Observations placeholder

Harner, Michael

Identifier

000588

Type of Spiritual Experience

Background

The description of the experience is quite long as it is an initiation rite and came in stages.  I have added a comment about the mechanisms at work at each stage to show how the process worked

A description of the experience

First frenetic exercise

‘You are not a shuur, an Indian’ Akachu said ‘so I do not know if you will be a success.  But I will help you try’  he pointed towards the Andes with his chin ‘Soon we will make the journey to the waterfall’

 Five days later, Akachu, his son-in-law Tsangu and I departed on the pilgrimage to the sacred waterfall.  The first day we followed a forest trail upstream along a twisting river valley.  My companions kept up a very fast pace and I was thankful when we at last stopped in late afternoon…..The second day was almost a continuous climb upward in the mist shrouded forest. 

 ……..As the day progressed, the trail became steeper and more slippery. Often it seemed that I was sliding one step back in the adobe-like mud for every two steps l made forward. 

now overwhelming fear and terror

As the virtually non existent trail became more difficult, we paused at a grove of cana brava to cut hiking staffs to help us in the ascent.  Akachu briefly went off and returned with a three inch thick pole of balsa wood.  "This is your magical staff" he said "lt will protect you from demons. If you encounter one, throw it at him' It is more powerful than a gun."

 I fingered the pole.  It was extremely light and obviously would be of no use in defending oneself against anything material.  For a moment I felt as though we were children playing a game of make- believe. Yet these men were warriors, warriors who engaged in repeated life and death feuds and wars with their enemies.  Didn't their survival depend upon being in genuine contact with reality?

Next ‘nutritional deprivation’ with the added benefit of a bit of ‘humiliation’ – they enjoy food whilst they watch him go hungry and suffer – the beer incidentally would have simply made the hunger worse, as it would have tended to stimulate the appetite and give him dehydration

We frequently rested to catch our breath and to sip water mixed with the manioc beer mash in our bottle-gourd canteens.  Sometimes the others would snack on the smoked boiled manioc or smoked meat that they carried in their monkey-skin pouches.  I, however,  was forbidden to eat solid food.  "You must suffer," Tsangu explained' "so that the grandfathers will take pity on you 'Otherwise, the ancient spectre will not come."

Next we come to a mild form of hypothermia…………….

That night, tired and hungry, I attempted to sleep in the palm-thatched lean to my companions had constructed for us on the top of a cold, dank ridge. Shortly before dawn, it began to rain. Too chilled and miserable to stay where we were, we broke camp and groped in the dark along the ridge.

Now a masterstroke – extreme fear employed in a masterful way – it was no accident they left him behind and abandoned him, this would have really damaged the ego and the will, he was too tired to reason [sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion] …………

The rain grew in intensity. Soon bolts of lightning, accompanied by explosions of thunder, periodically illuminated our way. Many of the lightning strikes seemed to be on the very ridge we were following, so we began to move at maximum speed in order to get off the heights.  In the semi-darkness of the obscured dawn I often lost sight of the other two, who were much more accustomed to the incredible pace they were setting through the forest. Even under normal circumstances, the Indians loped along at about four or five miles an hour. Now it seemed like six.

 Soon I lost sight of my companions entirely. I assumed they thought that I could follow them. They would undoubtedly be waiting for me somewhere ahead, beyond the end of the ridge.  So I forged ahead, wet, tired, hungry, and fearful of being permanently lost in this great, uninhabited forest. One, two, three hours passed and I still did not encounter them. The rain let up and the light in the deserted forest grew stronger. I looked for the sharply bent branches of saplings, the Indians' sign that they had passed that way. But without luck.  I stopped, sat on a log in the middle of the dripping forest, and tried to think clearly about my position. I gave the Indians' special long-distance yell, a cry from the depths of the lungs that can be heard a half-mile away. Three times I gave it. There was no answer. I was near panic. I did not have my gun, so hunting was impossible. I did not know where to go. The only humans that I knew of in the forest were my absent companions.

