Life’s Middle Name
Initiatory Fear and Spontaneous Ego-Death Misperceived as Biological Death
In this culture, in this age, ego death can be slow and painful.
— The Out of Order Order, Liber 111-111 (=000)
Glastonbury Festival, June 1993. I had finished my final degree exams, and was standing on the edge of a cliff. Behind me lay the rocky certainty of passage through the educational system; ahead lay the uncharted depths of the ocean commonly known as the Real World. At university I had been initiated into illicit drug use, and had fallen foul of a nervous breakdown precipitated by a broken relationship, and the subtle slip into drug abuse that sometimes follows initial ecstatic experiences. Here, among the hallowed hills of Somerset, the residues of this breakdown were to culminate in my facing Death.
The first days were quite uneventful, measured on the scale of the festival’s notoriously hectic hedonism — doughnuts, dope, blazing sunshine and glowing campfires. I ate little, slept little, and danced abundantly. I felt curiously disturbed by the appearance of a raving acid casualty, a girl who bounced around the stage area in the aftermath of The Orb’s appearance, burbling out an incomprehensible gush of verbal torrents that obviously served to help her precariously hang on to some reality among the shifting states she seemed lost in. “Trippy! Trippy! Trippy!” she would exclaim, obviously elated, making a small leap with each word, before degenerating into a disturbing paranoid rant. She eventually vanished into the darkness, and I bumped into a friend and temporarily forgot the incident.
Sunday was the final blow-out. Constant consumption of dope in the Jazz Field, and then preparation for the final night’s festivities — amphetamines, a pill which I hoped contained at least some MDMA, and a pure grass & hash joint. As I dabbed the speed in my tent, a companion poked his head around the zip flap and made a jokey comment about speed being deadly — I laughed it off, having happily ingested far greater quantities at other times, with only good effects.
I dropped the ecstasy before Porno for Pyros, and tried my best to thrash around in the sunset, surrounded as I was by drunken stoned people looking on dumbly at Perry Farrell’s antics. They finished, and I passed the joint around my friends in the dim twilight. Spiritualized took to the stage, which at once erupted into a blaze of searing white light and sculptured white noise. I felt instantly uncomfortable, but my love for the music and my conviction that I WAS going to enjoy myself kept me there for several tracks. Being outside, my glowing sunburn exposed to the chilly onset of night, didn’t help; neither did the fact that it’s impossible to dance to the mono-drone of Spiritualized, so I was unable to release any of the energy that I felt surging up inside me. Most significantly, I was quickly aware of very uncomfortable blocks in the energy flow around certain areas of my body. My left arm gradually passed from electrical tingling to numbness. My heart was beating rapidly, and its seemingly irregular pounding echoed around my body. I felt painful knots of muscles in my upper left back, and vainly tried to massage them out. I sensed that my entire left half, defined in an alarmingly precise way, was either tingling uncomfortably or numb. I feared a heart attack.
On top of this, I realised that I was standing in the same area as the acid girl had been in the night before. I fancied that her disequilibrium and general freaked-outness was seeping into me and not finding its way out.
I remember it vividly. The track being played was ‘Medication’ (a synchronistic irony which added to that of the band’s name, in relation to what was about to happen). The intensely bewildering white lighting, strobes and search-lights, began to seem disturbing, vaguely menacing. I crouched on the floor, partly to avoid the light and dull the sound, and partly to ‘steady’ myself. Rather than look at someone’s backside, I closed my eyes, but found that I could still perceive the forest of legs around me. And mingling with the muffled sound of the band (which was also carried through vibrations in the earth) was a sinister babble of whispering, all the conversations in the field floating around below head-level. Looking up, and opening my eyes, I saw an incredible thing in the sky, which I actually enjoyed watching for a moment, such was its spectacle. The band’s light show, reflected from the night’s clouds and shaped by my altered perceptions, smoothly coalesced into a vast, swirling vortex of light above me, rotating madly like a whirlpool into infinity. I decided to stand up… and after my body had straightened out to full height, I, my consciousness, felt as if I was continuing to rise. I felt as if the point of perception that is essentially me was rising up my spine and threatening to escape out the back of the crown of my skull, towards the vortex in the sky. My thought processes rocketed, and I felt absolutely positive that I was going to die. NOW. Or rather, I had the option — I could fight it off if I wanted to live strongly enough. My responses to this became a rapid oscillation between positive and negative, “Yes!” and “No!”, flitting insanely back and forth like a strobe. I eventually hung on to the positive long enough to decide to walk away.
I asked my friends to take me to the medical centre, which they managed to do with admirable efficiency under the circumstances. I was ferried across the site in an ambulance, and was examined at the medical centre… there I was told that my heart was fine and I was in no danger at all. I ranted for a bit about how E should be legalized so it could have guaranteed purity, and how they (the docs) should give me something to calm my metabolism down; but I was finally shown to a stone barn that served as a medical ‘chill-out’ zone. I found it very difficult to chill out in a brightly lit room full of fellow freak-outs, some crying uncontrollably, one occasionally pointing at me with a quivering hand and an expression of wide-eyed horror. I eventually wandered back to my tent with my friends, and watched the sunrise with a sense of gratitude I had never before experienced.
The months that followed were peppered with other, less intense, death-fear panics; usually, though not always, occurring after smoking cannabis. I would catch glimpses of that feeling I experienced at Glastonbury, of staring into the void of Death, contemplating with clarity and fear the black emptiness that would result from my experience of Life simply ceasing to exist. I was once accidentally given a coffee full of dope, and panicked severely on taking the last sip and discovering the huge flakes of slate at the bottom. Seeking shelter at a friend’s house, I found myself sat behind a television, listening with growing fear to the programme that was on, a hospital drama — the blip-blip of a heart monitor levelling out to a high-pitched tone amidst the sound of panicking doctors. A paranoid, synchronistic mind-media feedback loop often accompanied the death-fear syndrome.
