I will not pretend to be an expert on Shamanism, but I am no stranger to it either. In my experience, the thing that I have found most satisfying about Shamanism is that it doesn’t seek answers, it seeks a connection to such an innate wisdom one realizes they already have the answers or are guided to better questions. A Shamanic journey can be undertaken for a number of reasons, my experience has been with journeying as a sort of explorer bent on learning. Many people have different intentions, such as healing or communication with a specific spirit or energy. What I ponder is, how are journeys that are brought on with psychotropic drugs different from journeys brought on in a more natural way such as with a drum or rattle? I hear the voices of certain people I know in my head saying, “Well, with the drugs the visuals are way better.” But that isn’t really where I’m going with this, more to the point, I was recently involved in a discussion regarding the validity of drug induced experiences. There are people on both sides of the fence with this one and both make some sense.
Of course the biggest argument for using drugs is that it’s “old school.” Ancient tribes used hallucinogens to journey and commune with the spirits for the betterment of the tribe. What isn’t addressed often is the fact that anthropologists who have spent time with tribes that use drugs to commune with the spirit world tell a different story. While it is true that many of the Shamans rituals involve a drug induced altered state, most do not. In the majority of the Shamans workings simpler tactics are incorporated to achieve an altered state. So, in reality, in the very, very old days, Shamanic journeying was done both ways. Of course, we don’t live in those times any longer and things are a little different now, especially when it comes to drugs. In the 60’s, despite it's lack of the compound DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which is a component favored for Shamanic journeys, LSD was used by many in the same way Shamans use peyote or ayahuasca. It could even be speculated that the rise in interest in Shamanism in the United States coincides with those original psychonauts, Ken Kesey and his Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, Alan Ginsberg, Terrance McKenna and Timothy Leary among others too numerous to list.
The purists will tell you that LSD experiences don't compare, the "purists" being those who claim to be Shamans or those elitists who are constantly playing the "my psychotropics can beat up your psychotropics" game. It's an ego based game where drug choice, dosage, length of journey and whose metaphorical death was more dramatic and laden with symbolism are all laid out and measured. It's also a waste of energy and time. I say they "claim" to be Shamans because out of all the people I have met who claim to be Shamans, and that's no small amount of people, only three of them have been true Shamans. As to comparing the experience one can have on LSD to the experience one could have on DMT I would only ask, why? Why compare? If a purist were to take LSD they might get absolutely nothing out of it because they would be going into it expecting nothing. Rather than opening their mind to the possibilities and perhaps even using their learned skills from their past experimentation to enhance the experience, the ego steps in. Where mysticism is concerned, ego can be a formidable enemy, among other things. A journey is only as good as the person who is taking it allows, no matter how their feet found the path.
Interest in Shamanism has its ebb and flow and more recently an upsurge in the use of ayahuasca to induce a shamanic state of consciousness. Ayahuasca is most commonly associated with Peru where it is used by various tribal people. However, many people from all over the world are now going on retreats, many held in the U.S. where the sole purpose is to gather together and ingest ayahuasca to induce an elevated spiritual awareness. Of course these retreats are very expensive. There are things to consider when taking on the idea of attending a retreat, such as environment. Environment alone, of course, has many variables of its own. What is the location? Who will be in attendance? How many? And of course how much? Just as expensive, or perhaps more so, are the retreats you can go on to attempt a journey by listening to a drumbeat or rattle. Workshops, lodging and meals included these can run up a hefty bill. Now I don’t mean to meander from the main point here but there is a reason for bringing up the cost of these events. There are those who seem to believe that the more you pay, the more spiritual you are or the more valid your experience is and that is a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. The bottom line is that it is all too often the ego getting in the way again.
Back to the point though, if we assume a safe environment in both cases, natural and drug induced, and all the variables to be within “normal” parameters, which makes for a better experience? When this came up in conversation my first thought was, why compare? I guess I wonder that a lot. Then of course there are the variables. Every person has a unique experience depending upon hundreds, maybe thousands, of those pesky variables. I have no intention of writing a book however, so I won’t blather on about the variables. Suffice it to say they are as numerous as are the stars in the sky. The person I was speaking to was firmly on the drug induced is a better experience side of the fence. I only took the opposing side to make for a more intriguing conversation. I like it both ways. I suppose if I had to choose though I prefer a drum or a rattle, both of which being much easier to procure regularly than ayahuasca or peyote. There is also the dependence factor. Many folks come to believe that they cannot have an authentic experience unless they use drugs and that is their limitation, I won't make it mine.
