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Avatar: The Psychedelic Worldview and the 3D Experience

July 11, 2011

The article originally appeared in the Reality Sandwich web magazine in January 2010.

For years, the psychedelic community has been anticipating the arrival of a new psychedelic medium which will be ushered in by the appearance of a new technology. The idea that technology and media can enhance psychedelics and even have psychedelic qualities has, after all, been an integral part of the psychedelic movement since the electronic trips festival of the sixties, Timothy Leary’s enthusiasm for personal computer technology in the eighties, and Terrence McKenna’s advocacy of virtual reality technologies and the internet in the nineties. Bets have been placed on 3D, HDTV, virtual reality, and other technologies, however, for a long time none of these seemed to take off in a massive way or fulfill its psychedelic potential in a way widely appreciated by the public.

Relations between psychedelics and popular culture continued, however, to be prosperous and fruitful. As noted by psychedelic thinkers such as McKenna and Eric Davis, psychedelic aesthetics have been continuously assimilated into mainstream media, as for example in the visual language of contemporary commercials and mainstream films.

The 2000’s have been highly psychedelic in media. Ever-increasing film and screen resolution, the use of bright, colorful imagery in commercials and music videos, the imaginary landscapes created by computer generated animation, and the use of extravagant and highly associative visual language have all contributed to a psychedelic tendency in media in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, the advent of computer generated 3D cinema brings on a hope for a major psychedelic turn in electronic media.

Psychedelics and the 3D Experience

Psychedelics have always been about pushing the boundaries of perception, and adding new dimensions to our perception of reality. Similarly, media has continuously sought to add ever more dimensions in its efforts to technologically capture and represent reality — from still photography to the moving image, from silent films to “talking pictures,” and from B&W to color, where the evolution of film seemingly stops. For the past 60 years, motion pictures have had more or less the same appearance in terms of the basic characteristics determined by screening technologies. Now, a new generation of 3D films aims to bring a whole new dimension to entertainment media.

What could be more psychedelic than a medium that requires the viewer to wear strange- looking, outlandish glasses that distort one’s view of the world? What better metaphor is there for the psychedelic experience, and the idea that we are continuously experiencing the world through different valves and filters, than the use of lenses that expose a whole new dimension of perception?

The 3D experience and the psychedelic experience make us appreciate the visual richness of the world and become enchanted by the multi-dimensionality of reality.  3D is a highly psychedelic experience not only in the fact that it adds a new dimension to media perception and renews our sense of wonderment at the visual world, but also in shaking our perceptions of the world by giving a third dimension to a picture screened in two dimensions. In one of cinema’s earliest and most famous screenings, the crowd ran away from the theatre after an approaching train appeared on the screen; when watching a 3D movie for the first time, many people gasp, clutch their hands, get a dry throat, and after leaving the theatre, some people report a distressing sense of dizziness. 3D dissolves the boundary between drugs and technologies. If you take off the glasses during a 3D screening and look around the theatre, you will notice that the people around you don’t see you, since the 3D glasses block and darken the majority of their field of view. The uninhibited, almost primal expression one can see on their faces is not unlike that of trippers under the influence of some drug.

3D is the new and the most immersive media drug to have emerged out of our high-tech media complex, the most successful attempt to emulate the effects of the psychedelic state.

Psychedelic Storytelling

Hollywood cinema has been flirting with our culture’s subconscious for some time now. Blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi films, ever-more popular in recent years, have acted as a Jungian shadow to our culture’s proclaimed rational and materialist view of reality. Films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, andThe Golden Compass have presented us with a re-enchanted world. These movies posit an unseen and outlandish reality existing alongside the “normal” world, and this serves to support a growing sense of paranoia about the deceptive qualities of consensus reality and the existence of hidden and enchanted dimensions to our world. Cinema has thus functioned as our culture’s collective dream, bringing to view its most repressed archaic realms.

James Cameron’s Avatar, as well as adding a new level of psychedelic visual richness to the 3D film, also features a good deal of these subversive messages and ideas. It is as anti-civilizational and anti-technological as a John Zerzan book, psychedelic like a Terrence McKenna talk, and glorifies the indigenous and shamanic world view. The fact that some people have failed to appreciate these highly explicit traits in Avatar, and call it clichéd or hackneyed is, to my mind, largely based on blindness to Avatar‘s role as a mythic specimen of our culture.

