Kindling Spirit: Alter Your Consciousness, Chapter 2
Welcome to the second installment of the Reality Sandwich series, Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within, the remarkable memoir by Dr. Carl Hammerschlag. On the 4th Tuesday of each month, we will present a new chapter on RS. Please visit the Kindling Spirit homepage to learn more about the book, and about the accompanying teleseminars led by Carl and his longtime colleague John Koriath. These Kindling Spirit Telecircles will extend the dialog raised by Carl's experiences, related on these pages, and involve your stories as well. To sign up for the teleseminars, click here. Read Chapter One of Kindling Spirit here.
The best way to look again at what you know is to alter your consciousness; this means finding a way to look at what's familiar from a different perspective. It requires getting into a trance, a state in which you can drift away, and open channels into your unconscious mind. There are many ways to get into that state the ages, people have altered their states of consciousness through meditation, chanting, drumming, dancing, running, listening to stories around the fire, and mind-altering substances. All visionary experience is the result of seeing beyond ordinary consciousness; it is the province of artists, musicians, scientists, and prophets.
As a species, we tend to defend ourselves from opening channels into these unconscious realms; we are afraid that if we let ourselves explore these magical, intuitive, unencumbered, frightening, exciting, conflicted, passionate parts of ourselves, we might lose control, become consumed by them, and move to a place beyond reason or return.
Actually, the opposite is true: when we open ourselves to our unconscious mind it helps maintain our lives in balance. The brain wants to experience the mystical. Humans are actually hardwired for such experience. Researchers can show us that areas of the brain are activated in trance states. We have monitored the brains of chanting monks, praying nuns, yogis buried alive, even shaman in drug-induced states. When they are in trance, they all light up a portion of their brains called the Orientation Association Area (OAA). That part of the brain is responsible for telling us where we are in space. Trance states intensify input into this area, which moves you beyond your actual physical boundaries; it's as if you float in another time and space.
Healers, mystics, and artists throughout history have been able to access that
part of the brain, because all of them respect those powerful unconscious
forces that are beyond their control. Anybody can get in touch with it, but you
have to train yourself, and be willing to awaken yourself into a more lucid
state. When you see things from
this "otherworldly" perspective you get to see where the spirit
It's actually quite important to exercise this part of your brain. The medical science of neuroplasticity says that the brain is always changing itself, and if you don't use it, you lose it. There is competition for brain space, so that if you're not using it for what it was intended for, it gets taken over for another purpose. The less we use our visionary capacity the more entrenched our particular way of seeing becomes. This is the paradox of brain plasticity-constant repetition can prevent other changes from occurring because you keep using the same neural pathways. Your thoughts travel through well-worn brain routes that become deeply rutted. That's why habitual thoughts and actions tend to become self-perpetuating.
Bad habits can take over our brain maps because every time we repeat the behavior, it claims more control of the brain and prevents the use of that space for establishing new habits. It's best if you can get it right early on, because bad habits always have a competitive advantage. Like everything else in life it's use it or lose it. Dr. Norman Doidge, in his remarkably readable book on neuroplasticity (The Brain that Changes Itself) says so beautifully "...it's hard to learn a new language when you are tyrannized by the mother tongue."
How do we continue to exercise, to open channels into, that mystical portion of the brain? We now have the technical ability to illuminate the brain during mystical states of consciousness, we can watch where the brain lights up when nuns pray, monks chant, yogis breathe, and dervishes dance.
consciousness is a trance state, and you can get into it singing, drumming,
running, meditating, visualizing, and sitting in awe. Since humans began, the
species found ways to kindle this altered state of consciousness.
order to grow, to be creative, there must be a willingness to unlearn the
familiar and open paths into the less used portions of your neuroplastic brain;
by firing different neurons, you kindle another state of consciousness.
You can get into a trance state by active imagination. Anatoly Sharansky, the Soviet human rights activist, spent nine years in prison; 400 days of the sentence in solitary confinement in a freezing, dark, five-foot by six- foot punishment cell. Political prisoners in isolation often fall apart mentally because of the use it or lose it principle. The brain needs external stimulation to maintain its maps. During this extended period of sensory deprivation, Sharansky played mental chess. He played it for months on end without a chessboard or the pieces. Sharansky imagined them and kept track of all the positions. He played both white and black, holding the game in his head from opposite perspectives, which is an extraordinary challenge to the brain.
