21st Century Healing Ceremony

Three pillars ancient and modern

Three pillars ancient and modern

There is a common shape to the healing ceremony, discernible both in worldwide anthropological testimony and human instinct itself. To use our raging hallucinatory excess for something other than self-indulgence, something other than eternal anxiety, something other than endless chatty futile thinking, something other than sculpting the usual sandcastles of justification and deferral: we are the magic ape, the one with an uncanny light in his eyes, the one who dreams compulsively, the one with ancient nightmares and gorgeous dreams, the one who outcompeted his brothers because he turned his insanity into weaponry.

What is the healing ceremony? Now in the depths of a psychosomatic epidemic, in the wake of an opioid wildfire, in the bowels of this seasick ragged ship of 21st century collective illness, an opportunity arises to rediscover and articulate the healing ceremony of our ancestors - our instincts are waking up and dictating terms, prying open prejudices. The brutality of fentanyl seems to be the breaking point: the only conceivable justification for an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin are the kind of reasons an addict and his pusher give. This apparently is the pendulum swing, where even the most conservative entrenched euroamericans are willing to consider psychedelic ceremony, because they're out of options. The willful stupidity and unassailable arrogance of western medicine, those moneychangers in the temple, is finally showing a little vulnerability as its victim-count has become a public nuisance, its stink so overbearing that it's hard to go on pretending.

We're going to rediscover the healing ceremony. In my own experience, despite the many variations there is a distinct outline. The best way to begin is to describe our toolkit. These are the tools we use:

  • Psychoanalysis, or its more widely known adulterated form, "therapy".
  • Meditative discipline, which cannot be reduced to "breath work" but is its superset.
  • Shamanic initiation, which we might prefer to call "psychedelic intervention".

This is the triad with which we deal. I find that by balancing them with each other, we're left with something truly potent with a minimum of taxonomic figleaves and historical stopgaps which each method typically entails in its yearning for the illusion of completeness. Not that we would want a "complete" perspective, but we find this approach more balanced and representative of collective 21st century human knowledge.

Among the psychotherapists you can find someone capable of listening to your complaints ad infinitum, but not someone capable of empowering you beyond the point of grief. Because unfortunately the knife-edge of Freudian analysis has been dulled beyond repair and so obscured by the machinations of Foucaultian oppression, that there's 100 million social workers ready to console you, but hardly anyone even among the top caliber psychoanalysts ready to give you an ounce of genuine empowerment. What do I mean by empowerment? The ability not only to describe but to craft your own emotional landscape: that's why you need shamanic initiation.

When you blend the two, what you get on the one hand, is the realistic assessment of your neurotic obstacles via psychotherapy, and on the other hand, the creative capacity for novel solutions via a shamanic approach - which is to treat your problems as spirits which must be negotiated with, bartered with, tended to, fended off, fed and invited. The real bridge between these two modalities, is in my view the oldschool Freudian method, which is to listen to unconscious valence, in order to rapidly iterate and test useful identification schemes, handles, effective symbolic containment: this is what Freudian analysis is really about - to deal effectively with the unconscious symbolic plane, not so much with "consciousness" but with words. In shamanic terms, that meant identifying a spirit, and possibly containing it with a power object, which Winnicott might have called "transitional" in the sense that it's easy to watch an infant create power objects in the quest for independence from mother - the blankie, the doll, the thumb. The shamanic orientation has been dismissed and pathologized as infantile, regressed, and narcissistic - and there's no doubt it calls on these forces - but that doesn't mean there's no place for it. The whole idea of "therapy" is to regress the subject carefully, gradually, to the point of misalignment. So much of what we do in psychedelic ceremony is to invoke and provoke regression: there's a reason you have to crawl into the medicine lodge on your knees, to crouch in the dark, crammed together like unborn puppies, singing songs to mother earth and father sky.

We're now in a better position to understand a power object like the medicine rattle, which is best explained in traditional terms as a "telephone to the ancestors": with it you hear the voices of your best self. Your ancestors stand for everything you know to be true but haven't admitted to yourself, that wisdom you have accumulated but not assimilated.