Some people who didn’t like Avatar‘s story told me that its main shortcoming is that it is told in a too conventional way. It tells a story we all already know. I could certainly see what they mean, but then again it made me think of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth concept which claims that there is one basic story that returns in most of the world’s ancient myths. This story, which features the hero with a thousand faces, is a story in three parts (departure-initiation-return) which Campbell describes as follows:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”[1]

There is only one story that really matters. This story has been with us ever since the invention of myth and it is the same as the classic story of the heavy psychedelic trip, which is about departure from your everyday world and conception of yourself (taking the drug, and going on an inner journey), death/initiation (facing your demons, which sometimes leads to a feeling of death), and return (the spiritual rebirth which is the catharsis well known to many users of psychedelics). This story, hard-wired into the structure of the far-reaching psychedelic experience, is the primal story, the one that entheogens have conveyed to humans over thousands of years in shamanic cultures around the world. The psychedelic story, told to us by a plant, might even be the origin of the monomyth.

Even though I adore movies such as Pulp FictionMemento andShortcuts, I also keep my heart wide open for our primal story. I believe that the hero who overcomes his challenges and goes on to triumph, a story which stands at the basis of many religions and myths, is of utmost importance to our culture. It is the psychedelic story that defies logic but gives us hope. So please, do tell us this story again and again, because it makes us believe, because it gives us hope, and that is what we need, and without it we are lost; it is the only story really worth telling. Avatar tells that story.

Avatar and the World of Shamanism

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine arriving at the alien planet of Pandora to replace his recently murdered brother as the operator of an avatar, an hybrid entity identical in physical structure to that of the alien natives of Pandora, but controllable by a pilot with matching DNA.

Jake now has two twin brothers. One dead, the other, an alien incarnation of himself.  In order to penetrate this alien being, Jake must empty his mind, go into dream-state, and connect with him in a special pod from which his consciousness is technologically projected to the Avatar. The life of one is the dream of the other. Where one reality ends, another reality begins.

Transmigrating between two parallel realities is a highly psychedelic idea. This is, after all one of the central tenets of the shamanic view of the world. As extensively described by Michael Harner and others, many shamanic cultures see the reality exposed by psychedelics as the one true reality.

Zhuangzi told us that he once dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he woke up he didn’t know if he was Zuhangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zuhangzi. What is reality and what is a dream? Some claim that our whole waking life is just a dream; others propose that we live to dream, and that waking life is just a secondary phenomenon to support dreaming.

Jake falls asleep and connects to an ancient and enchanted land of the cultural subconscious, where he will confront the indigenous shadow of civilization.  After establishing contact with the Na’vi tribe, Jake will undergo an inner transformation. He will learn to perceive nature’s sacredness, like a Na’vi tribesman, and even begin to see nature as his mother.

Psychedelics invoke a kind of dream experience. They are about traveling between dimensions, leaving the commonplace dimension of reality for an enchanted world. But for a citizen of the west living in a modern society ignorant of the shamanic (and psychedelic) view of reality, penetrating the enchanted realm of the psychedelic experience is a wholly different experience than it is for an indigenous person who was raised within a shamanic context. Following the concept of the re-enchantment of the world in contemporary spiritual thought and culture, as used by Christopher Partridge and Wouter Hanegraaff, one should say that the western user of psychedelics does not enter an enchanted world but a re-enchanted world. He re-enters his world, perceiving a world formerly devoid of spiritual or non-materialistic reality with new eyes, the supernaturally inclined eyes of psychedelics.[2] Jake enters this re-enchanted world, the world of shamanism, by becoming a Na’vi tribesman.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a botanist trying to establish relations with the Na’vi, a quest not unlike that of ethnobotanists and anthropologists such as Richard Evans Schultes, Michael Harner, and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, researching the role of psychedelic substances in shamanic cultures.

The Na’vi, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Pandorian hominid aliens, is spiritually led by the Tsahik, (C. C. H. Pounder) a female shaman who interprets the will of Eywa, the great mother, whose name and essence seem to resemble both that of Eve, the mother of all life, as well as Gaia, the planet mother of all life. The Na’vi culture, similarly to other shamanic cultures, believes in the “flow of energy,” a “network of energy that flows through all living things.” It pays great respect to the “spirits of animals” and when a Na’vi tribesman kills an animal, he performs a ceremony to consecrate its soul, as is done in many archaic cultures. The individual’s rite of passage includes learning to ride the Ikran, a giant carnivorous bird, which resembles the giant mythic bird that appear in various shamanic cultures such as those of the northwest coast of America, and is closely related to the figure of the Shaman, who is often associated with large birds such as the eagle. If all that wasn’t psychedelic or shamanic enough for you, the Na’vi people also worship a “tree of souls,” through which, while dancing and singing, they connect to the planet’s soul, and become a part of the collective consciousness. The meaning of the word ayahuascain the Quechuan language, it is worth mentioning, is “vine of the souls.”

