Initiation Part 3: Making Do Without A Guide
In the previous two pieces in this series, I've dealt with what initiation is, and how its absence poses as a sort of "crisis" in our culture. I'd like to turn to my own life now in an attempt to deal with the inevitable questions that follow from this: "what do we do about it?" And also, perhaps, "how deep does this rabbit-hole really go?"
When I was sixteen I had my first real contact with one of these crises. In every way, it falls in line with the "afflictions" that are listed for would-be shamans. Somataform, relapsing and remitting but essentially unending illness -- a problem that still effects me to this day -- visions, some of them so intense and unexpected as to be completely overwhelming, and a sudden contact with a world that anyone in this culture would describe as schizophrenic. I began talking to entities that I encountered in the woods, or at physical crossroads. They would ask me to do things, and I would often do them without a second thought. They would ask me for possession of my body for a time, and I would, with the usual "what the fuck?" nonchalance of a sixteen year old, give them complete and free access, just to see what might happen. I fed my blood as penance to trees in a forest where I was told -- by the forest, mind you -- that a burial ground had been disturbed. (Odd fact: later research showed that there was indeed an Indian burial ground nearby, and the elementary / middle school I went to was actually built right near it.) I could go on, my point is that, by all accounts within this society, I had gone from a sensitive, artistic child, obviously a bit odd, a bit of a loner but "normal" nevertheless, to someone on the very brink of some kind of complete and total breakdown. No one knew what to do with me.
And so the medications began. This is the prescribed course of treatment within our mental health paradigm: a couple questionnaires, ("do you hear voices? Y/N", "are you a deranged lunatic? Y/N", etc), and then a seemingly endless trial-and-error process with often clinically suspect substances. They threw one thing into me after the other -- Paxil, Prozac, Depakote, drugs with names that sound like alien races from Star Trek -- and each one produced worse results. I couldn't see straight, my penis stopped working, I couldn't stand, I was puking every day, I had suicidal thoughts so strong that I had to curl into a ball for hours until they passed -- something that never happened before the meds. Paxil made me think I had a parasitic, symbiotic organism living in my throat that was controlling my thoughts, and on and on.
Yet the doctors continued to say, "no, let us just adjust your meds. You're just experiencing mild side effects." After a point I couldn't tell what was my own insanity and what was a reaction to my body rejecting the chemicals they were haphazardly throwing into it. It was very quickly apparent to me that they were shooting in the dark more than I was. And part of it was because, rather than treating my psychological effects, my visions and so on, as symptoms of my body, my mind, my spirit trying to tell me something, and that whether or not you give any credence to the exterior existence of the entities I claimed were trying to communicate with me, they simply saw them as something no more clinically relevant than a fart in a patient complaining of gas. Perhaps if I had Jung as a psychologist, we would have made progress. But I did not, and when I mentioned Jung to my doctor, they dismissed him as "someone that could no longer be considered a real scientist." (Are you beginning to see why the psychologist and patient relationship is one that has worked its way into so many of my subsequent works?)
This was another element of my personality that was still already well developed at that point; I always trusted my experience over that of the "experts." I was never afraid to come off like a pompous upstart, questioning a billion dollar industry, thousands of clinical trials, or the philosophy behind two hundred years of psychoanalytic history if it simply didn't jive with what I was experiencing, and, more to the point, what my gut told me. I knew I had to find something else, and after my hopes were dashed again and again that I could find the answers I needed within the culture around me, I started to look outside of it.
What I needed, and what I never did manage to find, was a shaman. Forgive me if the following definition is unnecessary for most of you, but just to be clear,
"Shamanism is important not only for the place it holds in the history of mysticism. The shamans have played an essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community. They are pre-eminently the antidemonic champions; they combat not only demons and disease, but also the black magicians. . . . In a general way, it can be said that shamanism defends life, health, fertility, the world of 'light' against death, disease, sterility, disaster and the world of 'darkness'" (Eliade, pg. 508, Shamanism).
