The thread between shamans, blind newts, and Buddhist nuns
Suppose for a minute that you’re a blind newt living deep in a dark sulphuric cave. Your extra sensory perception, your sliver of the world, all you can perceive and have ever known, is comprised of gases, heat, and body odor.
Or consider you’re a bat, blind, navigating your black immensity through echolocation. Air compression waves inform you which direction you’re headed.
Now imagine you’re a whale, traveling with your pod using sonar to navigate ocean currents. Long range vocalizations send you cues from fellow whales, and you communicate back through your vast blue world using your own powerful sound.
You just tickled your brain a little, because our brains don’t really know the difference between thought, and reality. As computing machines, they take in extra sensory stimuli and compute to create images and memories that make sense to us, creating meaning and patterns. It’s no coincidence that the word sense holds two meanings: our five senses are our tools to make sense of the world.
As we take in from our senses, our brains convert stimuli into electrical signals. What we see, smell, hear, feel and perceive are only a sliver of the actual physical reality out there. We are only aware of a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum; we don’t see x-rays, gammas rays, gravitational waves. We can’t access sonar, communicate with long range vocalizations, feel solar flares, hear in Herz below 40, see infrared, or waves of radiation. We don’t smell or hear or sense the same way that other creatures can.
Or can we?
Sometimes, humans have been able to access a little more than the sliver of reality we usually access. To be able to vibrate at a different frequency or wavelength than the norm.
Without laboratories, knowledge of molecular chemistry, or access to ethnobotany libraries, Shamans in the Amazon mix plants in subtle ways amongst literally thousands to create medicines with the desired effects. They choose the specific compounds that will allow one plant to act on the human mind while adding another to ensure it doesn’t poison the body.
How did they know this? The plants told us, they explain, the plants called out to us.
This sounds unbelievable, utterly impossible to Western minds. Minds grapple with ways to fit this information into the rationalist paradigm. How did they choose these specific plants out of hundreds of thousands in dense, thick, jungle? There must be a logical reason! An explanation!
Yes, the shamans calmly say, the plants told us. Impossible! Yet, perhaps it is not quite so impossible. Plants have chemical signature between them, and send communications to each other. Trees protect their kin, leaves produce attractants or toxins to snails, butterflies, and microbes. A vast, chemically, electrically communicative world is constantly happening around us.
The visions of mystics, seekers, artists, culture hoppers, ascetics, sadhus, monks; these are glimpses into the very reality that always surrounds us, but we cannot see.
Ascetics, or sadhus, in India, in their extreme lifestyle, have access to truths that others do not. These are humans who live on alms, bathe in ash, and sleep outside. Able to just “be”, instead of “do”, their culture believes that in their poverty, in their lack of possessions and their asceticism, that they are society’s spiritual guardians.
Buddhist monks and nuns who have meditated, often alone, for years, show brain waves during states of meditation similar to those most of us experience while sleeping; they are in striking control of a powerful mental peace. With electrodes on their brains, showing remarkable mental dexterity, the monks can instantly mobilize brain wave states that most of us are unconscious of, generating feelings of compassion, total openness to whatever occurs, or a laser-strong, unbreakable focus. It’s a cultivated awareness of other modes of being, fostered through years of intense meditation. Their insight into the nature of mind, memory, and cognition is congruent, if not lightyears ahead, of cutting edge neuroscience techniques.
What does all this mean? When shamanic ways of knowing, when long periods of lone contemplation into the nature of mind, come to the same conclusions as science, it is clear that there are many conduits into reality, into truth.
Suppose this ability to raise our consciousness about our objective reality would pull us away from certainty into more of a fascination, an awareness that perhaps we are not constrained by our biology. In this awareness could come a deepening respect, humility, and awe for the myriad ways that life has come about and that consciousness is experienced.
Perhaps consciousness is the true great frontier; the next great site of expansion. After all, we are formed from the stardust of exploding supernovas. From matter came mind. What we are — elements, coiling DNA, microbial fire, and a curious, piercing sentience — we share with other species.
We can choose how we wish to experience our reality. We can travel many conduits into the truth of our beautiful universe.
If nothing, it inspires the great mystery, for nothing may be exactly what it seems, and what is that if not awe-inspiring?