Of The Sacred And The Natural
following article, by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., was published (in
English and Italian) in Eleusis, No. 8, August 1997.
Giorgio Samorini, Editor.E-mail: email@example.com.
Also re-published as Chapter 10 in Green Psychology, Park Street Press, 1999
I summarize my thesis in two statements:
one -- the relentless exploitation and destruction of the
biosphere by the capitalist-industrial growth machine around the
globe is rooted in a pathological domination complex of "civilized"
humans toward the natural world. And two -- the revival
of interest in animistic worldviews and in the shamanic practices
of traditional peoples, including the intentional use of hallucinogenic2
sacraments, is among the hopeful signs that the split between
the sacred and the natural can be healed again.
In order to provide a context for
this discussion, I begin by briefly describing my own history
of experience and research in this area. As a psychologist, I
have been involved in the field of consciousness studies, including
altered states induced by drugs, plants and other means, for over
35 years. In the 1960's I worked at Harvard University with Timothy
Leary and Richard Alpert, doing research on the possible therapeutic
applications of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin.
During the 1970's my work focused on the exploration of non-drug
related methods for the transformation of consciousness, such
as are found in Eastern and Western traditions of yoga, meditation,
alchemy and newly discovered psychotherapeutic methods using deep
altered states. During the 1980's I came into contact with the
work of Michael Harner and others, who have explored shamanic
teachings and practices around the globe, primarily those involving
non-ordinary states of consciousness induced by drumming, but
also hallucinogens. I studied shamanic practices from various
cultures, including those involving fasting, wilderness vision
questing, sweat-lodge and others. My interest shifted more towards
psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants, which have a history of
use in shamanistic societies, rather than the newly discovered
powerful drugs, the use of which often involves unknown risks.
In the last few years, I have come to see the revival of interest
in shamanism and sacred plants as part of the world-wide seeking
for a renewal of the spiritual relationship with the natural world.
A recognition and respect for the
spiritual essences inherent in nature is basic to the worldview
of indigenous peoples, as it was for our own ancestors in pre-industrial
societies. In shamanistic societies, that is societies in which
the reality of other, non-material worlds is recognized, people
have always devoted considerable attention to cultivating a direct
perceptual and spiritual relationship with animals, plants and
the Earth itself in all its magnificent variety. Our modern materialist
worldview, with its obsessive focus on technological progress
and on the control and exploitation of what are called "natural
resources", has become more or less completely dissociated from
such a spiritual awareness of nature. This split between human
spirituality and nature has roots in the ancient past, but a major
source of it was the rise of mechanistic science in the 16th and
17th century (Metzner, 1993). The revival of animistic beliefs,
the deep ecology and ecopsychology movements and the renewed interest
in shamanic practices, including the use of hallucinogenic or
entheogenic plants, represent a re-unification of science and
spirituality, which have been divorced since the rise of mechanistic
science in the 17th century. I believe spiritual values can again
become the primary motivation for scientists. It should be obvious
that this direction for science would be a lot healthier for all
of us and for the planet, than science directed, as it is now
primarily, towards generating weaponry or profit.
Elements of Shamanic/Hallucinogenic Experience
In order to focus the discussion
on hallucinogenic plant sacraments, I will begin by quoting from
the notes I made of my own first experience with ayahuasca. I
came into contact with this Amazonian plant-medicine through an
ethnobotanist who had researched the practices of Peruvian mestizo
shamans, and had prepared the medicine according to the traditional
recipes. The setting was a spacious house in rural Northern California.
The attitude was open and respectful, treating the medicine as
a sacrament. Here is the account:
We drank the brew, which has a taste that is
a strange mixture of bitterness and syrupy sweetness, in almost
total darkness, with only a candle or two. We listened to Mayan
music. I began to feel very relaxed, heavy and soft, but also
as if my head were expanding. A swaying tapestry of visions
comes into view, at fist mostly geometric patterns, then shapes
and forms of plants, animals, humans, cities, temples, flying
craft and the like. Particular images from time to time emerge
out of the continuous flux, and then are re-absorbed back into
As the images of forms and objects
recede back into the swaying fabric of visions, I realize that
I am seeing them as if projected on the twisting coils of an
enormous serpent, with glittering silvery and green designs
on its skin. I cannot see either head or tail of the serpent,
which gives me a rough sense of its size: it encompasses the
entire two-story building. Curiously, the sight of this gigantic
serpent does not evoke the slightest fear; on the contrary,
my emotional response is one of awe and humility at the magnificence
of this being and its spiritual power. I had heard that in the
Amazon, the ayahuasceros regard the giant serpent as the "mother
spirit" of all the other spirits of the forest, of the river
and the air.
