Mind Magic

Being a psychologist, I’ve done a lot of thinking and studying about the human brain – the organ that makes us “the magic animal.” Humans can not only see things as they are, but as they could be. Our cognitive abilities and our imaginations allow us to create cultures and cities and symphony orchestras and entertaining stories about things that never happened.

It was my privilege, as a therapist, to be a witness to people changing their lives in positive ways. I’ve seen parents become better at raising their children. I’ve seen violent people learn that anger needn’t lead to violence, and learn to control their behavior no matter how angry they got. I’ve seen couples discover deep emotional intimacy while respecting one another’s boundaries. I’ve long suspected that major changes in a person’s behavior patterns (i.e. mastering anger management) was probably causing structural synaptic changes in their brains. Synaptic pathways mediate both emotions and behaviors.

My suspicions have been validated in recent years by research on brain neuroplasticity. Our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves structurally and functionally, by forming new neural connections. Brains can “re-wire” themselves to compensate for injury or disease, and to adjust to new or changing situations. My guess is that the brains of bilingual people have more complex neural pathways related to speech and language than people who only speak one language. I suspect that it gets easier over time for formerly violent people to use their anger management skills, because daily practice creates new neural connections, new reflex behaviors.

The human brain has a wide repertoire  of states of consciousness (SOCs). The very notion of “altered states of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a “standard” SOC – which is clearly not the case. Your SOC is different when you solve a math problem, or listen to music, or perform in front of an audience, or make love. So, I submit that we have a range of standard SOCs, which everyone experiences, as well as a range of alternate SOCs – some of which not everyone will experience. Taking drugs – including alcohol and nicotine – reliably alters consciousness in a variety of predictable ways. I won’t get into drugs as a means of altering consciousness in this post, other than to recommend Michael Pollan’s  book, How To Change Your Mind, which is about the potential of psychedelic experiences to bring about  lasting positive changes in peoples’ lives – even after a single “trip.”

I’d like to briefly share some of the things I’ve learned about our potential to “change our minds” without using drugs. Rational thinking  is a learnable skill. We all have rational and irrational thoughts. Many people can’t tell the difference between  them and sometimes act on irrational thoughts, complicating their lives. Rational thinkers are people who can differentiate their rational thoughts from their irrational thoughts, and make rational decisions. I believe that the brains of rational thinkers are wired differently – through practice – than the brains of those who can’t tell the difference. Active listening is a learnable skill that improves receptivity to nuances of interpersonal dialogue and music appreciation, among other things. Over decades of listening to classical music, I’ve become a better listener. Listening is often a passive process, but active listening is mindful listening, with no intruding thoughts.

Hypnosis is generally understood as a SOC “induced” by a hypnotist, where the brain is receptive to suggestion. People who are good hypnotic subjects can learn self-hypnosis to relieve pain, overcome bad habits, and otherwise improve their lives. Meditation is similar to active listening only in that it involves mental focus. But in active listening, the mind is focused on some external thing, whether words or music. Experienced meditators can maintain awareness,without any object of that awareness. There are things to be learned by simple, sustained awareness that can’t be learned by thinking, or be put into words. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation where the meditator is focused on their immediate experience, to the exclusion of thoughts about what they’re experiencing – especially judgments like good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Walking or chopping wood can be the focus of mindfulness meditation.

Not everyone experiences all of these SOCs; some require preparation and effort. Training that I received from anthropologist and practicing shaman Dr. Michael Harner enabled me to experience the shamanic state of consciousness, in which I’ve had vivid experiences of “journeying” in Dreamtime and encountering spirit animals. You can learn more about the techniques of shamanic journeying at http://www.shamanism.org, the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which Dr. Harner founded.

While I agree with Michael Pollan that psychedelic “trips” can, under the right conditions, be profound, positive life-changing experiences, I wrote this post as an overview of non-drug SOCs that can change our minds and lives. If you want to know more about any of these tools for personal growth, I’ve written in more detail about psychedelic consciousness, shamanic journeying, rational thinking, active listening, hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness in previous posts. You’ll also find a few entertaining stories about things that never happened.

Your mind is magical.

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 http://www.shamanism.org.



