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Consciousness and Asian Traditions: An Evolutionary Perspective

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The following is excerpted from Spiritual Growth with Entheogens, edited by Thomas B. Roberts and available from Inner Traditions.

Indeed, isn’t religion, above all — before it is doctrine and morality, rites and institutions — religious experience? Under the influence of Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in nineteenth-century Europe and philosopher-psychologist William James in early-twentieth-century America, many Westerners have come out in support of the priority of religious experience. And isn’t religious experience in its highest form mystical experience, as in India, where it seems more at home than anywhere else? . . .

First of all, we have to ask, what is “mystical experience,” anyway?

Discussion of this matter has not quieted down since the appearance of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception in which he reported personal mystical experiences while taking drugs that approached the highest levels of religious thought and perception: the Christian beatific vision, the Hindu saccidananda or the Buddhist nirvana. Are all mystical experiences, then, fundamentally alike, regardless of whether one reaches them through asceticism and meditation and LSD or sex? ~ Hans Küng, Josef van Ess, Heinrich von Stietencron, and Heinz Bechert, Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, 1986

Human Evolution

About six million years ago humans and the great apes started to diverge. Today we still share 98 percent of our genetic material with the great apes, but that 2 percent makes a big difference. The earliest known human fossils date back some four million years — to Australopithecus ramidus. Over the next two million years, as various Australopithecines evolved, their brain size gradually increased up to about eight hundred milliliters. Then about two million years ago came the first humans, Homo habilus, and shortly after, Homo erectus. These early humans appeared in Africa and very quickly migrated around much of Europe and Asia. Very basic stone tools are the only evidence of any tool mak­ing for a period of some two million years of evolution. Finally, about half a million years ago, came Homo sapiens.

Then about 130 thousand years ago, Homo neanderthalis appeared. At this stage we have the first evidence of some religious sensibility, in as much as Neanderthals cared for the sick. They also buried their dead in ways that suggest some sort of symbolic ritual activity. This is pretty much all that we know about the religious activity and con­sciousness of the Neanderthals. But we do know that for one hun­dred thousand years, they did not change, and human culture did not advance.

The next major evolution was the appearance of modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, between one hundred and two hundred thou­sand years ago. These people started to migrate out of Africa and spread around the world perhaps one hundred thousand years ago. Around this time, we find a dramatic explosion in artifacts, tools, and other things that we think of as human and associate with human culture.

About thirty-five thousand years ago, something dramatic hap­pened. We don’t know what caused it, but the “great leap” forward began at that time. The best guess is that there was a language explo­sion. Suddenly, humans had everything from fishhooks and fishing nets, to ornamentation and art, to long-distance throwing weapons. This was also the beginning of extraordinary cave art — whole caves filled with dynamic animal figures.

In the cave of Trois Frères in France, you can see something quite interesting: a human figure with a buffalo head. One guess is that it depicts an early shaman. Along with other archeological evidence, this suggests that shamanic practices go back perhaps fifty thousand years, to when Cro-Magnon or modern Homo sapiens were moving into Europe. At this stage in the evolution of shamanism we have, for the first time that we know of, the systematic alteration of human consciousness. As far as we can tell, shamans were the first people not only to devise a technology for transforming consciousness, but also to form an effective institution by which that knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation.

From this point on, human consciousness evolved in a new way. At first the evolution was biologically driven, then culturally and linguisti­cally driven. With the advent of shamanism it became technologically driven.

Shamanism

Obviously, a key question here is: What is a shaman? There are five cen­tral features that define shamanism. First is the systematic induction of specific altered states of consciousness. Shamans do this by a variety of methods including physiological ones of fasting and exposure to the ele­ments; psychological ones of set, expectation and ritual, and rhythmic approaches such as drumming. The drum is one of the most common instruments of the shaman.

Second, while in specific altered states, shamans experience them­selves as separate from or freed from the body. Third, while out of their bodies, they travel as free souls or spirits to other realms. Fourth, in those realms, shamans reportedly meet other beings, spiritual beings, from whom they obtain information, power, or help. Fifth, they return to use what they have acquired for the benefit of others in their own culture.

Shamans appear to have used various entheogens systematically for tens of thousands of years. Over a hundred different psychoactive materials have been identified in archeological digs. This indicates a tradition of consciousness alteration employing both entheogenic and external aids (such as rhythm and drumming) that has been used for tens of thousands of years around the world in practically all cultures, except certain island cultures.


