaction with other people, however, these are the very aspects that get stirred up. They are the rough (and blind) spots which sooner or later are going to trip us as we begin to engage with our environment in new ways. It is this pressure of interacting with other people that brings home the discord in our psyches and allows us to work it out. This tension provided by “the other” is essential to individuation, and it is why, “beyond a certain point, the whole universe becomes a continuous process of initiation.”

Between the Lines: Induced Trance States Via Reading & Writing

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J. B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create a valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”  —Stephen King, “What Writing Is.”

Increased self-awareness equals maturity, making individuation an exponential growth curve. Maturity and self-awareness increases our capacity to observe ourselves, not only in others but in isolation, and this capacity for self-observation further increases self-awareness. The tension created within us by the presence of the other then allows for a new seeing within ourselves, because the other is always reflecting something we can’t or won’t see about ourselves. That newly gained insight is what we bring to our next relationship, and so on. The paradox of individuation is that, as we deepen self-awareness, it is as if we are cleaning the universal mirror within which we are gazing, so life reflects back at us ever more sharply our internal condition. The result is seemingly counter-intuitive: we become not less but more (and more) sensitive and vulnerable to both internal and external triggers the more we mature, because as we continue to integrate the contents of our unconscious, it begins to seem as though the whole world is happening inside of us. It also becomes harder and harder to distance ourselves from others, because we are taking responsibility not only for our own thoughts, feelings and actions, but for everyone else’s too—though only in relation to ourselves—and so everything that happens lands at our doorstep. The closest parallel to this ongoing initiation would be that of a lucid dream state, because in dream states isolation and interrelationship co-exist: we are both alone in our “head-space” and interacting (telepathically, astrally, or by means not yet understood) with the world outside us. This is why it is possible to unravel psychic knots while dreaming, which provides a direct parallel once again with both reading and writing, since both activities (when immersive) recreate a waking dream state.

The following is from Stephen King’s On Writing:

“My name is Stephen King. I’m writing the first draft of this part at my desk (the one under the eave) on a snowy morning in December of 1997. There are things on my mind. Some are worries (bad eyes, Christmas shopping not even started, wife under the weather with a virus), some are good things (our younger son made a surprise visit home from college, I got to play Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ with The Wallflowers at a concert), but right now all that stuff is up top. I’m in another place, a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images. This is a place I’ve built for myself over the years. It’s a far-seeing place…you are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me…but you’re likely in your own far-seeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages…. And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours. Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.

“This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.”

Stephen King makes no mention of mirror neurons or brain states; back in 1997 no one was talking about such things. Yet he is essentially describing the same phenomenon: transference of thought via writing. It’s interesting that King takes the time to describe his brain state (his mood), even though it has no apparent bearing on the scene which he goes on to transmit (the rabbit in the cage), telepathically, in order to literally illustrate his point. The reason it’s interesting is that the science of mirror neurons argues that it is just such “between the lines” information that is transmitted via language—the writer’s mood and current circumstances—even when they are in no way inferred by the written or spoken material itself.

What King is describing here is more than simply a shared visualization, because the act of visualizing—being obviously linked to dreaming—is one that entails at least a minor trance state. We all know what it is like to get sucked into a good book. We get lost in the writer’s (and/or the characters’) thoughts and feelings, immersed in another world being created by a combination of words on the page and our own ability to weave a surrogate dream reality inside our skulls (or bodies, if you want to be holistic about it). One thing is certain: when we are carried away by a good book, fiction or non-fiction, we are only secondarily aware of reading words on a page; our primary awareness goes where the words themselves take us. And where they take us, as King points out, is not only into our own minds, but into the mind of the author. It is a matching of brains states, a shared trance. And (though this is trickier to prove) I’d wager that the closer the author was to deep dreaming when she or he wrote the book, the closer we can approach to such a state ourselves while reading it. This is what distinguishes great writing from not-so-great: the degree of immersion it induces in us is determined, at least in part, by the degree of immersion which the writer attained while writing it. This is what communicates—”between the lines.”

Reading James Joyce is a very different experience to reading Elmore Leonard, and Jean Baudrillard requires an alternate sort of attention to Stephen King. Some prose is harder to get “our heads around,” and while this may have to do with obvious factors such as dense vocabulary or labyrinthine phrases, it may also be dependent on how foreign or alien the brain state of the author is compared to our own. People who work hard to match Joyce’s brain state “get” what he is doing and consider him a genius. For the rest of us, he is incomprehensible and overrated. (Ditto Baudrillard.) The same is true of our dreams: the ones that more closely match our waking brain state are easier to remember, understand, and describe. Others are so “out there” that just thinking about them causes us a mild form of distress due to cognitive dissonance. (The Surrealists were all about creating cognitive dissonance, and their aim was to try and match dream states through their use of word and image.)

If you read the following sentence, allowing that forensic science has a relative ownership of the sort of cheese waffles which your mother baked, for the sake of literary analysis you will take the next number 5 bus and wind up looking for missing punctuation marks. On the other hand if I say simply that this sort of playful writing has a pleasingly disorientating effect on the mind, you will be then relieved to be back on safe ground, and that matching the author’s brain state does not entail coming too seriously unhinged from your own familiar worldview. Coherence is something we let go of only with a struggle. The point is, while you are reading this, you are going along with my own thoughts and as long as these seem to follow a linear sort of sequence common to waking logic, and to stick to ideas reasonably familiar to you, you can keep up and won’t have too hard a time of it. The moment I bring in salivating leprous homunculi and suggest that your mother’s panties are the secret to your wasted sex life, you will either laugh, become incensed, or try and figure out where exactly you lost the thread of my argument.

