Preserving the wild human | An interview with Dr. Louis Herman

Transcendent states can be expressed in psychoanalytic terms as expanded states of awareness, yielding information not normally accessible when the ego is doing its work of focusing consciousness on practical matters. Typically, modern industrial humans have rigid egos because our culture is constructed around a mechanical understanding of nature and a mechanically constructed social reality. Our thinking is focused on measurable regularities and linear causal relations in the external material world. All of this requires a very narrowly focused ego function repressing the unconscious contents of the psyche and disciplining the imagination in service to the practical job at hand. The ego sets up the boundaries between “me” and “you,” “self” and “other,” “inside” and “outside,” conscious and unconscious, civilization and wilderness, human and animal, and so on. We need a strong ego to function and guide our path through life, but we also periodically need to let the ego relax; we need to cross and re-cross ego boundaries to open ourselves to those immense and mysterious fields of information of inner and outer wilderness in the interests of living more copiously.

Shamanism seems to be the oldest and most universal form of religious or spiritual life and consists of a bewildering variety of techniques for entering transcendent states for the purpose of healing and visioning. These range from dancing, chanting, fasting and thirsting to self-mutilation, extended periods of wilderness isolation, and the eating of hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms.

We can consider the core discipline of shamanism to be a type of ego death experience in which the boundaries set up by the work-discipline ego are transcended, flooding consciousness with a larger universe of experience. Shamans often call the trance experience the “little death” or “dying so that one might live more fully.” The experience is typically described as simultaneously terrifying, awesome and ecstatic. Such “boundary crossing” temporarily reverses our ideological socialization, opening ourselves to what is normally kept under lock and key.

For the San the primary shamanic psycho-technology is the trance, or medicine dance. This is the most important aspect of the ritual life of the group, and everyone is involved, children, adults and elderly.  As one shaman put it, “We do it when we’re happy; we do it when we’re sad, we  do it when we kill an animal and we do it to find game. We do it when we are well and when we are sick to find healing.” It is also a source of visioning. Dances are vitalizing and essential to the health of individuals and the group. As another hunter said “If you don’t dance you die.”

The San enter the trance state by hours of chanting and stamping and dancing, circling the singers sitting around a fire. Under assault from the repetitive, exhausting dance the ego dissolves and the shaman appears to be going through something like a dramatic Kundalini awakening experience in yoga. The experience is described as crossing into the spirit world, which is also the world of animal consciousness. Dancers travel out of body, go into the past and the future, communicate with the ancestors, the dead, and acquire special powers of healing and insight. It is interesting that San hunters will sometimes spontaneously go into theses trance states when they are running down game. Part of the experience is that of becoming one with the spirit of the animal. They have powerful experiences they describe as incredibly vitalizing.

The Mazatec shaman of the mushroom religion, Maria Sabina, describes shamanic trance states as a paradoxical world that is beyond ours, “invisible, nearby and yet also far away; it is a world where God lives and the spirits and the ancestors; a world where everything has already happened and everything is known.” Yet when we travel there we can bring back vital information for guidance and healing, to live a better life in this world.

Such boundary crossing and opening to the spirit world is difficult for us moderns because of our emphasis on linear, rational, material reality. For us to get into a more expanded state of consciousness often takes a lot of work and some hard knocks. It is potentially dangerous because it involves disabling that part of our psyche that allows us to do our jobs and show up on time fully dressed and functional.

This boundary-crossing is relatively easy for the San, however, because, first of all, they’re living in wilderness all the time so their conscious ego is constantly reminded that it’s only a tiny part of the reality that produced it. We are sometimes told that primal, communal societies are  comprised of individuals who don’t have egos, but of course they do. Individuals are very well aware of the difference between me and you and the kudu and the hunter and so on. The boundaries are there, but they are just more easily crossed. And there’s a continuous living thread connecting their point of consciousness at any moment in time with everything that has ever come before them. We might think of this in terms of the whole evolutionary trajectory, while they think of it in terms of “the early times” of mythology, when animals were like humans and humans like animals; it is the world of spirits and ancestral beings where one can “talk with God.”

The MOON: You write that the essence of politics should be to answer the question of how to live a good life, both individually and collectively. But haven’t we, in western capitalist democracies, already answered that question?

Herman: We have. We came up with a formula for answering it in the 18th century, when the North American continent was still covered by vast herds of bison, wilderness was everywhere, and nature seemed in need of taming. West European political philosophers concluded that attaining the good life required converting nature into commodities as much and as rapidly as possible. As John Locke put it, “nature in its wild state has no value until worked on by human labor and turned into valuable property.”