Early India and the Vedic Tradition

I want to segue into the history of India. When I was asked to discuss Asia, I decided to focus on India just to keep it relatively simple and to keep a story going. So we’ve come up to a period of about four thou­sand years ago, at which time in India there were two distinct peoples, one dark-skinned and one light-skinned. At this time successive waves of invading light-skinned people, so called Aryans, began to arrive in India. There are at least two theories of their origins. One idea, associ­ated with Maria Gimbutus is that these people swept down from the Russian steppes. Gimbutus held that they were a sky-god-worshipping, warrior culture that pretty much decimated the matriarchal and more peaceful old European culture.

Linguistic and archeological analyses are opposed to this idea. These analyses suggest that peoples from Anatolia, which is now Turkey, were dispersed beginning about eight thousand years ago, primarily through farming. With the migration of these people came the spread of the Indo-European languages. They spread into India, bringing with them the Vedic tradition.

The Vedic tradition goes back at least four thousand years and has given us some of the world’s oldest text, the Vedas. To summarize sim­ply the Vedic tradition, it was a life attitude very much focused on this world, the celebration of life, the world, and its pleasures. Their cos­mology was animistic and polytheistic. Various powers ruled the world, and heaven and earth were linked in what is sometimes called the law of correspondences: as above, so below. The main strategy of the Vedic peoples was to try to control the gods and other powers by tapping into this macro-micro link. Their practices were focused primarily on ritual prayer and sacrifice. Although the Vedic people seem to have had some meditative practices, these were not central or clearly delineated.

At the heart of the Vedic tradition was the mysterious chemical sub­stance soma. There are some hundred and twenty verses in the Rig-Veda referring to it in the most laudatory terms. For example, it is referred to as a plant, as rootless, leafless, blossomless, and from the mountains. As Huston Smith has noted, the puzzle seems to have been solved by R. Gordon Wasson, who identified this as Amanita muscaria or the fly agaric mushroom.

Yoga

The yogic tradition appears to go back at least three thousand years. Images found in the city of Moheno-Daro showing people seated in what look like yogic postures date back this far. The yogic tradition, which lies at the heart of Indian spiritual practices, is associated with a philosophy known as Samkhya, which is world negative, viewing the world as problematic. The world is seen as a place where each of us suf­fers. This view was formulated most precisely by the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which states that life is dukkha. This is often translated as “life is suffering,” but it’s an inadequate translation. Dukkha is a much more sensitive, profound term, implying a subtle existential dissatisfac­tion, an incapacity to obtain complete and enduring satisfaction in this world and through its pleasures, so it’s a much more subtle term. It’s not that life is all bad; it’s not that all life is suffering. It’s that life is problematic.

The yogic tradition presents a dualistic picture of the world. There is purusha, or consciousness, and there are phenomena. The universe is composed of these two major elements. The problem, as the yogis see it, is that pure consciousness — which by itself would rest in isola­tion, untroubled by anything — somehow becomes identified with matter, with phenomena, the world, the body, the mind. The mind itself is hyperactive, continuously in motion, as those of you who have a medita­tive practice or a yoga practice of some kind know only too well. The mind has a mind of its own. Attention wanders all over the place.

The yoga sutras, the classic sutras of Patanjali, begin with the line, “Yoga is the discipline of bringing the spontaneous activity of the mind to rest.” Our usual state of consciousness is one in which our minds are continuously distracted and out of control. This leads to an entrapment of consciousness; the mind identifies with the body, with the world, and forgets its own nature. However, if the mind could be stilled, if attention could be stabilized, if we could free ourselves from the entrapment of successive waves of overpowering emotions, desires, and fears, then consciousness could once again come to rest. The mind could recognize that it is not the body and the world, and come to rest in its own being.

The goal for the yogic tradition, then, is one of liberation through mental training. Here we have a breakthrough, another evolutionary jump in the technology of consciousness. With the shamanic tradition there was a reliance on external aids — entheogens, drumming, music. However, yogis learned to alter consciousness without external aids. The method is a systematic, multi-dimensional, mental training pro­gram, or yoga. Yoga means yoking, the union of the small, individual self with the greater self. There are many elements to it and there are, of course, different types of yoga.

To jump ahead a little bit, in yoga we find the first demonstration of the general principle that there are common elements among tradi­tions capable of authentic transformational, transpersonal development. There are seven common psychological elements. The first is an ethical foundation. The second is attention training, or stabilization. The third is emotional transformation, that is, the ability to reduce negative emo­tions such as anger, fear, and greed by transforming them into love and compassion. The fourth is a shift in motivation, moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what traditionally was called purification. The fifth is an enhancement or clarifying of perception. The sixth is the cultiva­tion of wisdom — insight into and understanding of the nature of mind and reality. Finally, there is service, which may take forms such as teach­ing, helping, or healing.

