Big Mystic, Small Shaman

But it is my habit to find motion, and therefore depth, only in my middle regions. All other planes collapse. The near (like the fast-revolving flywheel) is still because it is too swift; the far, because it is too slow. And the real hierarchical universe, inexpressibly deep and mobile, is hidden from me by my own shallowness.

D.E. Harding

Time is the measure of all things: the orbit of an electron around its nucleus, a fleeting impression, a breath, a day, a year, a lifetime, an age, the life of a planet, a star, a galaxy, a universe. We only really experience those things whose time-frames play out in our middle regions, from seconds to years. But the time range of the universe extends so much further in both directions, towards the impossibly fast to the impossibly slow. The foreground of our lived world, our near regions, are invisible to us because they too small and too fast; the background, our far regions, are invisible because they are too large and too slow. Those things that are neither too fast nor too slow to actually perceive (but are still very fast or very slow) we experience as actual foreground and background, a tingling sensation in the chest, a setting sun.

Mystics experience a slower and larger dimension of the universe. To achieve this, they employ special slowing-down techniques, classed under the general headings of “meditation” and “prayer”. The breath slows down and the mind slows down. One breath can last minutes rather than seconds, with the hiatus between breaths also lasting a minute or two. Thoughts slow down to such an extent that it seems as though the mind had stopped altogether. The very slow, the very far and the very large now come into range. Thus the mystic becomes “macro-cosmic”.

There is also the converse process: the breath can speed up to hyper-ventilation levels, as Stanislav Grof discovered through his experiments with “holotropic breathwork”, or as the pranayama yogis have known for millennia. The mind can also reach levels of activity that make the sharpest wit seem a positive sluggard. These are levels of superhuman “genius” cognition as described for example by Sylvia Nasar in A Beautiful Mind.

As well as impossibly fast, subtle and intricate mental activity, the inner workings of the body also become accessible to awareness when time speeds up. These are felt as vibrations, buzzings, tingles and surges of energy, unusual sensations, inner lights and colours experienced in specific regions of the body. Traditional shamans are adept at this inner somatic journeying, this “fantastic voyage”, by which they purportedly heal themselves. Thus the shaman becomes “micro-cosmic”.

If you are familiar with the dramatic transformations of consciousness produced by psychoactive compounds such as DMT, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin etc. this should all sound familiar. Sometimes consciousness expands out far enough that you are able to listen in on grand cosmic symphonies, the music of the spheres; sometimes it reduces down far enough that you can eavesdrop on hyper-kinetic synaptic conversations. Sometimes it seems to shrink to the size of a cell or an atom; sometimes it grows to include a universe.

Psychedelics are useful tools for reflecting on our place in our middle regions of human relations and human society, that is, for illuminating the horizontal dimension of human existence. They can provide psychological insight and emotional healing. However, their greatest gift is their magical ability to open us up to the vertical dimensions of the very large above us (the macrocosm) and the very small below us (the microcosm), thus uniting the two poles of Heaven and Earth.