Now clearly some of this refers to what most of us would call superstition. And due to a mixture of superstitious "magical thinking," and cultural differences, the entirety of the shamanic role is essentially white-washed (perhaps the unintentional pun is a poignant one.) This is a joke I play with in the screenplay for Fallen Nation, when the modern embodiment of Dionysus confronts his psychiatrist,
DIONYSUS: What experience gives you the right to be my shaman?
DOCTOR FEIN (blinks a moment before replying): I'm sorry? I'm a psychiatrist. And I'm here to help you, but only if you want it.
DIONYSUS: I just spent the past three hours driving myself nuts trying to figure out what caused my most recent bout of heartburn. Could be repressed childhood trauma. Could be the awful food you feed me. The meds. It could be the displaced, angry spirit of an Ibo tribesman who, for reasons passing understanding, feels the need to take out his vengeance on my bowels. Any excuse I can come up with to explain the sensation is just that... an EXCUSE. A guess.
If you don't know what is giving me heartburn, then how the fuck are you supposed to treat me? Not a shaman, not even a real doctor.
Viewed from within the various myths of modernity, demons are psychological forces that either by design or happenstance are destructive to the integrity of the core identity; health and fertility have been mapped out quite elegantly in scientific terms, even if science excels much more at the "how" than the "what," of such issues. In other words, within the frameworks of our myths, we understand how reproduction occurs with greater detail than a traditional shaman, but we are much in the dark as to what it means that we reproduce, from whence our consciousness comes or goes, if it does indeed do either at all, and on and on. In other words, within our present cultural models it is easier to look at a shaman as a sort of priest, even if their role within most traditional cultures was more somewhere between doctor, psychiatrist, priest, and honored outcast. I bring all of this up in light regard to our present discussion because the intertwined issues of spiritual and psychological "guidance" have mostly been pushed to the wayside in our culture. If there is such a thing, "guidance" comes in the form of pure indoctrination. (Which is not to say that this is a historically new occurrence. Nor that all forms of guidance aren't indoctrination in some form: but there is a difference between being taught to cook, being fed a meal, and being shot up with heroin instead. As a guide or teacher, one can intend liberation, enslavement, or something in-between.)
To return to our semblance of a narrative, here is this uppity, sixteen year old kid that has the audacity to question the prescribed treatment. After all, what is adolescence for but brazen rebellion? And what else would an adolescent at that point do but turn to their peers? This is the point at which this story gets interesting, at least so far as I am concerned. While these effects were beginning to manifest for me, a small group of "outsider" kids such as myself had banded into a strange little group; full of adolescent posturing and all the rest, but there was something else going on there too. We would go out into the woods, and without having a clue what we were doing or why, we would conduct rituals. And, though in varying degrees and ways -- they experienced their own versions of the "craziness" that I too was experiencing.
The mythologized but nevertheless full tale of all of this was retold in my first novel, Join My Cult!, which New Falcon press, rather oddly, chose to publish with little or no revision or editorial. There is a large part of me that feels embarrassed about it now -- I pulled absolutely no punches in revealing the histrionic absurdity of myself, or my friends; and some of that was a joke, there is a lot of humor in there, but there's also a lot of honesty too, which is I guess why, to my surprise, that book did find an audience, however relatively small it was.
I am rushing you through those details because I want to talk about this from a slightly different angle than I could there. I'd like to look at it, fifteen years on, as a symptom of the "initiatory crisis" that we have discussed in several sections of this book. I was not the only one going through this painful crisis, even though all of our crises were our own certainly, and I could only write from my own warped perspective. That is what is culturally relevant; not the particular story, but the fact that it is a symptom of something larger.
As we've explored, adolescence is always the crisis point, in any culture, when individuation has reached a point that a society must snatch up the unwary youth and consecrate them for a task. We have no such thing, and the outsiders are the worst off for it. To this day I know many people that I care for very much who are deeply in need of a shaman. They are in need of something that almost no modern psychotherapist can provide, because modern psychotherapy has been, forgive the dramatization, gobbled up by the pharmacological-industrial complex; by the mythology of homogeny that is a pre-requisite of industry. (Successful industry depends on homogeneous parts, and it depends upon predictable behavior, which un-trained humans do not follow. Without wandering the dirty halls of conspiracy theory, it is a matter of simple fact that over the past two hundred years, a-culturation and "education" programs have been geared more and more towards this singular goal: of making tools out of humans that best serve within the structure of a global industrial machine. Does that sound ominous and doomsaying? Perhaps. And certainly we can spin it through the myth of progress and make it a good thing -- but the moral bias aside, it is a matter of historical fact.)
