It is not uncommon to find more insights about “real life” in books that are within the genre of fiction than in non-fiction or science books. Dr Ali’s, Axicala Aliqu – The Sacred Song of Life, is one of these cases.
The book tells the story of a medical scientist who has been invited by a shaman to go to the Amazon and meet with his mentor, the shaman of “The Unknown people”, to take part in the sacred ceremonies and initiation with the sacred vine, Yaje.
Throughout the narrative of the doctor’s experience in the tropical rainforest, waiting to meet the revered shaman, and his interactions afterward with him, one becomes immersed in a world of grand natural beauty and diversity. Dr. Ali successfully transmits to the reader the experience of living in such place amongst its native peoples and their profound knowledge of nature and connection with their environment.
Beyond the entertaining read of any good story, Axicala Aliqu also becomes an excellent mirror for us to look at the challenges and expectations that are so common to our human nature and which reveal themselves to those who embark on a journey of spiritual understanding.
Dr. Karriem H. Ali is a native of Detroit, Michigan; he studied at Harvard and Stanford Universities, where he earned his baccalaureate degree in Chemistry and M.D. degree with Distinguished Honors in Research. Today, Karriem lives mindfully focused upon the reunion of art, spirit and science, working internationally as a biomedical and clinical research scientist. His great work and life experiences continue to make him a highly sought-after consultant and speaker in over 50 countries around the world.
SuperConsciousness spoke with Dr. Karriem Ali to learn about what inspired him to write this book, why the use of Ayahuasca plays a unique role in many shamanistic traditions, as well as many other interesting perspectives he included in the story.
SC: The introduction of the book clearly states that the story can be anyone’s story, yet the places and experiences narrated are not common to everyone. The amount of detail in the description of the landscape and the people in the Amazon rainforest, speaks of someone who had the opportunity to actually be there. Can you tell us why and when did you travel to such a place and meet with the indigenous people of the area?
KA: It is a pleasure to discuss my book in the context of Superconsciousness. In the 1990s I traveled to the Amazon and several other rainforests to meet and work with scientists and indigenous people of the area. Officially my purpose was to lead ethnobotanomedical bioprospecting expeditions for a company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals, and work for a nonprofit organization called the Amazon Conservation Team in a project known as “The Shaman’s Apprentice Program.”
In all actuality, why did I travel to such places . . . for love — to experience a greater love, which would know and love each of these beautiful people wholly as myself. The book itself is actually a collection of lyrics that anyone can sing. The people, places, things, times and experiences narrated ARE common to everyone . . . however, they are not common to each isolated individual. Everyone has the divine opportunity “to actually be there.” It is just as the Unknown Shaman replies late in the book when the doctor asks him, “without ever having been to the ‘outside world,’ how can you know so much about it and the people you refer to as ‘my people’?” Axícala Alíqu says,
“As to my knowing of your people, it is most simple. I breathe the air they breathe, and gaze upon the same Moon which shines brightly in their night skies. I walk supported by the same Earth mother, and feel the heaviness of their footsteps when I lay still upon her bosom. I look into your eyes and see their faces; I reach into your heart and feel all of their joy and fears; and when the clouds bring to us the great rains, I taste the tears that each of them have cried.” “I see them in the light of their chosen truth — in both its dimness and brilliance — with an open-eyed acceptance beyond interpretation, and thus there is no shroud to hide who they are from me. I embrace and love them as do I you, all the Unknown, and myself, and this love is the basis of my all understanding. The limit of one’s understanding being at the boundary of what is loved wholly as oneself, your people thus live always within my most intimate awareness.”
SC: What are some of the greatest things that you learned by living among these people?
KA:The greatest of things that I learned was of a light heart. . . .
I learned these truths to be self-evident:
- That all beings are created equal and are equal creators, and are endowed by their Creator(s) with certain unalienable powers
- That among these are beauty, love, divinity and magical wisdom
- That each of us — tribally and individually — need share our beauty, love and magical wisdom globally, in order that our divinity as one human family may fully thrive
- That when we rely on others to be more special than us — more beautiful, magical and wise — we create unloving imbalances, which actually jeopardize our very existence - That we are like the trees of the rainforest — connected yet diverse, jointly and uniquely essential, the future and the wise legacy of the past. . . .
