Carol and I have frequently discussed the experiences of people (including one old friend) who have experimented with DMT and Ayahuasca. We also watch the Hulu series “The Path,” which depicts the vicissitudes of a sect whose founder received his revelations from “Mother Ayahuasca.” The central question, as I see it, is whether, as advocates maintain, the substance induces visions of an otherwise invisible realm that far transcends our mundane waking world. Or are they simply Technicolor fever dreams? I have long been inclined to think these visions are purely subjective.
But suppose they are not. Suppose they are veridical? This raises the same question familiar from the belief in divine prophecy: even if there are genuine prophecies from God, does that mean all claimed prophecies are the real thing? Of course not. The Bible tells us more than once to scrutinize prophecies, to see whether God sent them, or maybe evil spirits are responsible—or maybe just somebody’s overactive imagination. Scripture offers two basic criteria, neither of them very helpful.
First, if some ostensible revelation goes beyond, or against, established doctrine, then to hell with it (or, I guess, from hell with it). You see the problem with this: if a revelation must check out with what we already believe, it ain’t much of a revelation, is it? “If it’s new, it’s not true. If it’s true, it’s not new.” So it isn’t revelation, only reiteration. If a would-be prophet’s offered revelation is rebuffed, he will likely storm out and start a rival sect. It’s happened many, many times.
Second, if Carnak the Great ventures a prediction of future events, but nothing happens, then in retrospect we can dismiss the false prophet. In other words, too late for the prediction, even if true, to be taken seriously. I can just see Noah’s neighbors nervously looking at the massing storm clouds above, saying, “Gee, I guess maybe we shoulda listened to that guy!” Obviously, no one ever actually used this criterion. It is a fictitious device long after the fact in order to discredit the figureheads of rival factions.
So we must ask: how do you distinguish between a true glimpse of an alternative dimension from a mere drug hallucination? If there is a difference, that is. I think there is a way to reframe the dilemma. It arises from the claim/observation that these DMT trips are journeys of self-revelation, of deepening self-understanding. I have never used drugs and do not intend to, thank you, so I cannot attest to that. But I can’t help thinking of two old friends who claimed that taking LSD greatly improved their personalities. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t known these jerks before LSD. So I have to admit I’m skeptical and that, having no personal experience, I am approaching the question as an outsider trying to make sense of the phenomenon as positively as I can. Here goes.
Suppose that the DMT/Ayahuasca visions are subjective with no reference outside your head. Are they merely cheap thrills? No, there seems to be more to them than that. I repair, as I often do, to Carl Jung and his theory of the Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. (Not only does it appeal to me intellectually, but I have experienced dreams that make sense on Jungian terms and were both meaningful to me, interpreting what was happening to me at the time, and also apparently precognitive.)
Jung asked why certain basic images, mythemes, and symbols appear, independently, again and again the world over in myths, fairy tales, dreams, art, etc. I mean, where there is no possible connection, no reasonable chance of borrowing or influence. For instance, there are pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic. Do we have to posit a lost continent of Atlantis, escapees from which carried blueprints for pyramids to Egypt and Mexico? Probably not. Surely the idea occurred to people in both hemispheres independently. The Archetype was latent in the Collective Unconscious, available to all. Nothing spooky, mind you: just the hardwiring of the human brain, analogous, say, to the language function.
Well, if Archetypes can manifest themselves in dreams and in math and in myths, they can obviously pop up in hallucinations, whether those hallucinations are the result of DMT, Schizophrenia, or the Muse. Why not? Let’s not commit the dreaded Genetic Fallacy! The medium is not the message. If the Archetypes are disclosed to you, it wouldn’t seem to matter much what you baited the hook with.
Why does it matter whether the Archetypes are unveiled from the intra-psychic depths? Jung posited that the Archetypes are the keys to activating the necessary process of Individuation.
It is the process of maturation whereby one first consolidates the Ego, full of self-will and self-confidence. At this point a person is rightly self-centered. Once it is formed, it can serve as the launching pad for the next stage of growth, to become the Self. Then the individual comes to transcend the Ego. One’s interests and sympathies broaden. The Ego was a central point; the Self is an ever-expanding circumference. In the end there comes to be no difference between one’s own concerns and those of humanity. Some people never manage to attain to an Ego, but most seem to. Far fewer ever climb the heights to Selfhood. Albert Schweitzer did. Some others. Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothea Dix. I guess the important thing is getting as far as you can. But how?
To use an analogy unavailable to Jung, I would compare the Archetypes to the icons on your computer screen. Each is anchored to a program. You want to open and use those programs, and to do that you have to click on the icon, right? And to do that, you have to see the darn icon, right? Well, the Archetypes are the icons you need in order to access the “programs” hardwired into you, the stages of maturity you have the potential to achieve. Hence the important function of Archetypal symbols in art, myth, literature, etc. Deep calleth unto deep, for the artists dredged these symbols up from the gold mine of the Unconscious (the pre-imprinted brain structure) and scattered them along your path like breadcrumbs, or like Ariadne’s Thread. They are clues (a “GPS”) to your destination of Individuation.
But how do we click on those icons? One way is to cultivate consciousness of the Archetypes in religio-mythic symbols, in scripture, ecclesial architecture, and liturgy. But great art and music can have the same effect. Ritual participation and artistic creation are ways of “stepping into” the symbols.
I’m thinking that this is what is happening to those who cultivate “altered states” through the use of hallucinogens. And this way of looking at it makes our original question moot. In my opinion, DMT is not like the Zeta Beam transporting Adam Strange to the planet Rann. But you are going someplace. Remember the 60s song, “Journey to the Center of the Mind”? That was a drug song. “Come along if you dare!” I don’t dare. I don’t want to tinker with my brain. It seems to be working well enough as is. But I’m willing to grant that DMT psychonauts are penetrating the depths of their minds, encountering the Archetypes, rather as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
I compare it to what Jung said about God, that he didn’t need to believe in God. As a modern Gnostic, Jung said he knew God existed. But where? Inside. In the Collective Unconscious, flanked by the Archangels, er, Archetypes. That’s the only relevant place God could be. Where else would you like “him” to be? Orbiting the earth like a satellite, causing rain storms and orchestrating plane crashes? That’s superstition.
One more comparison: I think that hallucinogenic revelations are kind of like Pentecostal speaking in tongues. Traditionally, Pentecostals have believed that the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to speak God’s praises in foreign languages they had never learned (whatever the point of that might be). But linguistic studies have made it plain that they are simply spouting gibberish (see William Samarin, They Speak with other Tongues). Pentecostals are threatened by such results (like Mormons disturbed at the DNA tests proving that American Indians have no Semitic genes and thus do not qualify as expatriate Israelites).
But they needn’t worry, because shortcuts to foreign language proficiency are hardly the point. Speaking in tongues is and always has been ecstatic speech and has been practiced throughout the centuries by various cultures. It is “speaking with the tongues of angels.” When glossolalic utterances are “interpreted,” it denotes not translation of foreign speech but rather divining the significance of an oracle or a dream.
It’s not an objective miracle, and it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it is an intra-psychic spiritual experience. Would the spontaneous ability to speak in an unfamiliar language even be a spiritual experience? Not just a weird parapsychological anomaly? The same applies, I think, to meaningful hallucinations. They’re “just” in your head. Which is the only relevant place for them to be.
So says Zarathustra.
As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.
It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I hope you will consider it! Many Thanks! https://www.patreon.com/robertmprice