So we have these people, people like me, who may very well have a great deal to contribute to the world, but who really have no place within this system, no culturally recognized value, because that value is not easily monetized. Though we are not shamans because, at the least, we've never been officially trained as such, even most trained shamans would have no place here. They would either need to "get with the program," or they might be that toothless man that just yelled at you as you were rushing down the street and into the subway.
We are left without a cultural place, like many of those in third world countries, who have been raped by this same system to such a degree that outsiders in this culture can't even begin to dream of. (I've never had to root through garbage to eek out a living.) We are left to make the best of what tools are provided to us within our personal networks, we are left to fall back on another prominent American myth: the myth of the individual.
Of course, many outsiders do stake a claim within the mainstream society, by hook or by crook as they say. I have met many self-made CEO's who never finished high school. I have met several -- though fewer -- self-made CEO's and entrepreneurs who went through their own "shamanic initiatory crisis," who traveled all the way to the "other side" of those Doors of Perception, and returned with the ability to traverse this world with a foot in the other world. To beat them at their own game, to use the system to their benefit and get away with it. This is quite a high-wire act, however. As Immortal Technique says on his first album Revolutionary Vol. 1:
Nigga talk about change and working within the system to achieve that. The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it's not you who changes the system; it's the system that will eventually change you. There is usually nothing wrong with compromise in a situation, but compromising yourself in a situation is another story completely, and I have seen this happen long enough in the few years that I've been alive to know that it's a serious problem. The idea of being a sort of Robin Hood is appealing. Robin Hood is actually an excellent example of the myth of a forced outsider, (forced into the role, stripped of rank), who, in following his heart's egalitarian values rather than the laws of the land, attempts to "stick it to the man" with the aid of his "merry men": all outsiders themselves.
On its face, it even seems simple enough; looking at the corporate world from the outside, it seems like a fairly simple "secret society" to infiltrate. I've lost count of how many times I've seen people, and companies, tread this path and discover the paradox. I know I espoused "selling out without selling out," and I stand by that, but an easy task it is not!
In reality, it is the very rare person who manage this. Instead, most people of the type I'm talking about struggle through life, half-broken, the walking wounded, fighting off visions and impressions that they can't begin to understand, perhaps not clinically schizophrenic, but quickly approaching that point for lack of any real guidance or assistance that doesn't come as part of a system aimed at nothing more than shutting them up and getting them out of their hair. If you don't start out on this "outsider" path as a schizophrenic, you will end it that way if you don't find a way of finding integration. What begins as a bad mental habit at age thirteen can become full-blown clinical depression by age thirty, and the more our mental pathways burn themselves through repetition, the more things become internalized and subconscious, they harder they are to yank out at the root. This might be a wonderful thing when it comes to training oneself to play an instrument, but it is a curse when it is the legacy of a gifted but troubled outcast who can't seem to quite "make it" in a world that, truth be told, wants nothing to do with what they have to offer because they simply don't understand it. (For the record, I'm not talking just about myself here, in fact I'm more talking about the literally hundreds of people I've seen walk this path. And it tears me up every time I see it, at least when it's someone that I really care about.)
So I've gone a long way in describing the crux of this
situation, the cultural challenge posed to outsiders, and yet I never explained
how I went from this crisis on to being the person I am today -- still
certainly searching for my place in the world and facing my own ongoing
struggles as we all are, but also a great deal more grounded, at least on most
days, than my past friends probably could have ever imagined was possible for
me. (For starters, you won't find me feeding blood to trees.)
Well, it was probably a multitude of things...
