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Portals

Portals

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Throughout this book I have extracted from the literature what I see as universal
patterns to sensorial methods that take people through portals. Visual symbols such
as mandalas, iconic images or tarot card pictures can act as aids, and mental imaging
can be cultivated and intensified by various exercises – such as focusing on the
Tattva cards, looking into the centre of a black and white spiral or concentric circles,
or training the eye to visualize. If one enhances visual practices through exercises
such as looking fixedly at an image, then sustaining the image with closed eyes, and

138 • Portals

finally projecting the image externally, it is possible to become adept at imaging and
to be able to control and concentrate the mind more easily. Active imagination, when
properly trained, can mould sense perception and act as an intermediary between the
physical and the metaphysical.
Sound is another aid to crossing the threshold. Certain kinds of music are not
only uplifting, but can move us into another kind of reality. The Gregorian chant is
particularly powerful, as is repetitive drumming, and ‘joyful’ or emotive singing,
which draws and heightens the emotions. Both instrumental music and the human
voice can be equally productive, and sometimes it is the sound vibrations and the
number of beats per minute that are effective.
If sound is played for several hours and accompanied by rhythmic and repetitive
movement, such as dancing and whirling, there is a loss of self and a feeling of
bliss, ecstasy and union with the Divine, or an intense sense of communitas and
connection with others. When chanting/singing is added, it is even more likely that,
through repetition, and over several hours, the individual will move into trance,
or a trance-like state, at which time the mundane world is left behind. Additional
external technical aids, such as incense, emotional music and full engagement with
the activity, can lead to states that diverge from our everyday reality. Sometimes
when in trance, the body can become immune to pain, as evidenced in chapter 5, or
pain itself can act as a catalyst for the experience. Entheogens are another avenue to
altered states, but can cause enormous problems for some, and take away a sense of
control over the process.
Each one of the techniques has been highlighted separately in the previous
chapters for analytical purposes, but there is usually more than one sensorial mode
employed at any one time to move one through the portals, a fact that has been amply
demonstrated throughout this book. Cognitive factors are only one aspect of the
embodied experiential dimension. The Desana of South America are a good example
of the multi-sensorial (indeed synaesthetic) nature of methods of transcendence that
incorporate sensory symbolism, involving visuals, colour, temperatures, flavours,
odours, sounds and tactilities; a tune, for example, may contain an odour, a gender,
a colour, a temperature, as well as vibrations (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971). Under
the careful ministrations and guidance of a Desana shaman, each of the senses is
stimulated, together with the taking of hallucinogens, to ensure that the celebrants
attain their experience. It is also a group process, not to be undertaken lightly.
The importance of ‘set’ and ‘setting’ cannot be emphasized too strongly, especially
with the use of drugs, for if care is not taken to control the sensory environment of
the person, or if s/he has underlying psychological problems to begin with, the
experiences may be a lot more than they bargained for; the drugs may produce or
exacerbate an underlying problem, and there may be long-term deleterious effects.
The research of Saunders, Saunders and Pauli (2000: 165) indicates that although
it is advantageous, it is not necessary to have an established religious structure in
which to explore spirituality using psychoactives, but it is important to have some

An Anatomy of Reality • 139

kind of support network to help to make sense of the experience afterwards, and, of
course, to provide assistance should something go wrong. Certain beliefs, especially
when strongly held, may shape an experience, but, as one person said, ‘faith may
help in spiritual experiences, but it is definitely not required. If the spirits find it
appropriate, no faith in anything is needed. It was the LSD that opened my eyes, but
trees were the ones that taught me about spirituality’ (Saunders et al. 2000: 35).
In 1970, psychologist Bernard Aaronson used hypnotic suggestion to produce
conditions under which ‘quasi-mystical’ experiences occurred (Wulff 1997: 18).
One of Aaronson’s subjects reported being ‘transported into an experience of great
beauty: sounds, colors, and contours all were enhanced; space seemed almost solid;
each object and its placement seemed part of a Divine order’ (p. 18). It seems,
therefore, that a ‘mystical’ experience can occur with or without the aid of drugs,
within an established religious structure or not, and, on the odd occasion, for no
reason at all.

It is clear from all this that the body (at least while it is alive) is the avenue through
which our mind (and spirit/soul) works. Motivated by his interest in the possible
biological basis of spiritual experience, Rick Strassman, in the School of Medicine at
the University of New Mexico, carried out clinical research on brain chemistry and
psychedelic drug experimentation, with sixty volunteers using dimethyltryptamine
(DMT). He concentrated on DMT because it occurs naturally in our bodies and is
also part of the normal make-up of other mammals, marine animals, grasses and
peas, toads and frogs, mushrooms and moulds, as well as barks, flowers and roots
(Strassman 2001: 4). Strassman discovered that DMT is connected with the pineal
gland,2

a tiny organ situated in the centre of the human brain, and he suggested that
naturally occurring altered states of consciousness are brought about by high levels
of pineal DMT production. He hypothesizes that the pineal gland is possibly the
‘seat of the soul’ (p. 56), and that DMT, which is naturally produced by the pineal
gland, facilitates the soul’s movement in and out of the body and is an integral part
of birth and death experiences, meditation and even sexual transcendence. When the
volunteers in his research project were injected with DMT, they reported that they
felt as if they were ‘somewhere else’ and that they were perceiving different levels
of reality, levels that are ‘as real as this one’, but that ‘we cannot perceive them most
of the time’ (p. 315). Strassman concluded that DMT was not inherently therapeutic,
and that as far as the experiences of the volunteers were concerned, set and setting
were equally important (indeed crucial) as the drug itself, reiterating what others
have stated in chapter 7. He suggests that further scientifically instigated DMT
research might provide important clues to the mystical regions of the human mind
and soul.

