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Shamanism/Indigenous Peoples
Record Type: Review   ID: 997

The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization

Merkur, Dan

To my mind, this book does much more than it purports to do and is far more innovative than the author apparently consciously perceives. He seems to feel the necessity to hide behind the shield of psychoanalysis, itself riddled with holes to a considerable extent, when if he were to stand free he would be more often the subject of praise not attack. I cannot go into detail, but I hope to show what I mean, even if it must be brief.

The author first seeks to establish that psychedelic drugs (limited in this case, to mescaline, psilocybin/psilocin, and lysergic amides) "induce an alternate state—not restricted to consciousness—that consists of intense fantasying," which, depending on dosage, "may or may not reach pseudohallucinatory intensity" (p. 3). He holds that they do not induce psychoses or alter perception. Unlike conventional psychoanalysis, he argues that fantasy is not irrational: it is often highly rational, sometimes "even better informed and more self-knowing than conscious thought" (p. 4). To Merkur, the so-called "varieties of psychedelic experience…are varieties of the imagination that the psyche is capable of manifesting" (p. 4). He devotes a chapter each to discussing and presenting excerpts illustrating the following seven varieties of psychedelic phenomena: apperceptual, neurotic, psychotomimetic, narrative fantasy, creative, unitive, and communion in Native American peyotism.

Although he does not bring this out in initially recapitulating his argument, I think his most important point is made on the last page. He proposes that the historical modes of spiritual direction reflected in the world’s religions are no longer the most viable for a multicultural world that is moving in the direction of conscious oneness. He suggests that "precisely because psychedelic drugs facilitate experiences of the full variety of unitive modes, a common cross-cultural standard may be expected to emerge on their basis" (pp. 184-185). He adds this revolutionary statement that I think applies not only to psychedelic experience but to any type of exceptional human experience: "Effective guidance of psychedelic experiences requires the innovation of an unprecedented form of spiritual direction that will allow itself to be guided by the experiential evidence of the inherent religious tendencies of the psyche" (p. 185), or what I call the EHE process. He touches on some of the major variables in this process that we have yet to understand. In order to do so, he argues, as I would also, for "a cross-cultural form of spiritual direction, based on the theory of unitive modes" (p. 185). In addition to its theoretical contribution, this is one of the best collections of examples of the different types of psychedelic experience.

Publisher Information:Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Pp. ix + 226. Ind: 223-226; Refs: 187-221
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