Tag Archives: culture

Elemental Depths and ideas for how to dive into them

Explorations into our Relationship with Water

All photos by David Ashwanden

It’s all around us, flowing beneath our feet even if we do not see it and condensing far above our heads, weaving its way through our lives in our every daily task and cycling ceaselessly as part of our bodies, refreshing, revitalising, rehydrating.

Our ancestors praised this most basic of elements – the one we are grown within before we are born, and which comprises around 60% of our beings (1). Many cultures around the world still celebrate water and use it in an effective and regenerative way. Yet somehow a lot of current activities, both on a large and small scale, seem to be ignoring or misusing water, which results in a cutting-off from the flow and thus from an important part of ourselves.

How are we disconnecting from our relationship with water and how can we reconnect?

Why does it matter what stories we tell ourselves about water?

And what actions can we take to address the imbalance caused by those interfering with flow?

This article will attempt to answer some of these questions, with an in-depth look at the specific case of the Mekong River, though it is by no means a complete answer. Think of it more as a flowing stream to which you can add if you wish.

How we relate to water

Throughout history, and in many current resilient societies, water has been and continues to be revered. Our human cultures show countless variations on the personification of water as a deity, from Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the Celestial Ocean, who rides upon the Makara, a kind of magical crocodile (2), to the Aztec “jade-skirted” Chalchiuhtlicue, serpent-goddess of rain, purification floods and childbirth, to the Inuit Sedna, fish-tailed goddess of the ocean and the underworld (3), to the Chinese Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (4).

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A Naga guards the entrance to a temple next to the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Many societies throughout the world still celebrate and worship water and water deities, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who celebrate Oshun, the goddess of sensuality, sweet waters and the moon, with an annual festival on the river which bears her name (5). Throughout South-East Asia there are various festivals dedicated to the Naga, which are serpent-formed water guardian spirits of Hindu origin (see for example 6). Many of these festivals have since been appropriated by the Buddhist religion yet the Naga still play an important part in the folklore of the region (see for example 7).

In Kerala, South India, the Naga are also remembered with the creation of “sarpakkavu” (8), sacred groves of trees dedicated to these spirits, while in the North of the country the goddess Ganga is remembered on a daily basis all along the river which bears her name, in particular in the holy city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come from all over the country to drink and bathe in the sacred waters, and into which the cremated bodies of the dead are also cast in order to be purified (see for example 9). In modern-day Mexico live the Wixarika people, known to Spanish-speakers as ‘Huicholes’, who follow one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (see for example 10). Though they now live many thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands they still make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts which produce the Hikuri cactus plants which form the centre of their mythology, on the way paying homage the serpent-goddess Nacawé (11) at a number of sacred springs in which they bathe (12).

From 'The Dao Oracle'.

From ‘The Dao Oracle’ by Ma Deva Padma.

When it comes to tracing the origins of my own ancestral myths it can be a little more difficult as the pagan origins of my European culture are to a great extent broken, especially in England, the country of my birth. Many water-deities which were once venerated in Europe are now simply stories, such as that of Coventina, naked lily-bearing British goddess of abundance, wells and springs (13), or Danu, the fertility river-goddess and mother of the ‘Tuatha da Danaan’ or fairy people, whose name, some believe, is the origin of the major European rivers Danube, Dniestr, Don and Dniper (14).   Interestingly, Dewi Danu is also the name of the serpent-riding water-goddess of the Balinese Hindus (15).

 

What Are We Doing with Water and Why?

Water is so much a part of our lives that it may be sometimes easy to take it for granted. One thing which seems of paramount importance to remember is that water represents, both physically and metaphorically, the principle of flow. All water is constantly cycling throughout the world, from the clouds to the ground, to the ocean… and back again. As we are made up largely of water, we literally embody this principle and so it may be worth bearing it in mind next time you consider yourself stuck in any type of situation.

