Maps of Reality

The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017

Maps of Reality

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.


Nonordinary, or alternative, reality is a subject that needs to be nexamined even though it fits the definitions of ambiguity and ineffability. The age-old question is where is this “place” that people who practice shamanic journeying go? Most certainly it is not in our familiar everyday physical reality. Where, then, could it exist? Perhaps reality itself is much more complicated than we thought. The latest mind-stretching research by scientists exploring the quantum universe points a finger at the concept of a universe that not only is infinite but also is increasing at an ever-accelerating velocity. If that is not cosmic enough, they are hinting at the theoretical possibility that there are also an infinite number of multidimensional universes that are also infinite in size and expanding at an ever-increasing velocity.

I’ve spent quite a few hours sitting outdoors under a tree in the anticipation that something like Newton’s apple would fall down and provide a flash of inspiration, but the more I attempt to fathom this concept, the more my mind gets tangled at an ever-increasing velocity. Endeavoring to comprehend a cohesive cosmic awareness has been the ultimate “holy grail” quest for philosophers, sages, and wise men and women for millennia. Magnificent minds such as those of David Bohm, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Joseph Campbell, and Albert Einstein have put forward insightful, enlightened, and in some cases proven explanations for this immense space-time, cosmic Weltanschauung, or worldview.

One of the most interesting facets of this subject is that shamans and sages since antiquity have been contemplating a hidden or multidimensional reality. A vast body of experiential knowledge and insight from spiritual traditions suggests that a sublime universal energy exists that can be accessed from within us, and just as we use maps to navigate, these traditions have produced maps so that we too can navigate in this other reality. A traditional map of alternate reality further developed by the neoshamanic movement describes three discrete regions or levels: the upper world, the lower world, and the middle world. Each world has different characteristics and contains sources of wisdom that a shaman accesses via an altered state of consciousness and, importantly, brings back into our physical reality, often for purposes of healing, divination, or a collective need.

The Romanian mythologist and philosopher Mircea Eliade in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy presents a cross-cultural comparison of shamanic cultures all over the globe. One notion central to many cultures is the concept of an axis mundi, also called the cosmic axis, world mountain, or world tree. It is the precise center of the connection between the world and the celestial realms. Eliade proposes that shamanic cultures have much in common and that any differences are typically due to variances in climate, geography, and local environment. From this a reader might assume that a shaman practicing in the hot and humid Amazon rainforest could visit a shaman practicing in the frozen steppes of Siberia, and each would understand what the other was doing. In effect, they are singing the same song; the words are simply different.

Even though Eliade’s work on shamanism has been incredibly influential on the practice of neoshamanism, I disagree with his broad generalizations based on my own field observations and a huge body of studies on anthropology and ethnobotany made available in recent years. Eliade describes the shamanic tradition of communing with hallucinogenic plants as a degenerative form of shamanic practice, one that stands in opposition to his theory of shamanism, which is the celestial ascent of a shaman and out-of-the-body journeys to the spirit realms. One must bear in mind that he was an academic rather than an experiential anthropologist. To quote Steve Beyer, author of Singing to the Plants, “It is important to note that Eliade never met a shaman, never lived in an indigenous culture where shamans practiced, and never observed a shamanic ceremony. Everything he knew about the topic of his book he learned from the writings of others.”1

In my own travels I’ve worked with shamans who have spent many years in apprenticeship, with a large part of that time spent living alone in the rainforest dieting on the plants and deepening their connection with the spirits. (When dieting on a particular plant, the consciousness of the shaman and the plant meet. Using this technique, shamans learn the medicinal properties and other pertinent attributes, and more important, develop a magical affinity with the plant.) From a cultural perspective their shamanic credentials are impeccable. Yet none would fall into Eliade’s specific definition of a shaman, as distinct from a medicine man or woman, sorcerer, healer, diviner, magician, or herbalist. His specific definition is: “the shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.”2 Many of the shamans that I have worked with do not travel to one of three separate realms, the upper, middle, and lower worlds, nor do they harbor the notion of an axis mundi.

