A dynamic that we have repeatedly touched upon in our work with ritual and other techniques for altering consciousness is the way that direct experiences may be evoked by the presence of symbolic stimuli in the environment. We have centered our research upon the mechanisms by means of which the symbolic function operates in cognition. That set of mechanisms we have termed symbolic penetration : the process by which activation of a relatively limited neural model in the sensory system comes to communicate with, evoke, and become neurocognitively associated with a more ramified, even vastly complex, and far less limited set of models and other somatic systems operating within and outside the sensory system. In our scheme, the functioning of the entire neurocognitive system (e.g., the greater symbolic field) evoked by the presence of a symbol is the intentionality (roughly speaking, "meaning") of the symbol, an intentionality that may take the form of direct experience. For example, I may see a cross and experience joy or guilt, feelings that are part of the intentionality of that symbol for me at that moment.

Bringing the cosmology alive for members of a society may require a significant alteration of the normal structure of conscious network and the moment-by- moment consciousness it produces. Within the overall intentional framework of neurocognitive structure, there are three sets of somatic relations that are known to be involved in one form of ritual or another and that in part influence the type of experience arising as a consequence of symbolic penetration produced by ritual techniques.

  • 1. Intentionality. The first of these relations is, as I said above, intentionality . Remember? Intentionality refers to the polar dialogue between prefrontal and sensorial cortex that is responsible for ordering many of the functions of the nervous system and body around the object of perception. By controlling the context of perception, ritual in all of its various forms (from simple conditioned responses to full-blown ceremonies and pilgrimages) operates to control the intentional processes of the individual and thus which objects of perception are attended, how they are attended, their context, what they mean and how they are interpreted. Conscious network is brought to bear upon the appropriate objects that then penetrate to their cognitive and other associations and "take on meaning," much of which is already in place due to neurocognitive associations enculturated before actual participation in the ritual. Controlling perception and the context of perception goes a long way in controlling the organization of conscious network, and the meaning that develops about the objects as Big-S SYMBOLS.
  • 2. Right and Left Hemispheres. The second relation that commonly comes into play is the dialogue between the complementary and asymmetrical functions of the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere in most people is known to specialize in serial planning, analytic thought and language-related functions. The right hemisphere seems to specialize in holistic thought, gestalt spatial relations and imagination (especially image-emotional associations). The use of eidetic imagery in the initiation of shamans is cross-culturally common. Some imagery is transmitted via verbal instructions or texts, thus utilizing both left hemisphere linguistic and right hemisphere imaginal functions. This is accomplished through the facility of so- called cross-modal transfer ; i.e., the evocation of sensory objects in one sensory mode (say visual) by stimuli presented in another sensory mode (say auditory). It is not uncommon for a system of initiation to manifest an alternation between imaginal and conceptual material. A good example of this is to be found in Tibetan Vajrayana techniques where initiation into any meditation requires a mandatory combination of a ritual performance (the wang kur ) and the reading of a text (the lung ). This is the same pattern we find in the teaching of the physical sciences where training incorporates an alternation between lectures and highly ritualized laboratory procedures.
  • 3. Functional Hierarchy. The third relation is between hierarchical levels of cortical and subcortical neurological, endocrinological and immunological systems. Relations among all levels of the nervous system are, of course, reciprocal. Neurological events may be initiated from lower ("bottom up") or higher ("top down") levels in the system. Events initiated at whatever level are translated into the mode of functioning of target systems in a causal chain we term homeomorphogenesis. (Remember? We got into this when discussing information from a biogenetic structural point of view.) For example, evidence being accrued by the new field of psychoneuroimmunology suggests that concentration upon certain types of eidetic imagery may produce enhanced immunological activity at the site of lesions (top down homeomorphogenesis). The opposite may occur when a disease or lesion may produce, say, dream imagery in which the dream ego is being attacked or a house being invaded by shadowy or demonic figures (bottom up homeomorphogenesis). Activation of certain types of SYMBOLISM may excite the production of endorphins and enkephalins -- the body's natural pain-killers -- that decrease or eliminate pain and anxiety. And intense meditation upon different types of SYMBOLS may effect the balance of autonomic nervous system functions producing either heightened relaxation or excitation of somatic systems.

    As we have seen an another Tangent, ritual may incorporate elements that drive any or all of these three types of relations, particularly those rituals that are devoted to either altering the phase of consciousness of, or healing the suffering of the participants. This is a dramatic form of penetration in which the ritual activity is designed to evoke multiple somatic systems and produce transformations leading to discrete phases of consciousness -- phases that are integral to the living cycle of meaning of the culture. Otherwise familiar objects may appear in unusual contexts and invite extraordinary attention and intention (e.g., rites of reversal where males dress as females, the cross in the context of the Mass), or objects only seen in ceremonial circumstances may be publicly displayed (e.g., the Karmapa, head of one of the four schools of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, dons his Black Hat during an initiation).

    The ritual may be rich in SYMBOLISM, thus inviting intensified right hemisphere processing, either in a trance phase during the ritual, or in dream phases at a later time (e.g., participants are dressed in masks and other regalia, the ritual is performed in a temple or ceremonial house festooned with sacred objects). The alternative reality depicted in ritual performance may thus "come alive" in individual experience and in the intuitive grasp of cosmic and psychic relations. On the other hand, ritual responses to situations perceived to be threatening may operate to block a maladaptive decrement in the complexity of left hemisphere conceptual processing below a basal and concrete level. That is, as intense emotion (especially fear) in response to stress may have the effect of producing drastic over-simplification of both perception and thought, ritual may act as a buffer producing the perception of effective action and, thus, the reduction or elimination of intense emotion.


