on July 27, 2013

Sometimes I feel as though this blog is crawling along one tiny step at a time, but then a dam suddenly breaks and sets off a cascade of reconsiderations. The previous entry triggered one of those avalanches, and I’m still sorting out its implications.

When I initially developed my theory of the visions, I assumed that the basic unit of the cycles was the individual vision and that what kept things moving along was the gradual loss of transcendence as each vision matured. This was adequate as a working hypothesis, but it never answered certain fundamental questions: Precisely what happens when a new vision is born? How and why did the cycle of replacement get started? And why does the same pattern recur in such similar form from one turn of the cycle to the next?

Now I’m realizing that my problems arose from trying to take the visions in isolation and that they are better seen as forming an ecosystem in which each one reflects all the others. When any vision falters, it leaves an empty environmental niche, and the system is thrown out of balance until it can respond by repairing the damage and filling the gap.

This self-maintaining quality might be compared to the ability of DNA to repair itself — an ability that marks the dividing line between non-living matter and living beings. In a similar way, the self-repairing ability of the system of visions might be seen as a crucial accomplishment that pushed us across the threshold from almost-but-not-quite-human to fully human.

At the present time, the ecosystem of the visions is extremely complex, with emerging visions, mature visions, and the remnants of discarded visions all jostling for position. But it started off some 250,000 years ago with a simple triad of highly transcendent visions, one of each of the three types, all working together to present a complete image of reality.

Since last winter, I’ve been dwelling on what happened when that first triad was disrupted by the arrival of an ice age which forced the oldest vision to assume worldly authority. That’s because I’ve been operating on the assumption that the first three visions were somehow spontaneous and organic and that the mechanisms of the cycle came into play only when successors to those visions had to be invented.

Not so. The human enterprise has demanded profound creativity in response to higher knowledge at every step of the way, and it has never been simple or automatic. The invention of the first triad of visions was, if anything, more of a work of genius than all the replacements that have simply followed in its footsteps.

It’s conceivable that the birth of the first vision of the natural world, when our species itself was newly made, was characterized by a kind of childlike innocence. At that time, there were none of the divisions that would later typify human life. People were at one with Nature. The waking world flowed imperceptibly into the world of dream. Humans were few and it was easy for them to maintain their coordination through music, dance, and the marvelous new instrument of language. The mental maps we created of the world around us had ample room for everyone and everything, and they were shared in nearly identical form by the entire community

But as that community expanded, its original unity was lost. People had settled in a variety of locations and were too widely dispersed to come together on a regular basis, so their knowledge and beliefs began to diverge. Their mental maps were no longer identical, and different groups began to perceive one another not as family but as strangers.

The kinship vision was designed to resolve that crisis by reasserting the fact of human unity. It told us that we were all still cousins, great-great-grandchildren of a single First Ancestor, even if we could no longer spell out the precise relationships.

However, the kinship vision was incapable of restoring our original perception of the oneness and harmony of the natural world. Instead, it encouraged people to regard existence as the product of a series of logical oppositions — life and death, water and fire, human and animal — patterned on the same male-female duality that was the organizing principle of human kinship.

This solution represented a great intellectual achievement, but it can’t ever have been completely satisfactory. In effect, it said, “The world is broken. Get over it.” And most people were prepared to do just that — but not the proto-shamans.

The weirdos and dreamers, the half-crazy ones who heard voices and saw visions, knew from their own experience that the world was larger and more varied than any catalog of dualities could encompass. They were also familiar with the ability of higher knowledge to reconcile opposites and integrate apparent contradictions. There was no way they could settle for a worldview that was wedded to rigid and unresolvable oppositions.

The special knowledge of these proto-shamans alienated them from ordinary society and forced them to follow their own distinctive path. In response, they began to seek one another out and engage in active experimentation. They discovered various shamanistic techniques, almost certainly including the use of psychedelic plants, and as they learned how to induce visionary experiences at will, they developed a unique view of existence as a endless stream of hallucinatory transformations.

At first, this only increased their alienation. They may even have come to doubt the reality of the physical world, as often happens just before the birth of a new inner experience vision. But eventually a period of crisis came along, perhaps as the result of a temporary downturn in the climate, and it allowed society in general to question its assumptions and open up to the whispers of higher knowledge.

The shamans were more than ready to take advantage of this window of opportunity, and they used it to arrive at two remarkable conclusions. One was the concept of a spirit realm that existed alongside the realm of matter but had its own laws and was far more fluctuating and phantasmagorical. The other was the idea that even the realm of matter was not as stable as it appeared but might alter in unforeseen ways or produce prodigies when under the influence of spirit.

Neither of these conclusions was innately obvious. In all probability, neither is true. But they were probably the most powerful and influential ideas that have ever been put forth in the long span of human history, and their invention was a work of almost inconceivable brilliance.

In the previous entry, I suggested that whenever a new triad of visions is assembled, the birth of its youngest member is the final step. But it seems more likely that the appearance of the newest vision is actually the first step — a blast of pure and undiluted transcendence that sets off all the changes which follow.

The initial step in the transition of 250,000 years ago would have been the birth of the spirit vision, based on the premise that shamans were in communication with a realm of being outside the world we know. That was followed by the reformulation of the ancient vision of the natural world to incorporate a tendency to alter abruptly in response to the workings of spirit.

In earlier entries, I’ve referred to that vision as the “transformation vision,” and I’ve related it to the ancient pastime of string figures and the mysteries of female magic. However, it didn’t start out that way. It took on its transformative nature only after it was touched by the power of the spirit vision and began to see the world as a place of flux.

In fact, that may be the trajectory of every vision. They all begin with a belief that they are expressing eternal truths, grudgingly accommodate themselves to worldly imperfection, and finally come back round with a more sophisticated understanding of transcendence as a force that flows into ordinary reality from beyond.

The transformation vision reached that third stage under the influence of the newborn spirit vision, and together they formed a solid basis for perceiving the world as arising from the interaction of matter and spirit. However, there was still one piece that remained to be fitted into the picture in order to encompass the totality of human experience, and that was the kinship vision.

Like holism in the 1920s or horizontalism at the peak of political correctness in the 1970s, kinship was very much caught up in doing its own thing. But although it could not be tightly integrated into the triad, it could be more loosely attached through symbolic equivalences. For example, the spirit beings consulted by the shamans were often considered to be spirits of the ancestors.

But the most powerful means of integration was stories of the Dreamtime. These reaffirmed the new principle of transformation by being set in a time when the world lacked all the familiar dualities. Perhaps death had not yet come into being. Or there were only women and no men. Or there were no sun and moon in the sky, or no dividing line between animal-people and people-people.

The central figures of these stories was a shamanistic trickster figure whose eccentric pranks gradually shaped the world as we now know it. But this same figure was simultaneously identified as the respected First Ancestor of the kinship vision. And such is the reconciling power of higher knowledge that it was possible to believe both things at once and thereby see the world as a whole.

Like any such compromise, this wasn’t a perfect solution, and in time it would come unglued. But it did the job well enough, and it formed the template for all the equally imperfect solutions that would come after.

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