- In the Unknown we have a saying, “Only fools may disregard the ridiculous; the rest of us must ever be its student.”
SC: What is your definition of a Shaman and a Healer?
KA: All of us potentially, no one materially. . . . “Shaman” and “Healer” are designations which bespeak potentials of hidden power and magic. Yet all of us have hidden power and magic. . . .
To call oneself a Shaman or a Healer is to assume such a designation and acknowledge such potentials as one’s own. To call someone else a Shaman or a Healer, while not calling oneself a Shaman or a Healer, is to presume such power is not within you and so abandon such potentials as one’s own.
I give courses where I train (re-mind) people to be Healers in the way of the Unknown . . . it only takes one simple session to reveal hidden power and magic. . . .
SC: There is a chapter in the book, which I find very interesting. The doctor and the Unknown Shaman are having a conversation about Faith and Truth. I’m taking a passage from that conversation expressed by the Shaman:
“Then it is so seen that you, and yours of science, journey along the same road of inquiry as priests, professing the absolute to those you meet in passing and certain — as are each among your faithful religious — that the full and final truth lays ahead on your path and none other.”
Why was it important for you to make this point about the similarities between science and religion? Why do you think it is easier for those who we westerners tend to see as “noneducated” or “primitive people” — as they are called within the book — to perceive these similarities much more clearly than us?
KA: Nothing in this book of lyrics is important . . . it is all for a song. It is not a deliberate construct of my intellect, or even a work of what is referred to as “creative writing.” In the words of the Unknown Shaman, “Nothing I just said is important. Although you have been led to expect something from the yajé and all, there is really nothing to understand.”
We are free to perceive similarities when we live as freely as we were born — without boundaries — boundless. “Western” education is divided into distinct disciplines which are defined as being separate and primarily unrelated. In the world of the outside, in the region called Western, Science and Religion are by necessity designated as separate and wholly unrelated. This dates back to the time of Descartes and the incremental period of European Enlightenment.
In order to have the freedoms of observation, contemplation and conception, that we take so much for granted, as intrinsic to life and liberty, it was necessary for the inquisitive of that time to carve out a domain off the mortal material — the tangible transient. In order for the inquisitive to be safe from the Inquisition, Science had to be created as a distinct domain of terrestrial affairs and inquiry disentangled from the omnipotent jurisdiction of Religion and The Church.
|Ananias Restoring the Sight of Saint Paul|
“Cogito ergo sum” was a declaration of human independence whose sovereignty we still battle to defend, and whose powers we have not yet fully ascended to. Although Science was conceived originally as a child of philosophy intended to be a savior to our society, its present interpretation and implementation has become much one of obeisance and belief, instead of pure logical inquiry and reason. When we believe that our way is the Truth and supersedes the truths of all others, and that it is of infallible superiority (“that the full and final truth lays ahead on your path and none other”), then know that this way is a religion, a belief system. This way is the present state of our science.
People whom have never trained in science espouse principles of quantum physics, cosmology, neurosciences and genetics as though they were actually in the lab at the moment of the discoveries. Paul — Saul of Tarsus — never met the Messiah, yet espoused a belief in principles he never witnessed. It seemed unimportant somehow because the story he told was sufficiently compelling, and thus self-justified.
SC: The doctor in the story always complains about not having something good to tell his family and friends when he goes back home. What inspired you to create and share this story?
KA: As I mentioned above, we are raised in this world of the outside to seek the marvelous outside of our immediate world. With each venture to the rainforest, the few who were aware of my expeditions would pursue me upon my return, seeking tall tales filled with morsels of wonderment. Yet I mostly returned with small tales insufficient to such appetites. I successively returned with an increasing awareness of the omnipresence, of the marvelous, such that our hunger for wonderment could easily be satiated in the unharvested fields of our own lives. Nonetheless, for these seekers, the grass for grazing always seemed greener on the elsewhere side of the fence.
This story of an unknown song was created before ever I left home, and inspired songs are for sharing . . . all songs are inspired, for one must inspire in order to have breath, and breath is essential for a voice to be heard.