I was aware that we had been headed generally west, but the dense forest canopy prevented me from seeing the direction of the sun. The ridge had numerous forks, so that I could not tell which one would be the best to follow. Almost at random, I picked one ridge and followed it slowly, breaking branches every ten feet or so to guide my companions if they came searching that way. From time to time I yelled, but heard no answering sound. I stopped at a stream and added some water to the concentrated beer in my calabash. As I rested, swearing, dozens of butterflies swirled about, often settling on my head, shoulders, and arms. I watched as they sucked the sweat from my skin and simultaneously urinated on it.

I got up and went onward into the forest, supporting myself with the balsa staff. It was getting dark. With my punal, or short machete, I cut branches from palm saplings and made a crude lean-to. Exhausted, I drank some beer, covered my body with fronds, and soon fell asleep.  Faint light was filtering down through the forest canopy when I awoke. As I lay there in the green stillness, I heard a muffled boom. It caught me by surprise and I could not ascertain its direction. I quietly listened for perhaps fifteen minutes when another occurred, off to my left, It was clearly a gun. I jumped up and rushed off in the direction of the sound, running, stumbling, slipping as I skidded down steep slopes. From time to time I gave the long-distance yell. Another boom, this time slightly to my right, I veered course and soon found myself climbing down a precipitous canyon, clinging to vines and slipping from one sapling to another. I became aware of a pervasive roar, like a never-ceasing freight train. Abruptly, I was on the boulder-strewn shore of a river. …………

The next technique is a combination – he is by a vast waterfall – see ‘visiting waterfalls’ but he not only visits it but has it pelted on his head – so ‘pouring water over your head’.  The ‘fasting’ continues, the ‘hypothermia’ probably continues too, the ‘extreme fear’  is less but still present.

 
About a quarter-mile upstream, a stupendous waterfall was hurtling over a bare rock cliff. And near its base I could see my companions; at that moment they were my closest friends in all the world.  I had to clamber up and down immense river boulders and ford the pools of water that lay between sandbars.  As I got near, I felt the mists of the waterfall, carried down the canyon on the wind, cooling my face and arms. It took me about fifteen minutes to reach Akachu and Gangu. Finally, I collapsed on the sand beside my companions.

 "We thought a demon might have gotten you," said Akachu with a grin. I smiled back weakly, glad to accept the canteen of beer he offered.   "You are tired," he said. "That is good, for the grandfathers may take pity on you. You must now start to bathe."  He pointed to my staff. "Bring your balsa and come with me."

While Tsangu sat on the sandbar, Akachu led me over the rocks along the edge of the great pool into which the cascade poured.  Soon we were up against the wet cliff face, as drenching sprays pelted our bodies. He took my hand and inched forward along the base of the cliff. The water poured with mounting strength upon us, making it difficult to avoid being swept away. I supported myself with my staff with one hand and hung onto Akachu with the other.

Each step forward became more difficult. Then suddenly we were underneath the waterfall in a dark, natural recess. It seemed like a magical cave. Light entered only through the immense sheet of falling water, which sealed us in from the rest of the world. The incessant roar of the cascade was greater than even that of my first vision, years before. It seemed to penetrate my whole being.  We were sealed from the world by the basic elements of earth and water.

Next we have some ‘chanting’ and ‘dogged walking’ to accompany the hypothermia and waterfall infrasound ……………..

 
"The House of the Grandfathers," Akachu shouted in my ear.  He pointed to my staff.  He had told me earlier what to do. I began to walk back and forth in the incredible chamber, putting my staff before me with each step. As instructed, I continuously shouted, "Tau, tau, tau," to attract the attention of the grandfathers. I was thoroughly chilled from the spray that swept the small cave, water which not long before had been reposing in the glacial lakes of the highest Andes.  I shivered, paced and shouted.  Akachu accompanied me, but without a staff…………

And eureka, they get a result!!  So they managed by a process requiring extraordinary levels of attrition to reduce him to the state of the rest of us – no I’m joking.  Or maybe I’m not.

