More about shamanism

In my last post I wrote that learning to journey in Dreamtime has profoundly influenced my philosophy. It made me reconsider my understanding of reality. My primary shamanic teacher, Michael Harner, described shamanic journeying in Dreamtime as “another reality that you can personally discover.” He said that shamanism is closer to science than religion, because it’s empirical – based on direct experience. If Dreamtime is “real,” this has implications for science in particular and philosophy in general.

Nowhere in his writings does Shakespeare use the word science in its modern sense. Science is a branch of philosophy, and in Shakespeare’s time what we call science was called philosophy. So, his famous quote about reality, translated into modern English, would read, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your science.” I agree. Science is very good at what it’s good  at, but it’s only one of several lenses we can look through to examine phenomena. Science can tell us things about consciousness, but it can’t definitively explain what consciousness is. That’s why we have another branch of philosophy called metaphysics.

What is “real” can’t be determined objectively, without taking consciousness into account. The term “altered state of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a standard, or ordinary, state of consciousness. I’ve come to believe that there is a range of “ordinary” states of consciousness. Our mental state while solving a math problem, meditating, playing a musical instrument, debating, or dancing are all examples of ordinary states of consciousness. But there are other states of consciousness that only some people experience in their lifetimes, either by ingesting mind-altering substances, or by engaging in activities or practices that induce non-ordinary states of awareness. Some of these are sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, prolonged pain, pranayama breathing, prolonged prayer or chanting, shamanic journeying, and vision quests.

William James, “the father of American psychology” wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it . . . there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

I believe that everybody wears cultural blinders of some kind, depending on what they were raised to believe, or their rejection of what they were raised to believe. As I’ve written in previous posts, none of us can escape living in a “reality tunnel” – a mental map of reality – although we may convert from one reality tunnel (e.g. Irish Catholic, Amish, Inuit, Mormon, atheist Bohemian, gay activist, political revolutionary, etc.) to another, one or more times in our lives. I reject the idea that there is any belief system that is objectively and demonstrably superior to all others. That’s why I consider myself to be a “guerrilla ontologist” – agnostic about most things.

There are some reports in shamanic lore of shared hallucinations/visions – like several people reporting having seen the identical sequence of spirit animals presenting themselves around the ceremonial fire in the sacred circle, after a ceremony involving the ingestion of vision-inducing substances. Michael Harner told the story of taking a vision-inducing drug in the Amazon, under the supervision of a local shaman. When he later told the shaman that he’d encountered lizard-like creatures who had told him that they were the true rulers of the  universe, the shaman laughed and said, “Oh, they’re always saying that!”

The implications of this worldview are radical in light of the common belief in Western society that there’s only one reality, which we can all apprehend and comprehend: consensus reality. It addresses a central question in espistemology – how do we know what’s real? We all have to believe in some fundamental premises (e.g. is there a God?) that undergird our worldviews and life choices. We can be rigid or fluid, dogmatic or agnostic, when it comes to interpreting the evidence of our senses. I agree with Saint Augustine, who said that we must believe in order that we may know, and know in order that we may believe.

According to shamanic lore, spirit animals (shamanic allies) inhabit a different plane of existence than our own normal reality, and have knowledge to impart to shamans about healing and magic. What shamans receive from the allies they bond with in Dreamtime and bring back to the waking world with them is sacred knowledge and personal power. What the spirit animal gets in return is the experience of seeing our world through the shaman’s eyes.

Dr. Harner did a lot in his lifetime to teach people about ancient shamanic traditions, and to keep shamanic studies alive in this country and in other countries around the world. You can learn more at the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, at


The meaning of dreams

We spend roughly one third of our lives unconscious, and when we’re asleep we’re unaware of our immediate surroundings. But sometimes during sleep, we’re aware of ourselves in a realm of illusions. We remain ourselves in our dreams; but the people, animals, places and things we encounter may transform.  A dream has a sequence of events but, unlike a story, it has no contrived plot. So, why do we dream, and what is the meaning of our dreaming? It depends on who you ask.

