Healing

The Myth of Inadequacy: an outline proposal for a series of lectures on healing, spirituality & conflict,

This paper begins with a summary of my motives and qualifications in the field of entheogenic studies. I then proceed to qualify the claim that psychoactive substances can —under specific circumstances- be instrumental in ‘spiritual’ practices. Since the use of psychoactive plants in indigenous religious traditions has been adequately documented, I will instead examine this claim from a perspective of ‘modern’ concerns. For this purpose, I shall attempt to provide a new definition of spirituality, separate from its religious, moral and historical connotations. The emphasis of this definition then shifts:

  1. -From religious faith demanding conformity and based on convention, to a spirituality that is grounded in personal experience and resonates with the individual’s (developmental) needs;

  2. -From moral instruction, the aim of which is to impose constraints on the individual for ‘the common good’, to one that emphasizes the importance of the individual’s freedom, independence, curiosity, spontaneity and creativity as the basis of his health and well-being and the foundations of social conscience;

  3. -And from an opposition of the interests of individual and society, to one in which individual and collective concerns are fully reconciled.

It is my intention to propose a specific understanding of healing, as a function of spiritual practice. From this understanding the role of entheogenic plants in spiritual practices will become clear. This ‘healing’ aspect of spirituality has been neglected in most mainstream religious traditions, and I propose that this neglect is particularly significant in light of modern social and political conflicts. I conclude with an outline proposal for a series of lectures elaborating these ideas.

Foreword:

In the year 1980, I had what is popularly referred to as a ‘bad trip’. (I have since come to view this as a misnomer; a ‘bad trip’ is simply one that has not adequately resolved the painful or frightening feelings it has aroused.) Regretfully, this experience marked the termination of my precocious experimentation with psychedelics; I had been shown the doors of paradise, but a profound sense of anxiety had prevented me from entering. Eventually, I was compelled to return to this paradoxical and painful experience; once the doors of the unconscious are opened, they cannot be closed.

Since then, I have reached the conclusion that the entheogenic experience reveals something deeply significant about the nature of spirituality. The fear I encountered during this early venture was a harbinger of a far more profound ‘spiritual’ or ‘existential’ crisis that I could only have avoided at great cost to my health, liberty and happiness. Eventually I was compelled to return to this experience in order to find out what had caused my anxiety. I now know that it was simply a result of my own ignorance, but this ignorance is itself a form of alienation that is widespread amongst modern individuals, so ubiquitous in fact that it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that it is somehow directly related to how we live and what we believe. It is the alienation of the individual from himself, from knowing himself profoundly, and therefore from being able to answer the deeper existential questions as to the meaning of life from a personal perspective. It seems as if everything in modern societies conspires to prevent the individual from posing these questions. One might conclude therefore that the alienation of the individual is analogous to the alienation of society, for if individuals are unable to answer these questions for themselves, how are they to know what to do and how to go about living life in a meaningful way? Restoring the individual’s integrity, his awareness of himself, his connection to inner resources, may therefore have positive social and political implications.

Under favorable conditions, those who take entheogens for the specific purpose of self-examination will be confronted with profoundly paradoxical experiences that may be confusing, frightening or even ecstatic and mystical. In any case such experiences have the effect of forcing us into a deep self-examination, an examination of conscience from which most individuals are able to emerge with a vastly expanded understanding of themselves and a deeper appreciation of life and of the difficulties that other people face. In this sense, the entheogenic experience is therefore not only ‘healing’ as a means of initiating this spiritual inquiry, but also because it provides a bridge to understanding what moves other people.

The deepest and most problematic questions we face are those pertaining to death. Unfortunately most of us are unable to pose these questions consistently because they are surrounded by taboo and fear. While the taboo is a cultural legacy, the fear of death relates directly to pre-natal experiences and is therefore not accessible to ‘rational’ inquiry. There exist however a wide range of spiritual traditions that allow the individual to explore these pre-natal memories in non-ordinary states of consciousness. When it is undertaken with the proper precautions, this examination can be profoundly healing since it reestablishes a connection to a phase of life when we were physically one with the cosmos. This is the goal of entheogenic initiations and it offers and extremely important understanding of spirituality. This does not imply that I advocate experimenting with entheogens. There are safety and health issues that demand strict discipline with regards to who uses these substances and under what conditions. The opening of the ‘doors of perception’ can be extremely confusing, painful and frightening. In the following pages I shall explain why.

