January 19, 2004
"Shamanism and similar areas of research have gained in significance because they postulate new ideas about mind and spirit. They speak of things like vastly expanding the realm of consciousness ... the belief, the knowledge, and even the experience that our physical world of the senses is a mere illusion, a world of shadows, and that the three-dimensional tool we call our body serves only as a container or dwelling place for something infinitely greater and more comprehensive than that body and which constitutes the matrix of the real life."
For many millennia human beings existed in a symbiotic relationship between themselves and their natural surroundings; however, several thousand years ago the human animal rose out of the nourishing womb of the planet to conquer and pillage the generous resources of its biological mother, and disrupt the communion between matter and spirit. Before the emergence of agriculture and pastoralism, human society sustained itself in a homeostatic equilibrium with nature. Yet hunter-gatherer eventually organized into self-replicating cities that spread out like a virus to infect the planet and sever this mutually beneficial harmony.
What intuitive ecological knowledge have we lost in this separation and can it be recovered? If we wish a constructive and healthy future, we need to reassess the dominant values in our society and to realign our conscious metronomes in rhythm with the heartbeat of Gaia. This task may appear insurmountable, and some may question its relevance to the information aquarium that constitutes postmodern global society, but the wantonly rapid depletion of natural resources, pollution of the biosphere, and destruction of the ozone might soon transform the bounty of life on Earth into the desolation of Mars. In order to save the Earth in our lifetimes, and especially for future generations, we need to re-examine the hirstory * of humans' relationship to the environment and attempt to integrate what knowledge we can into a healthier co-existence with our home planet.
As domesticated primates, we possess a limited comprehension of the complexities of the universe, natural world, and human mind. The world that we perceive through our everyday consciousness appears as only a small portion of the world that our senses can discern in other states of awareness, and an even tinier fraction of the entire detectable universe. The routine interaction of our nervous system with the environment, and the small band of light visible to our normal vision, limits our comprehension of and disposition towards both other people and the natural composition of the Earth.
The newborn awakens to a world of novelty and luminous colorful experience, a confused neophyte in a place where hir interaction with the environment imprints sensory programming to hardwire psychic interplay with the surroundings into conditioned behavioral patterning. As the child acquires words and then the rudiments of language the metaphorical lens of the familial, societal, and cultural matrices sculpt a dam between the self and reality. The mystery of the sensory world reduces to words, multiplicity of meaning becomes chained to an alphabet, and transitory ideographic subjectivity becomes bound within an objective perceptive prison that walls off a tunnel of one's experience of reality under the adult supervisors of cultural conditioning and the monitors of the local ideology.
The child matures with an alphabet based on sounds instead of sight, and hears what authority figures expect hir to without searching for meaning of experience inside hirself or around the natural world. This authorized virtual reality alienates the developing human from both hirself and the planet, as s/he unwittingly enters a social contract with the state that desensitizes individuality and acculturates hir ideas to the native customs and taboos.
The primitive thinker indoctrinated into the local reality tunnel ascertains cognizance of the world by arranging all incoming information onto a predetermined map in relation to the organization of information that already paradigmatically structures the map. Conditioned for centuries by memetic DNA transmission, and instructed since language acquisition in the dominator, ego-driven mores of authority and submission, warfare, and misogyny, many aggressively manipulate others and the environment for personal gain, and either refuse to acknowledge, denounce and attack, or find it difficult to grasp alternative proposals to help solve the problems of the world.
Throughout dominator hirstory powerful elites in political and spiritual control handed down pre-approved philosophies that propagandistically saturated the cultural transmission to both manipulate a reality consensus of majority opinion, and to conserve their right to rule. These shameless tactics of memory ritual carry over to today as part of a spectator society modeled by political and scientific experts, and disseminated through a mass media. In the 21st century, many unwittingly pass their lives not as themselves, but as culturally defined material consumers that identify with objects and others that can be bought and sold, instead of with the inner richness of their own spiritual essence and the profoundly complicated beauty of Gaia.
But beyond the boundaries of the cityscape and hidden from the eyes of the postmodern global community, an ancient spiritual practice known as shamanism still thrives in several remote areas of the world where indigenous peoples continue to exist in tribal partnerships with each other and nature. Estimated to have originated over ten millennia ago on the Trans-Siberian plains, and practiced across all of the continents, shamanistic practice continues to flourish in the rainforests of the Amazon, Central America, and Congo regions, the mesas and prairies of the American West, the highlands of India and Tibet, and in a wide assortment of spiritual organizations throughout the world.
Shamanism based societies across the ages cultivated the partnership between the tribal organism and the biosphere. Shamans ingested specific plants set aside for spiritual rituals to ceremonially contact the supernatural realm and nourish the bonds between humanity and the Earth. Shamans carefully selected, prepared, and consumed hallucinogenic vines, weeds, leaves, and fungi that contained the alkaloids harmine, harmoline, dimethyltryptamine, and psilocybin. The ritualistic intake of these entheogens, translated as god/dess generated within, served as an experiential sacrament to commune with what shamans identified as the one living energy that infused the planet and the surrounding cosmos.
Shamanic rituals synthesized the dance, music, and song of the tribal participants with the entheogenic experience to engender a trance-like state of ecstasy. In this state the individual spirit could transcend the self to explore the higher spiritual dimension of being and promote an inherent unity where individuals could understand themselves as integral pieces of the whole. Shamans energetically mediated the relationship between the human, natural, and supernatural world to encourage partnership and symbiosis, and routinely pioneered the expansion of consciousness to connect to the logos and achieve gnosis through plants.
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* [Ed. The author deliberately contracts *his* and *her* into *hir,* throughout his essay. In particular, he considers that history belongs as much to his and her "human kind" -- a sensitive and realistic outlook. Since it may not yet be a part of the lingua franca, we italicized the occurrences.] (back)
[Ed. You can read the second part of this essay, published on March 1, 2004.]
Scott Orlovsky is a World History & Cultures, and an American History teacher at Clifton High School in New Jersey. He has a BA in History from the Johns Hopkins University and a MA in History from the University of Colorado.
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