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Ayahuasca and the D’Ohs of Perception

flammarionCross-posted on the Corner:

Madness, too much time in the desert or just the right hallucinogenic concoction all seem to be reasonably reliable routes to mysticism. Ayahuasca is (the New Yorker reports) “an intensely hallucinogenic potion made from boiling woody Banisteriopsis caapi vines with the glossy leaves of the chacruna bush” an—bonus—it comes with added ‘indigenous’ chic.

The story begins with some Americans wandering through the Amazon (of course it does) in the early 1970s (of course it did).

[T]he travellers found themselves in a psychedelic paradise. There were cattle pastures dotted with Psilocybe cubensis—magic mushrooms—sprouting on dung piles; there were hammocks to lounge in while you tripped; there were Banisteriopsis caapi vines growing in the jungle. Taken together, the drugs produced hallucinations that the brothers called “vegetable television.” When they watched it, they felt they were receiving important information directly from the plants of the Amazon.

The McKennas were sure they were on to something revelatory, something that would change the course of human history. “I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspacial zeitgeist,” Dennis wrote in his journal. Their work was not always easy. During one session, the brothers experienced a flash of mutual telepathy, but then Dennis hurled his glasses and all his clothes into the jungle and, for several days, lost touch with “consensus reality.” It was a small price to pay. The “plant teachers” seemed to have given them “access to a vast database,” Dennis wrote, “the mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.”

Hyperspatial zeitgeist. Consensus reality. Plant teachers. The mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.

The New Yorker:

Most people who take ayahuasca in the United States do so in small “ceremonies,” led by an individual who may call himself a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer. This person may have come from generations of Shipibo or Quechua shamans in Peru, or he may just be someone with access to ayahuasca.

Naturally, wicked Western materialism takes a  knock:

Ifcocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.

We  are?

Well, you will:

The majority of users vomit—or, as they prefer to say, “purge.”

The New Yorker:

The process of making ayahuasca is beyond artisanal: it is nearly Druidical. “We pick the chacruna leaf at sunrise in this very specific way: you say a prayer and just pick the lower ones from each tree,” a lithe ayahuasquera in her early forties—British accent, long blond hair, a background in Reiki…She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca—“divine consciousness in liquid form”

A background in Reiki.

The New Yorker:

When a person drinks ayahuasca, a plant-messenger molecule targets the neurons that mediate consciousness, facilitating what devotees describe as a kind of interspecies communication.

If the plant really is talking to the person, many people hear the same thing: we are all one. Some believe that the plants delivering this message are serving their own interests, because if humans think we are one with everything we might be less prone to trash the natural world. In this interpretation, B. caapi and chacruna are the spokesplants for the entire vegetable kingdom.

Ecologically aware too. Is there anything that ayahuasca is not?

In any event, if you are interested in this sort of thing (I am) it’s well worth reading as a fascinating, accidentally revealing look at the appeal of ritual, superstition and the cult of the pre-modern.

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Mystic and Mad

ste-christineIn the Spectator a review by Sean McGlynn of a new book intended to show that there was more to the Middle Ages than mud and blood:

For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages.

Then again:

Fried also, refreshingly, touches on less well-known cases, as in his treatment of female mystics, such as Christine de St Trond from the early 13th century, who would whirl herself into unconsciousness ‘like a dervish’ in a state of self-induced ecstasy. Her trance-like states carried her ‘quite literally to new heights, as she would clamber into the rafters of churches and climb towers and trees, flirting with death’. Her dedication went way beyond the self-punishing rituals of the flagellants…. Christine ‘tried to replicate the torments of sinners in Hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water, having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on gallows, and lying in open graves’.

If there is a border between mysticism and madness it is lightly guarded.

More about Christine the Astonishing (in German, Christina die Wunderbare seems a better translation) here. Hallucinations are involved. Although she was never canonized or even beatified, Wikipedia notes that “prayers are traditionally said to [Christine] to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers”.

Fair enough.

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Mysticism and Mush – Grains of Sand, Glasses of Wine (or Something)

Club de Progreso, Aug 2010 (AS)More on what sort of god is God:

Aiden Kimel:

I concluded my previous post with the question, How do we stop thinking of God as god? The contemporary theologian I have found most helpful on this question is Herbert McCabe. The key, suggests McCabe, is to stop thinking of God as in any way an inhabitant of the universe.

“God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space…

“The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves.

Good lord.

I shall eye my next glass of wine with strange new respect.