While Strassman’s research is scientifically adventurous and original, it still
offers a unidimensional model in terms of analysis. More useful, to my mind, is
Geoffrey Samuel’s ‘multimodal framework’ (MMF), which he used to examine his
data on Tibetan shamanism.

140 • Portals

Basically, the MMF advocates that a more analytically realistic and useful model
to understand multiple ways of knowing and to move away from the dichotomies
between mind and body is to look at knowledge as a ‘patterning of mind and body
as a totality’ (Samuel 1990: 6). Previous opposing theories, suggests Samuel, can
be brought together by employing a new attitude, which he likens to the change in
perception that was adopted by physicists on the introduction of relativity theory.
A trained physicist himself, Samuel suggests that a new theoretical framework
is necessary because the old theoretical frameworks no longer explain the world
adequately. What we need, he says, is a framework that is more analogous to the
multiply interconnected, and multi-centred, underground network of a rhizome
(p. 2), because it offers a scientific approach to understanding cultures that could
incorporate an ‘otherworld’, without denying the possibility of its existence.
Samuel’s MMF rejects the mind-body dichotomy, instead viewing mind-body as
parallel aspects of a total system.
As Samuel points out, rational thought does not have to oppose symbolic thought;
he argues for a theoretical framework that embraces informal and non-scientific
knowledge and gives equal value to traditional and Western scientific modes of
knowing. Following Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘webs of significance’ (Geertz 1973:
5), Samuel writes (1990: 11):

Rather than speaking of ‘webs of significance’, therefore, I suggest that we view the

structures of meaning and feeling in which and through which we live as patterns formed

by the currents in the course of a vast stream or river. The direction of the stream is the

flow of time. Geertz’s ‘webs’ now correspond to semi-permanent currents, or to use

William Blake’s term, ‘vortices’, that have become established in the onward flow of

the river.

Such a view offers a broad conceptual schema that encompasses a variety of bodies
of knowledge without necessarily selecting a single, all-encompassing system that
denies non-Western paradigms their rightful place in our understanding of what it
is to be human. As a case in point, I cite the Desana, briefly alluded to on several
occasions earlier.

The Desana have carefully formulated theories about the structure and function
of the brain. Direct observation of brain structure through aeons of hunting and
warfare has provided Desana people with much practical knowledge about the
brain’s anatomy.

They have seen human and animal skulls cracked open to expose the brain,
observed that a wounded animal may become paralysed because of brain injury, and
noted the similarities between monkey brains and human brains. In addition, they
have remarked on the biochemical processes caused by different hallucinogenic
drugs, and how they influence behaviour.
Putting a simple explanation on the Desana’s detailed and complex understanding
of mind and brain does not do it justice; nevertheless, for my argument that other

An Anatomy of Reality141

cultural knowledges might be equally worthy of consideration as those of the West
(indeed, that in some instances they might be even more sophisticated), I summarize
it as follows, from the work of Reichel-Dolmatoff (1981).
The Desana recognize that the brain is comprised of two hemispheres, and
that certain areas within these two hemispheres have different but complementary
functions. So far, this is not unlike what scientists in the West have to say about
the brain. The Desana, however, take many more things into consideration than
the physical body in their understandings and explanations. The brain, they say, is
compared to a large rock crystal that is divided into small hexagonal prisms, each
one containing a sparkling element of colour energy. Another way they describe the
brain is that it consists of ‘layers of innumerable hexagonal honeycombs’ (Reichel-
Dolmatoff 1981: 82), or that it is like ‘a huge humming beehive’ or ‘a termites’
nest’ (p. 83). Sometimes the brain is compared to a geode that is ‘lined inside with
a multitude of sparkling crystals’. The two hemispheres are said to be essentially
symmetrical, and the great fissure between the two is a deep riverbed formed by
the cosmic anaconda, or cosmic energy. The convolutions of the physical brain
are thought of as compartments and are called kae, each one being regarded as a
diminutive brain in itself. Each kae contains images, colour, odour, a specific quality,
and is related to concepts such as honesty, amiability and spirituality, or undesirable
personality traits (as well as much more). Thus, ‘all sensoria are highly specialized,
although inter-related’ (p. 82). Although the concept of nerves is not present in this
explanation, the Desana speak of ‘threads’ that convey luminous impulses from one
kae to another (p. 82).

The totality of kae is ka’i, what Westerners would call ‘mind’. The mind in
the brain is thought by the Desana to be the main organ of human cognition and
behaviour. All sensorial stimulations are of great interest to the Desana, and while
most adults have accumulated a large body of knowledge of the neurological
processes by direct observation and discussion, it is the shaman who is recognized as
the specialist in brain/mind relationships.
This is a very brief sketch of the Desana’s highly complex view of the brain and
mind, and I urge the reader to consult Reichel-Dolmatoff’s entire article. I mention
their views briefly here in order to point out that another culture has, over much
time, thought very deeply about the human body, specifically the brain, and how it
works in relation to all the senses. What is clear from this glimpse of the Desana’s
approach to mind/body/senses is that Western science offers but one explanation
of the brain’s structure and function, among other equally intriguing and deeply
considered formulations.

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