By Tench Phillips
Once upon a time–not that long ago–we were all indigenous peoples who lived intimately with nature on what was essentially a very different planet than the one we inhabit today. There were countless numbers of land and sea animals and a vast diversity of plant species. Man was self-sufficient and used critical knowledge and skills passed down from one generation to the next through living oral traditions.
Today we are all consumers–totally dependent upon others for our survival. Mankind has proliferated and taken over all the habitats of the remaining large terrestrial mammals. Our technological, man-made world is so disconnected from the biological web of life that most urban-dwellers no longer experience nature. Our animal bodies have been abstracted and relocated in our minds. What appears real to us is the digital world that we perceive through our various viewing screens. Our beliefs, ideology, and denial maintain a collective image of a world that is no longer grounded in reality.
But many of us are awakening to our distant past through the teachings that older cultures have kept alive for us. These indigenous voices advocate nonviolent resistance in the defense of ‘Mother Earth’ and against needless exploitation by the fossil fuel industry. The nation’s tribes recently came together to obstruct the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline–until Trump’s executive decree won the battle. Around the world indigenous groups lead grassroots struggles against corporate predatory practices that mine the remaining resources of the earth.
When German Prime Minister Merkel recently expressed her regret about the U.S. decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, she acknowledged the need to protect ‘Mother Earth’. By using a form of ‘night language’ borrowed from indigenous peoples, she offered a counter narrative to the patriarchal Trump doctrine of nationalism, militarism, speciesism, and materialism. By personifying nature in mythic terms we can convey our emotional bonds in a better way than through the familiar use of modern pragmatic “day language”
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have a vast depth of botanical knowledge and ecological awareness. Homo sapiens evolved on the earth much later than the complex plant world of pheromones and alkaloids. Our ancestors discovered the distinctive medicinal plants that brought healing and the shamans cultivated relationships with these plants. When asked how they received the vast plant knowledge that they have accumulated, the shamans claim that the plants speak to them.
The knowledge of Amazonian Indians was documented by Westerners during the 20th century by the late author and ethnobotanist Richard Schultes. Many of his students at Harvard University continue his path-breaking work. They include Mark Plotkin, the founder of the Amazon Conservation Team, anthropologist Wade Davis, and holistic medical doctor Andrew Weil.
Western scientists have been playing catch-up for decades to learn from the Indians so as to exploit native knowledge in the pursuit of pharmaceutical profits. But plants that are beneficial when used holistically within their original cultures can cause great harm when the plant alkaloids are isolated and concentrated. And without the wisdom traditions, these substances can become lucrative street drugs that are misused and abused.
For example in the Andes the native peoples chew coco leaves for stimulation and for their nutritional value but when the alkaloids are concentrated in the production of cocaine, harmful health and addiction problems arise. Similarly the indigenous use of tobacco for spiritual journeying is far removed from the consumption of cigarettes by addicted individuals.
Some of the Amazon plants are so psychically powerful that no black-market has developed to exploit them as street drugs. Such is the tea known by the Indians as ayahuasca. It is composed of two different plant species that activate each other when combined and cooked down in large vats. The sacrament is a bitter brew imbibed by participants within an overnight ritual conducted by an ayahuascero who guides the group in a shamanic journey.
Molecular biology can provide an explanation for how dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), one of the psychoactive compounds within ayahuasca is able to cross over the blood brain barrier to provide for a visionary experience. Our nervous systems have the receptors for these plant alkaloids since we have our own endogenous DMT that resides within our pineal gland. And yet a scientific reductionist view of the world that can explain these biochemical interactions provides little insight into our subjective inner world of consciousness, meaning, and value.
A shamanic explanation for our experience is that a divine being inhabits the ayahuasca and guides our voyage to the astral realm. The shaman sings hymns and icaros to bring the participant along on a collective journey through the celestial spheres. If one is worthy of the profound experience, then one is able to bring back the teachings and have healing in their ordinary lives.
The participant travels along the vibrations of songs and prayers sung by the shaman. The experience of ego loss and a glimpse of separate realities can invoke much fear, anxiety, and sickness. Often an intense physical purging of negative energies is needed. The healing continues when the initiate settles down and enters into a waking dream of powerful visions. If one’s intention is pure and deserving, a sincere request for mercy and healing may be honored. But one must first be willing to deeply examine their life and to take responsibility for all the suffering that they have perpetuated and the unforgiveness they have harbored.
Indigenous cosmologies are considered pre-rational or pre-scientific. The visible world is perceived as sacred and inhabited by an invisible world of spirits. This worldview has been irrevocably changed by modern scientific understanding so that western cultures no longer see the external world as inhabited by spirits but instead as bio-molecular physicalism. Our mental disturbances are analyzed as psychological aspects of our inner world that need to be integrated. The realm of spirits has been relegated to myths and religion.
Shamanic plant teachings provide another way of perceiving the world. In this reality, the physical universe is not inanimate and unconscious–it is alive and full of meaning. All beings are considered sentient. Each one experiences and has relationships with the world on various levels of awareness. Shamanic healing is practiced on a causal level. A physical or mental healing may also accompany the deeper work although it may be temporary since the patient can revert back to habitual patterns. Regardless, the plant teachings have allowed one to experience their death metaphorically before the actual dropping of the body–and to gain the knowledge that there is no death.
Many of us naturally recoil from the the striving, grasping, hurried mode of survival in our patriarchal society–and instead gravitate toward feminine receptivity. Being still and observing our breath–the active, aggressive mode is freed up. Awareness expands to include repressed fears and forgotten events. Of course, seeing our flaws, transgressions, and shortcomings can be painful. We normally run away from such harsh truths but liberation comes from confronting our unconscious fears.