Even so, Eliade’s conclusions have played a major part in the practice of contemporary shamanism in the West. His work has given great impetus to the cross-cultural aspects of the neoshamanic movement. Michael Harner has created an impressive and influential body of work that draws upon this all-inclusive concept of shamanism, termed core shamanism. This has developed into a Westernized composite of various shamanic practices, forming a very accessible and powerful form of shamanism for the modern Western world.

It is particularly interesting to explore how the three shamanic realms are represented in cultures around the globe. In the East, for instance, the ancient Chinese and Tibetan pantheon is depicted in paintings and thangkas (a traditional Tibetan Buddhist silk painting) as residing in concentric worlds within worlds. Each world is separated by the sky and clouds, and each world includes rivers, mountains, trees, dwellings, and so on. These paintings can be regarded as maps of the culture’s multidimensional reality. These maps are specific, depicting the locations of where the gods, the ancestors, and the teachers lived, and can be used like guidebooks for navigating through multidimensional reality, or the spirit worlds. The ultimate expression of this type of document, in my view, is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with its detailed descriptions of the passage through the bardo. In Tibetan Buddhism, consciousness (and therefore life) is a continuum, and the bardo is a form of existence between incarnations on Earth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, is a chart to assist the individual consciousness to find its way through the experience of reality between incarnations.

As we move farther west, into Siberia, the structure, or the interpretation of the structure, changes. In the upper world reside the gods who created the universe, the stars, the sun, and the planet. These distant gods have little time and little interest in the affairs of humans—they are simply too busy running the universe—so any individuals making supplications to them had better be patient. The lower world, however, houses the gods who created life on Earth, the plants, the animals, and the humans. Here the gods have much more interest in people. The lower world is viewed as a place of sustenance and nourishment; it was the Mother.

When you get to our modern Western society, and yes we still have these three worlds, their names are very familiar to us. They are called heaven, Earth, and hell. The problem here is that the lower world has become demonized and is considered a very bad place, where all the sinners (disobedient people) go to suffer eternal damnation, hellfire, and other terrible punishments. From a shamanic and a psychological perspective, this has created the major problem of separation. By demonizing the lower world, the place that holds the feminine qualities of nurturing and sustenance, our society has become disconnected from these attributes. The story of the Garden of Eden, also known as the “Fall of Man,” exemplifies this separation. We can see the effects that this fundamental myth has caused historically in Western society. From the outset, women are depicted as bad, and the feminine principle is condemned. Eve, the first woman, is tempted by the Devil, and she in turn encourages Adam to eat the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Thus, it comes to pass that we sinners (humans) are unceremoniously escorted out of this biblical utopia by the angelic bouncers brandishing fiery swords! The idea that we are rejected by God, advanced by the loathsome doctrine of original sin, has had tragic consequences in our world.

We have the potential to live in paradise; this planet Earth nurtures and loves us unconditionally. We are born of it, and we are her children. From this source we receive food, shelter, water, and everything else we could possibly need to live. We enjoy lives of creativity and beauty, and explore the consciousness of ourselves and the Earth. There is enough for everybody.

Historically, Western society has lived by an anthropocentric view of our universe in which our planet and thus we humans reside at the center. In 1633, at his trial for heresy, the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo was forced to recant (under threat of torture by the Holy Inquisition) his published statement that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, as per the dogma and science of the day. This trial resulted in Galileo being sentenced to life imprisonment. Today, this still stands as a powerful symbol of the struggle for the freedom of inquiry against the established authority. We explore this theme in the arts, such as Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo. Eventually, in 1979, Pope John Paul II opened an investigation into the astronomer’s condemnation, calling for its reversal, and in 1992 a papal commission acknowledged the Vatican’s error, which was undeniably graceful of them. . . . The wheels of justice do indeed turn slowly.

