PHASES AND WARPS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Because the shifting organization of consciousness manifests recurrent temporal patterns, we may become aware of "chunks," or natural categories of the cognized environment which we recognize as distinct. The definitive characteristic of awareness is re -collection, re -membering, or re -cognition of patterns in experience. Awareness is designed neurognostically to tacitly presume the role played by knowledge in the construction of experience.
Furthermore, since the recursive quality of experience displays discernable patterns, strips of experience themselves may be recognized. Our reflexive knowledge about consciousness in general thus involves knowledge of experiential episodes. If an episode is perceived as a salient unit, then it may be cognized as distinct from other episodes, and perhaps categorically labelled: for example, I am "awake," "stoned," "depressed," "dreaming," "angry," "out of my body," "playing," etc.
These cognized and labelled categories of experience, and their mediating neurocognitive organizations, we call phases of consciousness . The points of experiential and neurophysiological transformation between phases we call warps of consciousness .
Ritual and Warp Control
When a society wishes to exercise control over the recurrence and quality of a phase of consciousness, it will tend to ritualize the individual's activity during the warp preceding the phase. Warps are durations of neural transformation that are usually both short and very effective. They also tend to be unconscious most of the time. For example, the hypnagogic warp before sleep lasts but a few seconds for most people in our society, yet its activity determines the quality of the dream phases that follow it. Tibetan dream yogis learn to control the hypnagogic by practicing certain rituals and are able to exercise considerable control over the organization of experience during sleep.
For this reason, the ethnographer should learn to discern shifts in states of consciousness in informants and ascertain what, if any, ritual activity has been positioned so as to mediate the change of their internal state.
Rituals are often symbolically rich events. Moreover, rituals frequently incorporate a variety of drivers that may account in some measure for the rituals' efficacy. Drivers are ritual elements that evoke specific neurophysiological effects. They may be fairly gross in their form, such as drumming, dancing, injestion of psychotropic drugs, sweat baths, stressful ordeals, flickering lights, chanting, fasting, special diets, etc., or they may be relatively subtle in form, such as intense concentration upon the breath, upon eidetic imagery, or upon a burning question. Drivers are very often universal in their essential form. That is, their most effective aspects are found in rituals of peoples all over the planet (e.g., long bouts of drumming or chanting).
The ethnographer should also be aware that while a ritual activity may be a necessary condition for an intended experience, and perhaps even include a profusion of drivers, it is unlikely to be a sufficient condition. A ritual is a totality that is itself an element in a greater play. A ritual is part of a whole, a context. There will be other ingredients required to evoke the intended experience. For example, one may repeat a meditation many times without reaching the intended goal, because perhaps one of the requisites for the intended experience may be a certain level of tranquillity. It is not uncommon (e.g., in the Sun Dance) for practitioners to have to repeat a ritual activity numerous times, and perhaps for years, before the intended experience arises.
In addition, because experience develops over the course of life, rituals may be repeated over the course of years with the experiences intended by the guide or teacher changing with the maturation of the practitioner. Just because the ethnographer has participated in a ritual and has had an experience recognized by the host culture does not mean that the ethnographer has exhausted the repertoire of possibly relevant experiences evoked by the practice in informants who have been at it for years. The fact that Napoleon Chagnon took the psychotropic drug used by Yanomamo shamans once does not mean that he experienced the many and varied subtleties of reality that a mature shaman might experience.
Monophasic and Polyphasic Cultures
Mundane phases of consciousness naturally alternate between those phases that promote adaptation to the external operational environment (we lump these together and call them "being awake" in our culture) and those phases that promote mutual adaptation of tissues within the organism (we call these "being asleep." As a consequence, intentionality alternates between perceived objects and relations in the external operational environment, and imagined objects and relations representing internal processes of somatic activity. Many societies integrate knowledge gleaned from experiences encountered in all phases of consciousness within a single worldview. We call these polyphasic cultures .
By contrast, modern Euroamerican society typically gives credence only to experiences had in the "normal" waking phases -- that is, in the phases of consciousness oriented primarily toward adaptation to the external operational environment. We thus live in a relatively monophasic culture . Monophasic cultures are often characterized by a marked concern for adaptation to the external world, and have relatively less concern for inner growth and balance among phases of consciousness. This balance is typical of so-called materialist cultures.
