I've just read Supernatural by Graham Hancock, a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking exploration of altered states of consciousness brought about by the ingestion of psychoactive chemicals. Previously, I had read only one other book by Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods. I enjoyed it for his lively writing style and boundless speculation, but I wasn't convinced by his arguments. Supernatural, however, is for the most part more firmly grounded, and I felt it to be a superior effort.
Hancock begins with a discussion of prehistoric cave paintings, which, he argues, can best be understood as a visual record of the shamans' hallucinatory experiences. To drive home this point, he compares the cave imagery with accounts of vision quests by contemporary shamans. He also went to the considerable trouble of ingesting some of these potions himself, usually under the watchful eye of an experienced shaman, and he reports seeing much of the same imagery. He recounts Rick Strassman's controlled experiments in which volunteers were injected with the psychotropic chemical DMT, which had effects similar to those of the concoctions consumed by the shamans. He goes on to relate these hallucinatory experiences to the considerable body of folklore pertaining to "little people" -- sprites, pixies, fairies, gnomes, leprechauns, and so forth -- and to the modern phenomenon of "alien abduction," which has much in common with the older legends.
In short, he makes a plausible case that altered states of consciousness -- often the result of ingesting psychedelic plants, but also occurring in other contexts -- can bring up images and narratives that remain strikingly consistent despite wide differences in culture. Snakes, for instance, show up repeatedly in these experiences, as do smallish nonhuman creatures with oddly shaped heads, whether they are construed as fairy folk or as extraterrestrial "grays."
Now, I've previously speculated that so-called alien abductions may be a subset of out-of-body experiences (an idea that, of course, is not original with me), so I have no problem with the idea that these bizarre adventures are, in some sense, hallucinatory. By "hallucinatory," I don't mean that the experience is necessarily unreal, but that it involves -- or may involve -- perceptions of another plane of reality, one that is ordinarily opaque to us but which can be accessed via a dramatic shift in consciousness. Hancock himself inclines in this direction.
What struck me about many of these experiences, as recounted by Hancock, by so-called alien abductees, by DMT research subjects, and by shamans, is how scary and nightmarish they tend to be. There are frequent encounters with bizarre, nonhuman beings who rarely project love, compassion, or empathy; more commonly, these beings are perceived as either coldly indifferent or actively hostile to human welfare. Cave paintings sometimes feature the motif of the "wounded man," apparently a shaman whose body has been pierced by multiple spears. This imagery is reflected in the hallucinogenic experiences themselves, which not infrequently subject the experiencer to torture, surgery, and vivisection. Both alien abductees and shamans report being cut open so their captors can insert small objects into their bodies. Other nightmarish elements of these experiences involve being beset by numerous inhuman creatures, being subjected to sexual congress with them, being carried off to a cave, laboratory, spaceship, etc., as well as the strange recurring motif of hybrid babies with human and nonhuman characteristics. Often these "changeling" babies are described as grotesque.
There is also repetitive imagery of humanoid figures with animal features, as seen in some prehistoric cave art. People who ingest psychoactive substances are prone to seeing creatures that are part human, part animal -- a man with the head of a bison, for instance. In some cases, the experiencer believes that he himself has been transformed temporarily into an animal or a half-human, half-animal hybrid.
When reading these accounts, I was reminded of similarly bizarre episodes described by Robert A. Monroe, who learned to initiate out-of-body experiences at will and eventually set up an institute to study the phenomenon. As I've written elsewhere, some of Monroe's alleged adventures are so fantastic and disturbing that they seem more like vivid nightmares than any kind of spiritual experience. I would characterize much of the material recounted by Hancock in Supernatural the same way. Though he talks about the important spiritual insights that practitioners of these extradimensional travels can attain, I didn't see much in the way of valuable life lessons in the experiences he describes. The only lesson would seem to be that reality is a deeply strange and deeply terrifying place, largely hostile to human beings and not very conducive to spiritual growth. The shamans themselves insist that their ancestors learned to use psychotropic plants by following recipes given to them by spirits during these vision quests. Even if this is true, it does not necessarily establish that the "spirits" meant well, or that the psychotropic plants are beneficial.
While I was thinking about this today, I happen to read an article by NDE researcher Michael Sabom about the religious implications of near-death experiences. The article, "Response to Gracia Fay Ellwood's 'Religious Experience, Religious Worldviews, and Near-Death Studies'," is included in the NDE papers uploaded by Markus Hesse at this location.