In contemporary Western psychology, nonordinary, or alternate, reality is not seen as an external place located somewhere in a multidimensional cosmos; rather, it is considered to be an extension of our inner psyche. When an individual does “inner work” and connects to a higher level of wisdom and awareness, it is regarded as linking to a collective consciousness or to archetypes. In my view, this perspective is not in disagreement with the shamanic outlook. Both views are valid; it is only a question of the standpoint.

From another source, far away from civilization, so to speak, deep in the Amazon rainforest, we find the quintessential wisdom of my teacher and dear friend Pablo Amaringo, who depicted this alchemic process as a metaphor within a metaphor in his paintings. In the extract from the painting Concentración Palistica, shown in color plate 1, the hierarchy of grades of shaman is symbolized by the winged vessels with fires burning in them. Going from bottom to top, the Onaya, Banco Puma, Muraya, Sumiruna, and Banco Sumi are represented (the Banco Sumi is the highest grade achievable). The winged vessels symbolize that those who embark on the path of learning from ayahuasca are all moving toward higher levels of knowledge and wisdom. Pablo also saw this hierarchy of grades as a metaphor for the evolving consciousness of humanity. Note: The full painting with a detailed explanatory narrative is available in the book The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo.

So is there an alternate reality that coexists side by side with our physical reality? Is our perception of time—that it is linear and sequential, similar to a river flowing into the future—the whole picture? In my experience, the world we perceive through our physical senses is a projection of this unseen reality. Our perception of the world, although received through our sensory systems, is shaped by our culture and language. In recent years metaphysics and science have investigated and attempted to understand and explain how the nonphysical aspects of reality function.

Also, the lens through which we perceive time is illusory. It is as if there is one moment in time, one vast ever-moving moment, in which anything that has ever happened is somewhere still happening. There is an ongoing convergence in our view of reality from the ancient esoteric traditions and modern quantum physics. In some respects, quantum physics is now pointing in the same direction as the ancient shamans and sages have pointed for fifty thousand years. For example, The End of Time, a book by the eminent British physicist Julian Barbour, challenges the most fundamental conventions in scientific understanding. Barbour proposes that we live in a universe that has neither past nor future. We inhabit a strange new world in which we are both alive and dead in the same instant. In this eternal present, our sense of the passage of time is nothing more than a giant cosmic illusion. This other dimension, presented by Barbour, this single, vast, ever-moving moment in time, which has been experienced and expressed by indigenous people since antiquity, often called the spirit world, has been eloquently described by Black Elk, the Oglala Lakota holy man and great visionary, as

the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. This is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world.3

In the words of the celebrated Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina (documented by R. Gordon Wasson):

There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby and invisible. And there is where God lives, where the dead live, the spirits and the saints, a world where everything has already happened and everything is known. That world talks. It has a language of its own. I report what it says. 4

My experience has shown me that we individuals are not projecting a field of collective archetypes; rather, we are the projection of the universal field, or energetic matrix. The physical world we experience is but the perception of our physical senses rather than an absolute fact. I refer to this expanded inclusive reality as the Great Domain.

Carlos Castaneda in his books describes the act of stopping the world. Of course he doesn’t mean that the physical world stops, but rather our experience of the world stops for a moment when we have an experience that defies conventional understanding. Such an event challenges us to change our way of seeing, going beyond the physical world and thereby expanding our consciousness. My accident in the elevator was just such a moment. Sometimes this phenomenon happens (typically when we least expect it) in the most mundane circumstances. One memorable occurrence for me was when I was walking along a busy road in London. I was dwelling in my thoughts about the Jivaro people and their relation to the physical world, a world they experience as “not the real world,” more of an illusion. Anyway, I was walking in meditative rhythm, thinking, “What would it be like to see and live in the world in this way?” when suddenly the world around me started to shimmer and disappear. Buildings became phantomlike, the ground started to fade away, and I was so incredibly startled that I immediately snapped out of the experience, back into an everyday state of consciousness. It was just a micromoment but a significant eye opener.

