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. I’ve begun to be able to address those negative aspects of my behavior which cannabis had revealed, and hopefully to make myself slowly — it’s a long progress — into a more nurturing, more loving, more positive person. And this whole transformation — it really has been a personal transformation for me — was made possible by this encounter with death that mother ayahuasca gave me.
That leads me to ask, what is death? Our materialist science reduces everything to matter, materialist science in the West says that we are just meat, we’re just our bodies. So when the brain is dead, that’s the end of consciousness, there is no life after death, there is no soul; we just rot and are gone. Actually, many honest scientists should admit that consciousness is the greatest mystery of science and that we don’t know exactly how it works. The brain is involved in it some way but we’re not sure how. It could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity, if you hold to that paradigm, then of course you can’t believe in life after death, when the generator’s broken, consciousness is gone. But it’s equally possible that the relationship — and nothing in neuroscience rules it out – that the relationship is more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set, and in that case, when the TV set is broken, of course the TV signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all spiritual traditions, that we are immortal souls temporarily incarnated in these physical forms, to learn and to grow and to develop.
And really, if we want to know about this mystery, the last people we should ask are materialist reductionist scientists; they have nothing to say on the matter at all. Let’s go rather to the ancient Egyptians, who put their best minds to work for 3,000 years on the problem of death, and on the problem of how we should live our lives to prepare for what we will confront after death.
And the ancient Egyptians expressed their ideas in transcendent art, which still touches us emotionally today. And they came to certain very specific conclusions that the soul does survive death and that we will be held accountable for every thought, every action, every deed that we have lived through in our lives, so we’d better take this precious opportunity to be born in a human body seriously, and make the most of it. And in these inquiries into the mystery of death, the ancient Egyptians weren’t just exercising their imaginations; they highly valued dream states, and it’s now known that they used visionary plants like the hallucinogenic blue water lily. It’s interesting that the ancient Egyptian ‘tree of life’ has recently been identified as the Acacia nilotica which contains high quantities of DMT, dimethyltryptamine, the same active ingredient that we find in ayahuasca.
Now, it’s difficult to imagine a society more different from the society of ancient Egypt than our society today. We hate visionary states in this society. In our society, if we want to insult somebody, we call them a dreamer. In ancient societies that was praise. And we have erected huge apparatuses of armed bureaucracies who will invade our privacy, who will break down our doors, who will arrest us, who will send us to prison — sometimes for years – for possessing even small quantities of psilocybin, or substances like DMT, whether in its smokable form or in the ayahuasca brew. And yet, ironically, DMT is, we now know, a natural brain hormone, we all have it in our bodies and it’s just that its function remains unknown for lack of research. It’s not as though our society is opposed in principle to altered states of consciousness, I mean, billions are being made by the unholy alliance of psychiatrists and “big pharma” in overprescribing drugs to control so-called syndromes like depression or attention deficit disorder in teenagers.
We have a love-affair in our society with alcohol; we glorify this most boring of drugs despite the terrible consequences that it often has. And of course we love our stimulants, our tea, our coffee, our energy drinks, our sugar, and huge industries are built around these substances which are valued because of the way they alter consciousness.
But what all these approved altered states of consciousness have in common is that none of them contradict or conflict with the basic state of consciousness valued by our society, which I would call the alert, problem-solving state of consciousness, which is good for the more mundane aspects of science. It’s good for the prosecution of warfare, it’s good for commerce, it’s good for politics, but I think everybody realizes that the promise of a society over-monopolistically based on this state of consciousness has proved hollow. And that this model is no longer working — that it’s broken in every possible sense that a model can be broken. And urgently we need to find something to replace it, the vast problems of global pollution that have resulted from the single-minded pursuit of profit, the horrors of the nuclear proliferation, the spectre of hunger that millions every night go to bed starving, that we can’t even solve this problem, despite our alert, problem-solving state of consciousness.
And look what’s happening in the Amazon, the lungs of our planet, this precious home of bio-diversity. The old growth rainforest being cut down and replaced with soya bean farms so we can feed cattle so that we can all eat hamburgers. Only a truly insane global state of consciousness could allow such an abomination to occur.
And I did a back-of-an-envelope calculation during the Iraq War, it seems to me that six months expenditure on the Iraq War would have solved the problem of the Amazon forever; would be sufficient to compensate the people of the Amazon so that no single tree ever needed to be cut down again, to garden and to look after that amazing resource. But we can’t make that decision as a global community. We can spend countless billions on warfare, on hatred, on fear, on suspicion, on division, but we can’t get together the collective effort to save the lungs of our planet. And this is perhaps why shamans from the Amazon are now mounting a kind of reverse missionary activity.
When I’ve asked shamans about the sickness of the west, they say it’s quite simple: “You guys have severed your connection with spirit. Unless you reconnect with spirit and do so soon, you’re going to bring the whole house of cards down around your heads, and ours.” And rightly or wrongly, they believe that ayahuasca is the remedy for that sickness. And many now are being called to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, and ayahuasca shamans are traveling throughout the West offering the brew — often under the radar, often at personal risk — to bring about consciousness change.
And it’s true that the message of ayahuasca, the universal message, is about the sacred, magical, enchanted, infinitely precious nature of life on Earth. And the interdependence of material and spiritual realms, and it’s impossible to work with ayahuasca for long without being deeply and profoundly affected by this message. And let’s not forget that ayahuasca is not alone, that it’s part of an ancient worldwide system of the targeted, careful, responsible alteration of consciousness. It’s recently been shown by scholars that the kykeon used in the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece was almost certainly a psychedelic brew. That the soma of the Vedas may well have been a brew based on the amanita muscaria mushroom. We have the DMT in the ancient Egyptian ‘tree of life’. We have the whole global cultures of surviving shamanism and what it’s all about is a state of consciousness that’s designed to help us find balance, harmony, the ancient Egyptians would’ve called it ‘ma’at with the universe’ and to remain mindful that what we’re here to undertake on Earth while we’re immersed in matter is fundamentally a spiritual journey, aimed at the growth and perfection of the soul, a journey that may go back to the very origins of what made us human in the first place.
And I stand here invoking the hard-won right of freedom of speech to call for and demand another right to be recognized; and that is the right of adult sovereignty over consciousness. There’s a war on consciousness in our society and if we as adults are not allowed to make sovereign decisions about what to experience with our own consciousness while doing no harm to others, including the decisions to use responsibly ancient and sacred visionary plants, then we cannot claim to be free in any way, and it’s useless for our society to go around the world imposing our form of democracy on others while we nourish this rot at the heart of society, and we do not allow individual freedom over consciousness.
It may even be that we’re denying ourselves the next vital step in our own evolution by allowing this state of affairs to continue, and who knows, perhaps our immortal destiny as well.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.