We find in yoga, with its emphasis on an ethical foundation, the yamas and niyamas. We find pranayama, the breath work to stabilize and control the mind. We find the emphasis on concentration, culmi­nating in samadhi, the unwavering capacity to hold attention still. As you can see, there’s been a major jump from the shamanic to the yogic practices.

Atman and Brahman Are One

But this is by no means the end of the story. About two and a half thousand years ago, we have what’s called the axial age, a term used to describe the fact that something truly profound happened for human consciousness. Around the globe, there was a breakthrough in religious consciousness. Think of the breakthroughs in Greece by Socrates and Plato; in China by Lao Tsu and the Taoists, in India by Mah?v?ra, the Upanishadic sages, and of course the Buddha, and then a few hundred years later in the Middle East, by Jesus, among others. To put it simply, these breakthroughs constitute the recognition of a greater unity.

Perhaps the best way to describe this is through Vedanta, meaning “what follows after the Vedas.” The Upanishadic sages were the people who embodied and taught the Vedantic tradition. In the Chandogya Upanishad there’s a story of a youth, Svetaketu, who as a Brahmin child is sent out at age twelve to study. Twelve years later he comes back knowing everything, suffering from a kind of sophomoric inflation. His father says, “Svetaketu, you are conceited and arrogant and think your­self well-read, but did you ever ask for that knowledge by which one hears that which cannot be heard, sees that which cannot be seen, and knows that which cannot be known?” And Svetaketu says, “Well uh, actually no. Could you perhaps tell me about that?”

His father then proceeds to teach him through a series of exercises in which he is asked, for example, to dissect a seed until he can find nothing of the seed. His father says, “Yet from this nothing grows a great tree.” He is asked to put some salt in water and come back the next day. The salt is dissolved and can’t be seen, but there’s a taste that pervades the water. The father’s message is that there is a subtle essence at the heart of reality that cannot be seen, felt, or touched, but which is at the center of all things. And “tat tvam asi” — you are that.

For the shamans there were individual souls meeting other indi­vidual souls, and for the yogis there was still the individual release of consciousness. In the Vedic tradition, the self and the supreme reality are recognized as one. “Atman (individual consciousness) and Brahman (universal consciousness) are one” say the Upanishads. In the words of the Buddhist tradition, “Look within. You are the Buddha.” In China the words were “heaven, earth, and human form one body.” Later Jesus would declare, “The Father and I are one” and Mohammed would promise, “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”

The Nondual

Even this isn’t the end of the story. While the unity of self and God, or Atman and Brahman, had been recognized, there was still a divide between the divine and the world. Several hundred years later, there was a further progression.

Around the dawn of the Common Era, Nagarjuna in the East and Plotinus in the West initiated a new phase. Not only were the self and the divine recognized as one, but also the world and the supreme reality were recognized as nondual, of one essence. This is the central metaphysical recognition of both Advaita Vedanta and Mahayama Buddhism. It is expressed paradoxically in the words of the twentieth-century sage, Ramana Maharshi: “The world is illusion, Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world.”

This evolution of consciousness in the Indian tradition (but not only in the Indian tradition) begins with the original shamans and their external technologies (including entheogens), which induce a sense of freedom from embodiment. The early yogis carry that freedom into the disentanglement of consciousness from phenomena and the world. The Vedantic tradition recognizes that the self and the divine are actually one, and the non-dual traditions recognize that it is all one: all is the manifestation of the divine, and all is divine.


Mapping States of Consciousness

In terms of contemporary study, what can we make of this evolution? Can we map these states of consciousness more precisely? In the last couple of decades, with the development of the field of transpersonal psychology, the answer has been “yes.” The transpersonal field has attempted to understand and map the different states of consciousness described in the various traditions. How do we do this?

One thing we can do is simply map out the different dimensions of experience that characterize different states. For example, how much con­trol is there? How much awareness do people have of their environment during the altered state? Is their concentration distracted or enhanced? Are they aroused or calm? What’s their dominant emotion? What’s their self-sense or identity when they have an out-of-body experience? These are some key dimensions for mapping states of consciousness.