I only began to feel release from the recurring death-fear after a particularly intense dream experience, several months after Glastonbury. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard hypnagogic chants and voices, and slipped imperceptibly into a dream set in the same room as I was sleeping in. All my teeth fell out. I began to feel my blood flow clogging up. The friend who was sleeping in the same bed as me called an ambulance (it was the same friend who had guided me to the medical centre at Glastonbury), and hugged me Goodbye. A crowd had gathered outside when the ambulance arrived, and they cheered me incongruously as I clambered in, apparently praising my degree results. At the hospital, I walked into a tatty, yellowish room lined with mirrors, full of decaying medical equipment and bustling nursing staff. My perceptions were distorted, giving everything the grimy, too-real appearance common on rough acid come-downs. Am I dying or tripping? Or both? If I’m tripping, how can I tell these doctors, who seem to be in a different world, to get me some thorazine? I looked at myself in one of the mirrors, and the instant that I saw my reflection, stark horror in my eyes and blood running from my toothless mouth, time slowed down and made all movements syrupy. I began to fall down to the floor, infinitely slowly, always staring fixedly at my reflection. I quickly remembered a tip a friend had given me for coping with Bad Trips — to place the palms flat on the front and back of the head, and to imagine a beam of blue light linking them. I did this, and everything grew instantly brighter… and brighter… and brighter… and brighter, until it reached a peak intensity, and all I could see was searing white light. I had finally died.
And then I woke up.
Maps & Models
After this dream, I began to intensively research areas that may shed light on my experiences — psychology, religion, shamanism, magick, dreamwork, meditation techniques. I slowly realised that my spontaneous experiences, uninformed at the time by anything save the barest inklings of these various bodies of thought, appeared to resonate with human mythologies and experiences that reached back into the prehistory of our species.
It may be tempting for many people to pass my experiences off as mere aberrations brought about by the careless use of chemical compounds. I cannot (perhaps of necessity). Extensive experience of altered states of consciousness, drug-induced and otherwise, has taught me that such monumentous experiences as these cannot, and should not, be sheltered from analysis and deeper understanding by the cosy blanket of reductionism. I believe my drug use enhanced and intensified my experience of processes that were already present in my situation. Although I ran the danger of mental and/or physiological damage, perhaps such an experience was necessary for certain ways of thinking, certain perceptions, to burst through the rigid layers of my social conditioning. And despite the fact that I acknowledge the stupidity in my abuse of chemicals, I believe that this stupidity stemmed largely from the society and culture that I was raised in — where potentially beneficial substances are criminalized indiscriminately, leading to misinformation and ignorance about their benefits and dangers. The same obsessional behaviour that taboos against sexuality lead to may also manifest in drug use when these substances are banned, and thus closed off from informed debate. For myself, it took an experience like this to shock me into self-discipline with regard to drug use, and to open me up to an intensive, experiential awareness of my own mortality — an awareness that can paralyse one into passive fear, or goad one into a more vital appreciation of the living of Life.
I never have one model. I always have at least seven models for anything.
— Robert Anton Wilson
What I intend to do here is to summarise my research and intuitions about this experience, and its possible implications for myself and others in this culture. I’m trying to write what I would have liked to have read two years ago. I will make specific references to my own experiences to clarify the relevance of certain analogies, but I will leave much of the comparison work up to the reader. There is no overall ‘structure’ intended, although there are many resonances between separate sections. However, underlying all the different perspectives and traditions through which this raw data of experience may be filtered, there are several basic assumptions. These are the assumptions I hold now, after my research, and are, like all assumptions, expedient.
- The experiences I have described are not, in their essence, idiosyncratic aberrations; nor are they necessarily universal.
- My delusion that I was about to die was due to ‘crossed connections’ in my mental circuits. An impending dissolution (death) of a set of mental patterns (ego) was misperceived as the impending death of myself as a biological organism.1
- The processes involved in my experiences are intimately connected to ‘initiatory’ processes — both those natural to an organism’s socio-biologic evolution and those rituals found in tribal societies and esoteric mystery schools.
Throughout, I shall refer to the core process that I feel underlies my experiences as IF (Initiatory Fear), for reasons that I hope will become clear.
The most ancient models for IF processes lie in shamanism, which Mircea Ã‰liade has defined precisely as techniques of ecstasy.2 Shamanism is not a religion — the set of techniques that define it exist within many mythological and religious traditions. However, investigations into surviving tribal cultures (in which shamanic practices have survived in their least diluted forms since their origins in human pre-history) have revealed some key, almost universal, mythological motifs in shamanic practices.
Of prime importance here is the initiatory ritual of death and resurrection. A shaman enters his vocation in one of several ways, usually through inheritance or through a spontaneous ‘call’. This often takes the form of an initiatory sickness, which may be an illness, an accidental brush with death (e.g. being struck by lightning) or a general breakdown.
The shamanic cosmos consists of three worlds: this world, the earthly realm; the underworld, populated by ancestral spirits and demons; and the upper world, where gods and celestial beings dwell. This cosmos is usually represented by the symbol of the World Tree; the underworld in its roots, the celestial realms in its branches, and this world where the trunk meets the ground. During hir initiatory sickness, the shaman’s soul travels down into the underworld, and is torn apart by spirits. The mutilated pieces of the shaman’s body are then brought back together, usually in a large cauldron, or in a blacksmith’s furnace. Often an extra organ or magical stone is included in the body as it is re-forged. This is followed by an ascent into the celestial realms, where the shaman meets the tribes’ gods. SHe then returns to this world, healed (often hir body has been lying prone, unconscious, in a tent or hut for several days while hir soul voyaged to the underworld). It is the fact that the shaman has healed hirself, through hir ecstatic journeys to the other worlds, that grants hir the power to heal others (one of the many social functions of the shaman). In healing others, the shaman induces in hirself an ecstatic trance, through drumming, dancing or hallucinogenic plants, which enables hir to journey again to the underworld, to battle with the spirits that have caused the illness, and to recover the client’s lost soul. The shaman also uses hir powers for divination, finding lost objects (or people), and for conducting the souls of the recently deceased to their place in the underworld.
