Psychedelic Shamanism by Jim DeKorne

Originally published in 1994 ‘Psychedelic Shamanism’ by Jim DeKorne grew into something of an ‘underground classic’. The updated edition, from which this review has been written, was published in 2011 and follows the publication of the book’s sequel ‘The Cracking Tower’ in 2009. DeKorne was the editor of ‘The Entheogen Review’ between 1992 – 1997.

Ostensibly, this updated reissue of Jim Dekorne’s Psychedelic Shamanism has been published in order to allow readers of the book’s sequel, The Cracking Tower (2009), to find copies of the previously scarce book. During the intervening seventeen years there has been a steadily growing web of interest in all-things psychedelic and this has created a peculiar effect within the value of Psychedelic Shamanism. On the one hand, the scientific-botanical information the book contains in its second part, the final nine chapters, is now more thoroughly tested and widely available; though it was undoubtedly a very useful guide in the earlier days of the internet.

On the other hand, the author highlights the question of the imaginal realms: “Interest in those days [early 1990s] seemed more focused on the vehicle than in mapping the realms it takes us to: it is hoped this latter theme may now assume its proper perspective” (DeKorne xxiv). Accordingly then, this review will focus on Part One: The Shamanic Hypothesis. The psychedelic-induced visionary experience, and descriptions thereof, have a growing tradition. For psy-literature, this takes us to the aesthetic-visionary sphere of Aldous Huxley, which is to say to his cartographical metaphor of the psyche, upon which it is possible to navigate imagery based on theoretical systems; typically based in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. However, since the psychedelic heyday, there has been a shamanic emergence within the psychedelic movement and the descriptive metaphor has shifted, while still retaining the analytical element in self-analysis.

The opening chapter – Altered States – is the ubiquitous authorial explanation that, in this case, introduces twelve experiences, chronologically listed with some biographical details for context, and which introduce a variety of psychedelic experiences. Each trip report comes with a ‘lesson’ that the author learnt from each particular session and, covering a period between 1964 and the early 1980s, describe various mystical and psychological revelations in the perceived action of the drug. This explanatory approach is another twist of the case-study text; examples of which include Richard Heron Ward’s A Drug-Taker’s Notes (1957), Malden Grange Bishop’s The Discovery of Love (1963), and Jane Dunlap’s Exploring Inner Space (1961). Unlike this earlier period though, DeKorne’s series takes place over a far longer time period, which in effect, bearing in mind the changing biographical details, take into account his own psychological states through a wider range of personal, contextual, maturities.

Following this is the chapter Shamanic Dimensions that posits the nature of reality from the point-of-view of ‘psychedelic shamanism’ and, furthermore, from the revelationary lessons of using psychedelics. In a nutshell, psychedelics represent a key to mapping the various dimensions of the psyche that remain “terra incognito”, according to DeKorne. Apparently a follower of the perennial philosophy, recognizing the validity of many descriptions of “hyperspace”, his own takes root in the subjective psyche. He writes:  “consciousness itself is a multidimensional phenomenon” (DeKorne 45). While Huxley’s sail across a three-dimensional sea led him to the antipodes, DeKorne enters their transpersonal and describes a multiplicity of invisible landscapes that demarcate states of consciousness. For both, however, psychedelics are a key to readily accessing these realms.

I have learned that human awareness plays itself out between poles of unity and multiplicity, and that within this multiplicity reside intelligences capable of becoming allies to human endeavor. What is most important, it seems to me, is that such occurrences are not particularly unusual; others have received similar insights both with and without the use of a chemical catalyst (DeKorne xvi).

The entheogenic experience, often described by terms like ‘unity’ and ‘white light’, has a well-established tradition in contemporary culture; armed with historical narratives, practises, beliefs etc.. The other pole, the “multiplicity” as DeKorne described it, has an equally rich one; in both psychedelic psychiatry and ‘indigenous’, shamanic belief.

Psycholytic therapy, developed by Dr. Ronald Sandison in the 1950s and 1960s, utilised certain Freudian and Jungian ideas, alongside patients taking LSD. The visionary space was thought to be unconscious imagery, usually explored using Jung’s active fantasy technique, and interpreted using psychotherapeutic models. The connection here, for Psychedelic Shamanism, lies with the influence of Carl Jung, so far as, analytically speaking, imagery can be understood cross-culturally by the employment of the theory of archetypes for example.  However, it is the advent of shamanic forms of thinking that shapes the semantics of any data and that radically alters its ontology.

This book holds to the shamanic model of multiple dimensions, accessed via human consciousness, in which dissociated intelligences feed off human belief systems the way that we eat hamburger[s]. It is to these entities’ advantage to keep us ignorant of their agendas; they would forfeit independent existence if we chose to become gods ourselves by devouring their energy instead of vice-versa (DeKorne 88).

Following the above quote is a sentence about the wisely intentioned use of psychedelics for self-integration and self-empowerment. The extreme ontological position above, and how an individual should behave toward it, is radically political; there is a lush tone of anarchism. By empowering ourselves, we disempower those who seek to oppress us, the state for example, particularly via knowledge (“keep us in ignorance”.) In 1994, when the book was first published, it appears there was a belief in the oppression of psychedelic information (at least) and the publication of this book (the botanical knowledge certainly) was therefore being politically radical.

While the situation for psychedelics has moved on slightly with the advent of new research, they remain illegal, and the same institutions, or “agendas”, are at still work in the world. This politicised imaginal realm, therefore, is still very much a reality; it seems, instead, the value of the book has diminished precisely because it is a book. The internet has devalued the currency and depth of botanical information in Psychedelic Shamanism and also the radical potential for politics delivered in this method. Yet, it should be reiterated, the situation it demanded a response to in 1994 remains the same. Technology may have changed, but the situation, as yet, has not.

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  1. March 3, 2012

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