Introduction:

No conflict is absolutely unique; there are underlying modalities in every conflict relating to how we function as human beings. What we believe about ourselves is relevant not only in the private domain, but also for how we resolve our problems collectively. In this respect, the belief in the finality of death is as valid as the belief in life after death, but each assumption provides very different pretexts. Due to our uncertainty about death, we are faced with different options, —try to ignore the issue, —live a moral life in the hope of reaching heaven, or in fear of hell, —attempt to ‘eat our fill,’ (Carpe diem) and so on. Under certain conditions, this uncertainty can be transformed, if not into certainty, at least into a choice as the values by which we want to live. In this section we will consider the role entheogens can play in such a transformation.

Entheogens: drugs or medicine?

A rigorous Johns Hopkins study into the effects of psilocybin has recently confirmed ‘that, under very defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion […] a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person.’ [Emphasis added] This study is hardly unique in its conclusions, which simply reiterate the findings of an earlier study, the ‘Good Friday experiment’, conducted by Walther N. Pahnke in 1962. Sadly, these studies emphasize the (continuing) injustice of attempts to eradicate indigenous spiritual traditions.

The technology and freedom we possess today are historically unique providing ideal conditions to study ‘mystical’ experiences and reach new understandings concerning their nature and prevalence. While scientific research of the biological or neurological origins of such experiences may be enlightening, this research does not in itself lead to conclusions about their moral significance. Research may however provide a means of detaching such ‘mystical’ experiences from the ideological/moral constructs that surround them so as to make new inferences. Stripped of these connotations, the study of mystical states may for instance ground them in an understanding of consciousness itself. It follows that all states of consciousness are valid areas of inquiry. This research is particularly important since it concerns a realm of subjective experience from which we extract a sense of meaning and values. This is exactly where I would like to examine the concept of ‘healing’, for it is here that the interests of individual and collective coincide.

Healing:

In indigenous traditions the concept of healing encompasses both the modern significance of the term (a therapeutic practice, with a biomedical effect), and a notion of reconciling physical and metaphysical forces premised on the view that all things are connected. In this conception, the effects of medicines or therapies may relate to either or both realms.

As a logical consequence, the concept of healing has frequently been imbued with a moral significance, i.e. as the ‘wages of sin’, or a sign of God’s blessing. It is a common human tendency to attribute sickness and misfortune to external agents, (i.e. the Devil, foreigners, etc.) however, this exposes an inherent vulnerability of morality: its susceptibility to arbitrary and opportunistic interpretation. The confusing of the distinction between physical and metaphysical that can be found in many New Age concepts is therefore questionable, however it points to a significant failure of modern society in which the individual is alienated and disenfranchised, even from control over his own body and health. The attempt to revive ancient spiritual and healing traditions or to devise new ones in which the mind is conceived as a generator of ‘reality’ is therefore more than mere theory. It represents an attempt to reinstate the individual as a causative agent, and it is here that the concept of ‘healing’ acquires ethical and political relevance.

The divine within:

The term entheogen derives from the ancient Greek: ἔνθεος (entheos) and γενέσθαι (genesthe). Entheos literally means ‘god within’, and translates as ‘inspired’ and is the root of the English verb ‘enthuse’. Genesthe means ‘to generate’, so the term may be interpreted as ‘that which generates God (or godly inspiration) within a person’. In light of this interpretation, the philosopher Govert Derix proposes a definition of the term ‘religion’ based on the Latin prefix re- combined with ligare, to bind or connect. This points to two distinct functions of religion:

  1. -As a practice of communion (i.e. with the divine within);

  2. -And a practice that joins individuals in a community of shared values.