As water is constantly flowing, it can be seen as an infinitely renewable resource. Up until around 100 years ago, the way in which we used water reflected and supported this. Water would fall from the sky, and we would collect it, use it, and re-cycle it. Water flowed from the ground, and we would care for the spring, tend it and ensure that it helped to nourish the land around as well as ourselves. However, when we started using more groundwater, this balance began tipping.

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Groundwater is easier to pump up all in one place and to distribute in measurable amounts so it has become a favourite source for cities worldwide (16). The problem with this is that groundwater can only be replenished by rainwater filtering down through the land, which is currently happening in many places at a slower rate than we are pumping the groundwater up. groundwater also contains more minerals than rainwater so if it is the primary source for crop irrigation, it ends up in causing mineral saturation of the soil, which means you need even more water in order to flush through the salts so that the soil can stay fertile (16). At the same time, we design our buildings and communities to deal with rainwater, the fruits of the sky which we could easily be harvesting, not by catching it but by directing it away. Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, calls this modern phenomenon a move from the “path of abundance” to the “path of scarcity” (16).

Mekong Case Study: Controlling the sacred flow

A key example of people following this “scarcity” path is the case of the Mekong river. This giant, the longest in South-East Asia (17), starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, then snakes its way through Myanmar and Laos, forming part of the Thai-Laos border (17), before entering Cambodia where it joins the Tonle Sap river, which it causes, once a year, to flow backwards, thus filling the Tonle Sap Lake (18). After this it passes through Vietnam where it splits into many parts at the Mekong Delta, a richly biodiverse area of around 39,000 square kilometres, whose fingers reach eventually into the South China Sea (19).

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Looking from Laos to Thailand across the Mekong.

The river is estimated to be around 4350 km long and is regarded as the 12th longest in the world (17). It is home to many water-species, and the source of livelihood as well as life to millions of animals and humans who inhabit the banks along its length. The humans are not as yet endangered, though many endangered species live here, including the Irrawady River Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, the Laotian Rock Rat  and the Indochinese Tiger (20). Because of its huge biodiversity new species are often discovered here, with the WWF reporting more than 2,216 newly discovered species since 1997,

“including a color-changing frog, a zombie-making “dementor” wasp, and the second-longest insect in the world”(20).

The name for the Mekong comes partly from the Thai or Burmese word for river, “meh-nam” (Thai: แม่น้ำ) which literally means “water-mother”, and it is along this river that the Naga water spirits are often celebrated, in particular on the night of Loy Krathong (7). This would seem to indicate that the people who live along the river have still some vestige of respect for the river and recognition of it as a giver of life. However, enough people in this region are following the “path of scarcity” that the Laos government has agreed to embark upon the Mekong river dam project, which involves building 11 dams along the entire length of the river. In the Chinese portion, there are already 5 dams which have severely disrupted the water flow throughout the rest of the river, causing drought and imbalance (21). Last year, construction began on the Xayaburi Dam (22), funded by Bangkok-based engineering company CH. Karnchang (23), and on the Don-Sahong Dam, a “joint venture of Malaysian company Major First and the Laotian government”(22). Both dams have been embarked upon without the permission of the Mekong River Commission, an international coalition set up to try to protect the river (22).

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Sunset over the Mekong

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,(21) according to Maureen Harris of International Rivers (24).

The construction of the dams has been severely impeded by NGOs and other actors who would prefer the river to stay fertile and to continue sustaining life. There are so many factors involved with why the Mekong is being treated like this that there is no one simple solution to the problem, however, it seems important to look at some key ways in which the river is viewed in order to understand how to solve it.

Holy water and its powers

Firstly, as mentioned, many Mekong people still celebrate its abundant waters. Why is this important? Just because a group of people believe that the river is home to the snake-formed gods of the water, doesn’t mean it will stay protected…Does it?

All of our human action comes ultimately from our beliefs and values, and these are grown out of our cultural stories and mythologies. Therefore, if we want to change the actions of people, perhaps we have to first look at the stories they are telling themselves, and if the stories are not effective, help them to change them.

