I recently listened to a Podcast of an interview by the anthropologist, Jeremy Narby (KUOW.ORG, 2012). Jeremy was studying for his PhD at Stanford in the 1980’s, and lived with the Ashaninca Indians of the rainforests of Peru. The Shaman there, coaxed him to drink the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca tea, so that he could participate or enter into their experience. You can listen to his experience (if the link above persists) or read his book The Cosmic Serpent (Narby, 1998) where he reflects on what it all meant to him.
Jeremy went to Peru ‘as a marxist anthropologist, a materialist scientist’, interested in recording, objectively, the experiences of the indigenous people there. He describes himself as ‘Agnostic to belief’ (2012). After ingesting the tea, he was ‘confronted by two massive serpents who helped him understand how small and insignificant he was in the total scheme of the things’ (2012). He was transported ‘out of his body, many miles above the earth, then the Ayahuasquero (Shaman singing or chanting the song underlying his experience), brought him down to his body, where he saw 100,000 images, including the many veins of his hand, and how these corresponded with the veins of a leaf.’ (2012). Jeremy reflected that ‘these images were of nothing that he had seen before…not images repressed into his subconscious'(2012). They seem to have been images and communications with ‘spirits’ independent of his life memory system.
In his seminal work, Healing Fiction (1983, pp 78-81), James Hillman describes the process of Active Imagination, which I believe, as an experience, could be similar to what Jeremy Narby experienced with the Shaman of Peru, although Hillman might take exception with the drug induced state of experience (1983, p. 79).
Active imagination, developed and described by C.G. Jung in his work, Mysterium Coniunctionis (Jung, 1977, p. 707ff), is a technique where one, in imagination, contacts a daimon, god or goddess that represents a powerful unconscious element, perhaps representing something that afflicts you, perhaps some essential being that came to you in a night dream. This contact, might take the form of a dialog (you could start it in a word processor, where the Other, in your imagination, speaks in capital letters, and ‘you’ speak in small letters). In this dialog, you ask what it wants, you wait for what comes.
Hillman says, however, that active imagination is not ‘theurgic divination’ (1983, p. 79), or ‘the attempt to work with images by and for the human will.’ It is ‘not for curing symptoms, calming or abreacting terrors and greeds, bettering families, improving or developing personality (p. 79). He says ‘active imagination as theurgic divination would work on the Gods rather than recognizing their workings in us. We reach too far, missing the daimons that are present every day, and each night too.’
The Ayahuasca induced experience of Jeremy Narby, however, did not seem to bring up the repressed terrors of his personal unconscious, repressed traumas, nor did he, as the unsuspecting, agnostic scientist, have any aim or purpose for his experience. He seemed to experience what was there, what was presented to him, without any intention on his part. The experience, certainly seemed to shake his construct (in the post-modern sense) of logical positivism, that everything must be explained by cause and effect, logically, according to the laws of science. For me this opens out all of the intuitive arts, the Mantic arts (Tarot, Astrology, etc.). They don’t make sense either in the construct of cause and effect oriented, material science.
Hillman says that
we may fiction connections between the revelatory moments, but these connections are hidden like the spaces between the sparks or the dark seas around the luminous fishes’ eyes, images Jung employs to account for images. Each image is its own beginning, its own end, healed by and in itself. So, Know Thyself terminates whenever it leaves linear time and becomes an act of imagination. A partial insight, this song now, this one image; to see partly is the whole of it. Self-understanding healed by active imagination.
(1983, p. 80).
Jung, C.G. (1977), Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW Vol. 14, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.
Hillman, J. (1983), Healing fiction, Spring Publications, Putnam, CN.
Narby, J. (Jan, 2012), KUOW.ORG, KUOW Presents (Radio PodCast), Seattle, Washington
Narby, J. (1998), The cosmic serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, NY.