Caduceus: the deep feminine and masculine
Talking therapy, CBT, NLP, Hypnotherapy, Chiropractic, Alexander Technique, Reiki, Bowen, Emmett, Sensory Deprivation Tank Therapy, Crystal Healing, Essential Oils, The Law of Attraction, Ayurveda, Zen, Access Bars, Improvisational and Stand-up comedy, Clairvoyancy, Yoga (Ashtanga, Hatha, Kundalini, Laughter, Tantric, Vinyasa, Yin): I’ve partaken, and in some cases undertaken training, in all of these broadly healing modalities. Rather than having more money than sense, or sheer boredom, I underwent these practices to, after Foucault, search for the answers to the following:
· Why am I alive?
· What lessons am I to learn from life?
· How did I become what I am and why do I suffer from being what I am? (Miller, 1993, p.72).
Experiencing the typical rites of passage and vicissitudes of a lower-middle class youth growing up in London during the 90s and early 00s, before going on to Cardiff University, the aforementioned modalities often enriched and/or problematised my experiences. A thread of suffering was, however, persistent, and consisted of the tension between understanding myself, and how I fit, or struggled to fit, within wider societal norms.
During my academic studies , as for many (admittedly emotionally stunted and misanthropic young men!) before me, Nietzsche was a revelation. It wasn’t so much his misogyny and later insanity, most likely from syphilis, that appealed(!), but the relentless critique of social mores: contingency and flux over necessity and permanence. Coming from a Sikh household, with a pantheist reading of the ‘divine’, I was drawn to Continental Philosophy, and its relationship with particular Eastern ideologies, such as Theraveda Buddhism. These interests were later supplemented by academic research into altered states of consciousness as a mode of re-invigorating engagement with, and critique of, normative practices: the (im)possibility of intellectual and experiential freedom within a perpetually socially constructed web of mores (Nietzsche, 1997, section 73).
Following this line of esoteric enquiry, in 2012 I undertook a 10-day silent Vipassana course. Aged 27 at the time, and conscious of the illustrious club of creative types synonymous with this number, Vipassana marked a paradigmatic shift; the tide turned from going outwards and wanting to vehemently change society, and/or oneself, in line with what an idealised image of society ‘ought’ to be, to a deep reflection on the fluctuating nature of being itself. As Herman Hesse’s (2008) Siddhartha reflected: ‘One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else [is] seeking — a detour, error’ (p.6). As S. N. Goenka (2000), populariser of the Vipassana technique originated by The Buddha, advised: ‘Outside of the framework of the body, truth cannot be experienced; it can only be intellectualized. Therefore you must develop the ability to experience truth within yourself, from the grossest to the subtlest levels, in order to emerge from all illusions, all bondages’.
Such deep engagement does not result in sociopolitical or ethical apathy, but rather embodied awareness of the dominant practices and habit patterns within the lebenswelt. Education Studies scholar Sharon Todd (2015) helpfully articulates the difference between Vipassana practice and primarily intellectual emancipatory ideologies: ‘While feminist and critical pedagogy, for example, might also seek liberation from oppressive conditions, they do so often by advocating an alteration of social relations in ways that can (re)install an alternative version of the self — as a fully conscious, emancipated self — and not necessarily by calling for a radical re-interrogation of the very notion of self as Buddhism does’ (p.244). This re-imagining of the ‘self’ occurs through dis-illusion, in a liberatory reading of the term as coming out of illusion. Through Vipassana, my conditioned searching for external fixes was ruptured, the egoic guard was tempered and an allowance of an unravelling of internal narratives took root. Following further personal travails, and academic research into palliative care, I became interested in the role of DMT, and particular psychedelics, to go even deeper inward to dismember narrative structures the egoic self had constructed to negotiate surviving in the lebenswelt.
Anima and Animus
Now in 2022, aged 37, and seven years on from San Pedro, Ayahuasca and Iboga ceremonies, I can recount these experiences soberly, without being caught up in any romantic haze concerning their curative powers. Indeed, if cellular regeneration discourse is anything to go by, seven years is an appropriate time to reflect. Following personal turmoil, aged 30 (and in the midst of my Saturn return), encounters with these plant medicines/teachers/healers/dispellers of illusions were profound. They were neither recreational, nor escapist. Rather, they were means of facilitating deeper internal unravelling, as per Vipassana, and coming out of illusion of the egoic structure of the ‘self’; otherwise known as a conglomeration of subatomic particles vibrating at a high rate, giving rise to an illusory sense of continuity.
Anthropomorphising these plant-based intelligences, following Jungian archetypes, the following are (admittedly patriarchal and Eurocentric) ways of understanding each one:
· San Pedro: the kind and wise elder, typically ‘grandfather’;
· Ayahuasca: the dark and powerful feminine (anima);
· Iboga: the firm, but fair and loving, father (animus).
As anthropologist and psychonaut extraordinaire Carlos Castaneda paradoxically articulates through the figure of the shaman Don Juan: ‘The flaw with words is that they always make us feel enlightened, but when we turn around to face the world they always fail us and we end up facing the world as we always have, without enlightenment’ (p.29). So, it is with that ethos in mind that I will continue to try and bumble along to reflect upon and convey my experiences in a minimal manner. The purpose of this sharing is to provide the reader an understanding of the relationship between the different experiences with each plant, but not the intricacies of the ‘trips’ themselves — there would be no great value in my inevitably limited attempt to do so!