It is clear that those involved in the dam are following stories of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough water and so it needs to be hoarded. This can very swiftly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and indeed can already be seen to have done so in Yunnan: the dams there have created water shortages downstream, thus justifying the dam-builders’ fears of water shortage. This type of story can be seen as a negative cycle of erosion which can ultimately cause severe damage to all who tell it. Of course the water shortage is in fact caused by the dam’s blocking of the water’s natural flow, and so if we wish to regain this flow we need to encourage travelling outwards from the cycle of erosion into a new cycle of abundance.

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Many of the water deities throughout history and around the world share characteristics- they are symbolic of fertility, of life, and of the joyous act of procreation. This can be seen in the fact that so many water deities from diverse and supposedly separate cultures are somehow associated with snakes or snake-like creatures, the snake being, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (25) would put it, an archetypal symbol of sexuality and procreation. Perhaps one way we can help to protect the rivers is to remember this symbology and recognise water as the basis of life, which cannot be contained in one place, lest it will become stagnant and sterile.

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Modern myths

Yet it is not enough to just tell stories. We need to be really living this idea of water as abundance, that is, really feeling our connection to water as a sacred and constantly cycling force. How we do this is up to us. Our ancestors did it by personifying the elements and associating them with particular animals, places or trees which we can protect as part of our reverence. That doesn’t mean that we literally think the rivers or rocks are home to spirits, but the spirits, whatever shape they are, can be a useful metaphor to help us to remember the holistic nature of life and how we can help to protect and regenerate the things which in turn protect and regenerate us.

An example of a much more literal stance is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, four days ago, was granted the same legal status as a human being (26). This has been heralded as a ‘victory’ for the Maori tribes to whom the river is sacred (26), yet it seems to be missing the point somewhat. If the river has the same legal rights as a human, this means it has the right, to some extent, to be protected. But humans are also subject to laws which mean they can be locked up or have their lands taken away from them. Granting the river legal rights may help in the short term to protect it but throws up questions of the legal rights of all humans, and how they can be contravened. The Whanganui has always been sacred to Whanganui iwi tribe, who recognise it as a living entity. But enshrining this recognition in law must throw up questions about our relationship to all living entities, in an age where humans, animals and plants alike are locked in tiny boxes, killed en masse, exiled from their homelands, separated by barriers of earth and water, subjected to poisoning of all kinds, for reasons as varied as ‘farming’, ‘economic progress’, ‘doing a 9-to-5 job’, or ‘immigration’.

Part of our understanding of this relationship has to come from our understanding of our cultural and personal stories. Perhaps changing your own story is going to be easy, like moving one pebble to release a huge portion of flow. Or perhaps it will take a more careful and considered dive into your life-stream. Whatever it takes, it seems clear that this is an essential part of revitalising our relationship with water around the world, and hopefully restoring the balance and abundance which can so easily be a part of our daily lives.

For more practical ideas about how we can work with flow you can check out my Water Farming article (27) and be sure to check back for the second parts of both articles…

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Sources

1. Helmenstine, A.M (Phd), 2017. ‘How Much of Your Body is Water?’. ThoughtCo, 1/3/17. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-of-your-body-is-water-609406 

2. Naylor, S. T, 1997. ‘Varuna’.http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/varuna.html

3. Miller, M.E, Taube, K.A, 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson: New York, USA.

4. Condon, R.G, Ogina, J, Holman Elders, 1996. The Northern Copper Inuit: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

5. Werner, E.T.C, 1922. Myths and Legends of China. Chapter VII: ‘The Myths of the Waters’. available as an e-text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc09.htm

6. Elgood, H, 2000. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Cassell: London, UK.

7. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. Travelfish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

8. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Saparkkavu – Nature Groves in Keralan Homes’. KarmaKerala, 31/1/10. http://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

9.  Varanasi Temples, 2017. ‘Importance of the River Ganga’. http://varanasi-temples.com/category/importance-of-river-ganga/

10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abudnance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

11. Austin, A.L, 1997. Tamoachan, Tlamocan: Places of Mist. University of Colorado Press: Colorado, USA.

12.  Allen, B, 2015. ‘Last of the Medicine Men: Peyote’. Our Amazing World, 2015. available in parts on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bb_YC8pmCI

13. The White Goddess, 2017. ‘Coventina’. http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/divinity_of_the_day/celtic/coventina.asp

14. Read Legends and Myths, 2017. ‘Danu’. http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/danu.html

15. Lansing, S, 2006. Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali. Chris Baldwin (Director), Should High Productions.

16. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).   

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. ‘Mekong River’. https://global.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River

18. Mekong Flows, 2017. ‘Tonle Sap Ecosystem’. http://mekongriver.info/tonle-sap

19. WWF, 2017. ‘Greater Mekong’. https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong

20. WWF, 2017. ‘Wildlife of the Greater Mekong’. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

21. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. http://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

22. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

23. CH. Karnang, 2017. ‘About Us’. http://www.ch-karnchang.co.th/en/#/about/us

24. International Rivers, 2017. ‘About Us’. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/about-international-rivers-3679

25. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

26. Roy, E. A, 2016. ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’.The Guardian, 16/3/17.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

27. Haworth, C, 2017. ‘Water Farming Part 1: How and Why Can We Start Farming Water?’. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/20/water-farming-part-1-can-start-farming-water/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Way to Say…

…How Stories Affect Our Minds, Culture and Relationships

Today’s world is full of issues, headlines which seem to demand our attention, problems which seem to call for us to solve them, all of the international confluence of human activity which seems to clash, sometimes messily, with our own unfocused day-to-day affairs.

Most of it seems unrelated: people want to build dams along the Mekong and different people to cross ‘sacred land’ with an oil pipeline; somewhere forests are being cut down and in many more places land is being slowly degraded with the blight of monoculture farming.  All of these and more global issues do actually have something in common, though. They are all part of our human culture, and as such, if we wish to change them the first thing we need to do is change the stories which are, whether we realise it consciously or not, the basis for much of our current action.

What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

“It would not be too much to say”, said Joseph Campbell,

“That myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (1)

All of our conceptions of how to relate to each other – “Religions, philosophies, arts…prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” (1)

Our “myths” – the stories of our culture, both conscious and subconscious – make up who we are: our personalities and our means of communicating with the rest of the world.  When they are helpful they can help us to express more of who we want to be, to “follow our bliss”. When they are not helpful they can underlie all of our problems and distort our perception of reality to the point where we are not even sure what is real anymore. In modern industrialised culture which is based on phonetic language we managed to create abstract concepts and thus artificially extract ourselves from the world around us. Are you still living that story? Do you really think it’s helpful to cut yourself away from the “potentized field of intelligence” (2) of all living things?

The Myths We Carry

We are all walking parts of myth, whether we realise it or not. Our psyches carry the stories of our ancestors and play the out in our own lives – creating situations we do not want, if we do not take control. Though many modern societies are now secular they are still based on Judeo-Christian mythology, much of which, as Campbell says, confuses a tribal god-figure with a world saviour. In the Bible, humans live in Eden until they are banished for committing original sin and even if we do not follow a faith based on this story we may still carry the feelings associated with it. These feelings could be guilt or shame about our bodies and natural impulses, or an idea that we do not belong in paradise, so anytime we find a pristine natural place, we need to change it in order to live in it. As I pointed out in my article Language and Permaculture part 2, (3)

“Some people think the word “Eden” comes from the Urgaritic base meaning “place that is well-watered throughout” (4). Toby Hemenway explores how the great deserts of what we now know as the Middle East used to be some of the most fertile places on Earth and it was only with the development of agriculture that the soil began eroding and water loss began to occur (5). In this sense the Garden of Eden story can be seen as an excuse for the development of agriculture and the subsequent effects of agriculture on the land being not something which we can control or are responsible for, but which are simply the punishments put on us by a vengeful tribal God-idea (1)”.