We had an equally debased notion of human nature based on Thomas Hobbes’ speculations that human beings are fundamentally materialistic, competitive, aggressive and selfish. Our constitutional formula—the paradigm for modern representational democracy, free market capitalism and industrial production—said essentially this: “Look, because human beings are basically selfish and competitive and aggressive, we can’t trust them to look out for others. What we need to do is to put in place a government based on impersonal mechanisms of checks and balances and an economic system based on the invisible hand of the free market.” Adam Smith’s great insight was that under certain conditions the magic of the market place—the invisible hand–would automatically sort out the selfish competition of millions of economic decisions and convert them into the best possible outcome for society as a whole. Individuals could just relax, focus on themselves, and not worry about the big picture. It was a formula for the sort of moral collapse and outer catastrophe that’s unfolding now.

We’ve got to wake up and realize that this debased, cartoonish answer to that big questions was plausible to desperate  generations traumatized by plagues, famines, religious wars, peasant rebellions and revolution, but it’s catastrophic for us now.

MOON: I found that to be one of the most powerful parts of your book: your description of the philosophies of Locke and Hobbes and Smith, preceded by Descartes, coming together to lock us down into this mechanistic economic and political system, which we believe is the envy of the world, so it must be right.

Herman: Correct. This thinking, in the form of neo-classical, neoliberal economics,  is now in the final stages of globalization. Political imagination has collapsed. Everyone keeps asking “but what is the alternative? Socialism? Communism? The point is that none of the ready-made alternative ideologies are adequate because they all grow out of an 18th century metaphysics that ignores the fundamental fact of humanity’s wilderness essence and what this means for understanding the nature of consciousness and thus knowledge of the good, the true, and the beautiful—i.e. the truth quest.

The MOON: So how can our wilderness origins show us the way forward? With emphasis on the “how?”

Herman: Intellectually, culturally we have to go back to primal beginnings. In the process of transforming our own personal self-understanding we can move forward in the concrete situations we find ourselves in. In the final chapter of the book I give examples of this sort of politics emerging in a variety of institutional contexts starting with the individual, but extending to all scales of social organization from the eco-village to the corporation, city, nation and global organization. I show that what such initiatives have in common is the recognition that action and policy need to be guided by a concern for the good of oneself, in tandem with the good of the whole. With every step we need to put “consciousness expansion”—the primal truth quest—front and center of our daily political and economic decisions.

Here is the most extraordinary discovery about the nature of existence to have emerged from the last 400 years of science: the entire universe has been in the process of gradually creating more and more complex and conscious life forms until it created a form of life—homo sapiens sapiens—in which consciousness exploded in self-reflection. With this explosion of self-awareness came the freedom of gods and the perennial danger of thinking we can get away with anything. For most of human existence we were still conditioned by an awareness that we came out of something immense, something infinitely greater than us, something sacred. This is how wilderness can condition our feeling and thinking. That is why wilderness, in a sense, is the Creator and the guide forward. As long as you have that living connection to what created you guiding the truth quest, you don’t get too carried away with your own creations. But once that is severed—and we’ve progressively distanced ourselves from that over the rise of civilization over the last ten thousand years—we cut ourselves adrift from what could temper our creativity and our freedom.

Freedom includes the freedom to screw up. It means the freedom to kill and torture and maim and rape and steal, as well as the freedom to heal and create beauty and love. So we’re in this predicament between good and evil. We have been so traumatized by the drama of history, by the famines, the plagues, the centuries of warfare and the various holocausts that Europe went through, we’ve neglected reflecting on our capacity for reflection. Consciousness hasn’t been able to deal with consciousness very successfully. We’ve just been off to the next meal and fighting the next battle. Out of that suffering and fear and desperation came our stripped-down mechanical worldview. We cannot heal and find a way forward as long as we don’t get to the root of our pathology. As soon as we start to do that all sorts of practical and obvious “next best steps forward” appear.

The way forward is in the recognition that we came out of wilderness, but culturally and experientially most modern people are removed from it. For too, many wilderness is an abstraction or something you read about or see in film. The challenge is to feel that primal template within us and cultivate it in all aspects of our personal, political and economic life. At present, many modern humans only become aware of their broken connection to wildness when they get sick. They get cancer and their doctor tells them they’ve been eating a cancerous diet, so they become aware that the optimum human diet is something that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years living in a wild, Paleolithic environment. Socially we have disconnected ourselves from our primal caring and sharing nature, and put in place an economic and political system based on selfishness and greed. Then we wake up one day shocked to find our political culture is thoroughly rotten and the 85 richest individuals on Earth now own the same amount of wealth as held by the poorest 3.5 billion.



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