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I am about to tell you a most unusual story, a chronicle of something that happened to me while I was living on the flank of an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i. I now believe that where I was residing had something to do with what happened, although during most of my life, I would have scoffed at the very idea of such a connection.
I’m a scientist, an anthropologist who works as part of an international team of specialists investigating the ancient eroded landscapes of eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley in search of answers to the mystery of human origins. My early academic training was in ecology and evolutionary biology, so my research involves reconstructing the environments of prehistoric sites from which the stone tools and fossilized remains of humanity’s earliest ancestors have been recovered.
Scientists tend to focus on their goals within an exclusively scientific, intellectual view of the world. I am no exception. I mention this to show that I was in no way preprogrammed for what was to occur. In fact, my scientific training and prejudices would seem to have preprogrammed me against having such an experience.
One morning just before dawn about ten years ago, I experienced a fullfledged, spontaneous altered state of consciousness. During this event, my physical body was largely paralyzed by somatic sensations that could have been very frightening had they not been so exquisitely pleasurable. Quite suddenly, the word ecstasy achieved entirely new levels of meaning for me. While I was in this state of expanded awareness, I had a vivid visionary encounter with what a tribal person might call a spirit.
I was considerably shaken by this event, yet reason prevailed, and I chose to write it off as a lucid dream—as one of those odd things that happen in life that we never completely understand. I had almost forgotten about it when I had another—and then one more, just to make sure I was paying attention. My curiosity was roused, and any residual fear overcome. I wanted more direct experience of this extraordinary phenomenon, but the episodes stopped at this point, leaving me baffled about how to proceed.
Several years later, my family and I moved to upcountry Kona, where I taught anthropology at the local branch of the University of Hawai’i. There, between 1985 and 1989, I experienced a series of spontaneous altered states that were quite remarkable. All were accompanied by the same exquisite, paralytic sensations, and all were heralded by curious visual hallucinations—spots and lines of light, zigzags, grids, and vortexes.
In the first of this series, my consciousness was brought dramatically into contact with that of another man. I felt as though I were inside his physical body. I could see what he was seeing and hear what he was hearing. I could “listen” to his thoughts, and as if this were not enough, I could tap into his memory banks and receive information as a multilayered complex of thoughts, emotions, impressions, memories, and judgments. He seemed totally unaware of my presence. It was as if I were “there” as a visitor, an invisible one. To say that this surprised me would be an understatement of vast proportions.
I had heard other people’s tales of things such as channeling and shamanic journeying, and they had caused me to wince with embarrassment more than once. Now here I was, a trained scientist, experiencing the awesome jolt of the “real thing” myself. My carefully constructed scientific worldview began to come apart.
I had twelve altered-state episodes over the next four years. They were largely spontaneous in the sense that I could not deliberately induce them, yet each time, my conscious awareness merged with the same man’s. At first, our lives seemed intertwined only occasionally, but gradually our lives moved toward each other more and more—converging. Without any previous knowledge that such a psychic journey was possible, I found myself involved in quite a different sort of expedition from the scientific field trips and digs I was used to, one in which my investigations extended far beyond the ordinary nature of reality into the inner realms of the human mind and spirit. During these extraordinary experiences, I learned much information, both disturbing and enlightening.
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? In my dark moments, I wondered more than once if I was going crazy, yet the anthropologist in me would calmly observe what was happening, make mental notes during the altered state, and then take actual notes when it had subsided. Eventually I created a journal of the scenes and sensations I had experienced. In my attempts to understand how and what I was seeing through the other man’s eyes, I did research into many disciplines. Most helpful were my investigations of an area of anthropology about which I knew almost nothing—shamanism.
In Western society, many people associate the word shaman with a masked and costumed tribal person who dances around a fire in the dark, accompanied by drumbeats, in a naive, mysterious ritual. In reality, however, the individual shaman—apart from his cultural shell of mask, costume, and ritual —possesses a very real skill, one that distinguishes him from other kinds of religious practitioners.
All true shamans are able to achieve expanded states of awareness, visionary perceptions of what tribal people often call the spirit world. They usually exercise this unusual ability to heal members of their communities—spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Directed by strong, altruistic motivations, the traditional shaman is a master of trance.
As a biological anthropologist, I was not particularly attracted by shamanic masks, costumes, songs, chants, and charms, although these can be very beautiful and very powerful things in themselves. In seeking to understand my altered-state experiences, however, I became interested in the old time-tested shamanic methods of achieving expanded states of awareness, and I specifically researched those that were non-drug-induced.
At the time I first had these experiences, I would not have described myself as a religious person. As a scientist, I had fairly strong negative feelings about religious dogma and organized religion in general. Yet I must admit, I had had leanings toward Zen. In the 1970s I had visited an old hot-springs resort called Tassajara that had been transformed into a Zen Buddhist practice center in the mountains behind the Big Sur coast of central California. The natural wildness of the locale had been attractive, as had the ordered simplicity with which the Zen students accomplished whatever needed to be done. My scientific nature was impressed, and I began to study Zen Buddhist thought.
It was also during this time that I attended art school in San Francisco one or two afternoons a week. Immersed in writing my dissertation, I needed something different, something separate from my intellectually fatiguing scientific work. I had already studied art for many years, and I knew that painting, drawing, and sculpture engaged my intuitive self and brought a kind of balance into my life. I mention this because I believe my artistic practices had a direct bearing on what was to follow. My art studies have also enabled me to know quite clearly when my creative imagination is engaged and when it is not.
Upon the completion of my doctorate, my wife Jill became pregnant with our first child. And then, that morning just before dawn, I had that first full-fledged, spontaneous altered-state experience. So, what does one do when one is handed a plate with a slice of something quite different from what one is used to eating? Those with more conservative tastes or closed minds might send it back to the kitchen. Having always had an interest in the unusual or bizarre, however, I chose to eat it—and to analyze how it was made, and then to try to get into the kitchen for second and third helpings.
In 1989 I returned from Hawai’i to teach for a year at one of the branches of the University of California. There I formally wrote up my “Hawaiian journal,” expanding it to include my investigations into shamanic practices of trance and mind travel so that I could look for patterns of meaning and causality behind my experiences. The scientific side of me was still hesitant about communicating these experiences to others, and my first impulse was to write a novel, a fictional narrative within which I could safely reveal what I had learned without jeopardizing my scientific reputation. That way I could spare my academic colleagues the embarrassment of having one of their own publicly go off the deep end.
Yet my story is not science fiction, nor is it imaginative fantasy. It happened as I will tell it to you in this book. I cannot hide or disguise my experiences. I have long ceased to regard these happenings as “lucid dreams,” and I have upgraded the phenomenon in my scientific evaluations to the level of “fieldwork,” much to my esteemed colleagues’ possible dismay.
What follows is an autobiographical account, a chronicle. Some readers already consider it an archetypal, mythic journey or visionary narrative. Some will no doubt discount it as utter horsetweedle. Everything that I recount in this book I experienced as real. It is the story of two individuals on a journey—a physical, mental, and spiritual journey. These two men were initiated into an expanded vision of reality at the hands of “the spirits,” and they came face-to-face with these spirits in their quest for knowledge. This is also the account of a hard-headed scientist-realist who found himself involved in an absolutely extraordinary experience—and perhaps stumbled upon another piece of the ongoing puzzle of human evolution.