On a more physical level, the stories of our childhood and even of our time in our mothers’ womb are held within our bodies. This means that  if there are beliefs we want to change it may be as simple as moving or holding ourselves in a different way.

Why Are You Where You Are?

Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair Project (5) in Portland, Oregon, USA, tells this story:

“An indigenous man once said to me, he said,

Ha! You think that we are the ones that’ve been hurt, you’ve taken our land and we’ve been devastated‘ and he’s like  ‘Yeah it’s true we have a lot of problems but at least we know who we are, and you do not know your own story.

He said,

You don’t know what brought you to this place you’re at right now, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you say you wanna help the world but you don’t even know your own story within the continuum of all of these challenges…

He said, ‘So until you know where you’ve come from, the story of yourself in relation to your family, you don’t know what you’re capable of or even what your challenge is‘.” (7)

Starting Where We Are

My own roots are in the roots of the yarrow, the oak and rowan and birch, though my family now is scattered throughout many different types of ecosystem. The traditions of storytelling and generosity have been passed down to me from my mother, a giver, connector, and fun-lover. Skills and passion for designing systems have come from my father; healing and plant wisdom from my ancestors.

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The concrete and tarmac of the city was my cradle and within it the green spaces which first started to call to us, my sister and I, that there is something more out there. My story is that of a refugee in their homeland and of a native in all parts of the world. Of learning to be sensitive to the feelings of my body and to come home into it more and more. Of trying to connect the deep compassion I felt for the humans, plants and animals ‘out there’ who I perceived as needing help with the raging silence within of my own disconnection between body, soul and energy; of experiencing the deep psychological fissures within the landscape of my soul first as mental illness, through a painful sensation to be numbed and buried, to a wrenching hallucination and out, as it were, the other side of the labyrinth seeing them now as scars of power, aids to my healing work.

I come from a family of explorers; father, mother, sister and I living on 4 different continents. Mixing our fractured cultureless culture with the cultures of those we find around us; nourishing our own sense of who we are as a comparison to others. For me, remembering our roots is as important as learning from the new people and environments we find ourselves in and my sister helps me with this, as well as helping my deep, unshakeable sense of the world as being nowhere near as serious as people make out, and of life as something to be enjoyed. My sister, space-holder for people’s creative expression, fun-lover, giver and receiver of wisdom.

So many people have helped me on my journey to where I am now and one of my best guides has been and continues to be my true love and fellow adventurer, the sound healer, entheogenic escort, language magician, midnight explorer, uncompromiser, relentless clown, player of games and facilitator of sacred spaces within and without. Through him I have become connected to a whole new family, also communicators and storytellers, healers and space-holders, like my sister-in-law, constant reminder of the joy of playing, connector, healer, relisher of the drama of life.

I carry all of these stories within me, and I cannot change where I come from. What I can change is how I perceive my place in my family and in the wider ecosystem, as well as how I weave my own stories together. Only by doing this can I hope to improve any other part of the world.

As Lakeman put it,

“Any planetary repair has to be predicated on local action.” (7)

The way our global human society interacts now, it is not enough to submit to local myths. We are part of a new “creative mythology” as Joseph Campbell put it (1); a culture where every individual’s experience and their own personal quest is respected within the wider acknowledgement of our connection to the animals and plants around us and the cosmos as a whole. Where the mystical experience of our own joyous reality is not a fairytale to be forgotten or a status to be passed down by an authority figure, but an intimately self-discoverable sensation.

If we have the courage to start, then

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.

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And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (1)

References

1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

3. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture Part 2: Practical Ideas for How We Use Terminology’. Permaculture News, 22/12/16. http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/22/language-permaculture-part-2-practical-ideas-use-terminology/

4. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2016. ‘Eden’. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Eden

5. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/

6. City Repair Project, 2017. ‘Mission’. http://www.cityrepair.org/mission/

7. Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. Available on Films for Action here: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/city-repair-permaculture-for-urban-spaces/

Psychedelic Times: Some Ideas for how we can regain our Sacred Medicines

The need to be entranced; to alter the normal state of consciousness to something totally other, to transcend the walls of ‘everyday’ and discover something more. Many have theorised that such a need is a fundamental part of human existence, quite as important as our need to eat and drink in terms of how we relate to ourselves and each other in society. But how are we doing this in today’s world? And is there a coherent emerging culture which encourages these transcendent states, regardless of what the law may say?