Sabom, a committed Christian, draws a sharp distinction between spontaneous and deliberately initiated paranormal experiences. He believes that the former can give us insights into deep spiritual truths, while the latter are largely the realm of deceptive and malign entities. Thus he counsels against deliberate involvement with the paranormal. To some extent, this opinion simply reflects the view common among conservative Christians that mediums and psychics are trafficking with the devil, and perhaps it can be dismissed as a mere prejudice. Sabom, however, develops his argument somewhat further by giving specific examples of cases in which harmful effects arose from dabbling with the paranormal. And in fact, many such examples can be supplied. Included in his case histories is the above-mentioned Robert Monroe, whose OBEs were sometimes terrifying. Also included is author Whitley Strieber, who described the disorientation and helplessness he felt in his "abduction" experiences.
One case Sabom doesn't mention is that of Joe Fisher, author of The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts, whose involvement with a medium led him to believe he'd been targeted by malicious supernatural entities. Fisher became convinced that these demonic creatures were ruining his life. Although the circumstances of his death are ambiguous, it is widely believed that he committed suicide.
With such disturbing cases in mind, perhaps we should not be too quick to reject the idea that there is a qualitative distinction to be drawn between spontaneous and intentionally induced paranormal experiences. And yet any such hard-and-fast distinction would surely be too restrictive. There are, after all, many cases of a deliberately induced altered state of consciousness that have yielded powerful evidence for life after death, as well as uplifting spiritual messages. The trance mediumship of Leonora Piper or Gladys Osborne Leonard shows little sign of malign influences.
How, then, do we explain these different varieties of spiritual experiences? On the one hand, we have shamanic vision quests, alien abductions, DMT trips, deliberately induced OBEs, and the like, which frequently include nightmarish and grossly distorted, sometimes animalistic imagery, along with painful and traumatic experiences. On the other hand, we have NDEs, trance mediumship, deep meditation, spontaneous OBEs, and the like, which for the most part (and with some undeniable exceptions) consist of nonthreatening imagery and uplifting experiences or lessons.
I'm not sure there's any easy answer to this question. But possibly -- just possibly -- the way in which we arrive at an altered state of consciousness determines whether our resulting experience will be predominantly positive or negative. Possibly the ingestion of psychotropic drugs, which are used as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment, is counterproductive, and is more likely to lead us astray, by bringing on an experience that is troubling, not comforting; hellish, not heavenly; irrational, not lucid; traumatic, not blissful.
Perhaps there is no shortcut, and our attempt to find one only leads us down a blind alley or, worse, into a dark cellar. And perhaps people who've experienced so-called alien abductions or frightening OBEs have learned (even if unconsciously) the wrong way of altering their state of consciousness. To put it in spiritualistic terms, we might say that instead of "raising their vibrations," maybe they are "lowering their vibrations." Instead of "going toward the light," maybe they are going away from it.
If so, then there may be some merit to the idea that deliberately induced paranormal experiences are dangerous. No, not all of them, but those that are induced in the wrong way.
Reading Supernatural, I couldn't help thinking of the Garden of Eden. In this biblical story, Adam and Eve live unspoiled lives of simplicity and innocence. But then a snake enters the picture. (Remember that snakes figure prominently in the imagery of hallucinogenic experiences.) The snake offers Eve an apple. (Remember that ingestion of new and unknown substances is what brought about the hallucinogenic experiences.) Eve and then Adam eat the apple, and their eyes are opened to a new way of looking at the world. (Remember that shamans and others who experiment with these psychotropic substances believe they have gained important new insights.) But their newfound enlightenment doesn't benefit them. They are cast out from the garden (remember that gardens are among the most prominent "heavenly" locals in NDEs) and sentenced to a lifetime of pain and drudgery terminating in death.
There are many ways of interpreting this famous -- and famously ambiguous -- story. It may simply be an attack on the goddess religions that competed with early Judaism; the snake was a favorite symbol of these faiths. But suppose the origin of the story lies elsewhere. Suppose it reflects an intuition that the shamanic vision quests made possible by chemically altered states of consciousness can be dangerous. Suppose it is a warning against meddling with otherdimensional beings who, like the snake, can be highly seductive but do not have our best interests at heart.
Graham Hancock believes that ingestion of psychotropic substances expanded the consciousness of our prehistoric forebears and allowed them to begin the long march toward culture and civilization. He believes that these otherworldly journeys still have much to teach us, and that we should be opening the doors of perception to learn from the extradimensional beings who inhabit this other plane of reality.
Maybe so. Then again, maybe some doors shouldn't be opened.