Dreams are regarded as sacred and/or prophetic in some cultures, and the interpretation of dreams is an ancient and widespread practice. In many cultures the interpretations have been made by priests, priestesses or shamans, proceeding from the assumption that dreams mean something in our waking lives. Many modern sleep scientists would disagree, believing that dream content is the result of random neural  firings, connected to memory retrieval. One theory about why we dream is that it’s the way the brain sorts and edits new memories for later retrieval.

The history of modern dream analysis in Western culture starts with the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he called dreaming “the royal road to the unconscious.” Along with free association, dream analysis was a component of Freudian psychoanalysis, used as a key for the unlocking of repressed thoughts and feelings. Freudian dream analysis has to do with themes such as wish fulfillment, unconscious desires, and anxiety related to conflicts in the dreamer’s life.

Carl Jung is perhaps best known for his concept of the collective unconscious. Jungian dream analysis is similar to Freud’s, in that it delves beneath the surface content of the dream as described by the dreamer (latent content), to explore the unconscious, symbolic meanings (manifest content). Jung’s system differed from Freud’s, in that Jungian therapists related the dream’s symbolic content to universal mythic themes in the collective unconscious, and archetypes such as The Mother, The King and The Hero.

While in grad school, I attended a leaderless gestalt dream interpretation group. Both theory and method were different from Freudian and Jungian dream analysis. The constant focus in gestalt therapy is staying in the here-and-now of your direct experience; and in the dream group you first related all that you remembered of your dream, in the present tense: “I’m walking on barren ground, in the middle of nowhere. I see a house in the distance and I’m walking toward it. As I get closer, I see that the house is deserted and falling apart. The wood creaks beneath me as I walk up the steps to the porch. The wood is rotten and I’m afraid I’ll fall through the floor, but I have to go inside. . . .” After the whole dream had been related in this manner, the dreamer would then take on the role of objects from the dream: “I’m a house in the middle of nowhere. I look good from the distance, but I’m actually falling apart. Nobody would want to live in me. . . .” After the dreamer finished, a group member might ask what it feels like to be this house, and the group would discuss possible meanings, before going on to the next dream object.

Things that happen to us  in our dreams often mirror circumstances that arouse our anxieties in our waking lives. Fear, anxiety, helplessness, frustration, and shame (e.g. naked-in-public dreams) are frequent emotional states experienced in dreams. Most of us have gone to school, and I expect that we’ve all had school dreams. I’ve done some stage acting, and I imagine that every stage actor has had some variation of a recurring dream theme from my acting days:  I’m onstage, the curtain is about to open on a full house, and I can’t remember what play I’m cast in, let alone my first line of dialogue. I’ve had very few nightmares as an adult, but a frequent theme in the dreams I remember is frustration, e.g. I need to get somewhere from where I am in a foreign city, but I’ve misplaced my luggage (or my car key) and can’t leave until I recover it. And then I can’t find my car, and the streets and buildings keep changing. It’s such a relief to wake up and realize that I’m right where I need to be, with no immediate problem to solve.

I’ve had some dreams that were so vivid, I’ve had to convince myself that they weren’t real. Researching the subject, I’ve come to believe that they were hypnogogic hallucinations, which occur in the twilight state between consciousness and unconsciousness, before falling asleep. Similar hallucinations that occur in the twilight state between sleep and wakefulness are called hypnopompic hallucinations.

Another unconventional dream state is lucid dreaming, where the dreamer becomes aware of being in a dream, and can control its content. I’ve had a few lucid dreams and have heard many claims that it’s a learnable skill. Some proficient lucid dreamers say that they can fly in dreams, overcome any adversary, and have sex with anyone they want. If you want to learn more about lucid dreaming, I highly recommend Richard Linklater’s 2001 animated film, “Waking Life.”

Dreams are but one of the mysteries of consciousness, and I believe that what they “mean” is ultimately subjective. Ancient shamanic tradition has it that Dreamtime is a real world parallel to our own, and that those who can “journey” in Dreamtime can heal people and work magic in the waking world. Whatever clues or signals dreams may hold in regard to our waking lives, their interpretation is culture-bound, and there are no authoritative answers to our questions about this mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon.