From the reports gathered, it seems that the shaman’s perception of hir soul-body being ripped apart by spirits has a very literal character — many accounts convey an extremely gruesome event. Often, the shaman is decapitated so that sHe may witness hir own dismemberment. Here, while the physical body lies in a tent on the earthly plane, the shaman experiences hir mental and spiritual reconfiguration in a drastically physical way. If the death and resurrection motif of shamanic initiation is seen as a hypernormal ego deconstruction/reconstruction process, the misperception of ego-death as biological death in my own IF experiences can be seen to have strong historical precedents. Of course, my own experiences are more diffuse and distorted — they lack the ritualized focus and mythological structure of true shamanic initiation.
A final analogy is from a less traditional source of shamanic experience. In True Hallucinations, Terence McKenna describes his journey with his brother, Dennis, and several others to the Amazon basin, where they conduct an experiment in consciousness expansion using indigenous psychoactive mushrooms. 24 hours after their key experiment, during the night, Dennis went on a wild ramble in the surrounding jungle; or at least he believed that he did — nobody saw him go or return. Whatever the reality-status of the experience, he had wandered into the jungle and found an especially tall tree.
On impulse, he had climbed it, aware as he did that the ascent of the world tree is the central motif of the Siberian shamanic journey. As he climbed the tree, he felt the flickering polarities of many archetypes, and as he reached the highest point of his ascent, something that he called “the vortex” opened ahead of him — a swirling, enormous doorway into time. He could see the Cyclopean megaliths of Stonehenge and beyond them, revolving at a different speed and at a higher plane, the outlines of the pyramids, gleaming and marble-faceted as they have not been since the days of pharaonic Egypt. And yet further into the turbulent mass of the vortex he saw mysteries that were ancient long before the advent of man — titanic archetypal forms on worlds unimagined by us, the arcane machineries of sentient agencies that swept through this part of the galaxy when our planet was young and its surface barely cooled. This machinery, these gibbering abysses, touched with the cold of interstellar space and aeon-consuming time, rushed down upon him. He fainted, and time — who can say how much time — passed by him.
Again, the parallels are vague and diffuse, but nevertheless there. This account seems to indicate some of the experiences that the “vortex” phenomena may yield when the ego can be released from its painfully desperate attempts to maintain its mastery.
The most curious aspect of the peak of my Glastonbury death-panic was the sensation of my consciousness threatening to rise above my physical body, out of the top of my skull. There is an obvious connection here with the onset of a near-death experience, but the fact that I do not believe I was actually near physical death, only ego-death, causes me to look for other models (despite the fact that near-death experiences may parallel certain aspects of ego-death).
There is a striking similarity between the anatomical location of my consciousness’ near-escape route and the processes described in the ancient Indian esoteric practice of Kundalini Yoga. This is based around the theory of the chakra system in the human body. Briefly, there are seven separate chakras, or energy centres, each relating to different manifestations of energy in the human organism. They are located in the base of the spine, the genital area, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, the ‘third eye’ (between the eyebrows) and in the crown of the skull. Each is related, due to its location, to different forces in human life, e.g. the base of the spine is associated with basic survival instincts, and the ‘third eye’ is associated with psychic perceptions. In addition, there is (in certain traditions, and in the correspondences of Leary & Wilson’s Eight-Circuit Brain model) an eighth chakra, located above the head, which is associated with out-of-body experiences. The Kundalini power is envisaged as a snake of energy, or life-force, that lies coiled in the base chakra. If it is activated, through yogic practices, it will surge up through the successive chakras. However, if there is a ‘block’ in any of the chakras above it, the Kundalini snake will rebound downwards, and manifest as a powerfully distorted force in the energy centre immediately below. But if all the chakras are functioning smoothly in their processing of energy, the snake will be experienced as a glowing fiery power that surges up through the spine and out of the top of the skull. Certain energy blockages probably caused the knotted muscles in my back, but the Kundalini seems to have burst through all the chakras to an extent, only to be prevented from free release by terrified ego-mechanisms.
Also, Antero Alli has made an interesting observation with regard to Kundalini experiences:
The activation of Kundalini does not always occur from practising Kundalini Yoga, etc. … It has been known to erupt spontaneously in those people on the verge of major spiritual breakthroughs, regardless of their ideas of how enlightened they are.
However, as my own experience showed, lack of preparation in this process may cause considerable panic, and false, potentially destructive perceptions.
The Dark Night of the Soul / Chapel Perilous
The sixteenth century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote his treatise The Dark Night of the Soul in the years following his escape from prison at Toledo. In it, he describes the Dark Night as a “passive purgation”, a necessary period of spiritual dryness and despair through which every soul must pass on it journey towards God. In his introduction to the treatise, Rev. Benedict Zimmerman describes this process as the wilting collapse that follows the finite’s brush with the infinite: “There is one other reason why the soul should pass through the trials of the Dark Night. Its ultimate destiny is union with God. Now the soul is finite, and God is infinite. The disproportion between the two is so enormous (being, in fact, infinite in itself) that the mere comparison must have a crushing effect upon the finite being. … When the finite comes into contact with the infinite it realises its utter nothingness; it is humbled to the ground. The contrast causes it the most intense pain.” Stripped of the Christian theology, I find this to be a nice model to look at the vortex/void experience with. An experiential perception of the void (which is by definition infinite) shatters the puny ego with its incomprehensible vastness, and the ego vainly struggles and claws to hold on to itself — tearing at and cramping the natural psycho-biological flow of energy in the process.
