Mind Hacks points me toward a National Geographic story about the use of a hallucinogenic healing ritual in Peru (with a photo and short video clip) Here are some excerpts with my comments:
According to [psychiatrist and pediatrician Charles] Grob, ayahuasca provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that can lead to temporary “ego disintegration,” as he calls it, allowing people to move beyond their defense mechanisms into the depths of their unconscious minds—a unique opportunity, he says, that cannot be duplicated by any nondrug therapy methods.
This “ego disintegration” was described as the way alcoholics can be freed from their addiction, and is the basis of the “12 Steps” which Bill Wilson and the other founders of Alcoholics Anonymous developed in the 1930s. American philosopher cum psychologist William James, in his landmark volume The Varieties of Religious Experience, also describes such an ego disintegration as a part of profound, transformative religious “conversion experiences” (see specifically Lecture X).
The article describes some current thoughts about the chemical compound used in the ritual:
Most ayahuasca researchers agree that, curiously, the compound appears to affect people on three different levels—the physical, psychological, and spiritual—complicating efforts to definitively catalog its effects, let alone explain specific therapeutic benefits. Says Ralph Metzner, psychologist, ayahuasca researcher, and editor of the book Sacred Vine of Spirits, “[Healing with ayahuasca] presumes a completely different understanding of illness and medicine than what we are accustomed to in the West. But even from the point of view of Western medicine and psychotherapy it is clear that remarkable physical healings and resolutions of psychological difficulties can occur with this medicine.”
The article profiles Hamilton Souther, a Californian who traveled to Peru (after a vision) to learn the healing rituals and become a “shaman” (I do not like that word used outside its original context of Asian shamans) himself:
Hamilton explains it this way: Everyone has an energetic body run by an inextinguishable life force. In Eastern traditions, this force, known as chi or prana, is manipulated through such things as acupuncture or yoga to run smoothly and prevent the buildup of the negative energies that cause bodily disease, mental illness, and even death. To Amazonian shamans, however, these negative energies are actual spirit entities that attach themselves to the body and cause mischief. In everyone, Hamilton asserts, there is a loving “higher self,” but whenever unpleasant thoughts enter a person’s mind—anger, fear, sorrow—it’s because a dark spirit is hooked to the body and is temporarily commandeering the person’s mind. In some cases, he adds, particularly evil spirits from the lowest hell of the “astral realms” take over a person permanently—known as full-blown demonic possession—creating a psychopathic mind that seeks only to harm others.
The article describes some of the process and consequences of the healing rituals:
But the curious should take heed: The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.
“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.
”Everyone receives a plastic basin—known ominously as a “vomit bucket”—and a roll of toilet paper for wiping our mouths after puking; this can be expected during most ceremonies, unless, as the shamans say, people are used to suppressing their feelings. Many mistakenly think that holding back emotions is a sign of strength and control; actually, Hamilton says, it’s the opposite. Avoidance, a refusal to face painful feelings, is a weakness; unless this suppression stops, a person will never be healed of physical and psychological issues.
Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.
“Tell the spirits to leave you with ease,” Hamilton says to me.
“They won’t!” I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make.
The shamans believe that whenever a traumatic event happens to us, we lose part of our spirit, that it flees the body to survive the experience. And that unless a person undergoes a shamanistic “soul retrieval,” these parts will be forever lost.
(I have been present during what I think was a “soul retrieval” ritual after a traumatic event, and know an individual who drowned, and had to have the soul brought back.)
There is some reference in the article to something my partner is working with: the notion that there may be some quantum theoretical implications in this work:
Shamans will tell you that during an ayahuasca cleansing they’re not working with the contents of a person’s hallucination but are actually visiting that person in whatever plane of reality his or her spirit happens to be. We are not, they insist, confined to the reality of our five senses, but can transcend it and enter a multidimensional universe.
Their perspective is not unlike that presented by quantum theorists, such as David Bohm, who describe a holographic universe with coexisting realms of reality. To Amazonian shamans, there are an infinite number of such realms, each as distinct from one another as London or Paris, each inhabited by beings with certain appearances, abilities, and customs. To become a master shaman, they contend, one must learn to negotiate these worlds, to enlist the assistance of their various denizens, to become comfortable working in places of light and darkness.
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