For starters, on the more spiritual side, I think the rituals I did with my friends began a process. During most of them -- and some became rather elaborate despite the fact that we were stumbling in the dark in those woods, figuratively and literally -- I was trying to send some kind of message to myself in the future, to try to find a teacher in myself, and to find wisdom from that, because I had even at that age mostly given up on finding it in a physical person around myself. Maybe in some weird way, I set myself up into a frame of mine where I would have to eventually transform into that person who could give my past self some kind of wisdom, or guidance. The character Aleonis De Gabrael, in Join My Cult!, was my first envisioning of this person. (There is a historic precedent to this as well -- many Indians who have been taught by gurus in various traditions have later revealed, without any apparent sense of irony, that their teachers were non-corporeal.)
Then there is another method I used that some might consider rather dangerous. After having been pumped full of various drugs by the powers-that-be which did nothing more than exacerbate my problems, when I was released from the mental hospital at age sixteen, I decided that there was at that point nothing to really risk by taking hallucinogens. What, would they drive me crazy? Good luck with that one! I was feeding blood to trees and trying to communicate with entities from other time-frames with flashlights. I couldn't imagine what LSD could do to me that my brain, and the awful meds I'd been given, hadn't already done. What would you know, my first experience with LSD was eye-opening in a way that I don't think many experience: I felt normal. Which isn't to say I wasn't seeing colors, and all the rest. But after that first hour of obligatory confusion when your neurotransmitters scramble and re-orient, I felt more clear-headed than I had ever before in my life. As an added bonus, the sunset was more beautiful than ever. But this was just an added benefit.
After several years of experimentation with this, I eventually discovered that I was developing a resistance to the psychological ailments that had so traumatized me before. In fact, I may have gone too far with it. I am often like a rock when I attempt to practice ritual that involves invocation. Very little can get in. I have become so nonplussed by psychological phenomena that it's like the "trick" no longer works on me. The machine elves can be screaming from my spine as the world dissolves and dances in triangles, and I'm simply not phased. It has turned a talented channel into quite the opposite -- but I don't have entities trying to hop a ride in my body every five minutes either. They have no way in. I think I know why this is, though of course it is all conjecture. The actual lessons provided by these chemicals seems relatively simple, and fit rather nicely into the themes developed in the previous section on initiation, as well as here. It's a lesson as simple as: let go. Hey look, the walls are bleeding. Let go. I'm fifty and my life is a wreck. Let go. That hawk headed God has giant tits and it's starting to unnerve me. Let go. If you hold on, it can become a demon, and if you let go, it becomes bliss.
After a certain point, once you've grasped this, you simply don't need them anymore. It's questionable if we ever did -- though for those going through a crisis such as I was, there may have been no other way. You can get to the same place by doing yoga all day. And sure, you'll lose that ability to just let go all the time and get caught up in life. You'll do that because you're human that's a part of the experience of being alive. But in the back of your mind now, you have that spot you can fall back to, that place where you learned you can fall back from anything and observe a sensation from the outside. And if that sounds a lot like a defense mechanism you read about in Psych 101, that's because it is. Like all defense mechanisms, dissociation is only pathological when it is out of control. The point is being able to do it -- and to come out of it -- consciously.
Do I suggest this method to others? Only if they have no other recourse. And if they have the kind of strange psychological fortitude I have been told that I have. Just don't blame me if you try it as your method and it cracks you wide open and leaves you crying like a baby for eight hours: because that just might be your first step on the path. Go with it. A little crying while the walls bleed isn't going to kill you.
In the counterculture since the 1960's of course, there has been a myth about the positive effects of psychedelics and similar drugs. While many people extol the virtues of psychedelics in circles such as these, mostly in opposition to the parroted rhetoric of the mainstream culture, I think it's simply meaningless to propose that a substance is inherently good or bad. The statement doesn't even make sense. Psychotropic chemicals have a variety of effects, most of which are not really understood, on a nervous system and consciousness that also exists more in the shadows than the light. The question of their use is whether exploring these uncharted waters is worth more than the risk. What could be a more American pursuit than blindly using a little of that Manifest Destiny machismo and plunging forward? That is a question that is, all political posturing aside, best left in the hands of each individual.