Following in St. John’s footsteps, Robert Anton Wilson renamed this joyless phase of individual evolution ‘Chapel Perilous’. Antero Alli elucidates this idea in great depth in his Angel Tech. He feels that the cause of a soul’s entry into Chapel Perilous is a tremendous SHOCK. The soul, unable to deal with this, migrates from the body, leaving the individual in a barren, literally ‘soulless’ state.
This conception is strongly shamanic. An article I read on the Internet, long since lost in cyberspace, tied up the shamanic idea of soul-loss with modern psychotherapeutic methods of re-experiencing trauma. The combined theory suggests that when someone experiences a traumatic shock to their system, part of the psyche or soul is ‘frozen’ or ‘trapped’ at that precise intersection point in the space-time continuum. The modern model of recovery from this is that the individual has to vividly ‘relive’ that moment in time, and to fully feel the pain and shock that was repressed the first time around — thus ‘thawing out’ the trapped part of the psyche. The shamanic model sees this process as the recovery of the soul; the shaman travels into the underworld (which underpins the space-time continuum) and, after struggling with the evil spirits that kidnapped the soul from its owner in the first place (‘trapping’ it), brings the soul back to hir client, and restores it in its proper place.
Alli explains the process thus:
…[shock] often produces a sense of Limbo, floating feelings and an overall disconnectedness.3 Depending on how traumatic the shock is, we’ll enter into anything from ‘spaciness’ to the Permanent Vocation of Psychosis. Shock temporarily disconnects the soul from the body and sends it to CHAPEL PERILOUS to learn the lesson of the sermon. This process of returning to ourselves … will be referred to as INITIATION.
The initiatory nature of the Dark Night is now explicit. Alli sees the actual initiation in the rebirth aspect of the process. The death aspect occurs when the soul flees the body, and the individual is ‘reborn’ when the soul is recovered.
Initiation is a creative response to the shock of the unknown. Since SHOCK disconnects us, how do we reconnect and where do we begin? One creative way to respond to shock is by reconnecting ourselves to new habits and routines which increase our intelligence and make us happy. During the phase of our disconnection, we are perhaps most vulnerable to impressions and suggestions from ourselves and others. It is during this time that new directions may be initiated and crystallized when the ‘gap of our death’ eventually closes down again and we stabilize. … If we are naive to this effect and don’t reconnect ourselves creatively, we lapse back even deeper into our previous habits… like them or not. (Alli)
The Chaos Paradigm
A key influence on the conception of initiatory processes in this article has been ‘The Cycles of Chaos: Deconstructing Initiation’ by Kalkinath & Vishvanath. The impetus behind Chaos Magic,4 to strip dogma and glamour away to reveal the bare bones of magickal structures (and then to use glamours as tools) has been applied here to recognise that ‘initiation’ is not necessarily a cut-and-dried event that occurs once and instantly reveals great secrets, or ushers one on to an authentic ‘path’.
Initiation is described here as a “threshold of change”, and Kalkinath & Vishvanath make clear three important points about what I have termed IF processes:
- Initiations are processes. They may take many different forms, and vary in scope and impact. Here, the process of initiation is divided into three cycles — (a) peaks (initiatory crises), which can take the form of intense over-load experiences, crushing breakdowns or accidents/illnesses; (b) troughs, in other words Dark Nights of the Soul, dryness of spirit and an oppressive sense of emptiness; and (c) plateaux, where “nothing much seems to be going on”.
- Initiatory processes are fractal. Here, they are described in terms of Macroscopic and Microscopic initiations. That is, Big Ones and Little Ones; different scales of process which share a basic similarity in structure, and which often contain elements, motifs or archetypes that resonate across space and time.
- The key to dealing with initiatory cycles is recognition. Through examining your own experiences, you can become consciously aware of the particular process you are moving through. Kalkinath & Vishvanath’s method for dealing consciously with IF processes is the A PIE formula: Assess — stop and realise you are at a turning point, examine possibilities open to you, use option lists, divinatory techniques, “be vulnerable to the forces of change.”; Plan — decide what you need to do, gather resources necessary for its implementation; Implement — do it! Follow things through, do not give in to inertia; Evaluate — assimilate your experiences into your Self, real-ize the lessons you have learnt.
In line with a major practical technique in the Chaos tradition, the inevitable fear associated with these processes is not seen as something to be avoided and suppressed. Rather, full awareness is maintained; the fear is fully experienced, and transformed into wonder or excitation. “Transform fear into fuel” — a redirection of energy flow.5
In the mid 1960s, ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary collaborated with colleagues Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner on a re-vision of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, renamed The Psychedelic Experience. Their central thesis in this new interpretation is highly relevant to the general ideas presented here in relation to IF processes. The Book was traditionally seen as a guide-book for the dead, to be read to the dying or recently deceased in order to guide them through the successive realms, or bardos, of the Tibetan Buddhist model of the afterlife — and to enable them to successfully find a nice new body to be reincarnated in. With the guidance of Tibetan Buddhist Lamas, Leary revealed that this was merely the exoteric reading of the Book. Its hidden, esoteric meaning was that it was designed to guide people through the death/rebirth initiation rites of Tibetan mystery schools.
So, with the intention of providing Americans with a safe guide to turning on, he and his friends re-wrote the Book in modern psychedelic parlance. In a journey directly analogous to that supposedly taken by the departed soul between the end of one life and the beginning of the next, the tripper is guided through the death of hir old ego (resulting in the classic ‘merging with the Clear Light’), and, on the come-down, advised regarding creative choice of new ego patterns, more flexible ‘game routines’.