Ethnographers who have been raised in monophasic cultures, and who find themselves working in polyphasic ones, may be at a disadvantage. They may have to learn to access other phases of consciousness within their own direct experience that they have heretofore ignored. Otherwise, they may miss precisely those experiences that enrich the worldview of their hosts.
The monophasic ethnographer may be experientially out of accord with the host culture in two obvious situations: One is when the ethnographer is out of touch with his or her dream life and doing fieldwork among a society that routinely tracks their dream experiences and considers dreaming to be a prime source of knowledge about themselves and their world. The other is when the polyphasic worldview of the host is enriched with experiences had while participating in rituals and drug- induced "trips" unavailable for whatever reason to the ethnographer.
Phases of consciousness organized around the inner life of the individual are frequently ignored, repressed, negatively sanctioned, considered pathological, or otherwise derided by a monophasic culture. Experiences in alternative phases may be lost or compartmentalized in memory due to a failure of cross-phase transference . Memory of experiences in one phase of consciousness ("dream," "trance") may be lost to another phase of consciousness ("awake") due to a radical transformation of intentionality during the warp between phases. Minimal conservation of organization across warps is generally all that is required for integration of phases into some kind of continuity in memory. Fragmented phases of consciousness may arise in societies in which there are neither ritualized methods of cross-phase transference, nor a culturally transmitted, multiple reality worldview.
The Cycle of Meaning
The sociocultural process of integrating knowledge, memory and experience, especially within a polyphasic society, we call the cycle of meaning . According to this model, a society's cosmology is expressed in its mythopoeic symbolism (myth, ritual performance, drama, art, stories, etc.) in such a way that it evokes direct experiences in alternative phases of consciousness. The experiences and memories that arise as a consequence of participation in the mythopoeic procedures are in turn interpreted in terms of the cosmology in such a way that they verify and vivify the cosmology. (If you would like to take a tangent here and read a bit on how biogenetic structuralists conceive of culture, then click here.)
A living cycle of meaning would seem to be a delicate process, and one that requires change or "revitalization" (as A.F.C. Wallace would say) over time in order for meaningful dialogue to continue between worldview and experience. The social construction of knowledge and individual experience are clearly involved in a reciprocal feedback system the properties of which may be changed by circumstances in such a way that the link between knowledge and experience may be hampered, and even lost. In other words, a religious system may become moribund due for some reason to the failure of the dialogue between worldview and direct experience.
Many polyphasic societies encourage their members to explore multiple phases of consciousness (through dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, trance states, etc.) and interpret experiences that arise according to culturally recognized systems of meaning. This process of exploring experiences in multiple realities, combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences within a single cycle of meaning, is definitive of polyphasic culture.
Many societies go so far as to compel alternative phases of consciousness by putting their members through initiation procedures, including ingesting psychotropic drugs and enforcing vision quests. The experiences encountered during these procedures in turn reify the society's multiple reality cosmology.
The Role of the Shaman
The role of the shaman in both initiating practitioners into experiences and interpreting those experiences for the practitioner and the society at large may be important. In some societies the "shamanic" role may be diffused throughout the population of elders who have themselves undergone the requisite initiations. In other societies, control of initiation and interpretation may be in the hands of a secret society. In still other societies, particular individuals may be recognized as especially adept at leading others through healing and other initiatory experiences, and interpreting experiences that arise of the initiate in dreams and other phases of consciousness.
Competent ethnographic fieldwork among some religious systems requires nothing less than a trained transpersonal anthropologist . A transpersonal anthropologist is one that is capable of participating in transpersonal experience ; that is, capable of both attaining whatever extraordinary experiences and phases of consciousness that enrich the religious system, and relating these experiences to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies all over the planet.
The eventual goal of anthropology as a science of humanity is to understand:
||The maximum potential genetic and developmental limits to patterns of organization and therefore to human consciousness in any and all cultures.
||The mechanisms by which societies condition patterns of neural organization so as to control (limit or extend) the range of human experience, and the maturation of experience.
||The mechanisms by which societies produce recurrent extraordinary experiences in some or all of their members so as to enliven their worldviews.
||And by extrapolation, the possible future evolutionary possibilities of human consciousness, so far as we can discern them.