When Sharansky was released he emigrated to Israel and ultimately became a cabinet minister. When the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov came to Israel he played against the prime minister and leaders of the cabinet, he beat them all except Sharansky.
You can get into that consciousness by imagining sights, sounds, smells and places that get you in touch with feelings. The energy of such images is language that the body intuitively understands. The body responds as if the image is the actual event, and you can guide people on the path of new awakening simply by introducing powerful images. Skilled practitioners can reduce pain, promote optimism, and help regain control. Active imagination through guided imagery can open new pathways into the plastic brain.
Indigenous people have used powerful, trance-inducing, consciousness altering plants to stimulate this visionary brain. There is considerable resurgent interest research in the use of mind- altering drugs in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), depression, trauma recovery and chronic addictions. Until recently, this research has been done outside the US. When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, mind altering, hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, Psilocybin (sacred mushrooms), MDMA (Ecstasy), and Mescaline (peyote) were classified Schedule 1 substances, which included heroin and also marijuana. Drugs like cocaine, codeine, and methamphetamines landed in the less restrictive Schedule 2 and 3, which permits their prescription-based use.
In the rest of the world there have been groundbreaking studies in the treatment of addictions. Ibogaine.is a drug that African tribes have used for millennia to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal. When Ibogaine is augmented by a psychological help, patients can achieve deeper insight into the root causes of their addictive behaviors. Long-term studies indicate the impact of such psychedelic therapy is long lasting. Native tribes in the Americas have used Peyote, mushrooms, and ayahuasca, with similar results.
There are currently studies being done (in the U.S. as well) that confirm the effectiveness of entheogens like LSD, Ecstasy (MDMA), psilocybin (the active ingredient of the sacred mushrooms), and Ketamine in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety disorders, or facing end-of-life issues.
I once used Ketamine to treat a man with advanced cancer whose anxiety and despair had immobilized him. Steve was a 64 year-old, retired judge with metastatic liver cancer. Steve wanted me to find him an Indian medicine man to perform a peyote ceremony for him. This was Steve's story: in his 50's, he was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis; 10 years later, he was diagnosed with liver cancer that by then had spread to his lungs. No longer eligible for liver transplant, Steve was now looking for a shaman to alter his consciousness to help him get in touch with an ancient healer. He was quite specific; he wanted to go back to the lost continent of Atlantis.
I wondered at first if maybe his cancer had spread to his brain and maybe he was delusional. But he was rational, bright, articulate, quick-witted, insightful, and I liked him. We had lots in common - we were both graduates of New York City public high schools and colleges. He was Jewish in the ethnic sense (he liked pastrami and matzoh -ball soup), but he did not believe in a personal God.
Steve went on to law school and ultimately became a federal judge. He had been divorced for many years, his two grown children were independent and successful, and he had a live-in girlfriend.
He was angry with the doctors who had missed his spreading disease and were now saying it was too late to treat him. Steve was not ready to die; he wanted to go back in time to speak to the Atlantean shaman who held the power to heal him. I told him even if we could find such a medicine man, eating the peyote cactus makes the gut go into an uproar; vomiting is common and he had already bled from his gut. But there were other options I said, and we talked about the many ways there were to alter consciousness.
First we explored hypnotic trance induction; Steve was able to regress if not
to Atlantis, at least to a Neanderthal cave. He approached the cave entrance
and saw the cavemen around the fire but did not enter.
Steve asked if there was anything else that might help him go deeper. We talked about consciousness altering drugs from marijuana to entheogens (hallucinogens). I told him about Ketamine, a controlled substance that induces a dissociative state where you lose track of time and detach from the awareness of external stimuli.
Anesthesiologists and veterinarians have used it as a pre-anesthetic, and psychiatrists are researching it for use with addictions and PTSD. I told Steve that although I knew about Ketamine therapy, I'd never used it in my clinical practice before, but that if he were interested I would consider it as long as it was also OK with his family.
I gave him literature to review and told him to discuss it with his children (one of whom was a physician). When he returned, he'd done his homework and wanted to try it. He had experimented with LSD in the 60's and wasn't frightened by the experience; he knew I'd be with him, totally involved. I spoke with his children who not only supported his decision, but also added that it didn't surprise them at all.