Speaking of the difficulties often encountered by those new to intense psychedelic experiences, the book confirms my own intuition regarding the misperception of ego-death:
…another impasse is the imposition of physical symptom games onto the biological flow. The new somatic sensations may be interpreted as symptoms. If it is new, it must be bad. Any organ of the body may be selected as the focus of the ‘illness’. … All physical symptoms are created by the mind. Bodily sickness is a sign that the ego is fighting to maintain or regain its hold over the outpouring of feeling, over a dissolution of emotional boundaries.6
As we venture [on LSD] beyond the biographical events of early childhood, we enter into a realm of experience associated with the trauma of biological birth. Entering this new territory, we start experiencing emotions and physical sensations of great intensity, often surpassing anything we might consider humanly possible. Here we encounter emotions at two polar extremes, a strange intertwining of birth and death, as if these two aspects of the human experience were somehow one. Along with a sense of life-threatening confinement comes a determined struggle to free oneself and survive.7
Stanislav Grof is a pioneer in the application of the psychedelic experience to clinical psychiatry, and in the mapping of the human psyche. His principal contribution to human psychology seems to be his research into how our experiences in the womb, and during the birth process, affect our life experiences as adults.
During many LSD sessions, involving both himself and patients, he noticed that most people eventually spontaneously re-lived their pre-birth experiences — even back to being a sperm struggling towards its goal, at the same time as being the egg waiting for the triumphant sperm. Their fusing would be experienced as a titanic explosion of creative energy, followed by the mysterious differentiation of cells that forms the foetus. Many experiences of foetal life and birth related by patients in psychedelic therapy were later confirmed objectively by medical records, parents and adults present at the birth. Without prior knowledge, people established through LSD sessions very specific details about their mother’s lives while pregnant and various events or complications surrounding their birth.
Grof discovered profound connections between the physical experiences of the womb and of birth, and later manifestations of aberrant behaviour and psychology, as well as intense spiritual experiences. He called the complex emotional constellations that threaded through the key experiences of an individual’s life COEX systems (for “systems of COndensed EXperience”). An individual will usually have several COEX systems in their unconscious mind, each one dominated by a major theme, e.g. humiliation, claustrophobia, or rejection (there are also positive COEX systems, however). As a result of his research, covering both LSD experiences and physical birth processes, he concluded that a major, possibly fundamental, part of each COEX system is a corresponding stage in foetal development and birth. He called the residues of these experiences Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs).8 He hypothesizes that many traumatic or ecstatic life experiences involve a re-invocation of BPMs whose dominant themes resonate with the specific experience. More radically, he suggests that certain compulsive or obsessive traits (e.g. the repetitive seeking-out of humiliating experiences) are governed by BPMs — we search, consciously or not, for situations that re-invoke certain birth processes, which consequently augment the corresponding COEX system. He feels it is necessary to fully re-experience, and integrate, such BPMs in order to resolve the conflict patterns they have engendered.
He divides the BPMs into four successive stages, each one representing a specific constellation of motifs (represented on LSD by vivid hallucinations and emotions), each one a basis for an ongoing COEX system. I shall briefly describe his definitions of these stages, and add comments regarding their relevance to this essay as appropriate.
- BPM I — The Amniotic Universe: Often associated with the passive, oceanic ecstasy of classical mysticism; every need being instantly fulfilled, floating in a warm, comfortable aquatic environment. However, recollections of various toxins in the mother’s body (alcohol, cigarettes, spicy foods, ‘toxic’ emotions like anger or bitterness) can manifest as feelings of suffocation, agonizing physical pains, muscular spasms, the felt presence of insidious evil entities or alien intrusions.
- BPM II — Cosmic Engulfment & No Exit: Finds its basis in the onset of the birth process, the realisation that the bliss of the Amniotic Universe is about to end, but without any idea of what will follow. The uterine cervix is still closed, but contractions have begun, and various hormonal and chemical changes are taking place. “The contractions, closed cervix, and the unfavorable chemical changes combine to create a painful and life-threatening environment from which the fetus can sense no possibility of escape. It is no wonder the death and birth are so closely related in this matrix.” Grof relates the common occurrence of paranoid ideas during the reliving of this matrix (radiation, evil forces, secret organizations, extraterrestrial influences) to the chemical changes of the onset of contractions, which may be perceived by the unborn child as disease or intoxication. He also relates the pessimism of the existentialists to this process, noting that Sartre called one of his most famous theatrical statements of crushing anxiety No Exit.
There are two specific quotes here that may shed light on the key experiential themes of this essay:
As these threatening experiences continue and deepen, the person may have a vision of a gigantic whirlpool and feel in the middle of it, being drawn relentlessly to its center.9
Experiences of BPM II are best characterized by the triad: fear of death, fear of never coming back, and fear of going crazy. I have already discussed the predominance of the theme of death; this often includes the sense that one’s own life is seriously threatened. Once this feeling is present, the mind is capable of fabricating any number of stories that provide a rational ‘explanation’ of why this is happening — an impending heart attack or stroke, an ‘overdose’ when a psychedelic drug is involved, or many others. The cellular memory of birth can emerge into present consciousness with such a force that the person believes beyond any doubt that real biological death is possible and actually imminent.10
And, echoing Kalkinath & Vishnvanath’s advice about ‘relaxing into the fear’, Grof states: “Paradoxically, the fastest way out of this situation is to fully accept the hopelessness of the predicament, which really means conscious acceptance of the original feelings of the fetus.”
- BPM III — The Death-Rebirth Struggle: A continuance of the above process, although now there is a little ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, as the very apt cliché goes. “In the previous matrix, the cervix was closed; now it is open, allowing the fetus to move through the birth canal. Although the fight for survival continues, there is now a sense of hope, a belief that there will be an end to the struggle.” Reliving this process involves a titanic experience of pressure (due to the vast pressure of the pelvic opening on the child’s head and body), and the intense physical proximity between the child and the mother often results in an oscillating identification between the child and the mother. This frequently involves intense sexual arousal, due to the involvement of the genital area. Grof believes this to be a stage of violently merging contradictions, where death is intertwined with sexuality, pleasure with pain, aggression with love — he terms this experience “Dionysian” or “volcanic” ecstasy, as opposed to the passive bliss of BPM I.
