Saturday, July 11, 2015


An epiphany feels as though it comes from outside one’s body, which is why people call them “theophanies.”  Supernatural.  More than something you could just think up.  It can grip you and make you shake.

So can epilepsy.

If you run electricity or magnetism through certain parts of the brain, you’ll have an epiphany.  You might hear voices.  You might have a vision.  But it’s just the operator of the vibes doing it.  Really great music could do it.

Every time I mentioned it on a Sunday morning, people would linger afterwards and sidle up to take me aside to tell me about their own experience, usually not anything fancy or grand.  A man said he was bathing the baby in a little plastic tub on a picnic table at a camp spot the family had used before when suddenly the place was charged with energy and he could see every pine needle scattered on the table.

Jonathan Edwards, the guy who said we were all sinners in the hands of an angry god who dangled us over the fires of the kitchen stove as though we were spiders gripping threads we just made, walked with his wife and said the sacred shone through the world like the sun coming through a stained glass window.

Stoned again.  But on what?  And why do drugs work?  Clearly they change the interactions of molecules inside the body and not always the same way from one drug to another, but that means the phenomenon is chemical in origin, doesn’t it?  “Natural” because it’s inside the body, UNnatural because the intervention is intentional, administered from outside the body.  It’s possible to make up words like “entheogen” but that doesn’t mean something supernatural is involved?

One group of people wants extraordinary feeling to be something that the human body “does” in a natural physiological way and another group wants it to be the result of transcendent forces that are completely outside what a human can do.  The two groups want their separate and irreconcilable beliefs to be reinforced, so experiments are skewed and weighed to get the desired results.  We are the instruments, so how can be objective?  Using computers or fMRI’s only extends the territory.  Bliss doesn’t compute in mathematical terms.

But you can market it if you accept the idea of “entheogens,” drugs which claim at least to make you feel as though you were in touch with something supernatural and extraordinary.  How would you prove whether that were true?   Is there anything to consider besides the results of taking such drugs?

One issue is the category of drug: “natural,” meaning used by indigenous cultures and gathered in the wild; “pharmaceutical”, meaning made and marketed by a corporation; “accidental” like ergot fungus growing on bread; “rogue” or underground or "street" meaning made in some kind of improvised lab for no other use that getting high, and so on.

At least one way of getting high that is not an ingestion is instead a deprivation, like the air evacuations of a pressure chamber, or being at a very high altitude, or deep diving.  A stroke or tumor could shut down parts of the brain.  The dashboard that is the brain is vulnerable.  It might be infected or merely inflamed.  (An infection is some invasion from a virus, a bacteria, a fungus or the like.  An inflammation is a reaction of the body that is trying to get rid of some problem, like an infection, trauma, or foreign substance.)  The old Blackfeet used starvation, dehydration, self-torture, and staring at the sun to prompt what they classified as supernatural.  Exsanguination, blood loss, might work.  Ask de Sade.

Clearly entheogens or equivalent behavior can make a person have unusual experiences and some of them, esp. if prolonged, can be damaging or lethal.  But the interpretation can be either positive or negative, and the results in terms of what happens during and afterwards can vary.  If there is a ceremonial context, esp. one with a community, the effect will be quite different than if one is alone and in a bad emotional place, which will have already filled the body with molecules -- maybe the ones the ingestor is hoping an entheogen will end.  The constantly shifting connectomes among the neurons joining different regions will make a difference.  If life is a process flow between the banks of too much and too little, then extraordinary mental states may signal that one is dangerously near one side or the other.  

But there is an essential and possibly insoluble problem with this kind of discussion on the page:  it is a rational way of thinking confined to and produced by the pre-frontal cortex that is about ancient dark-brain and whole-body-emotion phenomena.  Some people are willing to undergo those experiences and then reflect about them when they are returned to “normal,” but the point of many of them is to change what is normal, esp. when “normal” is dysfunctional in terms of social context.  Some things can't be explained -- just felt.

Epiphany can be induced by another person (by hypnotism, for instance) or by physical activity like dancing, drumming, whirling or by constraint (bondage) . . .   I’m not talking about sex because I think it will introduce a whole new set of emotional variables, but maybe a powerful orgasm is an epiphany and that’s why so many people are willing to leave the flow of safety in order to trigger such a response.  Some dreams can seem like an epiphany, metaphorical images drawing up an insight from the depths of the under-rational.  Maybe it’s a reorganization of insight as is reported by users of LSD.  Or maybe it’s a side-effect of a drug like Sustiva that confronts HIV in the brain tissues.

I’ve deliberately tried to make an epiphany seem merely an intensification of something natural and maybe it is partly that.  But by definition and by report it can be far more intense and singular.  Managed by ceremony, it can pull a person out of their culture or embed them more deeply into a system of behavior.  Some writers feel that it is triggered by irresolvable contradiction and that’s supported by the reports of saints, who are partly defined by epiphanies and partly by written accounts of the experience.  Shamans, specifically, are not defined by good or bad and rarely write anything down.  They are denizens of the dark-brain who claim direct contact with the world, by ayahuasca or by crow.

And now I am in rainbow and raise my arms until they become wings.  The planet shudders like a bell and my mouth is full of honey.  The heat is not healing but annealing as in the treatment of molten metal to rearrange its molecular structure.  I dance with gravity just above the flow of life itself.

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