SC: Shamanism and the use of hallucinogens have been popularized and even magnified within certain spiritual movements. You seem to play with this notion in the story by openly leading with the expectation of taking ayahuasca — and all the preparations that the main character in the book had to go through in order to be ready for it — yet such an event never happens. At the same time, many of the passages in the story seem to be beyond normal reality as if they were being experienced by someone in a different state of consciousness or awareness. What was the reason, the purpose, for making it such an important part of the story and developing it that way?
KA: This is a wonderful question! Indeed it is wonderful for it leads us along a path full of wonder. To begin, let us establish first that there is nothing modern about the use of exogenous substances to induce altered states of awareness. From the ancient to the present time it is known that spiritual movement does not require hallucinogens or any manner of substance — in essence the spirit moves when our doors of unworthiness and conformity are opened unto the wind of change and we freely depart the substantial.
Hallucination is thus associated with the spiritual by people whose lives do not freely allow them departure from familiar constructs of accepted reality. In the outside world, in the realm called Western, spirituality rightfully seeks to answer the unanswered; however it is not permitted to contradict the rational. Yet, the greatest advances of modern rational thought — the sciences — have been made by dreamers of the irrational unproven who were gifted enough to render the unseen into acceptable forms of mathematics and logic.
“You need simply recall the great ancestors of your science, and you will find many are they among those most revered who dreamed in silence of the unknown to advance your people beyond their unbelievable. It is within the stillness of a patient mind that simple ideas do grow into tranquil genius, and genius flowers into peaceful wisdom...”
It is common for a person to enter this book with the expectation of reading about a hallucinogenic ayahuasca experience. Yet, from the very outset, this book — which is a collection of sacred living lyrics — openly sings that if you . . .
“. . . expect tales of magic and mind-altering substances from the world of Shamans in the vast and mystical Amazon . . . Be assured that the substance of this book will not alter your mind in any way. Rather this story, like the yajé itself, is a mind-entering essence — a remembering — and has little to do with the substantial.”
SC: How do you see the role of substances that induce altered states of awareness for modern spirituality: are they an effective way, are they crucial, can they be replaced by ritual or spiritual exercises alone?
KA: It is also common for people that have previously taken ayahuasca to have conclusions about what a real ayahuasca experience is prior to reading the first chapter. Is it not interesting the notion that visions and hallucinations are nothing to ‘play’ with? Can we have become so thoroughly rigorous that even our visions are now encumbered by rules? In the world of the outside, a hallucinogenic elixir which induces vision trances and near-death experiences becomes a matter that must be taken seriously; within the realm of the Unknown a hallucinogen is not required, for matter is transcended, thus alleviating any need for seriousness or the rigor of near-death.
This then begs the question, “What is ‘normal reality’?” I trained in Anesthesiology, thus I have guided hundreds of people into altered states of consciousness and back again. What one can learn from such work is that no two altered state experiences are identical — whether comparing the experiences of two different people, or different instances in the same person.
In truth, now, while taking in the ideas presented in this interview, you may in this very moment actually be under the influence of an anesthetic drug or some hallucinogenic substance, and you would not know it until its effect wears off. And what does that really mean, “wears off”? How do you know the reality that you have returned to is the same “normal reality” that you embarked from? Is there some way to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to objectively guide you home when wandering the familiar paths of known forests and then unexpectedly find yourself in the realm of the Unknown!?
So can we really be certain that “the event never happens?” Consider this, the entire story may be that the doctor actually has already taken the yajé just as the Unknown Shaman keeps telling him, but he feels unworthy — or, perhaps, even guilty — and so is in persistent denial that his experience in the Unknown forest is actually a vision. Then, in Axícala Alíqu — The Sacred Song of Life: The Journey Home (Book 2 of this series), you may discover that the doctor is actually a young UCSF medical student living in Northern California who has taken ayahuasca with her roommates to celebrate the vernal equinox, and in her vision sees herself as a married male doctor exploring the rain forest in the company of an awesome Shaman. . . !
SC: Does belief have an effect in the biology of the person undergoing such spiritual practices, and where does one draw the line between perceiving these effects in consciousness as merely a biological response induced by the substances themselves or are they a hallucination induced by the religious beliefs and expectations?