How would the shamanic journey of consciousness be described on this experiential map? Shamans have an increased ability to enter and leave altered states and to partly control their experience. They can be aware of the environment. They can at times interact with people around them while in their trance. Their concentration is enhanced but fluid; shamans can focus on different things at different times. They can be activated and aroused. Their emotions can be either pleasurable or painful according to the situation. Their identity is of a separate self-sense, but as a non-physical soul. They have an out-of-body experience, and the content of the experience is an organized, coherent imagery that fits the shamanic worldview: for example, that there are spirits to be encountered and worked with and that there is a three-layered universe.

Let’s compare that with the Buddhist and yogic traditions. Remember that these are very different practices. Yogic practitioners work, in the classic approach described by Patanjali, by fixing attention unwaveringly, first on an object such as the breath, and ultimately in consciousness itself. Yogis have extraordinary control over their mental faculties and capacities. Concentration is extreme. There is no out-of-body experience, in fact quite the opposite. Awareness of the environment may be totally lost, a state called “enstasis.” Arousal may be dramatically reduced as they become very calm. Yogis may become lost in ineffable bliss. Their identity becomes a sense of unchanging consciousness.

The Buddhist meditator, using the classic vipassana, or insight, practice is having a very different experience. The vipassana practice consists not of fixing attention unwaveringly on one thing, but of allowing attention to move to whatever becomes predominant in the field of awareness, investigating it and exploring it as minutely as pos­sible so as to cultivate the mind’s sensitivity and precision. This allows practitioners to observe and understand mental processes, and by illumi­nating those processes, to reduce the distortions, to clear away the illu­sions, to see through them into reality. For Buddhist practitioners there is partial control; awareness of the environment is actually increased, as is concentration. Arousal can vary but usually decreases over time. The emotion may vary because the meditators are not controlling their attention; they are allowing it to follow whatever arises. The identity is deconstructed; that is, awareness is so precise that Buddhist practitio­ners are able to deconstruct the self-sense, or ego, into its constituent components of images and thoughts and so forth. There’s no out-of-body experience, and again, the experiences that arise are seen very clearly, precisely, and minutely.

So we now have the capacity to differentiate very distinctly among states of consciousness. Because entheogens can elicit a huge range of states, there are many implications for research.

There are a variety of factors that determine how easily specific states are accessed with entheogens. Of course dose and type of entheo­gen will play a role. Then there are other factors, such as psychological health, developmental level, and prior psychological and contemplative experience, which have been clearly demonstrated to be major compo­nents. My guess is that we will find some of these states to be more eas­ily accessible than others. For example, shamanic states would be more easily accessed than yogic samadhis because the latter require a degree of concentration that is probably very rare in entheogenic experiences. Of course, there’s the possibility of breaking through to samadhi-like states, but my guess is that as we map the states that arise with entheo­gens, we’ll find that some are easier to access than others. But of course, as Huston Smith said, stabilization is a crucial question. And to what extent can entheogens help one live a religious life as opposed to having religious experiences?

A Developmental Perspective

The Asian traditions, like other contemplative traditions, emphasize that practice fosters psychospiritual development through a series of rec­ognizable stages. This developmental perspective offers a valuable way of comparing experiences induced by contemplation and entheogens.

A graphic map of development is shown in the classic Zen ox herd­ing pictures. These are a series of ten pictures depicting a youth looking for an ox, finding it, taming it, and then transcending it.

The first picture is called “seeking the ox.” This is an image of a person seeking the sacred. I did a three-month seminar on the ox herd­ing pictures with the Abbot Reb Anderson of the San Francisco Zen Center. I don’t remember much about the seminar, but I do remember the first thing he said. He said, “Well, this is the first picture. Here we are with all our neuroses, our hang-ups, our craziness. If we could just totally accept ourselves the way we are, we’d be at picture ten, and we could all go home.” Needless to say, we stayed there for three months.

The second picture is “finding the tracks.” This is often interpreted as finding the writings or the stories of religions. It’s not direct experi­ence, but it can point us toward direct experience.

Then comes “glimpsing the ox.” This is the first glimpse of the transcendent or sacred. It’s a peak (or peek) experience. Based on many reports, it is clear that entheogens can elicit such experiences for some people at some times.

The fourth picture is “catching the ox.” This is an image of a very powerful beast that does not want to be caught or tamed, and those of you who meditate will know that’s a wonderful model of the mind.

