The Map is Not the Territory…….…but Maps can be Useful
Given that most Westerners experience with Madre Ayahuasca is deeply challenging to the rationalist, cultural frameworks we have typically been brought up in, how do we then understand these experiences? What kind of frameworks might be useful for us to help us make sense of the strange experiences we are having?
Of course, the experience itself is more significant than any understanding of it. And it is important to try to approach the experience afresh – or ‘unbracketed’ as the phenomenologists would put it – without fitting it into any pre-existing ideas of what it could and should be. Besides, Madre Ayahuasca is always good at confounding our expectations of her.
However, I do believe that being able to make sense of the experiences we have is useful, important, and possibly inevitable – unless we want to abandon the mind altogether. So, what maps can we use to understand this extraordinarily strange territory that is being revealed to us? – whilst acknowledging, along with Alfred Korzybski, that: “the map is not the territory”.
In this post, I am going to list six people whose work has been especially illuminating to me. Of course, almost any classical spiritual literature – for example, the Bible or the Koran – or any good literature for that matter could appear in this list. I am not claiming that this is an exhaustive list, not that these are necessarily the six most important writers, but neither do I think that what they have to say is trivial.
In this blog, I will very briefly outline how each has enriched my understanding. In later blogs, I may come back to examine their individual work in more depth.
1. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)
“Cosmic activity is indeed the greatest of artists. The cosmos fashions everything according to laws which bring the deepest satisfaction to the artistic sense”
Rudolf Steiner is one of the great neglected thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because his work directly addresses spiritual realities denied by the dominant modernist paradigm. Apart from offering insights into other worlds, his work also greatly impacted the fields of education (Waldorf schools), and agriculture (Biodynamic farming) as well as economics, medicine, architecture and the arts. His little book “Knowledge of Higher Worlds and Its Attainment” is a gem and especially relevant to Madre Ayahuasca.
My copy almost has every sentence underlined and, having read it now twice, different aspects stand out on each reading. One of his many interesting statements is that we should not share the experience we gain from being able to access these ‘Higher Worlds’, which runs counter to the strong confessional strand in twenty first century culture – and indeed to this blog.
2. Carl Jung (1875-1961)
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism”
“As far as we can discern the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being”
Carl Jung is another giant of the twentieth century. His work is immense and complex, spanning many ideas that are now part of the contemporary currency of ideas – personality types, individuation, the persona, archetypes, complexes, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, the shadow, active imagination, the interplay of matter and psyche, the rediscovery of alchemy.
What I especially value in Jung’s thinking is his belief that the figures we encounter in our imagination (like Don Machinga, in my case) have their own autonomy. They are not simply projections or individual fantasies. Of course we color them with our own idiosyncrasies, they will (like Madre Ayahuasca) appear very differently to different people but they cannot be reduced to individual mental functioning – they are co-created.
3. James Hillman (1926-2011)
“We approach people the same way we approach our cars. We take the poor kid to a doctor and ask, “What’s wrong with him, how much will it cost, and when can I pick him up”
I had the great good fortune to attend four workshops with James Hillman. I loved his brilliance, uncompromisingness, ability to provoke, and sense of humor. I have never experienced anyone who could transform people though the sheer power of his ideas. He once described his work as: “helping to rearrange the mental furniture in our minds”.
Hillman builds on a particular reading of Jung’s work to create a new field of ‘archetypal psychology’. This field is expertly and penetratingly outlined in his book “Revisioning Psychology”, which should be standard reading for anyone considering or practicing psychology or psychotherapy as a profession.
Although it was never intended to be so, I find another of Hillman’s books “The Dream and the Underworld”, a very useful guide to the world of Madre Ayahuasca. In this book, Hillman completely turns dream interpretation on its head, arguing that all previous attempts to understand dreams seek to bring the dream back to the daylight consciousness of the ego.
He argues passionately for the dream to be understood in its own terms – that our dream images be allowed their autonomy, not be submitted to psychological explanations and thereby colonized by the ego. In the same way, I find it important to try to resist, as far as possible, the attempts of the ego to rationalize and make its own the experiences encountered with Madre Ayahuasca.
4. Henri Corbin (1903-1978)
“Prayer is the highest form, the supreme act of the Creative Imagination. … For prayer is not a request for something: it is the expression of a mode of being, a means of existing and of causing to exist, … The organ of Prayer is the heart, the psychospiritual organ, with its concentration of energy, its himma. … Prayer is a “creator” of vision, … .”
Henri Corbin was an early contributor to the famous Eranos conferences and was an important influence on both Jung and Hillman. He is one of the few Western scholars to take seriously the Islamic Shi’ite mystical tradition
Corbin’s intellectual pedigree is impeccable. He spoke French, German, English, Persian and Arabic, was deeply immersed in both Islamic and Western philosophy and was the first French translator of Heidegger’s magnum opus “Being and Time”.
In one of his most accessible books, “The Voyage and the Messenger”, Corbin outlines a theory and a topography of visionary knowledge based on the twelfth century Islamic mystic Suhrawardi. One of the insights that I find thought provoking is the idea that the descent from the entry into other spiritual worlds is of more value than the ascent there. It is via the descent that we potentially bring back the riches that we have found in the otherworld(s). Curiously, this has some resonance with an idea from the Shipibo shamans that the onset of the ayahuasca experience is one in which the darker side of the spirit world might be present.
For anyone interested in Henri Corbin, I highly recommend the work of Thomas Cheetham.
“What we attend to, and how we attend to it, changes it and changes us”.
Ian McGilchrist is a Scottish psychiatrist, doctor and neuroscientist who was formerly a professor of Literature at Oxford. He has combined the depth of his immense knowledge of these fields and his acute intelligence in an extraordinary, subtle and erudite book published in 2009 called “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern Western World”.
This book like most of those referred to in this list warrants careful and sustained attention. McGilchrist uses his extensive knowledge of cultural history and the different functioning of the right and left brain hemispheres to show how in different historical epochs there have been changing patterns of interrelationship of the different hemispheres and that our era is characterized by a potentially disastrous overemphasis on the left brain functions of control, fragmentation, manipulation, and rational, logical thought – the ego, in short.
Like all the other writers on this list, I find his work invaluable in understanding the relation between the ego and the wider psyche.
Jane Roberts was an American writer and poet who in 1963 began to channel an entity called Seth. She published a number of books under her own name based on material that came from Seth but the specific and remarkable book I want to draw attention to here was channeled directly by Seth as a book he himself wanted to directly dictate. The book is called “Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul”.
I had come across this book before I met Madre Ayahuasca and had found it far-fetched and fantastical. However, after a number of encounters with Madre Ayahuasca, the book starts to make eminent sense.
One of the many ideas I like in this book is the notion that in this human life we need to already begin to familiarize ourselves to the kinds of experiences that we will encounter after death. Seth sees it as invaluable to be able to consciously navigate between worlds – which we are doing anyway, largely unconsciously, when we dream. Madre Ayahuasca offers us exactly this opportunity.
What I respect about all these authors is that they bring a rigor to their writings on spiritual realms or the ‘invisible’ world. Each of their maps is highly individual and distinctive yet through their clarity, considered attention and discipline, they are able to chart collective dimensions of experience. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to be our own map builders, but others’ maps can serve us as steps on the way.