- BPM IV — The Death-Rebirth Experience: A traumatic yet triumphant culmination of previous sufferings and struggles, resulting in an experience of total ego annihilation. Their is an intense purgation that bursts through the pits of despair and violence of BPMs II & III. There follows a sense of deep relaxation, serenity and quiet excitement. Grof warns that an incomplete re-experiencing of this stage, due to complications in BPM III, may result in a hyperactive mania; the cosmic insights and feelings of triumph at this stage can manifest in people wildly proclaiming their revelations to others and making grandiose plans to change the world.
Although Grof occasionally runs dangerously close to a reductionist position (intense emotional experiences in adult life are nothing but the re-emergence of perinatal matrices), the primal nature of the birth process does indicate that experiences of it may be of great importance in assessing and understanding many archetypal human experiences of death-rebirth.
Individuation, Culture, and Awareness of Mortality
In surveying the neo-Jungian literature dealing with the different stages of human life, and the transitional phases/crises between them, I was struck by the fact that the crisis provoked by an encroaching awareness of self-mortality is placed categorically in the mid-life crisis transition. In his wide-ranging study, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, Daniel J. Levinson acknowledges that the concept of death does play a role in all the various transitional phases:
Some preoccupation with death — fearing it, being drawn to it, seeking to transcend it — is not uncommon in all transitions, since the process of termination-initiation evokes the imagery of death and rebirth.
However, Levinson says that “…the experience of one’s mortality is at the core of the mid-life crisis.” Why? In this standard model of the human life-structure, the biological and social imperatives come first: the crisis of the early adult transition (approx. 17-22) is focused around entering the adult world, with the primary aims of getting married, raising a family, and getting a job (and social status) to facilitate this. When these duties are accomplished, and the person in question is rendered redundant in terms of their biological service to the species; then sHe will begin to realise the horrible fact of mortality.
Although I have not found any statement backing this up, Levinson’s assertions about the awareness of death in the mid-life crisis seem to contain an implicit commentary on Jung’s conception of how cultural evolution is carried out:
Man has two aims. The first is the natural aim, the begetting of children and the business of protecting the brood; to this belongs the acquisition of money and social position. When this aim has been reached a new phase begins: the cultural aim.11
A young person has not yet acquired a past, therefore has no present either. He does not create culture, he merely exists. It is the privilege and task of maturer people, who have passed the meridian of life, to create culture.12
It isn’t too wild an assumption to see a connection here between awareness of mortality and participation in the evolution of culture. Lust for some form of immortality (fired by awareness of death) has often been cited as the drive responsible for culture in the first place. Jolande Jacobi has elucidated Jung’s philosophy further with a quote from Schopenhauer:
Life may be compared to a piece of embroidery, of which, during the first half of his time, a man gets a sight of the right side, and during the second half, of the wrong. The wrong side is not so pretty as the right, but it is more instructive; it shows the way in which the threads have been worked together.13
I don’t think that Jung’s and Schopenhauer’s views here stem from some youth-hating bigotry. This model of the individual’s relation to culture was probably quite valid for their respective eras. However, as most people reading this must know, it is no longer just over-40s who create all the culture that surrounds us and permeates our existence. Since World War II, the progressive emergence of specific youth sub-cultures has created zones of autonomy in which young people can manifest their own cultural environments: beatnik, hippy, punk, mod, goth, industrial, rave, cyberpunk… These radiate outwards into mainstream culture, where they are usually assimilated and emasculated; but the continuing existence of thriving sub-cultures keeps the young one step ahead of the mainstream. Jung and Schopenhauer would have had to radically remodel their ideas if they had been zapped into the future and taken to a rave festival in the backwoods of rural England.
The DIY ethic of all the most radical elements of today’s youth cultures is a conscious rejection of the model of cultural evolution that seems to have existed from the beginning of settled civilisations until about fifty years ago.
A Stab in the Dark Night
What follows is just one model in which to place IF processes in relation to human evolution in general. I’ve only found this one so far — I’d be interested to hear of others. I’ve taken the step of making quite a wild generalization, extending from my own personal experiences out into cultural evolution theory for two reasons: (i) The fact that most people I know have experienced some form of breakdown (at least) or confrontation with Death (at most) in their early twenties. Several cases have borne vivid similarities; and (ii) it’s a possibility, so I’ll throw it out there for it to be ripped apart and analysed by others, and to pass or fail the test of time.
It seems that in the context of my own (and many other peoples’) experiences, the awareness-of-death crisis, that traditionally hits you when your brood have flown from their nest, has been shoved backwards down the ladder of life to become the focus of the early adult transition crisis. It is true that many of the ‘confrontations with Death’ I spoke of above involved assorted hallucinogens, or pseudo-hallucinogenic cocktails of other substances. Firstly, beware of reductionism, of ‘explaining away’. Secondly, it may well be that in certain sections of the population the awareness of mortality is being shoved backwards because of the widespread use of psychedelics. The intimate connections that have been traced between the explosion of psychedelic usage in the sixties and the parallel emergence of youth culture seems to confirm that these compounds have played a great part in the toppling of the Jungian model of culture.14 Of course, psychedelics make you aware of more than just your own death — but this seems to be a glaringly powerful factor in the hypothesis that is emerging here.