Here is where we begin to see, from a developmental perspective, some of the limitations of entheogens as a psychospiritual tool. These limitations become particularly apparent with the fifth picture, “taming of the ox” and subsequent pictures. Mental training proceeds to a point, which is classically described in Buddhism as “effortless effort.” The training continues, but it’s almost automatic. It’s not an active struggle anymore. This is portrayed beautifully in the sixth picture, “riding the ox home.” The person has become a beginning sage, and the mind has a course of its own. The newly conditioned mind takes the person in the direction of the sacred goal, until the whole training process begins to be forgotten. The problem of training the mind is completely forgotten in the seventh picture, “ox forgotten, self alone.” Beyond this, in “both ox and self forgotten,” the breakthrough occurs into the dharmakaya of pure awareness. The separate self-sense is transcended, not as a transient peak experience or altered state but as an enduring altered trait.

These first eight pictures portray a developmental progression from the initial search to a temporary peak experience, followed by a pro­longed mental training to stabilize an effortless and enduring altered trait. As I interpret the research, entheogens can offer the glimpses por­trayed in the first three or four images, but by themselves entheogens are unlikely to produce later enduring stages.

With the eighth picture comes “the return to the source.” This is the vision of nonduality, in which samsara and nirvana are one. The world is now seen as an emanation of the divine.

In the last ox-herding picture we have this wonderful image of a kind of rascal sage. The picture is called “entering the city with help-bestowing or bliss-bestowing hands.” The sage wanders into the city and is totally indistinguishable from anyone else. There is no way to tell the sage by lifestyle or by the way he or she looks. Sages may drink: they may seem like anyone else. They have passed the so-called “stench of enlightenment,” but all that they do is directed toward helping and healing other people.

For this there are many metaphors. In the West the classic meta­phor is Plato’s cave: the person escapes into the light and sees the good, and is then impelled to return to the cave in order to help and heal and teach. In Christianity, the metaphor is the fruitfulness of the soul. The soul, having experienced the divine marriage, makes the supreme sacri­fice of separating from the divine in order to return to the world and help those who have not yet had this experience. In Joseph Campbell’s mythology, this is the hero’s return. In Judaism, it is the movement from divestment of corporeality to worship through corporeality.

In Arnold Toynbee’s work, the one common characteristic he found among those who had made the most contributions to humankind and its evolution was what he called “the cycle of withdrawal and return.” These people tended to withdraw from the world for periods of time in order to turn inwards, to face their deepest fears and anxieties and the existential questions of life as profoundly as they could. When they came to some deep, existential insight, they returned to society to offer what they had learned for the welfare of all. That is the culmination, in a sense, of the spiritual quest of each of the great traditions — the idea that one under­takes a discipline or practice; experiences for oneself; stabilizes that experi­ence; and then brings the experience and understanding back to the world.

The Global Implications

Certainly our world needs that understanding at this time. You know, it’s extraordinary. In the last fifty years, the world’s population has doubled. We have lost over half a billion people due to starvation. We have lost untold numbers of species, we don’t even know how many. The world has spent over fifteen trillion dollars on weapons during that time. The global problems that we are facing — pollution, starva­tion, ecological degradation, overpopulation — are in each and every case a product of human behavior.

The state of the world now reflects the state of our minds. What we call our global “problems” are actually “symptoms” of our individual and collective mind states. If we are to be effective in transforming the crises we face, we must work, not only to reduce overpopulation and feed the hungry, but also to reverse the psychological states, limitations, and perceptual distortions that allowed us to create these things in the first place. We are going to have to work in both arenas, in the world and in ourselves, if we are to effect a healing.

If we look at the world and its insanity, we can see that it reflects our own insanity. A central element of this insanity is our belief in our separateness; that we are, as Alan Watts called it, “skin encapsulated egos.” Therefore, our motivation is “me, mine, number one.”

What contemplative practices train for, and what entheogens sometimes induce, are mystical experiences that embody a recognition of our unity — with all humankind, with all life, and with the cosmos as a whole. From this experience of unity, there arises spontaneously a compassionate concern for and desire to help others.

We are in a race between catastrophe and consciousness, and we do not know which will win. A key question of our time is whether we can create a critical mass of aware people in sufficient time. This will deter­mine whether we create a sustaining and sustainable society or leave behind a planet that is polluted and plundered and poisoned. We have the power to do both.

So, where does this leave us? In summary, we can see that the entheogens very likely played a crucial role in both the birth and the maintenance of many spiritual traditions. Moreover, research suggests that in some circumstances, in some people, at some times, entheogens can elicit certain states, experiences, insights, and perspectives, which spiritual traditions have carried for millennia, though by themselves entheogens seem unable to stabilize these states. Other cultures have used and valued entheogenic substances more wisely than we have. Clearly there is much to be learned from further cross-cultural and his­torical research.

For more of Roger Walsh’s work, click here.

Teaser image by ednl, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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