In the earlier phase, before I
became aware of the giant mother serpent, I experienced the
geometric patterns I was seeing with distaste verging on disgust:
they seemed tacky, plastic and artificial, like the décor
of a shopping mall or a Las Vegas casino. As I searched for
the meaning of my reaction, I was shown how this was the human
technocultural overlay on the natural world: I was looking at
the human world! Then, as I accepted that, albeit with some
regret, I was able to see through it to the pulsating energies
of the real, spiritual world of underlying nature, embodied
in the form of the giant Serpent Mother.
Then I meet another serpent, more "normal" in
its dimensions: in fact it is about the same size as me. It
enters my body through my mouth and starts to slowly wind its
way through my stomach and intestines over the next two or three
hours. When it gets to the gut, there is some cramping, and
incredibly loud sounds of gurgling and digesting are coming
from my viscera. I become aware of a morphic resonance between
serpent and intestines: the form of the snake is more or less
a long intestinal tract, with a head and a tail end. Conversely,
our gut is serpentine, with its twists and turns and its peristaltic
movement. So the serpent, in winding its way through my intestinal
tract is "teaching" my intestines how to be more powerful and
Then I see several black-skinned people, dancing
as they come toward me and recede away. They are always in pairs,
like twins, moving in parallel fashion: I wonder whether they
represent the spirits of the two paired plants of the ayahuasca
tea. Then, as I'm lying sideways on a couch, a jaguar suddenly
comes into me. It is an enormous black male, and he enters my
body assuming the same semi-reclining position I was in. Shortly
after I notice it, the jaguar is gone. Another time, as I am
on my hands and knees, I distinctly feel a bird landing on my
back. I am being briefly introduced to some of the different
spirits that the ayahuasca medicine can access. The realization
grows within me that with practice and increased concentration,
I would be able to hold the encounters with the different animal
spirits for longer -- and then be able to question them for
divination. Don Fidel, one of the old ayahuasceros, says: "the
visions come into you and heal you."
Many images of old Mayan gods and underworld
demons dancing: skeletal, crippled, diseased, skin flapping,
blood dripping, pustular, bulbous, with gaping wounds and cut-off
heads, toads on their necks, pierced with thorns. Their message,
repeated several times, is: "you don't have to do anything".
By incorporating death, decay and disease and other unimaginable
horrors into their dance of transformation, a deep inner healing
takes place, totally independent of any personal involvement
on my part. I am astonished at being initiated into this ancient
lineage of visionary healers.
It is late in the evening, and I am again on
my hands and knees, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by this
gut-wrenching, yet soul-refreshing journey through the netherworlds
of jungle, river and serpents. I lower my forehead to touch
the ground: then I realize I am falling slowly through the earth,
through soil and rock, moving faster and faster, and then dropping
out the other side into deep space, vast in its darkness, exhilarating,
filled with countless points of light, scintillae, luminous
streaks and stars of the universe.
This account exemplifies several many of the common
elements that can be found in the anthropological literature on
shamanism and the use of hallucinogenic plants, and that also
tend to show up in the experiences of people taking such medicines
in religious or therapeutic context. I will simply list these
features, since there is not the space here to document them extensively:
(1) The importance of set and
setting, or intention and context, in determining the nature
of the experience. This was a finding that came out of the psychedelic
research in the 1960's (Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1979).
(2) The experience can be healing
on physical, psychic and spiritual levels; this healing may
involve the experience of being first dismembered, destroyed,
or "killed", and then reconstituted with a healthier, stronger
body. The experience of dismemberment is a classic feature of
shamanic healing worldwide. The "levels" are analytical concepts;
during an actual experience they are not separated, but simultaneous
(3) The experience can also provide
access to hidden knowledge, -- this is the aspect of diagnosis,
divination, or visioning; people come to refer to these plants
as "plant teachers".
(4) There is a feeling and perception
of access to other non-physical worlds, variously referred
to as inner worlds, spirit worlds, otherworlds, alternate realities.
The access may come through a journey to that world, or the spirit
beings of that world may appear in our world, or the usual boundaries
between the worlds seem to become permeable.
(5) The experience may involve the
perception of non-material, normally invisible, spirit beings.
Such spirits are recognized as being associated with particular
animals (e.g. serpent, jaguar), certain plants, trees or fungi,
certain places (e.g. river, rainforest), deceased ancestors, and
other non-ordinary entities (e.g. extra-terrestrials, elves).
It can include the experiences of actually becoming or identifying
with that spirit (e.g. the experience of becoming the jaguar);
the healing and visioning is experienced as being done by or with
the assistance of such spirits.