The singing ritual held by the Na’vi around the tree of souls, in which all members of the tribe become one with it, might remind one of contemporary ayahuasca ceremonies. One of ayahuasca’s active chemical constituents, harmaline, was originally known in the west as telepathine, and indeed many indigenous cultures claim to join their minds under the influence of ayahuasca and reach unanimous group decisions in states of collective consciousness, a claim corroborated by McKenna who has also claimed to have witnessed telepathy during ayahuasca ceremonies.[3]

McKenna described the shaman as the one who, when you come to a village in the Amazon where foreigners appear maybe once a year, is distinguished from all others by the fact that he is not at all interested in your fancy boat or watch. The shaman transcends cultural boundaries; he looks at you to see what kind of person you are.

Seeing is important. “I see you,” one of the sacred greetings of the Na’vi, refers to seeing into a person, seeing his essence and actual being. When Jake arrives to the Na’vi tribe and is about to be killed by the angry crowd, it is the Tsahik, the shaman, who examines him with her wide-open eyes to recognize his essence, and then decides to let him stay. Later in the film, when all have turned against him, after his apparent betrayal of the tribe has been exposed, she will also be the one to set him free. She has seen something.

Jake is allowed to stay, and then something interesting happens. Borges, in his “Story of the warrior and the captive” tells us of Droctulft, a barbarian warrior who fell in love with the Roman city Ravenna and with the concept of civilization. He deserted the barbarian armies and joined the Romans in defending the Roman empire. In a diametrically opposed way, Avatar is about a warrior coming from a hyper-technological society to destroy nature falling in love with the forest, and defecting in order to defend it.

“One life ends, another begins.” The Avatar story is as anti-civilizational and neo-primitivist as it gets. When Jake is accepted to join the tribe for a period of apprenticeship, the tribe’s Tsahik says, “We’ll see if we can cure the madness.” The madness referred to by the Tsashik is of course the madness of civilization, the madness of the materialist technological world from which Jake comes. From the shamanic point of view, civilization is madness (and vice versa). This madness must be cured; one reality tunnel must be given up and exchanged with another one. “Hallucination” and “reality” must change places, in a process remarkably similar to that of the psychedelic experience.

As Terrence McKenna never grew tired of reminding us, the psychedelic experience dissolves boundaries. It dissolves the boundaries between “reality” and “hallucination,” between “madness” and “saneness.” After all, the common thing to the psychedelic movement and the anti-psychedelic movement is that they both proclaim each other insane.  While under the influence of psychedelics, and to a significant extent also during periods of psychedelic use, one experiences the world as magical. The everyday world of yesterday suddenly seems to be the bleak, colorless one, the deadly illusion of an unaware mind. Two opposites, hallucination and reality, dream and waking life, suddenly exchange places. Could the dream life be the true life?

This is what is happening to Jake. He wakes up in his pod and suddenly real life is not in the cold technological world of his unit, but in the forest, running on giant tree branches, riding his giant carnivore bird, the Ikran, and being with his love, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of Tsahik and her husband Eytucan the clan leader. Jake must choose between cultures and world views, between the technological world with its materialistic worldview and the forest with its shamanic perception of reality. Like Droctulft, he changes sides. By the end of the movie he will be calling the humans “aliens,” and in the closing scene of the movie he will kill his human incarnation and transform himself completely into the avatar.

Avatar is not only psychedelic in form but also in message.

Reality Pods

In 1954, John Lilly, a neuro-physician on his way to becoming one of the pioneers of research into the nature of consciousness, invents the isolation tank — a pod which isolates the person inside it from external stimulation and triggers an alteration of consciousness. Lilly, who kept close relations with the Californian counterculture of the sixties, also combined his isolation tank experiments with psychedelics, going into long trips inside his tank, a practice memorably presented in the film Altered States (1980), which was loosely based on Lilly’s work.

40 years later, the pod is back, and not for the first time. A decade beforeAvatarThe Matrix featured a person lying in a pod, isolated from reality, and communicating with another reality. What does it mean for us that the two most influential mythic films that our culture has produced since Star Wars both feature a person lying in a pod communicating with a different reality, a being split into two parts, one of them artificial. Could this mean something? Could they mean that we are the ones inside the pod, disconnected from our true body?

Taking off one’s 3D glasses and inspecting the movie viewers, identical looking with their 3D glasses on, staring at the screen, immersed in a 3D world, unable to see their physical surroundings and completely unaware of them, one might think that the 3D experience is the pod. But more generally, the pod might represent all our technological shells, from clothing to our cars and our houses — the technological shells that keep us away from direct contact with the world.