But it is not quite the one I think they had planned which means they had to do a bit more………..

Gradually a strange calm pervaded my consciousness.  I no longer felt cold, tired or hungry.  The sound of the cascading water grew more and more distant and seemed strangely soothing.  I felt that this was where I belonged, that I had come home.  The wall of falling water became iridescent, a torrent of millions of liquid prisms.  As they went by I had the continuous sensation of floating upward, as though they were stable and I was the one in motion.  Flying inside of a mountain!  I laughed at the absurdity of the world

Anyway, having got him to this state, they used the mechanism of last resort – drugs, in this case datura and this really is a drug of last resort.  And through this Dr Harner is now an expert on shamanism. 

 
He reached again into his pouch and brought forth a bundle of short green stems. They were the maikua (a Brugmansia species of datura) plant cuttings he had collected prior to our departure from his house.  One by one he held the stems over the gourd cup and scraped off the green bark. When he had finished, the cup was almost full.  He reached in, drew out the shavings, and began squeezing their green juice into the cup. Within five minutes there was about an eighth of a cup of the liquid. He threw away the shavings. 

"Now we will let the maikua cool," he said. "When night comes you will drink it. You alone will drink, for we must guard you. “We will be with you at all times, so do not fear."

Tsangu had joined us, and now he added, "What is most important is that you must have no fear. If you see something frightening, you must not flee. You must run up and touch it."

Akachu grasped my shoulder. "That is right. You must do that or one day soon you will die. Hold your balsa at all times in your hands so that you can do the touching."

 I began to feel a strong sense of panic. Not only were their words somewhat less than comforting, but I had heard that persons sometimes died or permanently lost their minds from taking maikua.  l also remembered stories of Jivaro who had taken maikua and become so delirious that they had dashed wildly through the forest to fall from cliffs or to drown. For this reason, they never took maikua without sober companions to restrain them.

 "Will you hold me down strongly?" I asked.

 "That will be done, brother," said Akachu.

 It was the first time he had addressed me by a kinship term, and that one word reassured me. Still, as I waited for the dark, rising anticipation and curiosity were mixed with fear…………..

 Shortly, however even quasi-logical thought vanished as an inexpressible terror rapidly permeated my whole body. My companions were going to kill me! I must get away! I attempted to jump up, but instantly they were upon me. Three, four, an infinity of savages wrestled with me, forced me down, down, down. Their faces were above me, contorted into sly grins. Then blackness.

I was awakened by a flash of lightning followed by a thunderous explosion. The ground beneath me was shaking. I jumped up, utterly in a panic. A hurricane-like wind threw me back down on the ground. I stumbled again to my feet. A stinging rain pelted my body as the wind ripped at my clothes. Lightning and thunder exploded all around. I grasped a sapling to support myself. My companions were nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, about two hundred feet away amidst the tree trunks, I could see a luminous form floating slowly toward me. I watched, terrified, as it grew larger and larger, resolving itself into a twisting form. The gigantic, writhing reptilian form floated directly toward me. Its body shone in brilliant hues of greens, purples, and reds, and as it twisted amidst the lightning and thunder it looked at me with a strange sardonic smile.

I turned to run, and then remembered the balsa staff. I looked down but could not see it. The serpentine creature was now only twenty feet away and towering above me, coiling and uncoiling.  It separated into two overlapping creatures. They were now both facing me.  The dragons had come to take me away!  They coalesced back into one.  I saw before me a stick about a foot long.  I grabbed it, and desperately charged the monster with my stick outstretched before me.  An ear splitting scream filled the air and abruptly the forest was empty.  The monster was gone.  There was only silence and serenity

I lost consciousness.

The source of the experience

Harner, Michael

Concepts, symbols and science items

Symbols

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps

Commonsteps

References

The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner