Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Numinous Mind, Evolution and the role of Trancendental Experience

The varying manifestations of the numinous mind are, I think, inextricably bound to some form of religious life, or at very least derived from religious origins. Noumena are objects of faith in that they represent a world in which one invests their faith, the other worlds in which all things divine, holy, sacred (and so forth) reside and through which religious life is orchestrated. People pray to other-worldly figures, behave according to sacred-profane taboos, adhere to superstitious principles which seem irrational and unfounded outside of the religious context—even today, the numinous mind is all-pervasive in its varying forms (walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, etc.).
Speculation as to the origins of the numinous mind, namely what it is, how it came about, what it meant for the human species, and so forth, will be briefly discussed and critically evaluated in this essay. Numinous figures such as the shaman and mystic will also be referenced in order to understand the impact their practices have had on the evolution of communities and human life. Altered states of consciousness, including psychotropic induction, ritual dancing and posture, will also be explored so as we can determine what these practices and their effects may have meant to primitive communities, and what they mean to humans today.
Before commencing the discussion, I think comprehending the nature of the numinous mind can be aided by the distinction which Kant makes between phenomena and noumena: the former opposes the latter, which derives from empirical experience, but manifests as “an emanation of the necessarily non-encounterable thing-in-itself” (Mulhall 1996, p. 25). Put more simply, the numinous is that which is behind empirical experience, which we cannot experience directly due to its nature, but which is inextricably linked to phenomena. This distinction is, I think, exemplified in the practices that are going to be discussed and explored here.
Oubre (1997, p. 111) defines the numinous mind as signaling “a collective projection of the unconscious, an emergent property of mind or consciousness as it achieves increasingly greater capacities for abstraction.” She goes on to note particular individuals who acted as culture-accelerating agents via their societal roles, assisting in the mind expansion of other members of the group (Oubre 1997, p. 111-12).
In its primitive origins, the numinous mind served as the seat of abstract thought, whereby the sacred could be reached and potentially have an effect upon the profane. Note Oubre’s use of the word “unconscious”: what is contacted by the numinous mind is not, she argues, a part of the conscious mind, but rather an “other world” in which spirits, demons, and other numinous forces, all of which are outside of direct human control, reside. In a way redolent of Jungian collective psychology, the taming of these forces could very well have corresponded to the quelling of individual or community conflict in primitive peoples; thus, in addressing and successfully neutralising these forces, the most efficiently organised religious societies could have benefited from their beliefs in very profound ways—namely, in providing them with social cohesion. This would accord with Durkheim’s contention that religion (and assumedly the numinous mind) cannot be an erroneous phenomenon; it has proved efficacious in integrating individuals into a community and thus, in a sense, must be “grounded in and express the real” (Durkheim 1995, p. 2). Despite a high level of contention, the beneficence of religion throughout the history of the human race can hardly be denied: it is the failure to consider the diverse and dynamic forms of religion that leads to a general censoring of “religion” in modern anti-religious groups. From a general failure to appreciate this diversity, an ignorant approach will necessarily follow.
The shaman (and proto-mystic) has “a longer history than do any other spiritual figures in the human lineage” (Oubre 1997, p. 112-13) and is found in the vast majority of primitive cultures, “from the Australian aborigines to the Jivaro Indians of central Ecuador and Peru to the Yakut tribes of Siberia”, the latter of which is where shamanism is known to have originated (McKenna & McKenna 1975, p. 9).
The figure of the shaman has been variously described as a visionary, capable of entering other-worldly realms of experience (Drury 1982, p. 2), as a “great master of ecstasy” (Eliade 1964, p. 4) and, intriguingly, even as harbouring symptoms comparable to those of the modern day schizophrenic (McKenna & McKenna 1975, p. 19). These varying takes on the shaman are but a few, and obviously overlap in describing the function of this spiritual leader. The fact that he has been compared to modern day schizophrenics is particularly notable, as it seems to have important implications regarding the status of the more “magical” numinous elements in modernity. What were once regarded as imperative spiritual practices, used for medicine, healing, hunting and many other communal needs, are now interpreted as the symptoms of mental illness. This type of temporal distinction could, I think, be applied to more than just this particular manifestation of the numinous—the same comparison could be made with the ritual use of hallucinogenics and as they were used in the nineteen-sixties, or the way that certain superstitions remain prominent among many non-religious people, despite their often having no rational grounds for believing in it.
