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Demons & The Porosity Of Consciousness

Kira Salak climbing the cursed mountain in Libya (CBS News screenshot)

Sparked by my “Devils Of Manhattan” post last week, we’ve had some discussion here, theological and otherwise, about the phenomenology of demonic possession. The most interesting part of that discussion, at least to me, has to do with the mechanism of possession — that is, how evil spirits come to lodge in a person’s body.

Here is a story about that sort of thing that challenges both materialists and Christians. It’s the testimony of Kira Salak, an award-winning travel writer who told her account in two stories published in National Geographic Adventure. I’ve written about them both here before, but I’m going to re-up them in light of the interest in the topic.

In the first story, Salak writes in NGA, in 2006, about climbing Libya’s so-called “Ghost Mountain” — a peak deep in Libya’s interior, as part of a reporting trip to retract the steps of Hugh Clapperton, a Scottish explorer of the early 19th century. She is strictly warned by the local tribesmen not to go near the mountain, because there are demons there. As a cosmopolitan Westerner, she ignores this. More:

We rendezvous with the Tuareg man who is supposed to guide us for the next few days. But after Magdy explains our plans, he says, “To hell with you,” and walks off. This becomes the usual reaction whenever we approach any Tuareg about guiding us, and all because I want to visit to the “Devil’s Hill.” Kaff Jinoon. It’s a curious series of eroded sandstone peaks jutting from the dunes north of Ghat. Unique not only for its two obelisk-like spires, or horns, it’s also believed to be Grand Central Station for genies—spirits—from thousands of miles around. And not just any spirits, but those most wicked and base. The spirits of torturers and murderers. The spirits of those wrongly slain. Lost and sickened souls, attracted to the vortex that is Kaff Jinoon.

Clapperton and his companion Dr. Walter Oudney camped near the mountain, to the terror and vexation of their Tuareg guides who believed that small, red-bearded devils lived on it and caused mischief to all who passed, while spirits taking on the appearance old men materialized out of the night to terrify lone travelers. It was considered akin to suicide to go anywhere near the dreaded mountain. Wrote Clapperton, “[My guide] Hatita said he would not go up it for all the dollars in the world.” And it’s the same story now in Ghat, no Tuareg willing to travel with us to the mountain, no matter how much we’ll pay. They all have their own stories. There were the French tourists a few years back. They drove out to the mountain, thinking it’d be a good joke to climb it, but as soon as they got out of their car they were attacked by swarms of wasps. Libyan authorities found the group wandering along the road, unable to get in their vehicle, their faces covered with stings. And this, I’m told, was minor. Much worse has occurred. Like the Libyan soldier at a checkpoint near the mountain who saw something so awful, so terrifying, that he went into shock and couldn’t walk for a year. To this day, he is unable to speak of what he saw. And then there is the man who swore by Allah that he saw an entire army division march around the base of the mountain one night—a ghost army, that disappeared before his very eyes.

Jinoon and its vicinity has been considered a stomping ground for evil genies for centuries. Intrepid Arab traveler Ibn Battuta first wrote about this desert in the 14th century, describing it as a place “haunted by demons; if the [traveler] be alone, they make sport of him and disorder his mind, so that he loses his way and perishes.” Western explorers journeying in the Fezzan regarded such tales with derision, determined to see the mountain and to try to climb it. In 1822, Dr. Oudney made the first recorded attempt, reaching the mountain’s 4,500-foot-high saddle and returning without incident. “The Doctor has got a high reputation for courage for his visit to Jinoon,” Clapperton wrote about his friend’s successful climb, “and every newcomer is sure to ask him about it.” Later explorers were less successful. British adventurer John Richardson attempted the climb in 1853, getting lost on the descent and wandering in the desert, near-death, for two days. Robust German explorer Heinrich Barth had an almost identical experience in 1857. I am determined to see the place. I want to climb the mountain. we decide to go there unguided.

Nothing happens to Salak and her two companions on the mountain.

Or so she thinks. Later, in a National Geographic Adventure article about ayahuasca healing in Peru, under the influence of the drug, and under the guidance of a shaman, Salak learned that she became possessed on that mountain. More:

And then there is me, who a year ago came to Peru on a lark to take the “sacred spirit medicine,” ayahuasca, and get worked over by shamans. Little suspecting that I’d emerge from it feeling as if a waterlogged wool coat had been removed from my shoulders—literally feeling the burden of depression lifted—and thinking that there must be something to this crazy shamanism after all. The best therapeutic tools of Western psychology showed me only the tip of the iceberg; somehow, shamanism reached to the core.

And so I am back again.

I’ve told no one this time—especially not my family. I grew up among fundamentalist atheists who taught me that we’re all alone in the universe, the fleeting dramas of our lives culminating in a final, ignoble end: death. Nothing beyond that. It was not a prescription for happiness, yet, for the first couple decades of my life, I became prideful and arrogant about my atheism, believing that I was one of the rare few who had the courage to face life without the “crutches” of religion or, worse, such outrageous notions as shamanism. But for all of my overweening rationality, my world remained a dark, forbidding placebeyond my ability to control. And my mortality gaped at me mercilessly.

