What is consciousness? This is a question that has vexed humankind for centuries. There are psychoanalytic models, cognitive approaches, biological/physiological explanations, and even physics-based theories that try to encapsulate the seemingly ineffable. However, there appears to be an emerging consensus that consciousness occurs because of the intersection of both body and psychological processes.
At the crux of our quest to understand consciousness is our ability to grasp the phenomenological aspects of consciousness, which centers around a personal, “lived experience.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that “Conscious experiences have a unique feature: we experience them, we live through them or perform them. Other things in the world we may observe and engage. But we do not experience them, in the sense of living through or performing them. This experiential or first-person feature—that of being experienced—is an essential part of the nature or structure of conscious experience: as we say, ‘I see / think / desire / do …’”
Therefore, at the heart of the phenomenological approach is or understanding of an experiential journey, one colored by our frame of mind, informed by preconceptions, perceptions, and biases, as well as our immediate environment. I am speaking about more than processing stimuli. Rather, from a phenomenological perspective, I am getting at how we construct our realities and our understanding of how we connect or relate to people, events, and ideas.
One tool that has helped us gain a deeper understanding of consciousness is the use of pharmacological agents, especially those that directly alter perception and consciousness. Because, for better or worse, many drugs, both legal and legal, not only alter our perceptions but also force us to grapple with our very sense of identity, who we are at the core of our being.
In the ground-breaking but controversial book, Listening to Prozac, author Dr. Peter Kramer writes the following about his patient, Tess, who had been taking the antidepressant Prozac, an SSRI psychiatric medication:
“Suddenly those intimate and consistent traits are not-me, they are alien, they are defect, they are illness—so that a certain habit of mind and body that links a person to his relatives and ancestors from generation to generation is now ‘other’. Tess had come to understand herself—the person she had been for so many years—to be mildly ill.”
Setting aside arguments about the efficacy of Prozac, Kramer is getting at something important: drugs can fundamentally redefine who were are. This pharmacological perspective, in reality, existed long before the advent of modern psychiatric medication and has its roots in a variety of shamanistic traditions. A key to understanding the shamanic perspective revolves around the concepts of agency, or the ability to create one’s own rich, spiritually informed path in life.
In the exploratory article, Becoming a Shaman: Narratives of Apprenticeship and Initiation in Contemporary Shamanism, authors Carolina Ivanescu and Sterre Berentzen explain: “Agency in narratives is understood as the manner in which the protagonist can affect their own lives and achieve some degree of control over the course of their experience, and, by extension, their self-sufficiency. Where agency represents purpose, coherence represents unity.”
Moreover, Ivanescu and Berentzen posit the mystical elements of a shaman, the living embodiment of shamanism: “He lives in the mythical dimension, which enables the envisioning of continuous cycles of death and rebirth. He crosses and travels at will between different realms of existence, and communicates directly with spirits, animals and plants. Through ecstasy, which according to him is the foremost ‘technique’ of shamanism, the shaman enters and leaves this primordial and universal state of being human, being permeated by the ‘mysteries’ of nature at will.”
This is an important insight. From this perspective, the idea of healing is expanded to include not only the personal empowerment of people who access the shamanic experience but simultaneously the ethereal and metaphysical roles that shamans use to reshape peoples’ identities.
The primary tools that shamans use to achieve this spiritual transformation are rituals and entheogenic plants, which we commonly call psychedelics in the West. In this sense, shamans are practicing a form of pharmacological intervention whose scope goes beyond the allaying specific symptoms and penetrates to the core of our identities.
Essentially, shamans use psychedelics to change our consciousness by altering our psychological and phenomenological states. So, much like a material substance, such as water (liquid), can be transformed into a solid (ice), or even a gas (vapor), a shaman can use psychedelics to bring about state changes in our consciousness. Ismael Apud of the Instituto de Fundamentos y Metodos en Psicologia at Universidad de la República, Uruguay, reasons, “In these kind of states, consciousness is experienced as independent of the natural world, and interacting in a spiritual realm.”
Moreover, the experiential aspect of a psychedelic experience has deep therapeutic value as it verges on an alchemical transformation of our identities through a shared, intense journey, one that involves not only the adoption of a fundamentally new perspective, but a sort of death of our outdated patterns of thinking and perception. Apud offers the following translated excerpt from the Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo:
“This experience was an ascension, a progress in my spiritual awakening; but also a descent, because this progress produced a movement of my attention to my body, to the ground, to death, to the instincts and apparently, to the constitutive particles of the material world.
This session involved not only a journey to death, but also a change of identity in which, after a certain period of time, I experienced myself as a cloud of subatomic particles, not caring about putting my body together or being part of nature’s elements. At the end of this momentary and never-expected immortal experience, I felt myself to be a healthy animal for the ﬁrst time in my life. And as I owe yage this great leap into my long process of healing, I must also use it in the healing of others.”
This confluence of spirituality, community, culture, nature, and ancient pharmacology inherent in shamanic practices is a powerful prescription for change, a catalyst that alters our state of being, and in doing so, reconfigures our consciousness and identities in healthier, more productive forms and provides motivation for us to offer the same experience with our fellow humans. One can only wonder how the world would change if we embraced this journey together.