Jacobi acknowledges that there have always been those freak individuals who end up looking at the wrong side of Schopenhauer’s embroidery in the first half of their life cycle. He describes these as “the introverted, the seekers, the quiet and reflective ones.” He sees this as a tragedy — they supposedly spend the first half of their life moaning about how screwed up the world is, and then mourn the missed opportunities of youth in their old age. This seems to be a completely illogical way of looking at things. To go back to Schopenhauer’s analogy — surely the woMan who looks naively at the ‘right’ side in youth, then sees the thread structures in middle age and starts trying to add hir own contribution, surely sHe will be pretty frustrated that sHe has realized the pattern can be re-made — after hir youthful energy has passed hir by. Surely we should look at the ‘wrong’ side as soon as possible, try to improve it, or re-thread it, as best we can. Then we can relax as we approach old age, enjoy the fruits of our labours, and watch the new generation with pride as they valiantly add their own improvements to life’s embroidery.
It seems that youth culture in the late 20th century holds at its core this very idea, of looking at the wiring under the board and re-engineering, long before one is ‘supposed’ to. Perhaps we have been forced to do this, such is the blatancy of the toxic mess our ancestors have made of our culture and the planet we inhabit. And, on surveying the writings of Arthur Koestler, it can be seen that this lowering of the age of cultural participants has possible evolutionary implications.
Paedomorphosis, or Juvenilization, is an evolutionary strategy much lauded by Koestler.15 Although it has gained credence from the work of biologists such as Garstang, Hardy, de Beer, Koltsov, Takhtajan and Julian Huxley, it is not an established argument in the study of biological evolution. But, as we shall see, it is of undeniable importance in cultural evolution.
In general, paedomorphosis is seen as an evolutionary strategy for the escape from the dead-ends of over-specialization:
It indicates that at certain critical stages evolution can retrace its steps, as it were, along the path which lead to the dead end and make a fresh start in a new, more promising direction. The crucial event in this process is the appearance at the foetal, larval or juvenile stage of some useful evolutionary novelty which is carried over into the adult stage of the organism’s progeny.
An example given by Koestler of this process in biology is that of the sea cucumber. This creature ordinarily sits on the sea bed like an inert sausage. However, its larvae float about in the ocean, like a plant’s seeds in the wind. These larvae show features, like a ciliary band (a forerunner of the nervous system), that make them closer to fish than the adult cucumber. It is hypothesised that some of these larvae, subjected to stronger selective pressures than the adults as they drifted in the oceanic currents, gradually became more fish-like, and eventually some reached sexual maturity while still in the larval state — “…thus giving rise to a new type of animal which never settled on the bottom at all, and altogether eliminated the senile, sedentary cucumber stage from its life history.”16 Paedomorphosis “involves a retreat from specialized adult forms to earlier, less committed and more plastic stages in the development of organisms — followed by a sudden advance in a new direction … In biological evolution the escape is brought about by a retreat from the adult to a juvenile stage as the starting point for a new line; in mental evolution by a temporary regression to more primitive modes of ideation, followed by the creative leap forward.” Thus, biological juvenilization finds its parallel in cultural evolution.
Now, perhaps, the ‘archaic revival’ proposed by Terence McKenna, and the term ‘modern primitive’ popularized by the Re/Search body art manual, can be seen in an evolutionary context. The prime characteristics of rave culture — the use of psychedelics, the utilisation of percussive music for altering consciousness, its neo-tribal structure, the rise in nomadic lifestyles, the popularity of body-piercing and tattooing — may be seen as a cultural return to a more primitive model. From this point, having regressed back beyond the cultural and social blind alleys of recent human history, a “creative leap forward” may be made to escape WoMan’s over-specialization.
Hopefully, out of this quaggy mire of pop science, the reader will have already dredged up my main argument, relating to IF processes. It is probable that our culture has reached a dead end. The intense selective pressures that today’s young face, adrift during their larval phase in overloaded media landscapes and societal breakdowns,17 may be dramatically collapsing the awareness-of-death crisis back to the point at which the security of the parental/educational nest is left behind — and often even further. The breakdown-restructuring process that this awareness necessitates, when experienced in the “more plastic” stages of adolescence/early adulthood, will enable some to restructure themselves, and eventually their culture, into more viable, less destructive phenomena.
Koestler also talks about the process of regeneration in relation to paedomorphosis. Apparently, in animals that are able to regenerate lost limbs or organs, like amphibians, the “magic [of regeneration] is performed according to the undoing-redoing formula; the tissue cells near the amputation stump de-differentiate and regress to a quasi-embryonic state, then re-differentiate and re-specialize to form the regenerated structure.” Koestler’s examples progress up the evolutionary tree to rats, whose brain tissues can similarly de-specialize then re-specialize if their optical cortex is removed.
Lastly, in our own species, the ability to regenerate body structures is reduced to a minimum, but compensated by man’s unique power to re-mould his patterns of thought and behaviour — to meet critical challenges by creative responses. And thus we have come full circle through biological evolution back to the various manifestations of human creativity, based on the undoing-redoing pattern, which runs as a leit-motif from paedomorphosis to the revolutionary turning points in science and art; to the mental regeneration at which the regressive techniques in psychotherapy are aimed; and finally to the archetypes of death-and-resurrection, withdrawal and return which recur in all mythologies.
And we have come full circle, back to the shamanic initiatory theme.