Steve brought along some crystals and stones that he had collected from Mayan sites in the Yucatán to the first session (said they reminded him of ancient wisdom). I told him to spread them around wherever he wanted, and then lit the candle and some cedar incense on the coffee table between us. I prepared the space, spoke of my wish for him to see and hear things to help him find what he needed to know. Then I gave him a cautious, low dose to see his tolerance, and within three minutes he described a warm tingling in his ears that spread to his face and lips. Then he had an overwhelming sense of peace and well-being, said the world is so beautiful, he described as "an endless orgasm."
He went back to the Neanderthal cave and this time they made room for him around the fire even though he couldn't understand a word they were saying. He looked around and on the cave walls saw beautiful artwork. The handprints reached out to him and he got up to touch them. Watching him, the Neanderthal shaman came over and put his hand next to Steve's on the cave wall and then outlined them both by spitting a chalky fluid over both their hands. He knew he met his shaman but had no idea what he was saying to him.
Steve wanted to learn more, and I doubled the dose at the next visit. The same enveloping warmth and peace came over him, then he heard the music and started humming, and I joined him. Then his hands started moving over his body, and I put my hands over his and followed along. He said it spread the healing light all over his body. He pressed his hands deeply into his liver, and I pressed mine in too. After that session, he started feeling better and started going back to his health club. A month later, I increased the dose again. After the celestial chorus started humming, tears rolled down his cheek, and he said, "I have never felt so connected to the whole universe."
Despite feeling better, routine blood work revealed rising tumor markers. Steve found a research program at the University of Pittsburgh that would accept him and inject drugs directly into the liver, but that he had to discontinue his ketamine therapy because they didn't know how it might interfere with their medicines.
For the next several months he flew to Pittsburgh, but when his tumor markers were only getting higher, they said they were going to stop the treatment. When he got home he was seriously depressed and asked for another Ketamine session. What he was seeking now was less a demand for a cure than it was a wish for discovery.
Minutes after injecting the drug the humming began which morphed into a traditional Hebrew chant. Steve saw the prophet Abraham in flowing white gown standing above his son Isaac, who was lying in front of him. As he got closer, he saw that the flowing robe was actually a doctor's white coat and that he was Isaac bound to a hospital stretcher. When he heard God's voice command Dr. Abraham "Don't kill the boy," Steve began to cry. Only later did he tell me that he finally understood what the Neanderthal shaman was telling him at the cave wall. "I saw my body lying on that altar and when I heard the voice of God say don't kill the boy, I saw the dagger in Abraham's hand turn into a light which illuminated the darkness above me, and then I saw his hand become my handprint on the cave wall."
Steve understood that the body gets taken. What is most important is the imprint he leaves behind. Steve died two months later (comfortable and at peace), more than ten years after his original diagnosis and five times longer than anyone had predicted he would live.
Steve's work with Ketamine allowed him to live and die in the pursuit of his true self. It was not God for whom he reached at the end of life-he was a lawyer who sought more evidence before resting his case. Through an altered state of consciousness, Steve felt a sense of cosmic unity, oneness with the universe, and he moved from struggle to transformation. He was never cured, but he was healed. Healing is facing the truth of who you are and seeing beyond limitations. You can be healed even if you're not cured; healing is a psycho-spiritual condition.
Every individual, every tribe and culture have perfectly logical explanations that account for the mysterious universe. Every tribe has its own stories about why we are born the unique souls we are, why tragedy befalls us, and why miracles happen. You don't have to be dying to seek a teacher who can help you see the world from this perspective. You don't have to get to a place where staying alive is always foremost on your mind. You have to find a place where those thoughts take a backseat so that you can live in the moment. You open yourself to that place where the spirit soars and explore the edge of the unknown, because that's where we dare to imagine what else is out there.
The work in psychedelic therapy is growing rapidly, and researchers are reporting that patients and control groups who even exposed to only a single dose, felt better after the experience. People say it often produces one of the most spiritually significant experiences they'd ever had.
If we can explore these states in a guided experience with people you trust and who've been there, it can help people live fuller, richer lives with the time they have left.