One of the most philosophical and inspirational teachings that I have received from the spirit guides took place during a deep meditation in a period when I was feeling sad following a personal loss. This was a poetic articulation regarding the nature of existence and reality. It expresses a reality that defies rational explanation.

There was a time before creation when thought had no focus or being. Thought was like a breeze uncontained, unwilling to be tamed. From everywhere, thought drew itself to a central point, changing from something random and developing an experience of structure. When this structure was formed and completed, the genetics of the universe were in place. This structure provides a means by which God can be recognized within us.

From this point forward, when structure could be developed no further, when thought and experience had become one, the structure expanded within itself and thus became creation. Creation follows structure; it is therefore useless to imagine that one can create anything of worth or value from outside that structure. That structure is continually expanding outward from itself, like a stretched snowflake, creating patterns that would be, if we could see them, a delight to the eye. Why should it be important to know that what we call flow is the movement of creation, that the desire to fill infinite space with creation is the reason for our existence? Just as the human body has a genetic makeup, the universe has an underlying structure, a form predestined and predecided, in that initial act of creation.

Just as atoms are ruled by physical laws, we are subject to the rules of that structure, that will of creation. The structure laid down in that initial state of creation allows us to transcend the human form and its apparent limitations.

Those limitations are merely beliefs; accepting as true those things you call human, physical, and frail, which separate you from the oneness and the connectedness that you so desire.

In the not-so-distant past, it took time to elevate one’s mind to the awareness of that initial state of creation. Now it is possible to integrate the understanding of that state and make it your state for healing.

The energy of love is the energy of the initial act of creation. There is not one atom, one form or thought or intention or understanding, that is not affected by this movement outward from the central point. One can see and understand, hold and embrace the reason for existence as part of that initial state. It is pointless to consider a state of enlightenment, for within this exchange you are the reason for existence, you are enlightenment, at one with the light, and you can be nothing else than enlightened. This word, this vibration, is a statement, a recognition of the oneness of the self with that initial state of creation. It means nothing more and nothing less.

Look at an ocean. How does it exist as an ocean? It is formed of many droplets, which are themselves formed by many atoms working in harmony with each other to create an illusion of the whole. Each atom exists in its own right, and the space in between holds that atom as an atom. It is in that space in between that we find the light, the memory of the initial structure of creation, the master plan of creation, and you are now within that space and also contained in that space, a vessel and the water that fills it. Simply be aware of this.

This is how you exist, this is why you exist, and this is how you understand your reason for existence from being in this space.

What impels our innate desire to develop an awareness of and to explore the invisible alternate realties? Well, apart from the basic human drive to gain knowledge and understand the universe we inhabit, we should seriously consider that there is also a biological, a social, and a spiritual need for us to explore the alternate realities. In the many hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we have developed the faculties and the neurochemistry that precisely allow us to perceive and relate beyond the physical world.

Knowledge of these inner transcendent states has been integral to the extraordinary human sojourn on the planet. Our ancestors knew how to stimulate the human organism to shift into these expanded states of awareness, or trance states, to explore the alternate dimensions of reality. The rhythmic beat of the drum, the rhythmic flow of the dance and chanting are invoked universally to awaken our remarkable ability to enter these states of consciousness. Here science can provide insight. At 200 to 220 pulses (beats) per minute, the brain changes its neurological state, and high levels of beta endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin are synthesized, resulting in the activation of a very different brain pattern, specifically the theta pattern. This brain wave relates to spatial awareness, creative thought, and the relaxed dream state in which we can access our deepest memories, spiritual connections, and sources of inspiration. This neatly dovetails with the traditional shamanic cultures that work with the rhythm of the drum or rattle to induce altered states.