The increase of adolescent depression and suicide may be a reaction to our disconnected, violent, materialist society that is itself suicidal in its headlong rush toward global catastrophe. We are all entangled within the western cultural mind that broadcasts from our media screens and distracts us from the natural world. It feeds on our addictions and is especially predatory on our children. And like any addiction, the struggle to disconnect from our iPhones and from social networking can lead to severe withdrawals.
The young protagonist in the upcoming documentary ‘The Last Shaman’ suffers from severe depression. Having tried allopathic medicinal treatment to no avail, he is desperate for an alternative. He vows a life-or-death mission and travels to the Amazon to find a shaman to help him. He soon learns that western marketing has encroached on tribal ways; it’s not so easy to find an authentic teacher that he can trust. His persistent and arduous journey is rewarded through the teachings of a respected shaman as well as the divine being that inhabits ayahuasca. Through the process he experiences an inner peace and acceptance that will guide him upon his return back to his life and family.
‘The Last Shaman’ shows on Wed, July 14 in a program led by author, lecturer, artist, and teacher Tom Crockett. Tom will draw from his book ‘Stone Age Wisdom: The Healing Principles of Shamanism’ for his talk on integral shamanism. Tom serves as the Executive Director of Together We Can Foundation. This important non-profit organization helps at-risk teens make successful transitions from foster care to independent adult life across Hampton Roads.
Drawing from his years of experience as a student of shamanism as well as a teacher of various shamanic traditions, Tom will trace the development of indigenous cosmologies from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational shamanism. He defines the ceremonial multi-cultural works being conducted today as urban-contemporary shamanism and his own current work as integral shamanism.
We are watching the last desperate attempts by the dominant patriarchy. They are scared that they are going down and so they’re fighting to the death to maintain their power and control. And yet the yin and yang of life continually works towards balance and equilibrium. The perennial philosophy of all traditions is accessible like never before. And our culture is rediscovering medicinal plants like cannabis that can relieve chronic anxiety and awaken a profound awe in the ‘wonder of it all’ in one’s quest for mental and physical health.
All of nature exhibits vast intelligence, and right now the world needs all the intelligence that we can get. Indigenous peoples converse with nature and have a knowledge of plants and complex ecosystems that could greatly benefit western science. A meaningful dialogue between the two ways of knowing is greatly needed.
The green revolution is here–encompassing the transformation of the outer world and of the inner world. We have available to us the renewable technologies of solar power as well as those of photosynthesis and the plant teachers to expand our collective consciousness. The stakes are high and there’s no time to loose in our struggle to regain the health of the planet and for our own selves.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
DO THE RIGHT THING
Set in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York, on the hottest day of the year, Spike Lee’s classic chronicles the events that lead up to a race riot between the residents. (1989) Naro-minded presents Friday, June 16.
DECONSTRUCTING THE BEATLES’ RUBBER SOUL
In October 1965, The Beatles were faced with an impossible task—produce a new album of original music for a Christmas release. Within one month, The Beatles had emerged with what many consider to be one of their greatest albums—Rubber Soul. They even had time to create a double A-side single, “We Can Work It Out” backed by “Day Tripper.” Composer/producer Scott Freiman walks Beatles fans young and old through the creation of Rubber Soul. Learn the stories behind the creation of “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” “Nowhere Man” and other classics. Shows Tues, June 20.
THE PENGUIN COUNTERS
Armed with low tech gear and high minded notions that penguin populations hold the key to human survival, Ron Naveen lays bare his 30 year love affair with the world’s most pristine scientific laboratory: Antarctica. Famed as a place that wants you dead, this film follows a rag tag team of field biologists to some of the harshest corners of the planet, where they track the impact of climate change and ocean health by counting penguin populations. Shows Wed, June 21.
In a forgotten massacre during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, a young boy was spared, only to be raised by one of the very soldiers who killed his family. Nearly 30 years after the tragedy, it will take a dedicated team – from a forensic scientist to a young Guatemalan prosecutor – to uncover the truth and bring justice to the criminals responsible. But they must first find the missing boy named Oscar who migrated to the U.S. many years prior. Executive producer is Steven Spielberg. Shows Wed, June 28.
MAL VINCENT’S SUMMER CLASSICS
The golden era of Hollywood movies is alive and well on Colley Ave! For this 14th season, Virginian Pilot critic and columnist Mal Vincent has programmed a festival of notable films that he’ll introduce and embellish with personal stories about his relationships over the years with the Hollywood legends. Every Monday evening for 7 weeks beginning July 10.
THE LAST SHAMAN
Suffering from severe depression and contemplating suicide, James tried the traditional Western medical treatment and pharmaceutical routes without success. But when he travels to the Amazon rain forest with one mission at hand, to save his own life and without knowing any of the dangers that lie ahead of him, he starts searching for a Shaman who can help him. By undergoing various forms of treatments from cleansing ceremonies to the tribal plants medicines–including the powerful sacred plant brew ayahuasca–he is faced with the consequences of his own actions. An astonishing documentary by Raz Degan. Shows Wed, July 12.
THE BIG LEBOWKSI
This hilarious caper from Joel and Ethan Coen stars Jeff Bridges as the Dude, whose laid-back existence is interrupted in a case of mistaken identity that cascades into at least three extortion and kidnapping plots. (1998) Naro-minded presents Friday, July 14.