Comparative analyses aside, clearly we have quite an important spiritual figure in the shaman, one who confers with forces that most cannot access directly and through which he gains wide-ranging knowledge which can be shared with or bestowed upon the community. This is a prime example of the numinous mind at work—perhaps the numinous mind in its most stripped down, undiffused form. What the shaman practices can be seen in its collective form in modern-day world religions, albeit in a far more diffused, less magic-based, and indirect way; there is contact with the sacred realm from the profane realm (often through a mediator in monotheistic traditions), which can be seen (if we consider Oubre’s mention of the projection of a collective “unconscious” above) as contact with the unknown parts of the self or community. This is, perhaps, where religion becomes so efficient in binding people together.
The collective numinous mind can be seen to have created as well as balanced the sacred-profane divide, utilising it as a source of communal nourishment – but has it done any more than just consolidate groups of people? Has the numinous mind, as Oubre suggests, contributed to “the biological evolution of the human brain” (Oubre 1997, p. 13)? This is, of course, not something that can be easily proved, if it all. However, like any evolutionary theory, I think its plausibility needs to be considered in light of any supporting evidence.
The relationship between the capabilities of consciousness and the biological bases of such capabilities is integral to this line of argument. Oubre (1997, p. 113) argues that in proto-humans, symbolic thought created an augmented intelligence, which required the refinement of the central nervous system, as well as encephalisation. The phenomena associated with numinous thought could thus have contributed to human biological evolution.
In any argument of this kind, we get stuck in a “what came first” cul-de-sac: did humans acquire symbolic thought through biological evolution, or was biological evolution a product of symbolic thought? For example, human speech is clearly advantageous for human communication and progress (and, it has been argued, literally shapes our experience of the world), but whether the physical capability to make guttural sounds, produce noises and eventually words, was developed first, or whether the physiology evolved in response to human efforts to articulate themselves aurally, seems incredibly difficult to determine (not researched for this article).
Another possible group of evolutionary contributors involved in Oubre’s evolution of the numinous mind are psychotropic drugs: an important facilitator, it has been argued, in bringing about the varying potentials of symbolic thought, which in turn could have contributed to numinous development. I do not think the role of these agents as catalysts can be overlooked, especially considering their prominent shamanic and ritualistic use. Anyone who has taken a drug of any kind – especially “mind-altering” or “consciousness-expanding” drugs (psychedelics/hallucinogenics) – has most likely experienced unpredictable thoughts, ideas and imaginings. These are elements which are, generally speaking, not reproducible in normal experience – they form new experiences of consciousness, reality, etc., the origins of which is debatable (much like dreams). Obviously, such experiences vary according to the substance taken and the subjectivity of the taker – this cannot be overemphasised.
Drury (1982, p. 10) observes the frequent usage of psychotropic drugs in shamanism, with naturally occurring psychedelics such as datura, peyote and psilocybin mushrooms being used to gain access to other realms. He goes on to note the interesting fact that common themes have emerged from various yage (ayahuasca) experiences in South America, namely: aerial flight, dizziness, visions of ornate cities and the experience of the soul flying into the participant.
The power of such drugs need not be described further; such experiences appear to be creatively limitless and vastly interpretable. This is a clear point of interest in the development of the numinous mind, particularly in evolutionary terms. Oubre (1997, p. 148) brings to light the fact that early humans ingested hallucinogens both as a religious practice as well as inadvertently, and argues that these “surrealistic and visually heightened experiences in turn would have enhanced their perceptual acuity, thereby rendering them especially susceptible to noetic or inner symbols” (Oubre 1997, p. 150). This is supported by Terence McKenna’s bold (but nonetheless considerable) “Stoned Ape” theory, whereby our primate ancestors gained access to the numen via the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms (Oubre 1997, p. 149).