Because Western society provides no structure to support and help people reach the theta brain state, they are suffering what anthropologist Felicitas Goodman defines as ecstasy deprivation. The lack of trance work and expanded states of awareness have become the norm in Western society, in her view, with serious consequences. Not only are our natural biological and primal needs not supported, but some Westerners try to compensate for this deprivation with high levels of alcohol and drug abuse.

In some cultures, psychotropic plants are used to move beyond the limitations of the physical world and into other realities. We have been conditioned to view this as a primitive or backward tradition, but it lies at the heart of Western culture as well. Benny Shanon, professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote an article “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture.

As far as Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don’t believe, or a legend, which I don’t believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics.5

The worldwide media interest in Benny Shanon’s paper about Moses and entheogens is encouraging us to take a good and hard look at the roots of religions. Some theorize that religions grew out of fertility cults and that participants made use of shamanic practices such as entheogenic plants to bring about a spiritual communion with the universal consciousness, or the mind of God.

It’s important to note that Shanon compares the psychotropic effects of ayahuasca to those produced by concoctions made from the bark of the acacia tree, which is frequently mentioned in the Bible.

Acacias contain a number of alkaloids that have a profound hallucinogenic effect on humans, including dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The leaves and stems are brewed together with an effective monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) containing plant, typically Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), which also grows in the region (southern Israel and the Sinai Peninsula). This brew is taken orally, similar to the Amazonian brew ayahuasca, which is also a combination of at least two plants, typically the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), which contains the vision-inducing alkaloids (DMT), and the ayahuasca vine itself (Banisteriopsis caapi), which acts as an inhibitor (MAOI) to prevent the body’s enzymes from neutralizing the tryptamine alkaloids. This is known as the MAOI effect, which was discovered by Western science in the 1950s, even though it has been known for thousands of years by our ancestors. This biochemical reaction forms the working basis for an entire class of antidepressant SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) pharmaceutical products such as Prozac and Seroxat.

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the acacia tree may very well be the “burning bush” (Exodus 3:2) that Moses encountered in the desert. Also, in the Christian tradition, Christ’s crown of thorns was woven from acacia. It is of great interest and significance that the humble acacia is so prominent in these two biblical narratives. These narratives have formed the nucleus of these religions and shaped the destiny of hundreds of millions of people. I know it is only speculation, but to me these could be more than just references to an available wood; these could be allegorical or coded references to a plant providing an entheogenic experience, which lies at the heart of religions, as Dr. Shanon conjectures. It is a thought-provoking matter that in Exodus 37 God gave clear instructions to Moses specifying that acacia wood was to be used for the Ark, the Table, and the Altar. These artifacts were looted by the Romans under the command of Titus, the son of the Emperor Vespasian, at the sack and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The mystery of the whereabouts of the Ark still captures the popular imagination in our culture, as Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates.

Is that a coincidence or is it an allusion to sacramental use of entheogens?

John Allegro, in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East, postulates, based on the etymology of words and the development of language, that the religions emanating from the Middle East were based on fertility cults and entheogens.

Allegro’s theory is visionary and groundbreaking. He was the first to propose in some detail that two major religions—Christianity and, by extension, Judaism—were traditionally entheogen-oriented and that the entheogen was Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric mushroom or fly amanita. His book was published at a time when there was little to no awareness of the use of entheogens, and it was indeed a courageous act to publish the book. Unfortunately, he was metaphorically crucified for his ideas.*2 Meanwhile, the argument that Jesus was not an actual person but an anthropomorphized hallucinogenic mushroom rolls on and on.

Earlier I discussed the traditional three worlds cosmology; let’s not conclude that this is an obsolescent concept. This archaic tenet is still alive and kicking in our Western society, in fact it is dogma for millions of people. In the current adaption of the three worlds, the upper world has been renamed as “heaven” and the lower world has also received a totally new designation and role, becoming “hell.” In this revision, the middle world is our physical world, the Earth. So plus ça change!