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Published by: bearbot on Jun 15, 2013
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Various geometric designs, such as lattices or grids, parallel lines, dots and flecks,
zigzag lines, wavy or undulating lines, bright dots or flecks, circles, as well as
meandering lines and other similar phenomena (such as those found in the caves
mentioned in chapter 1), form part of entoptic (visual) phenomena. They are
generated in the eye and within the optic system beyond the retina. The images are
believed to derive from the structure of the nervous system (Blundell 1998: 4–5).
Lewis-Williams and Dowson call such images ‘form constants’, ‘phosphenes’
and ‘entoptic phenomena’ (1988: 201–45). Entoptic phenomena produced by
inducing altered states of consciousness are very similar in geometric form among
people as geographically distant as the San of South Africa (Blundell 1998: 3–12),
the northern Paiute of California (Patterson 1998) and Western student subjects in a
laboratory setting (Patterson 1998: 44–5).5

They are known to appear during the first
stages of a trance state. The images can be experienced as luminous and animated,
and can fragment and reduplicate themselves, as well as rotate in the field of vision.

38 • Portals

They can also integrate, superimpose and juxtapose with one another. Although
these various shapes may be experienced the same way universally, they might be
interpreted according to cultural expectations. However, in spite of different cultural
backgrounds, everyone has the potential to see them.
Building on the work of Ronald Siegel, Lewis-Williams and Dowson suggest a
three-stage model, based principally on entoptic phenomena, for understanding the
progression of altered states. Although three stages are mentioned, a person might go
directly to the second and third stages without experiencing the first stage. The first
stage is a description of the various geometric visual percepts that people experience
when initially entering an altered state. In the second stage, the ‘construal stage’,
people try to make sense of the phenomena. It is at this stage that an experience
is interpreted according to cultural, subcultural or belief-specific ways, as well as
in accordance with their individual emotional states. They may then move to the
third stage, the ‘iconic’, where they become drawn into the images. This may be
accompanied by a variety of sensorial experiences: olfactory, tactile, aural and

At the transition between the second and third stages, many people feel they are
passing through or being drawn into a vortex, on the sides of which there may be
a lattice or grid. Some describe the vortex as a whirlpool or whirlwind. They may
experience difficulty in breathing, constriction or a sensation of being swallowed up.
The vortex may turn into a tunnel that leads underground to another realm.
In the third stage, a deep trance occurs. Here, entoptic phenomena are combined
with iconic images of people, animals and monsters. In this stage also, people feel
themselves blend with the images or transform (partially or fully) into animals.
There may be an experience of rising up and flying and/or of being transformed into
a bird, with accompanying changes of a view from above. They may also believe
they can travel beyond their human bodies. Taking these different experiences into
consideration, it is not surprising that shamanic societies hold a three-tiered system
of the cosmos: one that is above, one that is below and the mundane level between.
Certain motifs in rock art show significant similarities to the imagery experienced
in altered states of consciousness. Blundell raises the point that particular entoptics
dominate in certain areas, and ponders that it may be because of different methods
used for inducing altered states of consciousness. Jeremy Dronfield, who has worked
on Neolithic passage-tomb art, argues that the concentric imagery of the tombs
is located on the walls so as to be visually related to the passages. Further, that
‘concentrics and passages were intended to be, respectively, representations and
reconstructions of subjective tunnel experiences’ (Dronfield 1996: 37). Dronfield
also considers the position of lattice and lozenge motifs near human skeletal remains
in Neolithic times, suggesting that these images might have been mnemonic devices
and symbols used in the process of negotiating access for the recently deceased. By
linking entoptic imagery to the symbolic construction of space at Irish Neolithic
passage-tombs, Dronfield attempts to move beyond identifying and classifying

Mandalas and Visual Symbols • 39

entoptic imagery as an end itself. Indeed, the entoptic designs may be only part of
the picture, perhaps precursors to deep trance, alerting the person that the way is
opening up for the deeper trance experience.

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