The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby

The Cosmic Serpent is an elegant semi autobiographical science abstract about the greater implications of our DNA in relation to hallucinations within ancient cultures. Narby takes us through his experiences in the Amazon with a Shaman, to discovering that there is a similarity between the origin story of many ancient cultures and the nature of DNA, to creating a coherent defense of this notion, and then on to creating a list of experiments that could be used to verify and test DNA's actual capabilities. Six pages deep Narby describes his own experience after ingesting ayahuasca, relating in detail his own vision of snakes.  He also makes an incredible point regarding a major flaw in the way Western culture studies other cultures.


"The anthropological method condemns its practitioners to 'dance on the edge of paradox' and to play the schizophrenic role of the player-commentator.  Furthermore, the distant gaze of the anthropologist cannot perceive itself, and those who aspire to objectivity by using it cannot see their own presuppositions.  As Pierre Bourdieu put it, objectivism 'fails to objectify its objectifying relationship.'"

This point is one theme that carries itself throughout the book and perhaps is the most subtle yet meaningful way to understand this work. How can one begin to understand what an experience is like, if one does not experience it for oneself?  At the same time, experiencing that which you are studying, does not allow for the objectivity that Western culture how somehow decided is the best means for study. Narby discusses how Western civilization believes shamans to be completely insane, when a little amount of research would show that they are incredibly invaluable members of their communities. Shamans are healers, they analyze your life and tell you what actions you can take to make proper decisions, that are better for the community as a whole. This is not because the shaman has the confidence or ego to presume they know enough to help but because shamans of many cultures take plant based hallucinogens that allow them to be connected to the greater whole - ayahuasca activates communication between the shaman and the whole. This allows the shaman to see the bigger picture,and then relay what knowledge that individual needs to hear. 

What Narby so passionately explored was that when each shaman from each respective culture took plant based hallucinogens, they each saw and visualized a snake, and that snake was the main character of origin stories from around the world.  From aboriginals in Australia to native people in Peru, there were incredible similarities between them.  Narby begins his quest there, and quite wonderfully makes a case for studying the affects of plant based hallucinogens. 

"According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information.  But what actually goes on in the brain/mind of an ayahuasquero when this occurs?  What is the nature of a shaman's communication with the animate essence of nature?  The clear answer is that more research is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their interrelatedness. 
Rationalism separates things to understand them. But its fragmented disciplines have limited perspectives and blind spots.  And as any driver knows, it is important to pay attention to blind spots, because they can contain vital information.  To reach a fuller understanding of reality, science will have to shift its gaze.  Could shamanism help science to defocalize?  My experience indicates that engaging shamanic knowledge requires looking into a great number of disciplines and thinking about how they fit together."

Sometimes, most of the time, it feels incredible that there are so many avenues worth studying and exploring while humanity fails to recognize their importance for whatever reason.  I read through this book in 4 days, completely drawn to these ideas, and many of the ideas I've been sitting with as of late.   I can't help but imagine that the best way for any idea or experience to really permeate ones life is to live that experience deeply and fully, and then step away and try to understand your own interest.  This push an pull, inside and outside of experience is a way for our minds to move through polar opposites to understand a greater meaning in the whole. 

It goes without saying that any book I choose to write about is one that I would recommend, aside from the incredible amount of knowledge this book has to offer, it's the way in which Narby delivers his message; passively, full of hope and peace, that really made this such a compelling read.  

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