On a recent clown trip to Peru with Patch Adams, I had the opportunity to do something that's been on my bucket list for a long time. I wanted to explore the Amazon beyond the river towns; to go upriver into the jungle to hear it, feel it, and participate with an authentic shaman in an ayahuasca ceremony.
I arranged for a two-day trip up into the headwaters of the Amazon in a dugout canoe. I went with five friends, all fellow clowns, up the Yarapa River into Cocama Indian country. On the way we were treated to the sounds and sights of the jungle...egrets, herons, kingfisher, fish eagles, toucans, a million butterflies, huge flying insects, pink river dolphins, turtles, and fishermen netting Piranhas...it was magical!
We got to the lodge (an elevated wooden shack) where the ceremony would be held and met the ayahuascero, the Shaman. Really named Don Juan, the 67-year-old Cocama Indian is descended from generations of shaman. No more than 5'6" tall, vigorous, smiling and engaging, Don Juan invited us to his farm. He wanted to show us how the sacred ayahuasca vine grew and was prepared. We piled back into the dugout canoe to meet his family and walk the fields. He showed us many therapeutic plants, lots of bugs, frogs, and at the sacred vine he lit a cigarette to bless it and us. Don Juan asked if any of us had ever taken ayahuasca before (one of us had), and he summarized what the experience might be like. We might get sick to our stomachs, but to sit up and let it out -- only then can you see something new.
Aya/huasca (which means "devil/vine" in Quechua) cleanses the body by unleashing a parasympathetic cascade that induces vomiting and can cause diarrhea; you sweat profusely and can become immobilized. Don Juan said one first had to let go of the stuff that's trapped inside in order to make room to see things more clearly.
It is the leaf Chakruna that is added to the vine Mariri that is ayahuasca, the sacramental tea that induces the visions. I hoped I might see deeper into the minds mystery. It was completely dark when we began; a half-hour before, I could hear the shaman vomiting outside. Don Juan took it before we did to prepare himself, and that was the first time I felt queasiness that I may be in for a little more than "sick to my stomach."
We gathered in a ten-by-twenty foot shack containing six mosquito-netted beds, one toilet and a sink. We sat in a small circle on the floor, in its center a candle burned. Don Juan lit a cigarette and blew the smoke over a large jar that contained the ayahuasca mixture. He filled a juice glass (a little less for the women) and passed it to each of us in succession. When we were done drinking it he picked up a fan (shakapa) made of branches with tiny leaves and waved out the flame. Don Juan began to whistle a tune that mixed with the sounds of the jungle night; it was an entrancing lullaby and made me think about my mother around the Sabbath lights.
Within thirty minutes, I was feeling a bit woozy and the sounds got a little blurry; in another ten minutes, the first round of nausea seized me. I got really sick - no orifice remained inactive - my legs trembled so that I could hardly stand. I was sweating profusely, quite thirsty, and asked for water. A helper brought me a glass but Don Juan told me not to drink it so I dutifully put it down next to me. But after another twenty minutes of continued fluid loss, I was even more lightheaded, so I asked for water again, and Don Juan tells me not to drink because it will only make me sicker.
I'm thinking, "I'm a doctor; he's a jungle shaman. I'm fluid depleted, my circulating volume is down, my heart, lungs and brain are stressing out. I need water. It's pitch black, he can't see me, I'll just pick up the glass." So I reach over to where I put down the glass, but it's not there. The glass is gone; "water," I moan, and without a response and it's finally clear to me that I'm in his jungle, and he knows something I need to learn, trust the process.
After that, it wasn't fifteen minutes before the vomiting stopped, and then I lay down. Animals came walking by, generally two-by-two-but sometimes families; I could speak to them all, but by morning couldn't recall a single conversation. There were no celestial lights surrounding or heavenly throne, my great vision was how hard it was to let go and trust that somebody/thing other than me could get me through the night.
These mind-altering substances have been critical to my objective learning process in becoming more human. I could live without these tune-ups but choose not to. They remind me I am blessed to be a part of this life that I am truly a living, breathing, working part of this universe with the power to choose how to evolve consciously.
Every time I reacquaint myself with their power, it awakens my spirit to its renewal. It's still clear to me that I prefer having the paddle to my canoe in my own hands, but I have learned to tame my ego sufficiently, to place myself in someone else's hands so that I don't have to retch in agony in my jungle of preconceptions before I give up the control I never had anyway.