Salvia Divinorum by J. D. Arthur
‘Salvia divinorum – Doorway to thought-free awareness’ was originally published in 2008 under the title ‘Peopled Darkness – Perceptual Transformation through Salvia divinorum.’ Now republished in 2010 by Inner Traditions, James D. Arthur’s bibliographic journey with the ‘Diviner’s Sage’ is both engaging and informative; examining the salviaic experience with a calm voice and a detailed eye.
The book takes the form of both a chronological and experiential character development. Beginning from Arthur’s “first experiences”, to their “intensification,” as he tries differing strengths and methods of consuming salvia, through to an “augmentation” of the experiential nature of his perceptions. Finally, he is “taken” by those which he perceives as ‘personages’ within the salviaic experience and relates some of the communications that took place therein.
The essential axiom of this biographical book is a recognition of the Self as a medium through which the subjective salvia experience can be communicated; for although there are elements of traditional historicism, namely chronology, passages involving the ‘invisible landscape’ are not a party to ‘consensual reality.’ In this manner, one has a point – the self – from which to balance experiential accounts, interpretation and speculation.
The state of Self that one achieves with Salvia is defined by Arthur as the “thoughtless awareness.” It is very indicative of the move in psychedelic literature away from simplistic “ego-loss,” which was often described as a sort of destruction of the Self and an identification of a universal totality; into the retention of the Self but under the condition of singular awareness; wherein the ‘I’ is not a linguistic construct that chokes the nature of the experience but is in fact a “natural” component of the psychedelic experience.
Terence McKenna was one of the first to speak openly about the retention of the Self, in his dealings with the “other.” He spoke of passing through a state of ego-loss and coming out the other side. Arthur follows a similar perspective, although the “ego-loss” terminology is replaced by a period of confusion, the “induced madness of Salvia,” which categorizes his “first experiences.”
This change through ‘losing Self’ to ‘Self’ did not occur during just a single salviaic experience, but rather, over many: “It’s as if, with repeated trances, one develops this skill gradually and effortlessly, leading to a genuine, what might be termed “functional awareness” that seems inherently essential for this type of exploration.” Using language that is reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda, Arthur uses the term ‘dream body’ to refer to the Self that develops during the salviaic experience.
As the various experiences begin to augment into a sequential journey, Arthur also develops the concept of “dream language,” which refers to the method of communication inherent in the experience. Communication, within the psychedelic state, has been an increasingly interesting topic. The breakdown of normal linguistic concepts into modes is frequently eluded to in people’s subjective translations: “This dream language that seems to be at the core of salviaic state uses words that represent concepts in that mode of mentation.” Thus there remains an oblique barrier separating the experience from the words of his experiential translation.
“Salvia did not fulfil any of my personal philosophical predispositions but, rather, devastated them. The touchstones that had served to define my concept of reality have had to be discarded, and a completely new set of reference points installed in their stead. What I might have viewed, previously, as theoretical, philosophical posits revealed themselves as undeniably psychological verities through a level of awareness that was as unexpected as it was profound.”
These “psychological verities” become stark when Arthur describes his communication with “other personages”. For example, his “breakthrough trip” when he has finally released his trepidation. He envisions an old lady who relays “letting go” to him: “It was as if she, personally, couldn’t care less about the information she was relaying.” And so the breakthrough, the “letting go”, on the part of the Self is reflected in the experience. In his following trip he found that he “had gained some sort of perceptual and emotional solidarity.”
The salvia experience blossoms outwards as the account continues. From the “madness,” to the Self as “dream body”, to the accompaniment of guide and sitter – wherein he begins to describe an epistemological foundation from the communication between himself and other apparent “personages” in his trips – till finally “a very obvious realization that, as humans, we need connections with the dead. Evidently this is ideally accomplished by one member of each group, be it familial, tribal, or some other connection.” It is here that one finds the birth of the text in an “animistic discourse.”
During subsequent experiences Arthur found he was rejected as a solitary Self, by various “personages,” because he served only himself rather than a group of others. The result is the embedding of tribal methodology in the understanding of Salvia divinorum. However, the notion that it is essential for the living to communicate with what Arthur calls “the land of the dead,” or an individual to do so on behalf of a group to any “invisible landscape,” is a theme that transcends the purely animistic discourse. Guide, teacher and healer are social functions, under varying guises across psychedelic perspectives; each with their own distinct manner.
Arthur also discusses what he calls the “the shrinking of the self,” which is a specific occurrence during several salviaic experiences. It is “characterized by an altered sense of body image.” It is the slipping into a formless universe and consequentially the question of outer and inner realities is posed. Whilst the body disappears, “the self, on the other hand, [becomes] more and more concentrated and, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, is becoming more precise and palpable.” Also an intriguing metaphor for identifying ‘Self’ in any shift in awareness.
The text concludes with an interesting debate about “the reality of visions” that neatly outlines the ‘rational’ perspective in light of Arthur’s own experiences. The very nature of such a debate lends itself heavily to subjective bibliography and the two quests – to communicate the unwordable experience and to objectify the Self – are intimately entwined.
‘Salvia Divinorum – Doorway to thought-free awareness’ appears to be without the angst of social discourse (unlike a great deal of other psychedelic literature) and is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s position in the ‘Doors of Perception.’ Although certainly not as poetic as Huxley – Arthur’s style is markedly more journalistic and objective – one garners the sense that the great excitement Arthur feels in the salviaic experience bubbles constantly beneath the surface of his words.