Transpersonal anthropology is thus essential to the development of anthropology as a science, and is really just a natural extension of our grand tradition of "participant observation" -- a tradition that has made ethnology so unique among the social sciences. But it is an extension that requires the ethnographer:
||To "suspend disbelief" in the native worldview to an extraordinary extent.
||To participate intensely in those native procedures that guide one to the extraordinary experiences that give the worldview its spiritual grounding.
||If necessary, to go to the extent of apprenticing to a shaman or becoming a member of a secret society in order to gain access to the teachings leading eventually to relevant transpersonal experiences.
Transpersonal ethnography depends upon applying something like the process of spiritual exploration outlined by Ken Wilber in A Sociable God :
||Injunction: Always in the form, "If you want to know this, do this."
||Apprehension: Cognitive apprehension and illumination of experiential domain -- the states of consciousness -- anticipated by the injunction.
||Communal confirmation: Results are checked with those members of the host culture who have adequately completed the injunction and illuminative procedures, and shared understanding developed.
To take an example from my own work among Tibetan Buddhist lamas, operationalizing the injunction was relatively straightforward. Lamas teach by a system of ritual initiations ( wang kur ) that dramatize the attributes of the focal deity. And the deity represents a state(s) of consciousness to be eventually realized by the initiate. The initiate participates rather passively in the drama, but is given particular active meditation work to complete in the weeks and months following the initiation. In keeping with many esoteric religious systems, the lama knows the extent of the maturation of the meditation by the experiences reported to him by the initiate. The meditations incorporate such ritual drivers as chanting, percussion, visualization, intense concentration, special diet, fasting, breathing exercises, body postures, etc., all of which participate in incubating and eventually evoking transpersonal experiences that become the meaning of the symbolism for the initiate (Wilber's "apprehension and illumination").
Confirmation is attained in dialogue with the lama and with other meditators who have undergone the same or similar disciplines. It becomes clear in time that in order to comprehend the meaning of the symbolism, one must actually do the work necessary to flesh out the experientially rich meaning of the practice. In a word, if the ethnographer has not undergone the apprehension phase, he or she cannot comprehend the real meaning the symbolism holds for the native.
To offer another example, Carol Laderman reports an experience she had of the angin , or "Inner Wind," she had while working with a shaman named Pak Long during her fieldwork among the Malay: I thought [the healer, Pak Long] wanted to do a short ritual for me, to release me from the dangers inherent in witnessing women give birth, a ritual he had often performed for my benefit at the close of Main Peteri. Instead, he proceeded to recite the story of Dewa Muda (which he had deduced was my primary Inner Wind), accompanied by the orchestra and his own rhythmic pounding on the floor. My trust in him was strong enough now to allay my fears, and I allowed my consciousness to shift into an altered state. At the height of my trance, I felt the Wind blowing inside my chest with the force of a hurricane. ...When I later described the feelings I had while in trance to others who had been patients of Pak Long, they assured me that mine was a common experience. They also wondered at my surprise. One woman remarked, "Why did you think we call them Winds?" (1991:75-76)
Following through with the commitment to participant observation in the transpersonal realm adds both to the richness of the descriptive literature on the ethnography of religion, and to the depth of our understanding of how these systems work.
We have reached the end of this session. There follows a selection of suggested readings you may find interesting. You may return to the index, or you may wish to continue on to Day Seven of the tutorial in which I will take up the issue of training for transpersonal anthropologists, and the difference between transpersonal competence and phenomenological competence.
Bourguignon, E. 1973 Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Guedon, M.-F. 1984 An Introduction to Tsimshian Worldview and its Practitioners. In The Tsimshian: Images of the Past. M. Seguin, ed. Pp. 137-159.
Jorgensen, J.G. 1972 The Sun Dance Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Laderman, C. 1991 Taming the Wind of Desire. Berkeley: University of California Press.
MacDonald, G.F., J. Cove, C.D. Laughlin and J. McManus 1989 Mirrors, Portals and Multiple Realities. Zygon 23(4):39-64.
Peters, L.G. 1982 Trance, Initiation, and Psychotherapy in Tamang Shamanism. American Ethnologist 9(1):21-46.
Wallace, A.F.C. 1966 Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: Random House.
Wilber, Ken 1983 A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of Religion. Boulder, CO: Shambhala New Science Library.
Winkelman, M.J. 1986 Trance States: A Theoretical Model and Cross- Cultural Analysis. Ethos 14:174-203.
Winkelman, M.J. 1990 Shamans and Other "Magico-Religious" Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations. Ethos 18:308-352.
Young, D.E. and J.-G. Goulet 1994 Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.