Lisa shakes me from my reveries, asking why I’ve come back to take another tour with the shamans.

“I’ve got some more work to do,” I say. Hers is a complicated question to answer. And especially personal. Lord knows I didn’t have to come back. I could have been content with the results of my last visit: no more morbid desires to die. Waking up one morning in a hut in the sultry jungles of Peru, desiring only to live.

Still, even after those victories I knew there were some stubborn enemies hiding out in my psyche: Fear and Shame. They were taking potshots at my newfound joy, ambushing my successes. How do you describe what it’s like to want love from another but to be terrified of it at the same time? To want good things to happen to you, while some disjointed part of you believes that you don’t deserve them? To look in a mirror and see only imperfections? This was the meat and potatoes of my several years of therapy. Expensive therapy. Who did what—when—why. The constant excavations of memory. The sleuth-work. Patching together theory after theory. Rational-emotive behavioral therapy. Gestalt therapy. Humanistic therapy. Biofeedback. Positive affirmations. I am a beautiful person. I deserve the best in life.

Then, there’s the impatience. Thirty-three years old already, for chrissakes. And in all that time, after all that therapy, only one thing worked on my depression—an ayahuasca “cleansing” with Amazonian shamans.

Hamilton is her shaman. She ingests the drug. Then:

“You’re seeing with your third eye,” one of the apprentices explains. Also known in Eastern spiritual traditions as the sixth chakra, the third eye supposedly allows for connection with other dimensions. And what if I am actually seeing two worlds at once? It seems too incredible, and I close my eyes to limit the confusion. Fantastical worlds glide by, composed of ever-shifting geometrical forms and textures. Colors seem to be the nature of these views; a dazzling and dizzying display of every conceivable hue blending and parting in kaleidoscopic brilliance. But then the colors vanish all at once as if a curtain has been pulled down. Blackness. Everywhere.

Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming, humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space—where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply—four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it’s hard to breathe. But I have done this before. I remind myself that what I’m experiencing now is my fear taking symbolic form through the ayahuasca. Fear that I have lived with my entire life and that needs to be released.

Hamilton explains it this way: Everyone has an energetic body run by an inextinguishable life force. In Eastern traditions, this force, known as chi or prana, is manipulated through such things as acupuncture or yoga to run smoothly and prevent the buildup of the negative energies that cause bodily disease, mental illness, and even death. To Amazonian shamans, however, these negative energies are actual spirit entities that attach themselves to the body and cause mischief. In everyone, Hamilton asserts, there is a loving “higher self,” but whenever unpleasant thoughts enter a person’s mind—anger, fear, sorrow—it’s because a dark spirit is hooked to the body and is temporarily commandeering the person’s mind. In some cases, he adds, particularly evil spirits from the lowest hell of the “astral realms” take over a person permanently—known as full-blown demonic possession—creating a psychopathic mind that seeks only to harm others.

I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.

“Hamilton!” I belt out. “Help me!”

“On my way, Kira,” he says calmly. “Hang in there. Don’t give in to the fear.”

That’s the trick: Don’t give in to it. But it’s much easier said than done. I must tell it that I’m stronger. I must tell it that it has no effect upon me. But it does. I’m terrified. The darkness presses against me; it wants to annihilate me.

Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs offand is sent spiraling away. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.

“Tell the spirits to leave you with ease,” Hamilton says to me.

“They won’t!” I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en mass from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. All I know is that one after another, demonic-looking forms seem to be pulled from my body. I’ve read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya—a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.

Haunted mountains. Demonic hitchhikers. Whowould believe this? Yet on and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chakapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me.

The visions fade. My body stops shaking. Hamilton takes his seat again, and Rosa releases her grip on me. I examine the vomit bucket with a flashlight: Black specks the size of dimes litter orange-colored foam. The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.

“Good work, Kira,” Hamilton says to me from across the room.

My entire body hurts. My head throbs. I can hear the others in the room, whispering to each other. I had barely been conscious of their experiences, they had seemed so quiet by comparison.

“Is Kira OK?” Christy asks Hamilton.

“She just had a little exorcism,” Hamilton explains with relish. “She’s fine.”

Read the whole thing.Here’s a short CBS News profile of Salak, which includes footage of her climbing the mountain in Libya.

There are lots of challenging things in Salak’s account, and I confess that as a Christian, I don’t know what to do with them.

For example, the claim that evil spirits can attach themselves to a person who visits a place where they are known to congregate. As we learn in the second account, Salak had a traumatic childhood in which she felt abandonment. Apparently, the evil spirits on the mountain attached themselves to her through this break in her psyche.

This makes sense to me. On the “Devils In Manhattan” thread, some readers objected to the claim that Emma’s possession came about in part because of her grandfather’s involvement with Freemasonry and the occult — in other words, it was a family curse. Where is the justice in that? (readers said). I understand the objection, and agree that it seems unjust. But the idea that a traveler can go to the top of an allegedly cursed mountain and come down possessed, at least partially, by evil spirits who reside there also seems unjust. Yet, if Salak’s story is to be believed, it happened.