It is fascinating to note the connection between a culture’s provision of initiation rites for its young (shamanic or otherwise) and the level of crime and mental illness in that culture. Jungians never tire of pointing out our lack of culturally sanctioned rites of passage, and its connection to retarded personal development. But what do WE have to be initiated INTO? In tribal societies, a youth undergoes severe ordeals as part of hir initiation into adulthood, and “During the heightened suggestibility of this state, he is instructed in tribal lore, myth, secrets, traditions and the arcane wisdom of the ancestors.”18 What if the culture doesn’t work anymore? What if the majority of the ‘elders’ are as ignorant of the (toxic) culture they live in as they are of the (toxic) air they breathe? They are then in no position to initiate anyone into anything. But the initiatory process will not just fade away — “…although our culture no longer provides rites of initiation, there persists in all of us . . . an archetypal need to be initiated.“19
What I am proposing here is that we may be seeing the emergence in certain individuals of spontaneous initiation, into the culture that the individual chooses to help create.20 Please read the previous sentence again and think about it. The forces of cultural evolution may be thrusting vastly traumatic, and potentially highly creative, mental breakdowns upon young people; unprompted and unasked-for initiatory crises that lack a rigid formula for the re-structuring phase… and hence burst open the vertiginous possibility of a radically new vision of human culture and society.21
What follows is a compilation of extracts from letters received from an individual who has had a similar set of experiences to the myself. His account is interesting in that he seems to have facilitated a return to the death-panic state, and actually ‘went through’. It should be borne in mind that these words were never intended, originally, for publication. My grateful thanks to (you know who you are) for allowing this account to be published, and for helping me put my own experiences into perspective.
I had the same type of experience (the opening up of the universe and a type of vortex pulling me up) about 9 years ago. I had been smoking hash and drinking most of the night. I suddenly began seeing (I was in a pub) that my life could stay exactly like it was, and that I would be like the other people in the pub, just sitting around wasting their lives. I left the pub, and as I began walking down the road, my mental universe seemed to give way. The ‘vortex’ type effect came and I knew I had the choice to live or die. My heart began beating so loud and fast that it dominated my consciousness. Something inside me knew it was going to pack out. I also knew that I had to go forward (upward) and die, but oh, oh, oh, what fear and panic. I didn’t want to make the choice, and so I collapsed on the floor (luckily no one was about or I would have felt a right turkey).
After this experience I was no longer capable of living the life I had been living, but also couldn’t go forward and work out where I was going next — I had a great sense that I had failed the experience and should have died. After a lot of anguish and lack of direction, I was eventually born onto the Magickal Path, i.e. I read a few Crowley books and felt these may lead to an understanding of the experience. I began practising various magickal and yogic methods, which served as a good discipline. I had slight rumbles of the life/death/panic experience, but nothing so heavy as the first one for about 7 years or so.
Then, late in ’92, I again had the experience, the whole bloody “I’m going to die” panic. I managed to control it this time, but on my birthday I was again there. I really knew I was going to die. I was sobbing and shaking. My heart was again going crazy, time seemed to have slowed down, so each moment was an eternity, every thought seemed to have infinite significance. My girlfriend eventually called a doctor, and I was told it was a ‘panic attack’. I had these ‘panic attacks’ (although not as intense) for quite a few months after this. Every time I went through them it was always a choice of life or death, Death a forward decision and Life a backward decision. And I always came away from them with a sense of failure. On the early morning of 6.7.93, I had another. This time I used all of my discipline (from yoga/magick work) and rode the panic. I rode it all the way up. I lost all consciousness of my body and material surroundings. I came to the point where I knew I would die or not. I knew to back out would somehow lead to failure. I knew I had to die. It was the end of my life. It was a type of block that separated life from death. I then pushed forward and surrendered to death. All I can say after this is that I later started ‘coming down’, knowing I was ‘reborn’ (horrible Xtian-type word) and that I had completed my life/self.
Since that day I have been able to ride the ‘vortex of light’ without the Pan-ic, and had been riding it the night before I got your letter. I think the experience is linked to the Greeks’ Pan concepts, Pan being the all-begetter, all-destroyer; death, all and not. Thus the Pan-ic felt when the life/death choice comes. This is just one map I have since found that seems to describe this experience. Another is that the vortex equals Kundalini, and the ‘death leap’ equals the reaching of Nirvana. They all seem to fit the experience, using different symbolism. As I was saying, I now seem to be able to ride the vortex without the same Pan-ic. I can do this by mixing yoga and hashish, although I now find that the ‘Great Leap’ is impossible for me, as it seems to be a one-off experience — you can only die twice!
I found it very interesting to read in your letter how after your Glastonbury experience you occasionally felt the vortex opening up again. I too had (and still have occasionally) the same feeling. It’s as if the near-death experience cuts you free of gravity, and at any moment you can be sucked up into infinity. Incidentally, I was reading a ‘Women’s Own’ type magazine a few weeks ago, and came across an article about the increasing occurrence of ‘panic attacks’ amongst the population recently. It seems from the article that doctors aren’t really sure why this is, or what can be done about it. Reading this, I came to the theory that they (the ‘panic attacks’) could be some kind of evolutionary mutation, brought on perhaps by the increase in information and a growing awareness of there being no one basic reality. Thus the person’s sense of security is weakened, opening up the ‘fear-vortex’.
- Gneurosis #2, published by The Out of Order Order
- Mavericks of the Mind, edited by David Jay Brown & Rebecca McClen Novick
- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, by Mircea Eliade
- The Death & Resurrection Show, by Rogan Taylor
- True Hallucinations, by Terence McKenna
- Angel Tech, by Antero Alli
- SSOTBME, by Ramsey Dukes
- Thundersqueak, by Liz Angerford & Ambrose Lea
- The Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross
- ‘The Cycles of Chaos: Deconstructing Initiation’ by Kalkinath & Vishvanath, in Chaos International no. 16
- Character Analysis, by Wilhelm Reich
- The Psychedelic Experience, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner & Richard Alpert
- Flashbacks, by Timothy Leary
- The Holotropic Mind, by Stansislav Grof
- On Jung, by Anthony Stevens
- The Way of Individuation, by Jolande Jacobi
- Civilization in Transition (CW, Vol. 10), by Carl G. Jung
- Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (CW, Vol. 7), by Jung
- The Seasons of a Man’s Life, by Daniel J. Levinson
- The Psychology of Death, by Robert Kastenbaum & Ruth Aisenberg
- Janus: A Summing Up, by Arthur Koestler
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