Author of Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock discusses The War on Consciousness at TEDx Whitechapel in London on January 12, 2013.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Graham Hancock on The War on Consciousness
After 6 million years of boredom, the evolutionary ascent of our species from the last common ancestor with the chimpanzee, something extraordinary happened to us less than 100,000 years ago, which, by the way, is long after we’d become anatomically modern.
It was a kind of emergence into consciousness less than 100,000 years ago, really less than 40,000 years ago, when we became fully symbolic creatures. And this great change has been defined as the single most important step forward in the evolution of human behavior, is intimately associated with the emergence of the great and transcendent rock and cave art all around the world.
Over the last 30 years, researches led by professor David Lewis-Williams at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, and many others, have suggested an intriguing and radical possibility, which is that this emergence into consciousness was triggered by our ancestors’ encounters with visionary plants and the beginning of shamanism.
If you analyze the cave art — there’s no time to go into the details here — but there are so many details that make it clear that this was an art of altered states of consciousness, of visions. And plants like the amanita muscaria mushroom and psilocybin mushrooms appear to have been directly connected with this sudden and radical change.
So to investigate this possibility when I got interested in this mystery, I went down to the Amazon where there are still surviving shamanistic cultures today, and where they drink the powerful visionary brew: ayahuasca, of which the active ingredient is dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which is actually closely related at the molecular level to psilocybin.
Now, normally DMT cannot be activated orally — when we encounter it in the west it’s generally smoked. There’s an enzyme in our stomachs called Monoaminoxydase which switches off DMT on contact. But in the Amazon they’ve got around this problem, they say it was the spirits that taught them how to do it. The DMT in the ayahuasca brew is contained in these leaves from a plant that they call chacruna in the Amazon, and there they mix it together with this vine. And out of the 150,000 different species of plants and trees in the Amazon, this is the one that contains a Monoaminoxydase inhibitor, which switches off that enzyme in our stomachs, and allows the DMT in the leaves — when the two are married together and cooked in water — to be absorbed orally and takes us on a four-hour journey into extraordinary realms.
Now, it’s no joke to drink ayahuasca. The ayahuasca brew has a foul, foul taste — really, really hideous and a dreadful, dreadful smell, and after you’ve drunk your cup you’ll find within 45 minutes or so that you’re sweating, that you’re feeling nauseous. Pretty soon you may well be vomiting, you may have diarrhoea, so, you know, nobody’s doing this for recreation.
And I’d like to add that I don’t think any of the psychedelics should be used for recreation. They have a much more serious and important mission with humanity. So, we’re not doing this for fun, but what draws people to ayahuasca again and again to brace themselves for this experience? And you do have to brace yourself is its extraordinary effects at the level of consciousness.
And one of those effects has to do with creativity, and we can see the creative cosmogenic impulse of ayahuasca in the paintings of Ayahuasca Shamans from Peru, like the paintings of Pablo Amaringo here those richly saturated colors, they’re amazing visions that they reproduce. And this creative impulse has also spread to western artists — many western artists now have been deeply influenced by ayahuasca and are also painting their visions.
And as these paintings show, another universal experience of ayahuasca is the encounter with seemingly intelligent entities which communicate with us telepathically. Now, I’m making no claim one way or another as to the reality status of these entities we encounter, simply that phenomenologically, in the ayahuasca experience they are encountered by people all over the world.
And most frequently of all, the spirit of ayahuasca herself, mother ayahuasca, who is a healer — and although she’s kind of the mother goddess of the planet she seems to take a direct personal interest in us as individuals — to heal our ills, to want us to be the best that we can possibly be, to correct errors and mistakes in our behavior that may be leading us down the wrong path. And this is perhaps why — and it’s an untold story really — ayahuasca has been fantastically successful in getting people off harmful addictions to hard drugs such as heroine and cocaine.
As Jacques Mabit of Takiwasi clinic in Peru brings heroine and cocaine addicts out there for a month, gives them twelve ayahuasca sessions, and they have encounters with mother ayahuasca during those sessions that lead them, not to wish to take heroine and cocaine anymore, and more than half leave completely free of their addiction and never return to it and don’t even have withdrawal symptoms.
And the same incredible healing work was being done in Canada by Dr. Gabor Maté until the Canadian Government intervened and stopped his healing practice on the grounds that ayahuasca itself was an illegal drug.
Now, I have some personal experience of this. I’ve not been addicted to heroine or cocaine, but I had a 24-year nonstop cannabis habit. And this started off smoking the herb, and naturally vaporizing it, but the basic truth is that for 24 years I was pretty much permanently stoned — and I enjoyed being stoned, and I felt that it helped me with my work as a writer, and perhaps at some point it did.
But when I first encountered ayahuasca, I had already been smoking cannabis for 16 years. And almost immediately, ayahuasca started giving me messages that this was no longer serving me, that it was leading me to behave in negative and unhealthful ways towards others. Of course, I ignored those messages for years and years and went back to being stoned 16 hours a day.
But that negative behavior that ayahuasca was pointing out did actually get worse and worse — I don’t want to put down cannabis and I believe it’s the sovereign right of every adult to choose to smoke cannabis if they wish to do so.
But I think I was overusing it, I think I was abusing it, not using it responsibly. I became more and more paranoid, jealous, possessive, suspicious, I was subject to irrational rages, I often made the life of my beloved partner Santha a misery.
When I went down for my regular encounter with ayahuasca in October 2011, I was given the most unbelievable kicking by mother ayahuasca. I was put through an ordeal, it was a kind of life-review. And it’s not an accident that ayahuasca is ‘the vine of the dead’. I was shown my death, and I was shown that if I came to death — and what awaits us after death — without having corrected the mistakes that I was making in my life, that it would be a very bad thing for me — and actually, mother ayahuasca literally took me to hell, and that hell was a little like this “Hell” painted by Hieronymous Bosch., a truly terrible place and a little like the place that the ancient Egyptians called the Judgement Hall of Osiris, where our souls are weighed on the scales in the presence of the Gods against the feather of Truth and Justice of Cosmic Harmony.
And I was shown that the path I was walking — my abuse of cannabis and the behavior associated with it — was going to lead me to be found wanting in the judgement, and that I might face annihilation in the world beyond death.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, when I came back to England later in October 2011 I gave up cannabis and I’ve never smoked it again since then. Actually, again I’m speaking only personally with no comment on others’ use of cannabis, it’s as though a monkey has been lifted off my back. I’m liberated in incredible ways, far from my creativity being inhibited, I find myself writing much more productively, much more creatively, much more focused, and much more efficiently as well.