See what I mean?

Lucid Dreaming & Original Trauma

“Learning to think without resorting to images is indispensable to alphabet literacy. ‘Make no images’ is a ban on right-brain pattern recognition. All who obey it will unconsciously begin to turn their backs on the art and imagery of the Great Mother and, re-orientated a full 180 degrees, will instead seek protection and instruction from the written words of an All-Powerful Father.”  —Leonard Schlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

Matching the author’s brain state is something that happens automatically with “easy” prose, but which we become increasingly aware of having to do when the prose is more innovative and challenging, or conversely, sloppier and less cunningly structured. Yet the awareness of the reader is finally the determining factor in how efficient the conveyance of information is. If a tree falls and no one hears it, there’s no sound, and a book that is never read does not exist as a form of literature, only an object on a shelf. Telepathy has not occurred: minds have not met. Compare this to our dream lives. How much of the material of our dreams ever makes it to our conscious minds? Yet it is there: book after book, story after story, just waiting to be tapped into and enjoyed.

In the common view, dreams are a way for our brains to “work off” excess stress or work out unresolved issues. In the jargon of our day, the dream state is a place where the unconscious “uploads” data—in symbolic language—about the condition of the “network,” our total psyches. This can be transpersonal as well as personal because the unconscious is collective as well as individual. While sleeping, we are in a relatively egoless state, and because of this, information that would otherwise be threatening to, and hence repressed by, our waking consciousness can be addressed and integrated. When I say “relatively egoless,” I mean that our everyday concerns no longer hold sway over our choices. Barring specific anxiety dreams, we aren’t worried about the rent or what the neighbor thinks of us, but tend to get caught up in symbolic enactments that make little or no sense in the context of our waking lives.

If we think of ego in its pure sense, however—that of an individual perspective with its own focus and drive—it could be argued that, potentially at least, we are more in our ego while dreaming, because when we sleep our ego and id (conscious and unconscious minds) are functioning much more as a unit. This becomes particular apparent in lucid dreaming, and once again the parallel with writing is clear: lucid dreaming is a way of taking control of the components of our unconscious and writing the dream. Like a scenarist, a novelist, or a scriptwriter, our intent is to arrange specific elements of our unconscious in a conscious or semi-conscious fashion, in order to discover how best they fit together and create a meaningful narrative. This is the similarity; the difference, of course, is in the medium employed. When we sit at a desk and write, we are using words to describe internal states and are willingly entering into mild trance in order to best midwife that psychic material into the new form, that of literature. When we dream, on the other hand, something else happens, and words are only incidental to that mysterious process.

When we write we are creating an external vehicle for ourselves as consciousness: a book, a poem, a short story, an essay. This is called self-expression, and it’s a process which most writers would say they have control over, if not total control then near enough. (Writers often say that when it’s working, the story or piece takes over; but never, I assume, to the point they would forget to eat and starve to death.) When we dream, such control is drastically reduced, to the point that most of the time we forget that we are dreaming. The world we create becomes all-embracing. When we dream, we are “projecting” consciousness outside of the “self” and creating an image, then stepping into the image and interacting with it. Anyone who has ever fallen asleep and entered into dreaming consciously (the hypnopompic state) will have observed that critical moment when ordinary thoughts begin transform into and appear before us as images. This is the act of creation stripped down to its essence, and the essence of the creative act is that (unlike writing) we have only a rudimentary kind of control over it. Falling asleep in this way can be extremely jarring (the trick is not waking ourselves up by reacting to the images we see); it is like tapping into a well of psychic energy that for the rest of our lives is turned off and unavailable to us. Writers—and all artists—attempt to tap into this wellspring consciously, while awake, and to direct it into a finished work which they can present to the world as “the product of their imagination.” Yet it may be that the product itself is almost incidental to the real mystery, that of the creative process itself. How does it happen and why does it take the form it does? What are these seemingly bipolar kinds of consciousness called waking and dreaming, and why is it so difficult (and so fascinating) a task to create—or locate—a working bridge between the two?

It’s been said that the original sin was projection: a split in consciousness between inner and outer by which we were cut off from the divine, expelled from Paradise. On the other hand, with no projection of consciousness outward, would there be anything for consciousness to interact with? Perhaps it wasn’t a sin until we mistook the projection for ourselves and got lost in the dream? Perhaps all of these practices—magic ritual, shamanic trance, lucid dreaming, meditation, psychotropic plant use, and writing—are ways to re-enact the original manifestation of consciousness into (and as) matter? Maybe they are tricks to remember how we tricked ourselves, as consciousness, into getting lost in a language-based reality construct? In which case, are they also ways to reverse “the Fall” by reenacting the primal trauma—what Philip K. Dick described as “a primordial split in the godhead”—and heal the rift between waking and dreams?

Images by Lucinda Horan.

This is the first installment in a two-part series. 

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