The ‘examination of self’, can in this interpretation be defined as a foundation of the health and peace of the community. This function of religion is obscured when spirituality is defined as a purely personal affair (as in secular societies), or in such universal terms that its full relevance to individuals is lost. It is also lost when moral interpretations are imposed with the aim of protecting the status quo, rather than the happiness, health and well-being of the individual.










(well, ok, maybe I have overstated the case for the trauma of birth somewhat)

The Trauma of Birth & the Birth peri-natal matrixes:

On the basis of thousands of clinical studies Dr. Stanislav Grof, who worked with psychedelics throughout the 1950s formulated a theory of their effects that accords with that of Freud’s contemporary, Otto Rank. In 1924, Rank published a seminal work, ‘Das Trauma der Geburt’, (The trauma of birth) exploring how separation anxiety was represented in art, myth, religion, philosophy and therapy, thereby suggesting that conception and birth are of prime importance in the development of the individual. Grof divided the phases of birth into four distinct phases, which he termed the birth peri-natal matrixes, (Matrix from mother, womb and mold —a place in which something is cast or given shape). Grof distinguished four Systems of Condensed Experience, (COEX’s) representing sets of associations organized around a powerful physically or emotionally charged experience which is imprinted, either in the deepest layer of the psyche or possibly in the physical structure of the nervous system (depending on the fetus’ level of development). Logic dictates that experiences are associated within mental or neurological structures. While this model is deterministic, fixing the ‘cause’ of behavior in the past, I believe it also offers scope for transformation, since its determinism derives entirely from the unconscious influence it exerts. The primary ‘healing’ effects of consciousness-expanding substances can be understood in terms of their capacity to disrupt the organization of cognition and hence the underlying patterns of behavior and expectations. This allows material from the deepest layers of consciousness to emerge. This material represents both our oldest evolutionary instincts, and the earliest stages of our imprinting as conscious beings. Grof defines this material as transpersonal, since the experiences, emotions and states of consciousness it represents appear to transcend the usual ego boundaries. These states are imprinted before language or education can impose an organizational structure, which means they are pre-verbal. As a consequence most of us are unable to consciously or logically articulate any of the memories associated with these early states.

Birth, death and transformation:

A core theme of entheogenic initiations is a symbolic (but nonetheless realistic) experience of death, followed by spiritual re-birth. This experience may be painful or frightening insofar as it invokes memories from a pre-verbal age. Because most of us are unable to articulate these memories, a myth has grown that children are blank slates. This myth is difficult to maintain in light of modern findings, which appear to confirm that children are born fully preconditioned, both physically and mentally. Birth itself is a dramatic event involving at the very least some sort of struggle and a sudden change of circumstances. Is it not likely that allegories such as the ‘fall of man’ ‘original sin’, or the expulsion from the Garden of Eden are in fact metaphors for ‘separation anxiety’? It follows that traumatic experiences from such a developmentally important phase may result in a deep sense of anxiety or loss. This theory does not however help us to understand why aggressive and (self) destructive behavior is so widespread. It does not help us understand why apparently normal and healthy people submit so willingly to authority. While pre-natal trauma may explain some forms of severe mental disturbance, I believe the problems of so-called ‘normal behavior’ may also be traced to a normative response to birth. I would like to consider the underlying narrative of this response.








Expulsion from Eden, Michelangelo

  1. And the LORD God commanded the man, You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (GEN.2:16-17) There are many ways to interpret this allegory, however it seems to make particular sense when it is considered a metaphor for birth. Firstly, the womb is a sort of paradise in which man is 'naked' and innocent, having no concept of time and therefore living 'eternally'. After the expulsion, that is to say birth, the umbilical is severed and he is physically separated from the 'tree of life'. Outside the garden he is suddenly aware of himself as a separate individual, he has 'eaten of the tree of knowledge' and becomes a mortal. Man must live 'by the sweat of his brow'. Knowledge separates man the mortal from the garden of his innocence.