(6) Listening to music or singing,
or singing oneself, is an essential ingredient for productive
hallucinogenic experiences. The rhythmic drive of the icaros
in ayahuasca ceremonies, like the rhythmic pulse of the drumming
in drumming-journeys, gives support for moving through the flow
of visions, and prevents getting "stuck" or "hung up" in frightening
or seductive experiences.
(7) The traditional ceremonies are
almost always done in darkness or low light; this apparently facilitates
the emergence of visions. The exception is the peyote ceremony,
done around a fire (though at night); here participants may see
visions as they stare into the fire.
Some classic ritual
forms for hallucinogen use
If we accept the idea, growing out
of scientific research, that set and setting are the crucial determinants
of the content of a hallucinogenic experience, then the use of
these substances in a ritual setting, with careful attention paid
to conscious intention, is in fact the logical, as well as the
traditional approach. Shamanic rituals involving hallucinogens
are the intentional arrangement of the set and the setting for
purposes of healing and divination.
The traditional shamanic rituals
involving hallucinogenic plants are carefully structured experiences,
in which a small group (12 - 15) of people come together with
respectful, spiritual attitude to share a profound inner journey
of healing and transformation, facilitated by these powerful catalysts.
Music and/or singing is invariably a part of such rituals. There
is a significant role and function of the guide or medicine person
who conducts the ceremony. The traditional shamanic rituals involve
very little or no talking among the participants except perhaps
during a preparatory phase or after the experience to evaluate
the teachings or visions received.
A second kind of ceremonial form
has evolved in the Brazilian syncretic religious movements that
use ayahuasca or hoasca. There are three such ayahuasca
cults that have arisen in Brazil since the 1950s: Uniao de Vegetal,
Santo Daime, and Barquinia. These differ considerably among themselves,
but share some common features: they typically involve large groups
of people, from around 30 to 40 to several hundred; they all involve
some kind of chanting or singing, often rhythmic, and some involve
dancing as well. Like the shamanic ceremonies, there is little
or no overt discussion or description of experiences or of psychological
Both of these kinds of ceremonies
-- the shamanic and the syncretic religious -- are quite different
from the psychotherapy rituals involving hallucinogens, group
or individual, which have arisen in the West, and which one could
call syncretic therapeutic. From an anthropological point
of view it is perfectly appropriate to call psychotherapy a kind
of ritual, -- a purposive, intentional structuring of a state
of consciousness. Psychoanalysis (originally called the "talking
cure") and most forms of psychotherapy use verbal dialogue as
the means for exploring consciousness. In recent times more "experiential"
forms have arisen, that may use breathing methods, movement, bodily
contact, music, or hypnotic regression to induce profoundly altered
states of consciousness. The use of psychedelics or empathogenics
(such as MDMA) in individual or group psychotherapy can be considered
in that context. Their use in structured ritualistic experiences
represents a radical departure from conventional psychiatric practice
with psychotropic medications, where drugs are simply given to
the patient and assumed to work without the conscious participation
of the patient or the doctor (Adamson, 1985; Grof, 1980).
I will briefly mention some of the
variations on the traditional rituals involving hallucinogens.
In the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church,
in North America, participants sit in a circle, in a tipi, on
the ground, around a blazing central fire. The ceremony goes all
night, and is conducted by a "roadman", with the assistance of
a drummer, a firekeeper, and a sageman (for purification). A staff
and rattle are passed around and participants sing the peyote
songs, which involve a rapid, rhythmic beat. The peyote ceremonies
of the Huichol Indians of Northern Mexico also take place around
a fire, with much singing and story-telling, after the long group
pilgrimage to find the rare cactus.
The ceremonies of the san pedro
cactus, in the Andean regions, are sometimes also done around
a fire, with singing; but sometimes the curandero sets
up an altar, on which are placed different symbolic figurines
and objects, representing the light and dark spirits which one
is likely to encounter.
The mushroom ceremonies (velada)
of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico, involve the participants
sitting or lying in a very dark room, with only a small candle.
The healer, who may be a woman or man, sings almost uninterruptedly,
throughout the night, weaving into her chants the names of Christian
saints, her spirit allies and the spirits of the earth, the elements,
animals and plants, the sky, the waters and the fire.