Spiritual realities can’t be denied because they don’t make sense to our sense of justice. I’m thinking right now of something a New Orleans woman said at a dinner party back in the late 1980s. She was sitting right next to me, and I’ve never forgotten it. This was a group of sophisticated, secular New Orleanians. The woman at my right told a story about a house she and her family once lived in, on Esplanade Avenue. It had been built before the Civil War, and had a slave cabin in the back of the property. Her father renovated the slave cabin, and rented it out.

A young artist — a painter — took the cabin. He began to complain of an evil presence in the cabin. They didn’t take him all that seriously. Hey, it’s New Orleans. But he began to change. They observed that he became more and more disturbed and anti-social. Eventually, the police had to get involved. The young man was taken away and institutionalized. He had lost his mind. When the woman’s father went into his quarters, he found a series of paintings the young man had done, starting when he moved into the cabin. They were visual evidence of his slow possession, or at least madness. As the canvases progressed, they became darker, more violent, and more chaotic. And then he was taken to an insane asylum.

I believe that what the dinner guest said happened at her childhood home is possible. I believe that what Kira Salak said happened is possible. And I believe that what my friend Emma, the one with the Masonic grandfather, says happened is possible. Why? Because I believe that the individual’s psyche is more porous than we like to think. More precisely, I believe that the boundary between our selves (mind + body) is more porous than we like to think. This concept offends our sense of mind/body integrity, but that’s our problem, not reality’s.

In spiritual matters, I feel that people who reject even the possibility that things like a grandfather heavily involved with the occult could bring a curse onto subsequent generations of his family, or that climbing a mountain said to be the dwelling place of evil spirits, or moving into a haunted slave cabin — that people who reject the possibility that these things increase the possibility that evil spirits can possess an innocent person are like people who refuse to believe that guerrillas are a threat because guerrilla tactics violate the settled rules of war.

Another example, this one very difficult for me: There is very little Christian about Kira Salak’s account of exorcism and deliverance. There is the duality of good and evil, the presence of a fatherly entity Salak calls God, and the presence of evil spirits … but that’s it. Jesus Christ does not show up in this account. The shamans who help her testify to multiple levels of reality, and the ability to travel between them — not a Christian concept. In her drug-induced vision, Salak claimed to have met people she was in her past lives, and would be in her future lives.

I find it impossible to reconcile this with what I believe, as a Christian, to be true. This puts me in the same position as the people I criticized above. Am I not rejecting reported data because it conflicts with my prior convictions? Or are my prior convictions a solid epistemic basis with which to evaluate the claims of Salak about what happened to her (and therefore, are her experiences to be judged as hallucinations, imaginative projections of an inner state, or demonic deceptions)? How to account for her testimony that Hamilton was able to experience the same things she experienced — that the boundary between her perception and his was transgressed, and in some sense he was able to “travel” with her into noncorporeal realms?

I welcome serious commentary on all this from you readers, believers and non-believers alike. If you’re just going to take potshots, save yourself the trouble. But if you can advance our understanding of these phenomena, from a materialist, Christian, or other religious tradition, by all means comment.

UPDATE: Another instance of the porosity of consciousness invaded by a demonic force comes from this testimony by the bestselling novelist Hilary Mantel, a fierce hater of the Catholic Church, who writes about the time a malign force entered her as a child. This passage is from Mantel’s memoir, but is quoted by the writer Patricia Snow in a First Things piece:

[The spot] is, let us say, some fifty yards away, among coarse grass, weeds and bracken. I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. . . . It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking. . . . I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.

By Mantel’s own account, things had grown spiritually very dark for her as a child when her mother took a lover, and moved him into the same house with Hilary’s father. This is the context in which this invasion took place. As Snow writes, continuing to quote Mantel, the novelist blames God for not protecting her. Here is Mantel:

[God] didn’t help me in the secret garden, and I think he couldn’t anyway; I think that whatever I saw that day was more powerful than any bewhiskered prayer-book God, simpering in a white robe: his holy palms held apart, as if He were sizing up a plank. Why didn’t he try though? He could have done something. He could have showed willing. I wanted him to manifest, and own me, take charge. But he never turned up, in the secret garden; the old bugger never got out of bed.

Mantel seems to accept that some alien force that she can’t describe took up residence inside her on that day. She has hated God ever since. The point I would like to draw out here is that if she is telling the truth, then some evil spirit entered her against her will.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes to send me some of the recent work by Kira Salak, along with a request that I remove the links to her earlier stories. On evidence of this recent work, Salak has become seriously deranged and paranoid. She’s raving now about Jesus, the Apocalypse, and pot. She was once one of the best travel writers in the world; the stories I linked to are from that period of her life. I think it better to leave the links in this post, given that those stories appeared in a respected magazine, and were written before her mental collapse … but to warn you that she really has lost her mind. Whether her visit to the cursed mountain, and her use of ayahuasca, had anything to do with that, I obviously can’t say. What a tragic, tragic situation.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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