When we have clear ideas of what the symbols which appear to us – whether in folk myth, dream or chemically-induced vision – can represent, we are better equipped to understand our own role in the great narrative of our life. However, if we have not had such training as that given to a tribe which values shared metaphors and symbols, we can be
“left alone with our unpredictable emotions and the sometimes terrifying visions of the collective unconscious” (1); in what is termed by some as a ‘bad trip’.
Tripping through the Dark…
If we have not been brought up with a conscious defining mythology such as that of the Wixaritari (see for example 2), that is not to say that we are in any disadvantage. As Campbell (1959) (3) puts it, we have to be aware of what our own stories mean, and can even be a part of creating our own new symbols which are unique to us.
Such symbols may be all the more potent if we have undergone some kind of journey in order to discover them. An important part of Kosmicare UK’s work is the recognition that whatever is happening in someone’s mind, there is probably a good reason for it, even if the person is not having the most comfortable time. As it says on their website,
“We think that if someone is having a “bad trip” it is because he/she is really in need of it. They may be confronting their own fears, and there is potential to benefit from it. Therefore, we do not work with denial or try to make people come back to “normal” but, embracing the moment, we provide support for the individual to come through the ordeal more wholesome and wise.” (1)
Into the Light
“An important step to take is to acknowledge that in gatherings and festivals people are pushing boundaries, and it is here that we need to give support.” (1)
One inspirational aspect of being part of the Kosmicare UK team at Goa Cream, a festival designed to promote Kosmicare, was to see so many festival-goers who are already prepared to give support to each other, and who recognise the benefits of their work even if they have not been personally cared for at the Kosmicare area. Such support is also inspirational in terms of considering the wider reach which Kosmicare, or similar initiatives, could have.
As well as one-to-one support for those already in drug-related experiences, Kosmicare provides non-judgmental information on, and in some cases testing facilities for, all kinds of mind-altering substances. When pushing boundaries by using these, one can be catapulted through a psychological exploration which, though it may feel like a number of millennia, lasts on our timescale only around 6-12 hours. This is why it is so important for Kosmicare to be present at festivals and parties, as such experiences can give you little or no preparation for what could be in store, and the mental effects are so quick and strong that occasionally they can be a handful.
However, people are having more sustained psychological explorations all the time, which have been variously described as ‘voice hearing’, ‘schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’, or a host of other labels, for which British and other “Western” societies do not necessarily provide adequate facilities.
It could be argued that someone who is experiencing what modern Western medicine could term as psychosis, delusions, schizoid or paranoid behaviour is going through a similar kind of ‘bad trip’ as that which can be induced by entheogenic substances, though the trip generally takes a lot longer than 12 hours. The general response in “Western” society is to place such individuals in the mental healthcare system where medical staff attempt to make them “better” or fit in with society again. While such a response may have benefits for some individuals, it could be important to note that “mental illness” as defined in “Western” society is seen by most shamanic cultures as “the birth of a healer” and those experiencing it are seen as undergoing a necessary stage in their journey towards becoming, if they wish to accept the role, an important community facilitator and healer (4) (5).
If such perceptions of mental illness can help individuals in ways in which the western system falls short, such as with the case of Franklin Russell, hospitalised at 17 as a “schizophrenic” in the USA but hailed as one of the “mediums bringing messages to the community from the spirit world” in West Africa (6), then perhaps we need options other than mental hospitals in which to support them. One such option could be an extended version of Kosmicare; where the spaces are in one fixed place within the community and where support can be found not only for a few days at a time, but all year round, and with a much longer time limit on how long one can be in the space.
Such a static healing space should not replace Kosmicare, but rather work alongside it, as the focus is on slightly differing, though interlinked, psychological experiences. The space, I feel, would have to be centred in a natural environment; even if set up to serve a city community it should be on the outskirts of said city, in a place where there is less psychic noise than can be found among the busy city streets.
As such, it can be seen as a kind of ‘Healing Forest’, or whatever natural phenomena is seen as important by a particular community. So those who dwell near a river may prefer to go to a ‘Healing Valley’ whilst those who live in high altitudes may prefer a ‘Healing Mountain’. It is important to connect the landscape to the community as then those going there to undergo their difficult experiences will be able to relate more to it. Sacred space appears to be a key part of all human culture, whether we have a religion or not, as I explore in my ‘Sacred Spaces’ article (7).
Another important reason for having the space in nature is that those who live there permanently as supporters for people in need of care will have to be grounded in non-human nature as well as deeply understanding of human psychology; as David Abram eloquently puts it,
“the primary role of the indigenous shaman [is] a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, to its patterns and vicissitudes.” (8)
Those who work in such a place as may be created as the Healing Forest, Valley, Mountain or others may have some professional similarities with shamans of traditional societies, though they perhaps prefer not to be called shamans themselves. For although this idea of a static Kosmicare available in every town and community is not so different from the traditional role of shamans in indigenous tribal cultures, the fact that we have our own, literate, abstracted, diversified, flexible and, to a huge extent, highly individualised cultures means that such an endeavour will be not simply an emulation of older societies but the creation of a new cultural paradigm.
Grand words, perhaps; though in reality the adventure will be quite simple. All that is needed is a few willing people, a corner of land and some imagination.
In the meantime, Kosmicare UK will continue creating spaces at festivals throughout the country, beginning in the spring of 2016. Even if you are not experiencing psychological or drug-related difficulties, look out for us! You may well find some positive surprises.
- Kosmicare UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/
- Alfredo López Austin : Tamoanchan, Tlalocan. U Pr of Co, 1997.
- Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
- Halifax, J, 1988. Shaman: The Wounded Healer. Thames & Hudson: London
- Marohn, S and Somé, M.P, 2014. ‘What a Shaman sees in a Mental Hospital’. Waking Times, 22/8/2014. http://www.wakingtimes.com/2014/08/22/shaman-sees-mental-hospital/
- Russell, D, 2014. ‘How a West African Shaman Helped my Schizophrenic Son in a way Western Medicine Couldn’t’. Washington Post, 24/3/14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/24/how-a-west-african-shaman-helped-my-schizophrenic-son-in-a-way-western-medicine-couldnt/
- Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/
- Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books: New York City