It’s only Monday if you think it is

This post is one of my occasional philosophical departures from my usual subject matter. Although it isn’t specifically about rational thinking (which I’ve written about in previous posts), it is about mental habits and how they can shape our experience. I even intend to examine what “is” is.

Things that we know and experience through our senses are phenomena: rain, wind, temperature, the day/night cycle, seasons, etc. Mental concepts – noumena – such as justice, authority, honor, nationality and race don’t exist in the same way rain exists. For one thing, they’re not Absolutes; they mean different things to different people. And yet we often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain. Race used to be thought of as a biologically-based reality. Now we know that it’s a social construct based on culture and tradition. All homo sapiens belong to the human race, despite variations in outward appearances.

Days, months and years are all phenomenal, based on planetary rotation, the lunar cycle, and the earth’s orbit around the sun, respectively. The convention of the week, however is noumenal – it isn’t based on any natural phenomenon. The seven-day week has long been the standard way of sub-dividing months throughout the industrialized world, and most of us organize how we spend our time using this noumenal convention.  “Monday” (for instance) is a social construct.  But it’s only Monday if you think it is.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine waking up on the beach, alone, on a desert island. You’ve been delirious with a fever and don’t know how long you were “out of it,” so you’ve lost track of what day it “is.” You have no sensory way of determining it, and it doesn’t even matter in any practical way whether it “is” Monday or Tuesday, because you’re not on anybody’s schedule. Will you arbitrarily choose a day of the week as your baseline and keep track of what day it “is”? Or will you adopt a different mode of thinking and just live each day on the island, without having to give it a name?

Even though it’s just a mental construct that most of us buy into, the day of the week may control our actions and thoughts, and even our moods. You might hear someone who works Monday through Friday complain about having the blues “because it’s Monday.” He’ll predictably perk up five days later because it “is” Friday, the start of the weekend (another noumenal concept). Which brings us to the question of what “is” is.

“Is” can be used to cite a phenomenal reality (it is raining), a noumenal belief (it is Monday), or to state a quality or property of a thing (the apple is red) – the Aristotelean “is of equivalency.” In the first instance, regardless of what I may believe, I’ll get wet if I step outside when it’s raining. As regards the second instance, wars have been fought over where, exactly, the border between two countries “is.” In the third instance, if one person in a room says “It is hot in here” and another person in the room says “No, it’s not,” one of them has to be wrong. What “is” is the basis of many a dispute, whether interpersonal or international. Such disputes can be avoided by dropping the pretense of objective truth implied by an “is of equivalency,” and “subjectivising” the statements: “I’m hot.”/ “I’m not.” No conflict about what “is.” Whether or not Sally “is” pretty can be viewed as a matter of subjective opinion, not of objective fact. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

E-prime – English that omits all forms of “is” – is a tool for learning about the linguistic traps that can be set by its use. Nobody has ever suggested that E-prime should replace English. (It’s often more precise than English, but doesn’t lend itself to poetic word formulations.) But try writing without using is/am/are/were etc. and it will help you to appreciate how much you tend to unconsciously objectivise things you believe to be true or important.

Here are some translations of English sentences into E-prime: English – She is pretty. E-prime – I find her attractive/pretty. English – This is really difficult.  E-prime – I really have a hard time doing this. English – Look, it’s a UFO! E-prime – I can’t identify that flying object. English – Time is money. E-prime – Earning money correlates to a high degree with the way you spend your time. English – This is Monday. E-prime – Because of the social convention of the seven-day week, most people think of today as Monday. English – He is a liar. E-prime – He lies a lot. English – God is love. E-prime – I believe in God as the embodiment of love.

There’s some overlap in the ideas I’ve written about here and my previous posts on rational thinking and cognitive behavior therapy. Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of language. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.”

Some irrational self-talk involves the “is of equivalency.” The thought “I am a Loser” presupposes that people are either Winners or Losers and might mean any of several things to different people. It might mean “I think that I lose more often than I should” or it might mean “I’m destined to fail, no matter what I do.” In either case it’s an irrational simplification that can’t help anyone to achieve their goals. “Being a Loser” is a self-limiting noumenal notion.