Holding those two nodes in abeyance, we add the additional discipline of meditation, which we have sought to steal back from the Buddhists with a rejection of their overbearing postaxial morality. We're interested in empowerment rather than penance, and uninterested in growing accustomed to a perpetual humiliation and grief for the loss of an imaginary unitary self - all which I believe is merely the compounded strategies of priests to attain class dominance over an abject illiterate serfdom. This is the true origin of their mythology, not because dukkha is so profoundly true but because it helps keep the working classes overawed with frightening yet somehow familiar metaphors about eternal suffering. Meditation has other origins.

With meditation in the mix, you have gained a sword of truth by which to cut through every other trailing flagellate of bullshit which follows the other two nodes around: they should all correct and balance one another.

From the ancient perspective, we describe the healing triad:

  • "Talk therapy" was called prayer. This is the ability to articulate what you want, to use words to change your destiny, to make new oaths and break old bonds. Ceremony is considered an opportunity to conduct undone business.
  • Meditative discipline was called the warrior way. To be impeccable in attitude, to use the brave heart to impart calm and assurance to everything you do, to breathe, to wait, to face directly. It is a necessary ingredient in healing ceremony, because healing requires so much character.
  • Psychedelic intervention was just called medicine. Actually drugs aren't necessary, as the sweatlodge has all the proper characteristics and potential effectiveness via endogenous drugs. The idea is to seek rebirth through ritual death: to induce radical regression through systemic crisis, to trigger a calibration and reparative subroutine by harmonic forcing of the totality of the living creature - solitude, fasting, darkness, pain, confrontation.

Combine them all and you have the urform of the healing ceremony.

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We need psychotherapy because we're fucked up. Because our childhood was less than ideal, because our parents failed us in a variety of ways, because we were over- and understimulated. As a result we live partly crippled by layers of neurotic entanglement which require many years to sort. Thus far we're all familiar and at home.

But we add the shamanic initiation: this is where people generally go astray. They either flee to the safety of cargo cult scientificality, yelling across the void they just crossed that there's no way it can be crossed, or they look for the most overwhelming and immediate gratification, exaggerating its means and attainments until we're left with unworkable nonsense, à la Carlos Castaneda.

The first take is wrong, self-evidently, because otherwise the shamanic role wouldn't be a human universal. If there were nothing to learn there, every nomadic people on earth would not have had their shamans and an animistic worldview. Regardless of whether we're considering a Pleistocene economy or not, if they're nomads, they're animistic - so strong is the inclination.

The second abuse of shamanism, the exploitation of its means at the expense of its fragile validity, is flawed because we're dealing with immature human beings looking for maximum social advantage over their fellows, without having earned the right to such powers in a way which could be collectively confirmed with psychosomatic health benefits - that's a clinical way of saying that they don't help anyone but themselves. It's nice to dream your dream of flight and the visiting of other worlds - I'm not here to disparage the wonder and awe of what it means to be a human creature with an overactive imagination, and just because something can be construed as delusional doesn't mean it's not useful. The final and traditional test of shamanic power is: yes, but does it make our people stronger?

The important thing, is to watch for those who derive more gratification from your credulity than from their own integrity: once you develop an eye for it, you'll see that most who would call themselves a shaman in the 21st century are in fact charlatans. This is part of why I haven't talked about it much.