Avatar, it is worth noting, is a highly ambivalent and even paradoxical film. It uses the most advance technology to go on a long harangue against technology. But it has the maybe naïve hope that our pod experience, like Jake’s, will make us want to leave our pods and reconnect with our bodies.

A New Wave of Psychedelic Cinema

In his inspiring book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken tell the story of one of the first giant Sequoia trees to be discovered by the American settlers, in Calaveras County, California. More than 300 feet in height and thirty feet in diameter, the tree was unlike anything the western world had ever seen. An entrepreneur by the name of George Gale saw a great business opportunity. He and his associates decided to cut down the Sequoia and take it to be exhibited around the world. The 2,500-year-old tree was so big that its felling took several weeks to accomplish, even with a big group of workers. Hawken tells us that when the tree finally fell, the noise woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away. The huge tree held so much water that it remained green for several years after being cut. When parts of the tree were presented in New York and London, the exhibitions caused a public outcry against the utter cruelty of its destruction, and this was one of the triggers of the environmental movement.

The story of that great Sequoia is mirrored in the story of the giant hometree of the Na’vi people which is destroyed by the bulldozers and explosives of the “Sky People” (Earth people). When Jake, praying at the Tree of Souls, asks Eywa (Mother Nature) for help, he says, “See the world we come from. There is no green there. They killed their mother.” And indeed the myth of the matricide, the killing of Mother Nature that stands at the base of Avatar, is not fictional at all. Indigenous tribes have been going extinct for the past few hundred years, and are today facing major calamities brought on by oil companies and ruthless international corporations, the mercenaries of civilization who invade the jungle to supply our ever-increasing appetite for energy and products.

One of the most engaging sequences in Avatar is the one in which the Na’vi tribe are fleeing the violence and destruction brought upon the forest by the machines of technology. When I watched it for the second time, it seemed to me that these Na’vi people escaping the machines were actually us, humanity, trying to flee the consequences created by our technologies in the beginning of the 21st century.

Avatar relates a violent and realistic story that is taking place as you read this, which is why its message is so important. But it is also a story of a conversion, of Jake’s conversion from the way of technology, from the promethean culture of the “sky people,” as the humans are called by the Na’vi, to the way of the forest. Avatar is a story about transformation, one which humanity direly needs these days, when a radical transformation of our relation with nature has become a necessity.

With its psychedelic qualities and ideas, shamanic values, and indigenous politics, Avatar challenges the reigning values of our culture on the most fundamental level. That this film, which challenges all that is sacred to western materialistic thought and champions shamanic ideas and values deemed to be ludicrous by the dominator culture, has already earned more than a billion dollars and is quite probably on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time, is for me no less than amazing. Avatarbrings psychedelic visuals and ideas as well as shamanic values to millions of mainstream moviegoers. Could that have anything to do with the fact that it is in the new digital 3D? Considering that the next big 3D event is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a story jammed with weird acting mushrooms and even weirder realities, it seems that we might be facing a kind of psychedelic renaissance brought on by 3D cinema.

Could Avatar and Alice in Wonderland be the first messengers of a new psychedelic wave ushered in by a new medium with psychedelic tendencies? Could they be the ones to bring psychedelic values and ideas into mainstream thinking? I’m not sure that would be enough; however it seems that one of the techniques traditionally used to create the 3D effect in cinema might be helpful as a metaphor in understanding the place these films might play in today’s culture. The Pulfrich Effect, used to create stereoscopic images, relies on the principle that the human eye processes information slower in darker conditions to cause one eye to see reality in delay, thus creating a 3D illusion when watching moving objects. It is as if your two eyes were watching the screen from two different points in time, or from two different points in space. Similarly, the new 3D wave allows us to view culture from two distinct points of perspective in space and time: one of a culture completely immersed in consumerist mania, the other of a culture which keeps a strong relation to its mythic roots in nature. This multi-dimensional effect, which allows us to view ourselves from two different perspectives at the same time, might hint at the transformations ahead.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30 / Novato, California: New World Library, 2008, p. 23.

[2] By this I do not mean to claim that psychedelics are supernatural, at least not here, but only that they encourage the formation of a supernatural view of reality.

[3] Again it is worth noting that I am not claiming that telepathy actually occurs during ayahuasca ceremonies, although something resembling it is definitely at play in some cases, but only that ayahuasca is considered to be telepathic and conducive to collective states of consciousness in many shamanic cultures.

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