As the words “Why compare?” were floating around my head in one of those little thought balloons like you see in the cartoons, I remember the woman I was talking to telling me she was getting ready to host an ayahuasca gathering at her home. That led to us talking about our own experiences. It had been quite some time for me but the last time I journeyed using psychotropics, which was pertinent to the conversation, it had been peyote. Although we had just had a conversation in which her comments demonstrated brilliantly that people really do “take sides” she said, “Well, peyote is only the grandfather but ayahuasca is the grandmother and she won’t let you get away with anything like granddaddy does.” Unfortunately, as the conversation progressed I realized this person had become an elitist. I have known her for years and for years many people, including myself, have looked up to her. The conversation revealed an imbalance between connecting naturally and connecting through the use of drugs, mostly it revealed an imbalance in ego.
Then another thought occurred to me. How does any of it pertain to the point of the journey in the first place? “It” being the type of drug, or the amount of money spent or the shine on the bobbles and trinkets or the time spent at expensive retreats or the titles and certifications and accolades bought and paid for. How does selling our experiences and profiting off of our gifts pertain to the point of the journey? If we are attempting a connection in some way to the divine or to “spirit” or to some other realm of awareness in an effort to become more enlightened, doesn’t it seem that having an overly competitive (unbalanced) approach to it goes against what we are trying to achieve? Would a spiritually enlightened person feel compelled to compete in these ways over these petty things? Like who paid more or who knows who or who has the shiniest bobbles or has gotten to the next level or into the inner (more expensive) circle or who has the most titles. But again, I digress. Perhaps I was over-thinking it as I am wont to do. The point is, in mysticism, spirituality, religion and even self help, you do not always get what you pay for, in fact, you almost never do.
I suppose that like everyone, my own experience is the only one I can speak to. I’ve done more than my fair share of psychotropic drugs but will not sit here and pretend I’ve sampled them all. When I was first taking psychotropics I listened to the Doors a lot, among other bands and I have always been an avid reader. Jim Morrison said, “I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses to attain the unknown. Our pale reasoning hides the infinite from us.” And William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” And I took it upon myself to bust out of my cavern and drugs were definitely an aid in that. Recreationally as well as ritually I used psychotropic drugs to achieve the unknown. As to the “Doors of Perception,” I blew them right off the hinges until not a speck of saw dust remained.
I suppose I need to take my past into account when it comes to my conclusions. Who’s to say my experiences with shamanic consciousness now and in more recent years aren’t somehow affected by the myriad of drugs I once took. More to ruminate on later I suppose. My main thought is this; when I blew the doors off the hinges did I really need to? Once open would they have locked up again when the drugs wore off? This part is different for everyone I suppose and there are a lot of different paths one can go down. None of them are wrong and all of them lead you to wherever you're going. My own experience has shown me that, for me anyway, continuing to take drugs after blowing those doors off their hinges was counterproductive and that blowing them completely off the hinges was total overkill despite how insightful it was at the time.
If a life of being truly present each moment, of being spiritual and connecting to the very universe is the sport and you are the athlete and the desired goal is to have those moments, no matter how long or short, of enlightenment that you feel through that connection, you have to realize there is no finish line. However, since people like competitive sports so much, I’ll go on. Think of that connection as a muscle, to make it healthy and toned it must get a work out every now and again and I guess my point is that it can be done without steroids. Practice the sport, exercise the muscle. And on balance, think of what would happen if you only worked out one side of your body.
Perhaps we feel somehow compelled to validate our experiences, it is human nature after all. If there are people who attach validation to numbers, like the amount of dollars they spent to jump through the number of circles or climb the number of levels they had to in order to claim some obscure title, that’s groovy. It really isn’t any of my business. I suppose my final point would be that if those things like whether it was ayahuasca, peyote or a drum or if stuff, like the titles and bobbles and such, validate a person’s experience, then they validate it, for them, and that’s good enough. The word “intent” is a once simply defined word that is achieving buzz word status these days. The idea is that if the intent is clear, much is possible. How that plays out in the “spirit world” may not be the same as how it plays out in the physical world. If a person has a strong enough intent to grow spiritually by paying a lot of money, maybe they can. In the end, it all boils down to truth. Gandhi said, “My life is my message” those are good words to ruminate on when considering one’s own intent and its manifestation.