There may be yet another reason why I've managed to go from there to here, with only the initiations that life has provided through happenstance, my own blind ritual explorations, and several years of self-medication. I was lucky enough to encounter several teachers in later years. They were not shamans, which in this day and age, is probably a good thing -- most people in the Western world that proclaim themselves "shamans" should be avoided at all costs. (You have been warned. That smelly long-hair at the trance festival all painted up in black-light paint that calls himself a "shaman" because he did ayahuasca? Beware.)
The teachers I refer to were practicioners of internal Kung Fu (Bagua and Xingyi), of Ericksonian hypnotherapy, of NLP, of various forms of yoga, and from all of them I developed still other skills for working internally which, even if atrophied from a lack of regular practice in recent years, still remains a part of who I am, now.
So I suppose my point is that, even though we don't have any tradition, and the world is full of very few true teachers, in a strange way, that is also a boon. We can find our own way, and find occasional guides through acts of serendipity when the time is right. Many self-proclaimed teachers will just lead you further astray. And if you look hard enough, and are willing to be a genuine human being and not hide behind a wall when you do happen to come face-to-face with another genuine human, you might be surprised. Be patient.
If you are especially lucky, you might even find others in the wilderness. I hope this book might even provide a little assistance with that task. To quote Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."
And, to quote the West Wing, why is that the case? Because it is the only thing that ever
- - -
The story does not end here, however. (It never ends, not really.) Our subconscious can never be truly boxed away; and the ability to deal with the experiences that are shored up from that "world" conferred by psychedelics or even a practice like yoga can never fully prepare us for the strength of a confrontation with its full strength, though they certainly can help. You can spend years on solid ground and then, as I recently experienced, you can take a single small step and fall back into the water. Luckily, swimming is a skill one doesn't need to entirely relearn, even if it's been a long time.
To conclude this section I'd like to give an example of this. Nothing theoretical or conjectural, but rather an experience taken directly from my life, not more than a day or two ago.
This does require a short preamble. Since I was a teenager, I have had very occasional "spells." (No, I am not a character from a Tennessee William's play.) One version of this is an uncontrollable lassitude and even paralysis. It can be very frightening to others around me, as well as myself; I've gone limp as a ragdoll, and am only half in this world. Though I've brought this up to several medical doctors, most of them dismiss it almost as if I hadn't brought it up at all.
Some of these experiences were not unlike what "alien abductees" describe. For instance, one night, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I felt compelled beyond all sense and reason to climb out my window and go into the woods. In the woods, I saw a brilliant light in the sky, radiating down on me. And as I looked up upon it, I felt myself floating up towards it. Then... darkness. I awoke in my room. This could easily be dismissed as a dream, except my window was open.
I'm not attempting to prove anything beyond the fact that these have been my experience, and others have witnessed it. It wasn't until yesterday that I pieced together what some of this might actually be, with the input of Jazmin, my wife, sitting patiently and always at my side as I gibbered like a madman while in the throes of this thing. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As has often been the case in my life, what cracked open the otherwise dark "box" of the unconscious was a beautiful girl, but this part of the story isn't about her. No, it is about the "world" that exists within our own, and those that walk alongside us, if we can step across the gap. It's also worth mentioning that I was on no drugs at the time that this occurred. I will endeavor to retell my experience as directly and honestly as is possible, although some of it stretches the possibilities of what can be easily expressed in common language. I'll do my best.
Like those times before, I was lying in bed and I could barely move. It's not unlike being impossibly drunk, or attempting to move your arm by will alone, rather than simply... moving it. It is a terrifying experience to be stuck inside your body without being able to operate it, and not know why. Equally so, if you're watching someone go through it. However, in the past, I always fought my way out of it. This time, fighting wasn't working. It wasn't getting better or worse.
So I decided to try to dive deeper into it, instead. Everything in the field of my view gave way. I felt as if I was moving through empty space. The feeling had a very visual component to it, even though everything was dark; like a darkness seen somehow behind or underneath everything that appears to have surfaces. And then I felt I wasn't anything at all.