    There is one factor implied by symbolic penetration that has yet to sink into the general awareness of anthropologists: that is, at the level of basic principle or mechanism, the cognitive system of the fieldworker operates exactly like the cognitive system of the native. To the extent that the anthropologist comes to understand how symbols operate in the mind of the native -- indeed in the mind of all people everywhere -- to that extent he/she comes to understand how his/her own mind works, and visa versa. Moreover, if he/she understands the mechanisms of mind operating among the natives, the fieldworker can use his/her own mind as a laboratory to experiment with the symbolic processes that appear to be operating in the institution being observed (see especially John Cove's remarkable book, Shattered Images , Ottawa, Canada: Carleton University Press, 1987).

    The novel and occasionally exotic conditions of fieldwork have been both the strength and the weakness of anthropology. The adventure of living in an alien cultural milieu is often the initial attraction that eventually produces an ethnographer. There is a kind of selection in favor of those who appreciate the variance in cultural form, and are predisposed to see the exotic features around them, and to record features in a sort of "oddities and quiddities" manner.

    But anthropology seems to be entering its maturity, and is doing so at a time when all of science is in a period of rapid growth. It perhaps helps to remember once again that a mature science is always a structural science. Its models, theories and explanations are always formulated using elements and relations, some of which are non-observables (e.g., black holes, quarks, binding forces, not to mention principles of mind, schemes, slots, etc.). A mature science codes the structural commonalities underlying the apparent diversity of phenomena, and the principles uncovered are always conceived to be finite in number, universal to the scope of inquiry, and operate in an orderly, lawful manner (see Herbert Simon's book, The Sciences of the Artificial , Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1981).

    Recognizing that at the level of neurocognitive functioning, all human minds operate on the same fundamental principles, the anthropologist is in search of the general principles underlying the apparent differences in surface symbolism. And this is inevitably a reflexive process: the ethnographer him/herself ultimately becomes the object of his/her own scrutiny. Transpersonal experimentation in an alien symbolic milieu carries the method of participant observation to its ultimate limits. Symbolic penetration is carried to the status of a field method. The ethnographer among the Bushmen would not only participate in the action and significance of the hunt, but also in the experience of !kia . And in either situation, one eye of the ethnographer is upon the hosts, the other is on his/her own phenomenology.

    The old dictum that "you can't ever experience the world like the native does" is, like the claim to total ineffability, a blend of a modicum of truth with a lot of copout. Taken at its most commonsense meaning, it is the product of rank idealism, and recognizes no structural underpinnings to human experience whatsoever. It is a kind of naive Whorf/Sapir hypothesis devoid of any information from the psychology and physiology of perception.

    Of course it is quite true that the symbolic field (the intentionality) of the alien symbol system may be somewhat different for the ethnographer than for the native - and for that matter different from native to native. This is the natural result of having been enculturated in different societies and having undergone different life experiences. But one must also recognize the structural (e.g., archetypal, neurognostic) ground upon which culturally variant cognition is based. There will always be a structural loading on any experience, no matter how pervasive the cultural loading. This fact is fundamental to Husserlian phenomenology, and is what makes awareness of the structures of consciousness by any human being possible, regardless of cultural background.

    Furthermore, it seems to be the case that, beyond a certain point in maturation, the "higher" (that is, developmentally more advanced) the phase of consciousness attained, the less symbolic and cultural loading is experienced. The ethnographer who attains more mature states of consciousness working within the alien symbol system may expect to find less and less discrepancy between his/her experiences and those encountered by natives mastering the same techniques. As always, however, one must maintain a clear distinction between direct experience and the interpretation of experience. Any culturally controlled interpretive tradition will bear a heavy symbolic loading, regardless of how advanced the phase of consciousness experienced, and the cultural interpretation may be at variance with the ethnographer's own cultural interpretation. An experience of "flow" (e.g., a significant release of energy in the mind and body that for the native may be due to (say) possession by the gods may be for the ethnographer be interpreted as a release of libidinal energy, or whatever.

    To utilize symbolic penetration techniques in order to gain direct insight and experience of the sort that enriches the native cosmology, the ethnographer must have attained some degree of transcultural freedom in his/her own consciousness. In other words, the researcher must be able to "suspend disbelief" sufficiently to enter the alien symbol system, accept it as so many "fingers" pointing at extraordinary and culturally salient experiences, and enter fully into the field of penetration practices (including in some cases physically arduous ordeals and ingestion of psychoactive drugs) intended to evoke those experiences.

    The reward for those who are able to "suspend disbelief" and fully enter an alien system of symbolic penetration may be great indeed, for sooner or later during the course of the work the symbol system may well come alive in dream, in trance or in vision. One may have the opportunity to directly experience the kind of powerful, life changing adventure that enlivens the native view of cosmos. But this often requires great sacrifice and patience, for alien symbols (which paradoxically may actually include symbols found, historically at least, within one's own Euroamerican milieu) take time and energy to penetrate into a (usually heavily) defended symbolic field. One must be willing to steep oneself in the mythopoeia, to live it to the full, and be lovingly acceptant of personal limitation and failure in the pursuit. And above all, one must nurture confidence in the native methods and perseverance of practice without which little can be accomplished.

    We have reached the end of another Tangent. Hope it was of some use to you. You may now return to our Day Eight discussion of tuning. Or perhaps you've had enough and wish to return to the tutorial index .