Saturday 24 June 2017

Native American Church bleg

I am interested by the Native American church (aka Peyote Religion) which seems to be a Christian church that includes aspects of traditional Amerindian religions with a more recent use of the (midly) hallucinogenic peyote cactus. 

I like the sound of this church, and I am delighted by the fact that Christianity can arise and thrive in so many different forms; but the internet sources all seem tainted by political correctness. Significantly, the Native American Church itself does not seem to have an official internet presence; which perhaps suggests it is a mystery religion restricted to initiates.

Anyway; my 'bleg' is for any reliable and sympathetic 'insider' sources on the Native American church, preferably from before 1965 and without a 'progressive' axe to grind.


One interesting aspect of this church is the use of peyote to attain a psychological state in which the participants can directly apprehend the spirit world.

My interpretation of this is that modern Indians (since the 19th century, at least) seem to need a consciousness-altering drug to do what earlier generations did spontaneously. And peyote, by itself is insufficient - the ceremony seems to last many hours, with arduous dancing, perhaps fasting and using other psychoactive substances such as tobacco.

This would fit with the general pattern of mainstream societies who have experienced a withdrawal of the spirit realm - although Westerners are even further down that line, and most of us would not have a convincing (life transforming) religious experience even if we used peyote; probably because the other, tribally-bonded aspects of the ceremony would be ineffective.


William Wildblood said...

Hmm. I think you have to be very careful about any spiritual path in which drugs are involved. After all, the aim of the spiritual path is not to achieve a higher state of consciousness (if it were, why be born?) but to acquire virtue. You might say that experiencing these states could reorient a person to the spiritual but in that case once is enough. You don’t need to keep going back even in the context of a ritual or so called worship. The point is that it is an artificial means to try to take the kingdom of heaven by storm and therefore a fundamentally irreligious thing to do. It is putting your will above God’s. If he wants you to experience transcendent states he is perfectly capable of giving them to you. However he knows the strong likelihood that a person gets attached to these states and loses the reason for being on the spiritual path in the first place which is to get closer to God through the heart not by means of drugs. The latter will make the former more difficult not less so.
I took LSD a few times in my youth and I know what a powerful experience the psychedelic experience is. I also know that taking drugs can open a person up the influence of dark forces even if done in a supposed religious context. Your (to use a New Agey kind of term) energy fields are open and anything can get in. I was also told by a reliable source that I had damaged my brain to a degree and I was by no means a heavy user.
The fact that no proper spiritual teacher or prophet or guru has ever recommended drug taking in any context should be enough to make one aware that it is not the route to go down.
Lastly even if it does introduce you the spirit world that is not the spiritual world but just the inner side of creation. I do agree that we should know more about it but we should certainly not mistake it to be something more than it is. It’s easy to get lost there like those people in folklore who stayed too long with the fairies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - As with most things, motivation is the key; and I think the motivation is good with the NA church.

The peyote is taken only in the context of what sounds like a long and elaborate ceremony, in a group setting. It began more than a century ago, and is very different from the 60s quest for individual enlightenment via a drug. The NAC context is very tribal, hence groupish - and the effect seems to reinforce tribal culture - the very opposite of some individual getting lost in a drug world, I think.

My interest is that the whole thing sound like a development of the 'shamanic' vision quest, part of which is altering consciousness by various means: prolonged fasting, dancing, drumming, singing etc. - the fact that peyote was added suggests that it may have become harder for the participants to 'break through' - and therefore perhaps suggests a change in the counsciousness among Amerindians which was similar to that among the white men - although perhaps later and not going so far.

I suspect LSD may not be a good comparison - LSD is a synthesised chemical of extremely high potency, microgram amounts have a rapid and severe effect on perception. Peyote is a dilute and much less potent mixed natural product - quite a lot must be eaten, it has a slow onset and milder effect.

William Wildblood said...

Motivation as in good intentions?! Good motivation certainly mitigates a wrong action but a wrong action is still a wrong action, and the point about trying to bend God's will to your own still stands as does the one about prioritising experience over being. I don't think drugs of any kind have ever made anyone a better person, usually the reverse.

For what it's worth I also took morning glory seeds which have a similar effect to LSD and peyote, entirely natural and milder. I don't think that changes anything.

The fact is that the attempt to break into the next world by any artificial means, whether through drugs , chemical or natural, or even fasting, dancing, drumming etc is not the way forward. It belongs to our evolutionary pre-rational past and comes from a time when connection to perceived oneness was being lost and people sought to recapture it. But it is not a spiritual practice because when you come right down to it it is self-seeking. In our present state of being meditation and prayer are the way forward. Can you imagine any of the saints doing this?

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I have written many posts recently that I do not think we should be striving to recapture what Steiner terms the 'atavistic clairvoyance' of hunter gatheres - so we agree on that; nonetheless I am interested by such attempts (e.g. the work of Jung), and in a world of alienation I can sympathise with the urge.

In a Christian context the fastest growing denomination internationally is probably the Pentecostal churches, which use, indeed require, altered states of consciousness in their public worship.

This is not the place to discuss what 'drugs' are (and whether there is any valid distinction between prescribed and unprescribed agents) - and how they should be defined. Alcohol is by a large margin the most damaging drug in the UK now; and yet its use is also a part of the sacrament in most Christian churches, and its use endorsed by the Bible.

As I say, motivation is extremely important in such matters.

Neal said...

I looked into resources at the university library where I am. I know that Mabel Dodge Luhan's book *Edge of Taos Desert* dealt incidentally with the introduction of peyote into the Taos area; she's early enough but she doesn't fit your criterion of a non-progressive source.

Weston La Barre's *The Peyote Cult* seems promising, originally published in 1938. Hathi Trust has it online at if you can access their resource.

Other resources I can see are: too recent, definitely having a modern academic--progressive agenda; or musical recordings in support.

Jane Wrigg said...

Entheogen - not a word I'd come across until I looked up peyote after reading these posts.

I'm suspicious of anything that resembles a shortcut to God. Can it really be God? Satan can present as a beautiful angel of light. I feel that mystic enlightenment will only come through the tough route, the road of pain, and hard lessons learned. I think it would be easy to lose oneself in the 'pleasure' that a supposed entheogen might give. The pleasure on repeat might easily become the goal. Entheogen - a substance that stimulates the production of God. Hmmm. Which 'God' though?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Neal - Thank you. That book looks very helpful - as I skimmed I saw a quote which was exactly to the point.

@JW - Entheogen is a word that comes from the secular, individualist sixties/ New Age movement; and the term does imply that drugs in themselves provide or encourage an experience of God. Perhaps Aldous Huxley (a Perennial Philosopher) made this idea mainstream in his Doors of Perception.

But this is a different and opposite context from the Native American Church, where the drug is seemingly used as a means to a pre-existant, (Christian) end; and the peyote is only one (albeit sacred) element in a way of life.