Traditional Indian ceremonies with
ayahuasca ceremonies also involve a small group sitting in a circle,
in semi-darkness, while the initiated healers sing the songs (icaros),
through which the healing and/or diagnosis takes place. These
songs also have a fairly rapid rhythmic pulse, which keeps the
flow of the experience moving along. Shamanic "sucking" methods
of extracting toxic psychic residues or poisonous implants are
The ceremonies involving the African
iboga plant, used by the Bwiti cult in Gabon, also involve
an altar with ancestral and deity images, and people sitting on
the floor with much chanting and some dancing. Ceremonies in North
America and Europe in which I have been a participant-observer,
have combined certain elements from the shamanic ritual form while
keeping intact the basic essentials: the structure of the circle;
the dedication of sacred ritual space with the invocation of protective
and teaching spirit allies; the cultivation of a respectful, spiritual
attitude; the semi-darkness; and the use of music, singing, rattling
and drumming; the presence of a more experienced elder or guide.
Some variation of the talking staff or singing staff
is often used: with this practice, which orginated among the Indians
of the Pacific Northwest, only the person who has the staff sings
or speaks, and there is no discussion, questioning or analysis
(as there might be in the therapeutic formats involving psychedelics).
While there are numerous other kinds
of set-and-setting rituals using hallucinogens in the modern West,
ranging from the casual, recreational "tripping" of a few friends
to "rave" events of hundreds or thousands, combining Ecstasy (MDMA)
with the continuous rhythmic pulse of "techno music", my research
has focussed on the traditional and neo-shamanic "medicine circles",
and what kind of transformations are undergone by participants
in such circles.
features of the emerging worldview associated
The basic model of reality, the understanding
of the cosmos, that is revealed by such experiences, is basically
similar to that shared by indigenous shamanistic cultures, and
radically different from the prevailing Western paradigm associated
with mechanistic science. (However, many features of the traditional
shamanic worldview overlap to a considerable degree with the most
recent and growing edge theories and findings of post-modern science).
Since there is no space here to document these basic ideas, or
present the evidence for them, I will merely state them here,
at the risk of oversimplification. I believe that were one to
question a number of long-term shamanic practicioners, with or
without hallucinogens, in traditional and modern societies, something
like this worldview would be shared by most of them.
* The fundamental reality of the
universe is a continuum, a unitive field or fabric, of energy
and consciousness, that is beyond time, space and all forms, and
yet within them.
* In traditional Asian religions,
this unitive field is variously referred to as Tao, or
Brahman. Some Native North Americans refer to it as Wakan-Tanka,
the Creator Spirit. In the systems language of post-modern science
it is seen as an infinitely complex system of interrelationships,
or "web of life" (Capra, 1996; Goldsmith, 1993).
* The world or cosmos is multidimensional.
In most shamanic traditions we have upper, middle and lower worlds;
in some mythic-shamanic traditions we have five, seven, nine or
more worlds; in esoteric traditions there are usually seven "levels
of consciousness". In modern systems theory, we speak of the multiple
levels of wholes and parts: clusters of galaxies, galaxies, solar
systems and planets; biosphere, ecosystems, populations and species;
societies, sub-cultures, organizations, tribes and families; organisms,
organ systems, cells, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles.
* The universal unitive field or
cosmic continuum has a basic symmetrical polarity, referred to
by names such as yin/yang, light/dark, positive/negative
charge, male/female, electric/magnetic, Father Sky - Mother Earth
and numerous others. These polarities can be observed and experienced
at all levels of reality, from the macrocosmic to the microscopic.
* The symmetrically polarized basic
continuum differentiates, at all levels, into an infinite variety
of names and forms, images and objects, identities and beings.
We can recognize this multiplicity at the level of galaxies, stars
and planets; in the biological diversity of plant and animal species
on Earth; in the cultural diversity of human societies; and in
the psychic multiplicity of our inner life.
* Since we are part of the unified
system of interdependence, just like every other being, we can
never actually be outside of it, like a detached "objective" observer.
But since the unified field is energy, we are energetically connected
to every other form and being in the universe. And since the field
is consciousness, this enables us, as human beings, to
attune with, identify with, and communicate with any and every
other life-form, object or being in the universe, from the macrocosmic
to the microscopic.
* It will be seen that the the above
is a re-statement of the belief system of animism3
-- which sees all material and biological forms as animated
by life and consciousness; and of shamanism, which practices
methods of intentionally attuning and identifying with all kinds
of forms and beings, via the unifying field of consciousness which
links us all. * Whereas the so-called "higher religions" associated
with literate, urban, industrial civilization tend to be monotheistic,
with a single (usually male) deity; the religious beliefs associated
with animism and shamanism is polytheistic, with an enormous variety
in the names and forms of gods and goddesses, particularized for
each culture and its mythic tradition. It is not uncommon for
participants in sessions with hallucinogenic plants to perceive
or feel the presence of deities or spirits from many different
cultures, including some with whom they have no genetic, biographical
or geographical connection.
of the animistic revival in
the present world situation
Having presented some of the fundamental
features of the animistic, indigenous worldview which is associated
with the revival of interest in shamanic practices, including
the use of hallucinogens, I now want to address the question of
what this means in the context of the present world situation.