Then finally in the last corner, sits meditative discipline. This is much less frightening to the educated western skeptic, because we can at least talk ourselves into believing that it might reduce stress, to sit in a quiet room while sniffing incense, listening to a tambura drone on in its pompous way - or having some subtly plastered stick-insect of a lady tell you to relax your eyes and think about the ocean. That might be suitable for those who need a great deal of soothing, who suffer from hyperalgesia and hypervigilant forms of anxiety - but it's another deadend in my view, and has nothing to do with what we call meditative discipline. This is about sitting upright, paying attention, and trying not to be such an asshole to the world around you. Pay attention to your breath, focus on your body, develop sensitivity and neural coherence in your peripheral systems: we begin with the outside in - not a retreat to the inside, but extending a cultivated awareness to the bodily envelope which we represent. This is why we emphasize peripheral nervous phenomena: proprioception is that omnipresent much-neglected sense, which almost has no name. My method incurs the cost of paying attention to the body, in the world, in space and time: meditation is not about retreat from the body and cultivation of the mind alone - that's a priestly fable that denies and obscures its origin in those shamanic threads best represented by Daoism. The Daoists are the last essential utterance of the neolithic, the animistic worldview preserved briefly past literacy, such that it becomes most legible to us. This is why they know about meditation in its purer, amoral practice, and why I make sure to always use the Daoists as a catalyzing agent when extracting the worthwhile parts of postaxial Buddhism. The man on the mountain, meditating on nature, communing with the animals and his own body - all of which is a late-romantic way of saying the nomadic hunter, whose every resource of sense is attuned to that world from which he selectively takes. Ultimately meditation is derived from the hunting instinct, the ability to track down dangerous prey in stalking and mimicry. Examining the catalogue of nomadic hunting techniques, many of them reduce to ambush and treachery: disguising yourself as an animal among animals, so that you can sneak into their herds. That's what the guy wearing horns in Grotte des Trois-Frères is about, the "lord of animals", Pashupati: the guy who is such a magical clown, that he can sneak among antelope wearing only a little skin and some horns. He doesn't need to ape it all precisely, because the control of his vibe is so precise and uncanny, that it dazzles: all that's required is something sufficiently alien such that the animal hesitates. You don't exactly need to convince them, because as long as you don't act human, they'll look at you askance and ask themselves what this is. This is the evolutionary origin of meditation: the ability to sneak up on extremely receptive but easily entranced prey. Another reason why I insist that spending time outdoors is necessary - sitting alone in a dark place staring at a candle can form the heart of a practice, but it can be more joyful and useful than that.

No one has really asked: why is it that humans can meditate at all? What's the use of it? There is an answer, and it points away from the usual priestly soteriology of otherworldly status and penance, but attaining control over your spiritual configurations such that you become more effective. For our purposes within this triad, meditative awareness serves as the crucible within which every other perspective must be tested, because to become any good at it at all, you must learn how much you lie to yourself. Every time your attention wanders, you have to find the honesty to remind yourself to pay attention to your breath again. Doing this over and over will teach you how little focus you have, and how prone you are to short-term gratification schemes. Therefore learning to detect bullshit at the level required for meaningful progress in something as labile as "psychedelic intervention", is really only attainable once you start meditating in a serious way. It helps immensely with psychoanalysis for obvious reasons, and for slightly less obvious reasons with shamanic practice: first of all because shamanic rites tend to exaggerate their attainments, since it's ultimately about exploitation of imagination and creativity - which leads inevitably to things that aren't true but need to be handled carefully, being utilized where they can. But there's another reason: during those medicinal plant ceremonials, a meditative practice will help you refine and withstand the most intense psychedelic perturbation possible. You can take big doses of psilocybin or dimethyltryptamine, and rather than hallucinate wildly, it's possible to contain the excitement and reduce it to its raw neural form: you sit there, meditate, and thrill. If you contain the neural excitation while facilitating its forceful expansion through breath control, it will push the neural systems through their phases into ever greater coherence, such that you feel unified, luminous, a geometric alliance. This "long range correlation" and critical simultaneity is just the best mathematical language I can find for the feeling of being immensely alive. All of this is accompanied usually by mycoclonus and the more famous entoptic fireworks - shapes and colors as the visual cortex runs its paces - but the idea is to utilize the metabolic cascade as a chance to do some maintenance and cleaning, and the best way is to pay attention to the beginning and end of every hallucination, the more raw neural errata, such that you learn to perceive your nervous excitation without hallucinatory elaboration.

In other words, we reduce the fictional narratizing element to a minimum until you really need it - until you're dealing with irreducible emotional valence related to traumatic memory. Now you have to talk about your feelings, now it's time to draw on all that psychotherapeutic practice in the midst of tremendous neural excitation - and that's where very rapid, very effective healing can take place.

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