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From Daniel Pinchbeck: Meeting the Spirits

July 5, 2007

From the July 2007 Whole Life Times Prophet Motive Column:

All through my childhood, I felt certain that something extraordinary – absolutely amazing and out of the ordinary – was going to happen to me. The world seemed bursting with a secret that nobody would divulge, and someday this tremendous mystery would be revealed. Simply because they were older, I assumed that all adults had passed through this portal into the miraculous essence of existence, although they never spoke about it. As I approached adolescence, I began to suspect that my deepest hopes were going to be unfulfilled. By the time I went to college, I had realized, to my horror, that “maturity” meant accepting contraints and being bound to a limited career path, rather than blossoming into a deeper dimension of possibility and wonder. This was a painful shock.

I now suspect that what I felt is a nearly universal disappointment for young people in our world: I was yearning for initiation in a culture that had abandoned it. Initiatory techniques and rituals have been an essential part of human cultures for tens of thousands of years. In tribal and aboriginal societies, initiations serve a number of different purposes. On one level, rites of passage create a threshold between childhood and adulthood, marking a major life boundary. They are also a time when the elders pass on oral traditions and knowledge to the young. But most importantly, the traditional process of initiation involves a disciplined training in extrasensory perception and non-ordinary states of consciousness – learning to communicate with the spirit worlds that lie beyond the limits of our physical senses.

While our modern secular culture denies the existence of a spiritual dimension to life, many of our popular post-secular movements of mysticism still refuse to address the question of spirits. Philosophers such as Ken Wilber tend to reduce them to psychological tropes or delusions. Based on my own experiences, I strongly suspect we need to attain a more sophisticated understanding of how spirits may operate, as well as a set of techniques for dealing with them, before we can approach higher states and stages of development. We cannot have “Spirit” without spirits.

For many indigenous cultures, it is a high priority to stay on good terms with the ancestor spirits, who can wreak havoc if they are not given respect. The living and the dead maintain a reciprocal relationship. For the indigenous Maya, if the dead are not handled properly, their ghosts hang around, inflicting neuroses, addictive patterns and depressions upon their descendants. Such a perspective does not conflict with modern psychology, but adds a deeper dimension to it. As Amit Goswami explores in The Self-Aware Universe, quantum physics offers the possibility that incorporeal patterns of thinking, feeling and action might continue and have effects in the world, even without a physical reference point in a living organism.

One way we could consider our current situation in the US, perhaps, is as a case of spirit possession on a mass scale. Since we dismiss spirits as nonexistent, we have no defenses against the forces that prey upon us. When a college student guns down his classmates, when a soldier tortures a defenseless victim, when corporate officers avoid facing the environmental consequences of their profit-making, we might be looking at situations in which unappeased demons and aggrieved ancestor spirits are overtaking people, entering their psyches in states of detachment and disconnection. Such a situation cannot be solved through rational means alone, but calls for shamanic techniques such as soul retrieval and banishment.

Personally, my youthful sense of being cheated of some deeper potential melted away once I discovered shamanic practices as an adult, and explored visionary states of consciousness in traditional ceremonies in South America, West Africa and the US. Through this work, I restored the primordial connection to the sacred that I had lost after my childhood, as well as my original sense of wonder, and this was tremendously healing and empowering. Through my own shamanic journeys, I realized that modern culture was facing an initiatory crisis on a global scale. We have created a planet of “kidults,” perpetual adolescents trapped by material desires, with no access to higher realms and little sense of purpose or moral responsibility.

Despite the best efforts of people like Robert Bly and Malidoma Somé, we are not going to institute a new culture of initiation in the next few years. As Westerners, each of us has to follow a personal path to recover the numinous for ourselves, shedding our self-limiting beliefs and narcissistic complexes in the process. In tribal cultures, initiation is ultimately a public process that requires an act of witnessing from the collective before it is complete. The visionary knowledge gained through initiatory discipline only becomes meaningful when it is integrated into the community through storytelling, dance and pageant. In our post-modern world, those who undergo initiation may need to create a shared cultural context to impart the wisdom they have gained from their ordeals. Such knowledge is both a gift and a responsibility: Indeed, if frenzied spirits and sneaky demons are attacking us from beyond the margins of our interpreted world, we may require a revival of shamanic practices to reveal and release them.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). His features have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Wired and many other publications.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 16, 2007 4:44 pm

    read Quetzacoatl/Return?2012…great…reaffirming…would love to dialogue with David..had powerful experiences…probably second attention…peers would not understand…

    Nick Johnson

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