H/t: AndrewSullivan




“The Sheer Ocean of Being”

BlakeI’ve never really thought that the God of Jews and Christians (despite His rather mixed origins—check out the works of James Kugel on this topic) was a god to be compared with a Zeus or an Odin and I doubt if the leading ‘new atheists’ do either, so this piece by Fr. Robert Barron is, I suspect, largely an exercise in strawmanship:

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

“The sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.”

Oh dear.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan





Fighting Monks, BethlehemAs much as I may grumble about the Economist’s snooty and irritating Davos/Brussels liberalism, it still remains an invaluable resource, not least its Christmas issue. This year’s included a haunting, terrifically written piece on the 19th Century war that nearly destroyed Paraguay (trust me on this: as a tale of folly and horror, it’s difficult to match), and then this tale:

A century ago next year, one of the most extraordinary events in the modern history of Christianity took place there. In the summer of 1913 the Aegean was penetrated not by pleasure-craft, but by the navy of the Russian tsar. A gunboat and later two transporters, complete with a party of marines, sailed up to a giant monastic house. A Russian archbishop tried negotiating with a bitterly divided community. When that failed, the troops opened up with a water-cannon, directed at the cells of monks on the losing side in a theological argument. Eventually, hundreds of bedraggled monks, defeated but defiant, were bundled onto ships. Opinion differs on whether anybody was killed, but the monks were certainly treated brutally: over the next two weeks, more than 800 of them were dragged away and transported to Odessa, where about 40 were jailed and most of them were stripped of their robes and sent on their way.

The story is fascinating in its own right, but then there are passages like this:

In the 14th century, as Byzantium dissolved into civil and theological war and the Ottoman conquest loomed, yet another dispute over the boundaries between Earth and Heaven raged, both on Athos and in the imperial court. The terms of the argument sound obscure to most modern ears. When Jesus Christ appeared on a mountain bathed in light, were the rays that emanated from his body created or divine? But behind the question was that recurring dilemma in monotheism. How, if at all, can the all-powerful, transcendent Creator and the created world come into contact with one another, and what does that imply for human destiny? The view that prevailed was a subtle one. God was both an inaccessible “essence” and an infinite variety of “energies” that could be experienced on earth. Humans could both perceive the light emanating from their Lord and become re-transmitters of that light themselves—and all this could happen during their earthly lives. Ilarion’s treatise sparked yet another version of this debate.

It’s on reading about controversies like that I realize yet again that I am just never going to get theology.

No great loss, I suspect.




There’s a piece by Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York Times about the transformation of Blondie’s (ah, those were the days) bassist into a popular writer about religion. Harmless enough stuff, but this passage caught my eye:

Mr. Lachman moved to London and began to write about mysticism and the occult. He has since written books about Carl Jung, the educator Rudolf Steiner, and now Swedenborg: all figures with powerfully rational minds who nevertheless speculated in the irrational. They might be seen as the thinking person’s mystics.

Swedenborg, for example, could be easily dismissed as a crank. Many people today would be dubious of the story, which Swedenborg promoted, that he had flabbergasted the queen of Sweden by relaying a message from her deceased brother. They would be even more skeptical of Swedenborg’s claims that he could visit souls in heaven. There, he said, he could see angels performing domestic chores, or ask about their sex lives.

But Swedenborg also had a rigorous scientific mind. He predicted the advent of airplanes and cars, he discovered the central canal of the spinal cord, and he recognized the existence of neurons. His keen curiosity about the relationship between mind and body fueled his interest in dreams — he went through a period of vivid, ecstatic dreams — and his interpretations presaged the work of Freud and Jung.

Right now, Mr. Lachman, who is single but has two sons, does not follow the spiritual practices of any guru, teacher or historical figure. “I consider all the reading and research and contemplating a spiritual practice, not to sound pompous.”

It does not sound pompous. The idea that research can be a spiritual discipline — and spirituality the subject of rigorous research — has been a commonplace among theologians at least since Thomas Aquinas…

Fair enough, but I suspect that that “rigorous research” should have plenty of room for a psychiatric explanation of what Swedenborg ‘saw’.




Mystic Pieces

Today’s New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat begins on a note (sort of) of hope:

“Mysticism is dying…Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea…”

But it was too good to last. A little later Ross continues with these glum tidings:

“Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever.”

Oh well. As always with Ross the piece is intriguing and well worth reading, not least in this case for the rather vivid description of what mysticism is said to involve:

“[T]he quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul. “


And then, of course, there is the part that mysticism is meant to play in “what’s supposed to be the deep promise of religious practice:”

“[T]hat at any time, in any place, it’s possible to encounter the divine, the revolutionary and the impossible — and have your life completely shattered and remade.”

Promise? Sounds more like a threat to me.

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