KA: Common predictability only applies to the realm of common considerations and those that choose to live in common inside its boxes. The statistical powers of probability and mythical powers of impossibility are limited to the common people that do not proactively create the days of their life’s journey and its experiences. Once we thoughtfully accept the existence of alternate states of consciousness, realities, and their universes, on what informed basis can we declare what the rules of elsewhere should be . . . ?
If we look now about us, we find that our meandering from the questionable into the unknown has revealed two additional questions arising from our original quest:
- Is there an experience that you can have with a drug, elixir or ritual that you cannot have without that drug, elixir or ritual?
- Can a recount of an ayahuasca experience be factual, or is it by definition fictional?
What do you believe? The scientific answer — the neuro-pharmacologic answer — would be “No.” Whatever response you have to any drug, elixir or even ritual is no more than what you have pre-programmed within your molecular physiology. We commonly say, “Something unlocked an opportunity for me,” or “opened a door for me.” What is that “door,” what is it made of, and what is it that constitutes the “lock”? They are, quite simply, us — nothing other than ourselves. Whatever responses we have, these are accessed through “unseen doors” — e.g., nerve cell receptors, DNA expression and epigenetic modifications, neural network memories and programmed behaviors.
The question, can psychoactive substances “be replaced by ritual or spiritual exercises alone?” provides us with further insight into our labyrinthine rabbit hole. Its construct speaks of a perception that ingested substances somehow possess an irresistible power that ritual or spiritual exercises do not. In inquiring about belief, we must also question ourselves as to where we believe that the truer power lies — mind or molecules?
SC: Are the belief systems and rituals behind the preparation and taking of substances, such as ayahuasca, integral to the effects they produce?
KA: Belief not only affects biology, it creates the biology of experience. To quote Axícala Alíqu, “No one can have a vision which is to them unbelievable. That which is beyond your belief you will not see with or without yajé.” As it is understood, at the level of Superconsciousness, there is no distinction between fact and fiction, between reality and imagination, belief and experience. In our own non-essential human language of English, the words “factitious” and “fictitious” are quite similar, rather than be opposite expressions; and is it not from the imagination of the quantum observer that reality does issue forth. . . ?
Essentially what is at question here is our tendency — the tendency of our socio-cultural programming — to separate ourselves from the special . . . the magical . . . the divine . . . . In order to be special, magical, divine, we believe that it must be something out of reach — nearly. We can then still maintain our overly humble status of unworthiness and nonetheless seek the experience:
- if only someone else — a Shaman, an extraterrestrial, perhaps — would grant us the permission that we are unwilling to grant ourselves
- if only something else — a hallucinogen, an arcane ritual, perhaps — would grant us the permission that we are unwilling to grant ourselves
In this way we maintain an illusion of distance between the ongoing moment of our lives and the boundless experiences of Superconsciousness.
SC: How do you envision modern society could benefit and incorporate some of the Shamanistic practices and values of these so-called “primitive peoples”? Tell us one thing you would love to see happen that would change and enrich our western society.
KA: I find our outside world and its modern western society to be mostly made up and governed by rather primitive peoples — we have but one home to share and we collectively are destroying it. I would instead say, perhaps, that we are primitive people who could benefit from ancient wisdom.
Not every woman, man, child and Shaman in the forest is living practices which you would consider enlightening. Indeed there is a prevalence of indigenous rainforest people who clear-cut, slash and burn the rain forests in the interests of commerce to provide timber and gold and fast food burgers. Being born in the rainforest does not mean they are not modern people of the world of the outside; being born in the western world does not mean you are not an indigenous person who is of Unknown ancestry. . . .
In time, a responsible person learns to recognize and distinguish between the illusion of hallucination and the reliability of reality. Therefore we must advance ourselves beyond time, for beyond time, a free person grows to recognize the hallucination to be the distinction of our significant knowledge from our insignificant beliefs — of reality from illusion, reliability from uncertainty.
Ultimately, we may recognize that the most powerful hallucinogen is not ayahuasca, but social consciousness itself: an elixir administered to people invisibly and at great distances through the outside world — people never see it or drink it, they only experience it.
What I would love to see happen that would change and enrich our western society would be the rich change that happens when we live Love — that we would discard the divisions which separate the ordinary from the magical, the Amazon from the city, the Shaman from you, and you from me.
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