In Peru, 2015, following the kind ‘breaking in’ of San Pedro, I was set for meetings with Ayahuasca. The two encounters were long — 12 hours plus each time — and extremely chaotic and painful. I can attest to the dark, mysterious, and serpent like qualities ascribed to this anima teacher. It certainly shook me out of my preconceptions and illusions, but also left me swirling in an existential abyss: untethered and unclear on what exactly to do, albeit I knew what habit patterns to not follow; a negative epistemology, if you will. The encounters with Ayahuasca can best be summarised by astrologer Joyce Mason (2013): ‘The shamanistic journey creates wholeness by dismembering the shaman. The dark night of the soul involves being ripped apart, facing death and/or demons, then being put back together again’. Following my ordeals, I was advised by the shaman (not your typical indigenous South American fella, but instead a matter of fact and humorous Yorkshireman, Rory) to consider the mythical symbol of the Caduceus; an ancient image of medicinal healing, depicting two serpents wrapped around a staff. Again, resorting to anthropomorphic, mythical archetypes being the only manner in which to possibly convey a semblance of the meaning of these plant experiences, Rory counselled that Ayahuasca was very much the (divine feminine) serpent, but that in order for ‘her’ to manifest through my being, required a pole, or staff, around which to wrap. The phallic imagery in this metaphor is self-evident.
Encapsulating my ordeals with Ayahuasca, Jungian psychotherapist Allan B. Chinen (1993) muses that: ‘in their first encounters with the anima, most men are usually no match for her because she is so powerful and fascinating. But after contacting the deep masculine, men have an ally as powerful as the anima, the Trickster spirit’ (p.198). Iboga is representative of the primordial, deep masculine Trickster spirit. Going into the San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies, I had, owing to the breakdown of my marriage at the time, lost — and, actually never really been in touch with — a deep masculine centre. Growing up in a patriarchal society, I’d read enough feminist theory from Firestone to Dworkin to rather resent any notion of masculinity, and consider it as innately repressive. To interrogate this experientially, Rory advised that I undertake an ass kicking from Iboga to realise the potential teachings of Ayahuasca.
In Holland, six months after the arduous journeys with Ayahuasca, I undertook an Iboga ceremony. Native to Gabon, it is a shrub that is understandably foreign to shamanic rituals in the Americas. The ‘trip’ peaked for about 36 hours, during which there was a clarity in imagery and messaging unlike anything I had experienced before. Confirming Rory’s reflections, early on during the psychedelic journey, an image of a cobra like serpent appeared, content and approving of the Iboga in my being. It could have been internal projection, external vision, or, most likely, a combination of both, but it appeared, and felt, as though the Ayahuasca celebrated: ‘aha, well done, now I can actually do something with you’! Through the deep masculine Iboga, there was a staff for the deep feminine Ayahuasca to wrap around: a symbiotic relationship of generativity and collaboration over domination; a Trickster, rather than ‘hero’ ethic.
Beyond mere intellectual masturbation, linguistic acrobatics and highfalutin philosophies, the corporeal structure and mental pathways that formed the supposedly fixed identity of the I experienced the:
· ephemerality of the idea of the separateness and individuation;
· paradox of the criticality of narrative storytelling in order for such narratives to unravel;
· interplay of different archetypes in the domain of ‘wholeness’.
Now a father to a son, and responsible for teaching him about the divine interplay between the deep feminine and masculine, I am as prepared as I can be through my encounters. I mostly fail every day, for I wrestle with the injunctions of being a neoliberal subject. That said, I also know through experiential lessons how to allow momentary fissures out of our nonsensical narratives that lead to unnecessary suffering: letting go of the heroic paradigm, and allowing the generativity of the Trickster to course its way through my being. Awareness is key. As Chinen (1993) succinctly puts it: ‘illumination is not a sublime, abstract, metaphysical insight … it begins with simple empathy’ (p.42). Feeling, flowing and being. Integration over domination. Dis-illusion out of the veil of maya.
Castaneda, C. (2000). The wheel of time: the shamans of ancient Mexico, their thoughts about life, death and the universe. London: Penguin.
Chinen, A. B. (1993). Beyond the hero: stories of men in search of soul. Xlibris.
Goenka, S. N. (2000). The discourse summaries: talks from a ten-day course in Vipassana meditation. Seattle: Vippasana Research Publications.
Hesse, H. (2008). Siddhartha. London: Penguin.
Mason, J. (2013). Chiron and wholeness. New Inkarnation Media.
Miller, J. (1994). Passion of Michel Foucault. London: Flamingo.
Nietzsche. F. W. (1997). Daybreak: thoughts on the prejudices of morality. Translated by M. Clark. Edited by B. Leiter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Todd, S. (2015). Experiencing Change, Encountering the Unknown: An Education in ‘Negative Capability’ in Light of Buddhism and Levinas. Journal of Philosophy of Education. 49. 240–254. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12139