It’s only Monday (or Tuesday, etc.) if you think it is. Monday isn’t real in the same way that rain is real.


The mystery of consciousness

In this post I’m going to depart from my usual subject matter to explore something related to psychology, but belonging more to the study of philosophy. Somewhere down the road in this blog I intend to explore topics not directly related to psychotherapy, such as the effects of language on consciousness, the traps of language, and even what “is” is.

Psychology is a relatively young science. Some of the earliest psychologists thought that consciousness should be the primary focus of psychology; but it can’t be observed and measured. Behavior can, so psychology is now understood as the study of human behavior. Consciousness clearly exists in the universe, or I wouldn’t have written this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Although consciousness is self-evident, science can’t account for it, and it’s relegated to the realm of metaphysics. American psychologist and philosopher William James (who had experimented with the effects of nitrous oxide and ether on consciousness) had this observation: “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of  consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different . . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question . . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

James clearly believed that the mystery of consciousness is a vital piece of the cosmic puzzle. But I need to comment on his phrase, “Our normal waking consciousness.” The whole notion of the term “altered states of consciousness” rests on the assumption that there’s a standard, or normal, state of waking consciousness – which I don’t think is the case. To my way of thinking there’s a spectrum of  “normal” states of consciousness (SOCs). I’m in one SOC when I’m engaged in a debate, another when I’m solving a math problem, another when I’m absorbed in a story, and yet another when I’m dancing. All of these are normal states of waking consciousness. This range of normal experiences can be altered in profound ways by drugs, meditative practices, symptoms of mental illness, and other life experiences.

I’ve already written about ways to change your experiences by changing the way you think. But before I expand on non-drug consciousness alteration, I need to be candid about my own psychedelic experiences. (I actually met both Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term “psychedelic,” and Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD.) It’s not my intention to promote the use of psychedelic substances to anyone, but I do think more research needs to be done on their therapeutic use. There are many factors to be considered before taking a psychedelic drug, including the possibility of mental illness, dosage and purity of the substance, as well as one’s mental set and the setting in which the drug is taken.

I haven’t taken a psychedelic drug in years, but in my hippie days I “tripped” many times – mostly on LSD, but also on peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve never had a “bad trip,” and I believe that my philosophy has benefitted from having experienced SOCs so discontinuous with my “normal” experience that I can’t find words to do them justice. In psychedelic consciousness both perception and cognition are altered in a way that’s unimaginable without experiencing it first-hand. Almost all of my trips had a strong spiritual element, unattached to any specific religious tradition. Especially on high dosages, I felt a oneness-with-the-universe that’s beyond description.

I may never get answers to all of my questions about consciousness, but it’s my Grail Quest. Some books have helped me along the way. After reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I went on to read Daniel Goleman’s Varieties of Meditative Experience and Masters and Houston’s Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. I’ve also read much of Varieties of Anomalous Experience, published by the American Psychological Association, which explores the scientific literature on such purported phenomena as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, lucid dreams, mysticism, “psychic abilities,” and reincarnation. All of these books explore aspects of consciousness, and I recommend them all to any readers who share my fascination with the topic. The best book I’ve ever read on the psychedelic experience was Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology.

What consciousness “is” depends on who you ask. Some philosophers have a materialist frame of reference and view consciousness as a byproduct, or epiphenomenon, of biological existence. From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness arose in complex organisms, allowing them to detect and avoid threats in their environments, enhancing their odds of survival. Science favors a materialist viewpoint. Philosophers with an idealist frame of reference view consciousness as a (or the) fundamental underpinning of the cosmos, or as the cosmic glue that holds everything together – much like The Force in the Star Wars movies. Many religions have an idealist frame. For instance, Hinduism holds that the material world is an illusion – the veil of maya that hides the true, non-dual reality of Brahman.

This post will serve as a point of departure for some future posts about the mystery of consciousness. I won’t be blogging next week, as I need to focus on another writing project. I wish you Godspeed and good fortune in the New Year!