Despite the alieness of this, a part of my brain remained fairly rational, and I wondered if nothingness could exist without a point of reference. I realized I must be that point. Even if a point has no dimensions (width, height), position of some kind is necessary to give form to void. The point was my consciousness, like a bubble, drifting through empty space. Ex nihilo, nihil fit is a lie.
I still couldn't move my body. Jazmin was checking to see if I was having a stroke, if I was breathing, and so on. I mumbled something, "no, it's not that," maybe.
In the void that I was in (behind, under, tangential to all apparent things) I heard voices singing. They were a kind of sing-song, like the make-believe songs that children sing. I tried to mouth along, and felt that in the process of imitating the silly songs that these voices were singing, I was helping to coalesce something. The feeling was not unlike going through a door, blowing into a balloon, and falling through space all at once, though it was really none of these things.
When this happened, I realized there were other dots -- other bubbles -- in this void. Some contained more than one consciousness, but all contained at least one. I felt that I could either push forward into this weird other world or I could try to fight my way back into my body and shake it off.
For some reason, this time, I went forward, instead of back. It seemed that "size" wasn't relevant in reference to these "bubbles"; they were conceptually self-contained worlds. Or so my rational mind thought. You must understand at the same time as one part of my brain was analyzing this, another was simply half-muttering, singing along with the gibberish sing-song of the guides that seemed to be leading me into this completely alien space. While some bubbles came into being, others were popping. "It's so painful, when they pop," I said, and for a moment, began to cry, before I found myself colliding with one of these bubbles. It jolted some kind of shift.
At this point in time I was lying curled around a body pillow. The body pillow appeared to turn into a giant centipede. Pitch black, covered in shiny scales like a dragon. Light reflected off of the scales and I kept saying, "they're like rainbows." (I am really surprised that Jazmin managed to avoid laughing at me at this point. Probably if she wasn't scared she would have.) I grabbed ahold of the centipede and squeezed it, thinking that the only way to take something so horrifying and make it safe would be to envelop it, to become it; in other words, to "eat" it. I did this and the centipede became a pillow again.
I became distracted by the perception of some "thing" that was a train -- that is, I felt the comforting rocking motion like I might while in the cabin in a train, and it felt like it was moving forward like a train might -- but it was also a snake, slithering to and fro, shedding its skin, it was ...
I saw a bath-tub full of milk, and a goat standing inside it. The milk was goats milk, I assume. The snake / train became the moon, or rather it was the moon, and at the same time I was in the train, looking up at the moon above, and at the same time looking down from this giant moon... down to the tub, the milk, and the goat staring at me blankly with those alien, square-pupilled eyes. The moon turned blood red, and dripped into the bath. Each drop splashing complex patterns of deep red in the milky white. Fragments of my consciousness fell in those drops of blood, each self-contained worlds themselves. Drip. Drip.
Somewhere around this point Jazmin said, "James, you're having a waking dream."
It suddenly made sense. Everything clicked into place. I rocked back and forth, laughing hysterically, saying again and again, "That's it!"
When you are sleeping, normally, your brain paralyzes your body. Sleep or neurological disturbances can effect this, so that you might kick when running in a dream, but normally, these bodily motions are essentially shut off. Granted I have no scientific evidence of this but it seems to stand to reason that the paralysis I occasionally experience is the result of this, my brain thinking I am entering sleep.
As I think of this now, it occurs to me that children exist much closer to this "dreaming world" than acculturated adults do. They may not often delve so deep as the initiated can, but perhaps only because they are wise enough to be scared of what lurks under the bed. But this world of symbol, where a thing can "be" many things at once, and yet none of them; trespass the boundaries of time, form, and physical reality as we are accustomed to it, is the birthing well of myth. And it needn't be experienced from afar, academically, theoretically, or even just through the stories of others who have gone there.
However, as is always the case with all sources of
great power, it is also incredibly dangerous. In the past, there were the
shamans to guide us. Now... all we have is each other.
This piece is an in-progress excerpt from the Immanence of Myth anthology.
Image by joaquinuy, courtesy of Creative Comons license.Tweet