Burning Bushes

Ayahuasca, Mescaline, and a Steady Supply of Alcohol

If you’re familiar with any tribal religions, such as those practiced in parts of South America, Africa, the Australian outback, and even some of the Native American tribes here in the US, you have probably heard of things like spirit animals and vision journeys. These things are very important in these tribal religions because their entire culture is built around these customs. Quite often, these tribal cultures will use things such as ayahuasca tea in the Amazon, or mescaline derived from the peyote plant here in the US, to help their followers interact with the spirit world. The thought behind this is that the waking mind or consciousness cannot interact with the spirit world because it is clouded by the material world around us. In order to lift those clouds, the adherent must utilize these plant extracts in order to finally see the spirit world that they could not see before taking these extracts.

Many of these traditions still continue to this very day where those cultures have managed to hold out against the encroaching advancement of civilization and technology. However most of these practices have long ago been abandoned by the more mainstream religions – but they were once highly used. In the early days of Judaism, the bark of the acacia tree was used to make various concoctions used in Jewish rituals and during feast times. This bark has an eerily similar chemical makeup to the molecular structure of the ayahuasca tea used by tribal leaders in the Amazon. It is an extremely powerful hallucinogen, which can cause both auditory and visual hallucinations. Compound that with the fact that wine and alcoholic spirits were commonly the safest choice of drink due to a scarcity of fresh potable drinking water, and what we see there is a recipe for some healthy imaginations to run rampant.

Altered Mental States

In psychology, the terms altered mental state and psychosis are used to describe when someone is behaving in a way that displays abnormal mental reasoning. It can be anything from a disconnect with reality such as what is seen in sociopaths to the auditory and visual hallucinations which plague those who suffer from schizophrenia and cause a distorted view of reality, as well as the mental states of depression and euphoria which can be brought about by the use of various substances including alcohol, psychotropics, and other mood altering chemicals. In these altered mental states the individual’s understanding of reality is altered in some way as to cause a range of effects from general euphoria all the way to full on delusion.

These states are not always caused by outside influences such as the use of mind altering substances, but can also be the product of chemical imbalances in the brain of the individual. Schizophrenia, for example, is caused by a chemical imbalance that leads to auditory and visual hallucinations. The schizophrenic may often see people who are not really there or hear voices that don't really exist. These hallucinations are very real to the individual however and they cause the individual great trouble in determining what is actually real in the world around them. Such naturally occurring chemical imbalances can be compounded if the individual also uses mind altering substances such as alcohol or psychotropics.

Anyone who has seen someone have a bad trip while using LSD or other psychotropics has witnessed just how strong these delusions can be. They can lead to someone jumping from a building thinking they can fly or using a knife to peel off their own flesh, thinking spiders are under their skin. This can in turn have a snowball effect when they happen in a group of people who are all in an altered mental state and can in effect be infectious, spreading through the group and causing mass hysteria.

Fasting: Another Path to Altered Mental States

Along with the use of mind altering chemicals, many religions employ the act of fasting in order to achieve an altered mental state and commune with the spiritual world. Long term, and even short term fasting, can wreak havoc on the human mind and body and can in effect be just as conducive to an altered mental state as any hallucinogenic substances. This form of deprivation can cause serious chemical imbalances in an individual that have markedly different effects from one individual to the next due to the natural differences in chemical makeup between individuals.

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Often, sensory deprivation may be employed along with fasting to have an even more pronounced effect. An example of this can be seen when looking at monks who live in monasteries that utilize a vow of silence as a prerequisite for adherence. This lack of verbal communication can have dramatic psychological effects, that can in many cases cause a very pronounced disconnect with other human beings. This method is so detrimental to the human mind that it has been deemed an inhumane form of torture that is still often employed against POW's and detainees, such as terrorists. In US prisons it is now illegal to house an inmate in solitary confinement without any outside contact for any prolonged period of time.

Connecting the Dots

Having an understanding of all this can lead to a very different attitude when it comes to religious claims and the claims made in various religious doctrines. One can very easily make the assertion that it is highly likely that if Moses ever even existed, he was likely high as a kite when he said a burning bush spoke to him. That same assertion can be made about people who claim to have had near death experiences or seen angels or ghosts. While those people may not have been using psychotropic substances, they nevertheless may have been influenced by an overabundance of certain chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, or DMT, that can flood the brain during high stress situations and cause the same effects as psychotropic substances.

I myself have experimented with a wide range of psychotropics and have experienced first hand the effects such substances can have. But I also understand that these things I've seen or heard under the influence of such substances are a product of my own brain miscommunicating ideas. However the ancient tribal religions such as early Judaism, or even the current tribal religions, do not know this and these effects can be so powerful that it is easy to think them very much real.

I can't know for certain that these ancient people such as Moses were stoned out of their minds. I can't offer proof that men such as he were schizophrenic. But what I can do is make a comparison with what we see today and the claims made in these various doctrines. I can say that if a man in today's society claims that a bush or a donkey has spoken to them we don't assume it is god talking to them but rather that they are mentally unstable and disconnected with reality. The flat out fact is that if a man in a robe wanders out of the desert and says that god spoke to him in the form of a burning bush that any rational person would say, "Go home Moses... You're drunk!"

Photo Credits: Ross on Flickr

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