What does it mean that people in large numbers are now returning
to these ancient traditions of spiritual and healing practice
in our world of multinational industrial corporations, of computers
and electronic networks?
It is widely understood that the
capitalist-industrial growth system, which now dominates the world
both economically and politically, is ravaging the biosphere life-support
systems and shredding the very fabric of life on this planet.
The annual State of the World reports issued by the Worldwatch
Institute document the full extent of the catastrophe with depressing
regularity (Brown et al., 1997). In 1992, over 1500 scientists
from 69 countries issued the World Scientists Warning to Humanity,
which stated: "Human beings and the natural world are on a
collision course.... A great change is required if vast human
misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is
not to be irretrievably mutilated." Human civilization on this
Earth appears to have produced a situation of ecological melt-down.
To return to my earlier argument,
I am saying that the unprecedented industrial-technological assault
on the biosphere we are witnessing in our time, is rooted in part
in the mechanistic science of the modern world, which deliberately
divorced itself from spirituality, values and consciousness. There
exists a vast separative gulf in common understanding between
what we regard as sacred and what we regard as natural. And yet,
out of the experiences of millions of individuals in the Western
world with hallucinogenic sacraments, as well as other shamanic
practices, we are seeing the re-emergence of the ancient integrative
worldview that sees all of life as an interdependent web of relationships,
that needs to be carefully protected and preserved.
One can see the parallels in several
cultural movements that seek to correct the dangerous imbalance
in humanity's relation to nature: in deep ecology and ecofeminism
which call for a respectful, egalitarian, ecocentric attitude
towards the natural world; in the organic gardening and farming
movements, which seek to return to traditional methods avoiding
chemical fertilizers and pesticides; in the movement to increased
use of herbal, nutritional and complementary medicine; and in
several other philosophical, scientific and religious movements
including bioregionalism, ecopsychology, living systems theory,
creation spirituality, ecotheology, and others (Ruether, 1992;
Spretnak, 1991; Metzner, 1997; Weil, 1990).
In these diverse movements, from
many disciplines, to transform our human perceptions, attitudes
and practices in relation to the Earth towards a healthier, non-exploitative,
non-dominating recognition of interrelatedness, the respectful
use of entheogenic plant medicines in spiritual/therapeutic contexts
may yet come to play a highly significant role.
1. This paper is based in part on
a presentation made at the conference of the International Transpersonal
Association (ITA), May 1996, in Manaus, Brazil.
2. A note on terminology: I use the
terms "psychedelic", "hallucinogenic" and "entheogenic" interchangeably.
Some object to the term "hallucinogenic" since a hallucination
is an illusory perception and these substances do not in fact
induce hallucinations. But the original meaning of the Latin alucinare
is to "wander in one's mind"; and travelling or journeying, in
inner space, are actually quite appropriate descriptive metaphors
for the experience induced by these substances. So I would like
to rehabilitate the term "hallucinogen".
3. Terence McKenna (1991) has written
of an "archaic revival", but to my mind it is the revival of animism
that is the crucial paradigm change here. The fact that animism
held sway in the archaic period is in some ways besides the point.
Adamson, S. (1985) (ed.) Through
the Gateway of the Heart - Accounts of Experiences with MDMA and
other Empathogenic Substances. San Francisco, CA: Four Trees
Brown, Lester et al. (1997) State
of the World - 1997. Worldwatch Institute. New York: W.W.
Norton & Co.
Capra, F. (1996) The Web of Life.
New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Goldsmith, E. (1993) The Way -
An Ecological World-View. Boston: Shambhala.
Grinspoon, L. & Bakalar, J.B.
(1979) Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. New York: Basic
Grof, S. (1980) LSD Psychotherapy.
Pomona, CA: Hunter House.
McKenna, T. (1991). The Archaic
Metzner, R. (1993) "The Split between
Spirit and Nature in European Consciousness". Noetic Sciences
Review, Spring, 1993; also in The Trumpeter, Vol 10:2,
Winter 1993; and in ReVision, Spring 1993, Vol 15:4.
Metzner, R. (1997). Spirit, Self
and Nature -- Essays in Green Psychology. Forthcoming.
Ruether, R.R. (1992) Gaia and
God - An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco:
Spretnak, C. (1992). States of
Grace - The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. San
Francisco: Harper Collins.
Weil, A. (1990) Natural Health,
Natural Medicine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.