Everyone has heard of Carlos Castaneda. (I mean, well, haven’t they?!?) But how many people have ever heard of Barbara Myerhoff or Marlene Dobkin de Rios? Myerhoff was actually a friend and fellow graduate student of Don Carlos back in the day. She is even credited with talking him out of burning his PhD thesis, which was later published as The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Like her friend Carlito, Barbara also did field work on the spiritual traditions of indigenous people whose religion involved the ingestion of mind altering naturally occurring substances, i.e., entheogens. And Myerhoff also crossed the line that separates detached objective observer from shaman’s apprentice.
But Barbara Myerhoff managed to not only bridge the divide between doing research and going native, she also did not burn that bridge once she had crossed it. In a very real sense this makes her a far greater Shaman than Carlos ever was, for she was truly able to “walk between the worlds”, whereas Castaneda simply left one world for the other, and pretty much stayed there (never mind that he continued to attempt to play the objective, skeptical, analytical observer: no one was fooled). The best introduction to Myerhoff’s life and work, in my opinion, is her wonderful book Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. (And I also talked about her a while back in my post on Chasing Waterfalls.)
But the person I really wanted to talk about is the extraordinary Marlene Dobkin de Rios. She was yet another young adventurer-cum-graduate-student back in 1960’s who went out among los indios to study their primitive, pagan, “primary” religions. But like Myerhoff she managed to retain her grounding in and connectedness to her own world while entering fully into theirs. Really it’s not going too far to say that de Rios went far beyond merely blurring the dividing line that is supposed to cleanly separate the neatly fenced in and manicured mental garden of the modern, western academic scholar from the luxuriant psychic jungle of le pensee sauvage: she obliterated it and then did a little dance, scattering the remaining debris. And she did it all without the slightest hint of bravado or bluster, let alone megalomania or messianism. There is not even a hint of exaggeration in what I am saying here.
But for now I’m not going to say any more about her remarkable biography (which you can read more about on her website if you like). Instead I want to dive right into one of her more recent writing projects (I believe her first major book was Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon, published in 1972).
In 2003 de Rios published, together with Oscar Janiger (and with a forward by Rick Strassman), the book LSD, Spirituality and the Creative Process. Here is an excerpt:
Contemporary writers of the psychology of religion characterize both mystical and religious experiences in terms such as unity, which is the direct perception of connectedness or oneness. Thus in mystical states there is a complete lack of differentiation between the self and the object of awe and reverence, and boundaries dissolve. Opposites such as good and evil, justice and injustice, and god and humanity disappear, and all things tend toward a unified, undifferentiated oneness. Additionally, such experiences often include the transcendence of time and space and a sense of sacredness, which may present emotions ranging from awe (fascination, wonder, or terror) to a deeply felt positive mood. Profound insights can occur and are described by religious practitioners as epiphanies, theophanies, moments of illumination, and states of grace. Often people experience both understanding and redemption. Sometimes enduring changes in a person’s emotional well-being, beliefs, values and behaviors occur….
As Anthony Wallace, an anthropologist, points out (Religion: An Anthropological View, 1966), religious behavior universally makes efforts to induce an ecstatic spiritual state by crudely and directly manipulating physiological processes. These include drugs as well as sensory deprivation, mortification of the flesh by pain, sleeplessness and fatique, and deprivation of food, water, or air. As early as 1959 Wallace argued that the use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs lay in what he called a folk interpretation based on the basic phychophysiological reaction to the drug, so that the ecstatic experience is phrased for the individual as communication with the divinity. Wallace argues convincingly that the physiological manipulation of the human body, by any means available, to produce euphoria, dissociation, or hallucination is one of the nearly universal characteristics of religion. The ecstatic experience is a goal of religious effort, and whatever means are found to help the communicant reach it will be employed!
While scholars have identified many different types of religious experiences, the key elements and essential categories of universal religious behavior as defined by Wallace include the following:
1 . Prayer: addressing the supernatural
2. Music, dancing, singing, and playing instruments
3. Physiological exercise: the physical manipulation of psychological states including the use of drugs, sensory deprivation, mortification of the flesh by pain, sleeplessness, fatigue, deprivation of food, water or air
4. Exhortation: addressing another human beings, particularly as a representative of divinity
5. Reciting the code: mythology, morality, and other aspects of the belief system
6. Simulation: imitating things in ritual explicitly oriented toward the control of supernatural beings
7. Touching things believed to contain supernatural power, such as laying on of hands in religious healing
8. Taboo: not touching sacred objects, refraining from certain behaviors
9. Feasts: a sacral meal, or eating or drinking materials that containe a supernatural force or power
10. Sacrifice: immolation, offerings, and fees
11. Congregation: processions, meetings and convocations
12: Inspiration: a temporary union with a god or spirit
13: Symbolism: manufacture and use of symbolic objects that may represent the divinities themselves
For many, the sense of unity or awe is one of the most arresting aspects of the mystical-religious experience, as Wallace points out in his discussion of the physical manipulation of the psychological states. The concept of an absolute unitary state of being as one in which all perception of multiplicity of being is eradicated has been nicely delineated by the anthropologist Eugene D’Aquili and his colleagues. In this state individuals directly apprehend absolute unity with themselves, others, and the universe. Subject and object merge and boundaries to the self are weakened. Reality itself is perceived as oneness. Attached to this experience is a profound and intrinsic sense of underlying beauty and goodness. That is, the universe is perceived as a whole, good, and purposeful. When people leave this state, they do not perceive it as having been an illusion, hallucination, or delusion. Rather, they see it as the fundamental reality that underlies all reality.
It is important to note that this sense of reality differs enormously from that traditionally validated by scientists. Psychologist Charles Tart makes a distinction between baseline states of consciousness (b-SoC) and discrete altered states of consciousness (d-ASoC). He argues convincingly that rational consciousness is merely one type of consciousness, equally valid with that induced spiritually, or one, for that matter, induced by LSD. Science arises from our rational, baseline state of consciousness that perceives reality as an amalgam of multiple discrete beings in emotionally neutral subject-object relationships.
The absolute unitary state, on the other hand, arises from discrete altered states of consciousness. The absolute unity of being can be considered an ultimate trance state. For D’Aquli and Newberg, the trance stage progressively becomes intense, with a blurring of the boundaries of individuals until they perceive no spatial or temporal boundaries at all and experience absolute unity, devoid of content. The self-0ther construct is obliterated. Ultimately, the person experiences a movement from a baseline orientation in an external reality to a more intense sense of unity with the rest ofthe world and an increasing loss of a sense self and other. The person now can lose individuality and experience a sense of absorption into the object of focus or the universe in general. As D’Aquili and Newberg argue, a person reaching the absolute unity of being not only becomes one with that object and experiences a breakdown 0f the self-other dichotomy, but also “the object that he is absorbed into is also broken down, which gives rise to an experience of unity with all things …. D’Aquili points out that common result of this experience is freedom from fear of death.