The myth of inadequacy:

Consider the womb a five star hotel with room service, and then imagine what it feels like to be suddenly and forcefully ejected. The newborn baby possesses no language with which to articulate the sense of loss, which most people subsequently ‘forget’. The physical separation from the womb/mother is a primary existential trauma: a break that is sealed when we ‘forget’ life in the womb. It would appear that the concept of ‘original sin’ refers to the subsequent sense of loss and separation. It may be useful to consider how this sense of separation affects the individual’s relationship to the community of life.










By recalling the pre-natal phase (re-birthing) the individual is able reestablish a connection —through the mother’s body— to the source of life. This is an important step towards ‘recovering’ a sense of integrity. It is no coincidence that themes of birth and death are encountered throughout initiation ceremonies, for they are intimately related to the needs of the community. However, mainstream religions have neglected this role as arbiters of healing this division. This led psychologists such as Sigmund Freud to characterize religion as nothing more than a coping mechanism to deal with the anxiety of death. Faced with this anxiety, Viktor Frankl suggested that the most basic of all human wishes is to find a meaning of life. Unfortunately, there are both internal and external obstacles to this endeavor. I quote from Alice Miller:

  1. ‘It is the tragedy of well-raised people that they are unaware as adults of what was done to them and what they do themselves if they were not allowed to be aware as children. Countless institutions in our society profit from this fact, and not least among them are totalitarian regimes. [...] Conditioning and manipulation of others are always weapons and instruments in the hands of those in power even if these weapons are disguised with the terms education and therapeutic treatment. Since one’s use and abuse of power over others usually have the function of holding one’s own feelings of helplessness in check, which means the exercise of power is often unconsciously motivated, rational arguments can do nothing to impede this process.’

If unconscious pain and fear are relevant factors in understanding subjectivity, they are even more so when it comes to understanding society. The prohibition of consciousness-expanding substances is but one example of the way such fears affect social and political decisions. However, this is only possible because we accept the myth of our own inadequacy. In the words of Marianne Williamson, renowned author of ‘A Course in Miracles’, ‘our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.’ I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion; the greatest obstacle to liberty is our own fear of accepting full responsibility for our lives.

Conclusion:

There is an important political lesson here; the tendency, frequently displayed in conflicts, towards a narrative of justification, usually of the sort in which we cast ourselves as innocent victims, is contrary to the principle of transformation, which I would like to define as the ‘creation of an entirely new realm of possibilities’ that is not burdened by negative expectations from the past. When morality is embedded in narrative form we easily forget that the narrative is always an interpretation. The narrative explanation is linear: it presumes that the present is ‘caused’ by the past. This is perhaps sensible when explaining physical reactions, but it does not explain human behavior, for if it did, it would constitute a denial of the freedom to choose, and chain us forever to an endless procession of causes and reactions. It would also extend the causes of present conflicts all the way back into our ancestral past, perhaps to Adam and Eve. All our efforts would be truly meaningless. The problem with narratives is not whether they are true or not: it stems from the conditions they propose; in a historic narrative, all power and responsibility is relegated to the past, constituting a denial of our freedom, responsibility and power, qualities that can manifest only in the present.

If the ‘examination of self’ proposed here leads to an improved understanding of who we are, it also allows empowers us to choose the values we wish to live by. This relieves us of the compulsion to live according to the dictates of the past. The aim of self-examination is not to endlessly refine our understanding of the past, but to reclaim the present, for it is in the present that we are the creators of our own lives.

The claims I make on behalf of entheogens cannot be validated, except on the basis of direct personal experience. Given current attitudes regarding consciousness-expanding substances it is unrealistic to expect people to accept the claims I am making on faith. My present aim is not to advocate the use of entheogens and psychedelics but to promote discussion of their relevance to spirituality, psychotherapy and healing. I am more than willing to prepare a series of lectures on a non-profit basis. If approved, I am prepared to submit an outline of these lectures for your approval.

Daniel Waterman: June 2008