Most of what I know about shamanism I learned from Dr. Michael Harner, an internationally renowned anthropologist and author – and a practicing shaman, himself. I’d read his book, The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. I was just embarking on a career as a psychotherapist, working in rural Alabama, when I learned that Dr. Harner would be presenting a one-day shamanic training workshop in Birmingham. I signed up right away, and that one day has had a profound influence on my philosophy.

I tend to trust science when it’s done right, and tend to be skeptical when it comes to unproven supernatural or psychic explanations for things. But, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I’m ultimately an agnostic about most things. I tend to think in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties. But I’ve experienced some things that I consider real, that exist outside of the scientific paradigm. Shamanic “journeying” is one of them. Dr. Harner  was the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He died earlier this year.

What initially drew me to explore shamanic practice was Harner’s contention that there was a core shamanism that existed in every known pre-literate, “primitive” culture. The similarities between shamanic practices, whether in the Americas, Siberia, Africa, Australia, etc. suggested that they existed and endured because they were effective as a means of healing. The shaman’s lore shouldn’t be dismissed as primitive, superstitious nonsense.

Think about the stereotypes of the “witchdoctor” or “medicine man” in popular culture. They paint their faces and bodies, they beat drums and dance to the drumbeat, they shake rattles, they sing or chant. Sometimes they eat or smoke sacred substances. There’s some truth behind these clichés. In many so-called primitive cultures, shamans have acquired detailed knowledge of natural substances that induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Shamans also know methods of inducing ASCs without using drugs. ASCs, or visionary mental states, are an integral component of shamanic practice.

Michael Harner taught me and a few other apprentice shamans to achieve what he called the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), without having to ingest consciousness altering substances. He taught us that certain drumming resonances and rhythms can induce a “visionary” altered state of consciousness that enables you to journey in the eternal realm of Dreamtime, and encounter spirit allies. In most cultures that I’m aware of, these allies take the form of animals; in others, they manifest as ancestors.

Dreamtime has been regarded as an alternate reality in many ancient, pre-literate cultures for millennia, all over the world. The methods for entering Dreamtime seem to me to be universal. Certain kinds of shamanic wisdom are obtained by ingesting sacred substances such as peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca; but none of my experiences of shamanic journeying involved taking any drugs. On one level, I took a workshop taught by an anthropologist. On another level, a shaman taught me how to alter my consciousness and journey to, and in, a realm outside of ordinary consciousness. Just as there is no way to adequately describe how “psychedelic” consciousness is different from ordinary states of consciousness to a person who has never taken a hallucinogen, you have to experience the SSC to understand what it’s like.

Harner primarily used drumming to induce the SSC in workshop participants, and had an experienced drummer as an assistant.  He first had us dance to a slow drumbeat, eyes half-closed in a dimly lit room, instructing us to lie down on our backs and cover our eyes when we started to feel “heavy.” When the drumbeat became faster, he told us to remember and visualize someplace in our experience that symbolized entry into the “lower world” of our unconscious – a cave mouth or a hole in the ground – and to enter it. He had encouraged us to explore this other reality we would emerge into after passing through a tunnel. He had coached us on interacting with certain spirit animals we might encounter, binding them to us when we felt a connection, and bringing them back with us when we returned to ordinary consciousness. Animals that looked hostile or bared their teeth should be avoided.

Shamanic journeying is a vivid visual experience of walking, running or flying in a colorful world containing forests, meadows, streams, lakes, chasms and mountains. It’s different from dreams, meditation, guided fantasy or hypnotic trance. This world is inhabited by spirit animals, or allies as they are known in some traditions. The first task we were given in the workshop was to seek out our totem animal spirits – a bird, a fox, a bear, whatever -and, if possible (if it agreed to come),  bring it back with us after the drummer changed rhythms, signaling that it was time to return to the waking world.

After returning from our first journeys in Dreamtime, we talked about our experiences. All of us apprentice shamans had achieved the SSC, and reported similar experiences of encountering spirit animals in a vivid, colorful world. Some of us had brought back spirit allies we’d encountered. By the end of the workshop we’d made another journey, this time to the “upper world.” I bought a high-fidelity cassette tape of shamanic drumming, so I could continue to journey in the upper and lower worlds on my own. I’ve never claimed to have shamanic healing powers. All I know, through my personal experiences using an ancient technique to enter the SSC and explore Dreamtime, is that there are good reasons for shamanism’s universality in the ancient world, and for its endurance over time.

I’ll write more about shamanism in my next post.