An important supporting observation to these ideas is the use of medicinal plants by both early humans and primates. Oubre (1997, p. 148) refers to the ingestion of datura by baboons in order to rid themselves of parasites. This tells us that hallucinogenic effects were most likely experienced not only by early humans, but also by pre-humans. This supports the correlation between numinous thought and biological evolution in that there are clear evocations of symbolic thought in the primitive shaman, which are arguably enhanced by the ingestion of psychedelics; if pre-humans also had these experiences, whatever symbolic thought they already possessed – even if it was barely existent – would be drastically affected by this expansion of consciousness. Evidence exists that suggests that some animals may even be drawn to altered states, such as birds flocking to consume intoxicating berries (Oubre 1997, p. 152); this, in turn, suggests that pre-humans could have been drawn to the transcendental experience and thus, one could reason that this experience must have had some evolutionary benefit. Representational imagery and symbolic thought inherent in hallucinations may have facilitated hominid understanding of the physical world and it could be argued that the propensity to achieve these experiences is innate (Oubre 1997, p. 153). The prominence of alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, cocoa and other drugs in modernity is an obvious piece of supporting evidence for this argument, as well as the psychedelic explosion of the nineteen-sixties and the modern revival in ethno-botanical interest.
Other methods to achieve such altered states may have also played a role in neural evolution, such as meditation, chanting, drumming, dancing, prayer, contemplation, and so forth (Oubre 1997, p. 150) – all methods which are, interestingly, still prominent today (and legal, unlike many psychotropic drugs), but which are notably less efficient than psychotropics. We have here an array of perceptual alterations, each induced to achieve transcendence of regular consciousness and each still practiced in the modern era – some of which are still strongly related to religion in its varying forms. I think there is an undeniable link between the two and that, in some ways, religion and altered states are interchangeable in their functions. Each can be experienced as either escapism, or a retreat from the world and projection into a different, “better” world (note the many “world-rejecting” religions). Again, both can serve to bring people together, forming cohesive societies and communities. Perhaps most importantly, religion and transcendence, in its many forms, do not look like becoming extinct anytime soon, again bringing to mind Durkheim’s argument.
In the religious experience we have an abundance of symbolism and a strong link to a religion’s respective numinous/sacred worldview. The relevance that the evolution of the numinous mind has to religious thought is that without it, religion would simply not exist; its development allowed for symbolic paradigms which earlier on may have been quite primitive and “uncivilised”, but which grew into socially effective belief systems, capable of envisaging all-powerful beings and forces. I think there is a strong argument to suggest that psychotropic drugs, ritual dancing and chanting, and the practice of shamanism could have – and most likely did have – profound effects for the evolution of the species; defining these effects has been one of the challenges of this essay. The re-birth of mind-expansion and orgiastic/ecstatic states in the sixties seems to have been an attempt to reintroduce “spirituality” into an increasingly “godless” world, where the numinous connection to the unconscious had begun to fade. It could be argued that with the advent of globalisation, the immense technological advancements of the twenty-first century (global intercommunication, portable interconnectedness, etc.) and the debatable corruption of many main-stream, world religious groups, today’s world is that godless world, a world in which “we have stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity; (where) nothing is holy any longer” (Jung 1964, p. 84). However, the numinous mind seems to be persisting in its various forms, its function proving necessary even in today’s vastly superficial, increasingly westernised world.


Drury, N 1982, The Shaman and the Magician: Journeys between the worlds, Penguin Books Australia, Camberwell, VIC

Jung, CG 1964, Man and His Symbols, Dell Publishing, New York

McKenna, D & McKenna, T 1975, The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching, HarperCollins, New York

Mulhall, S 1996, Heidegger and Being and Time, Routledge, London and New York

Oubré, AY 1997, Instinct and Revelation: Reflections on the Origins of Numinous Perception, Gordon and Breach Publishers, Amsterdam