Intoxi-culture

Many writers talk of how substances which can cause altered mental states, such as alcohol and psilocybin, have been a key part of human culture for thousands of years. Some place more or less emphasis on different substances; R. Gordon Wasson (see for example 1) spoke highly of mushrooms, as did Terrence McKenna (2), developing this to place mushrooms at the centre of human evolution and possibly even as the cause of it. Richard Rudgely takes a broader view, looking at many different psychoactive plants (3); while Stuart Walton writes in more favour of caffeine and alcohol (4).  The latter three all also criticise modern society for not recognising this important role played by psychoactive medicines and call for a more widely-recognised field of ‘intoxicant’ or ‘psychedelic’ studies; or ‘intoxicology’ as Walton puts it (4).

Such a field of studies may well help us to understand our culture on a deeper level and thus be better able to improve it. However, it seems that in order to make our explorations with psychoactive substances truly effective we need to take into consideration two more things. Firstly, although plants and chemicals can help us to reach altered states of consciousness, they are not the only way to do this. It is also possible through meditation or meditative practises such as yoga, through wordless singing or chanting, or simpler things such as staring at a blank wall for a number of minutes. Indigenous societies all over the globe and throughout history have devised means by which altered states are induced, either with or without plant-based help. For example, many tribal rituals involve doing one energetic thing, such as drumming or dancing, repetitively for hours or sometimes days, at the end of which a whole new mental realm is reached (see for example 5).

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Circle Dance. Photo by Tianna.

This brings us to the second point. We don’t use these substances in isolation – or at least that’s not how, historically, our relationship with them has developed. By many accounts our cultures evolved with plants and other medicines as a part of a rich tapestry of storytelling, metaphorical images and implied significance on the natural world around us (5, 6). In this sense the substances which are currently demonised by modern ‘drug’ laws in many countries should actually be in the same realm as the other foods and medicines which we consume. That is not to say they are not treated as special; rather, that all of the things we consume can be seen as special, and even sacred.

Psychedelic Artists

Joseph Campbell, taking this into account, also considers the sacred role of art in society as something which can point to something beyond our normal reality, thus welcoming all of those of us who are still stuck to the mundane to open up and take a look at the infinite landscapes beyond. For him, all ‘true’ art- that is, art which has not been made to sell something or to teach something, but which simply exists as a beautiful thing – is created by going outside the realms of ‘normal’ thinking, and the artist is a brave adventurer who brings back treasures from these unknown places to give to their fellow humans.

By modern societal thinking, this basically equates to the idea that in order to create art you have to be mad. Campbell quotes from the Upanishads (which he translated from the Sanskrit):

A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,

A difficult path is this—poets declare!” (7)

The artist is the one who can continue along the razor; who “stepped on [the] path of sacred art and stuck it out through thick and thin” (8) – yet to recognise this would also be to recognise that different mental states to the considered norm are of some use or value to society. By contrast, much of modern culture disregards these mental states as ‘illnesses’and only by becoming ‘better’ can those experiencing them achieve worthwhile lives.

Where are we now?

The role of many psychedelic substances as medicines is becoming more and more widely accepted. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) (9), founded in 1986 in California by Rick Doblin, have funded many studies into the use of psychoactives as possible tools to help with so-called mental health problems. Most recently they have been studying the use of +3.4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more widely known as MDMA, to treat “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “anxiety in autistic adults” (10). To this end they are currently training mental health therapists to use MDMA in their work (11) which they hope will be approved in the USA by 2021. They also sponsor the Psychedelic Science conference (12), the next edition of which will happen in Oakland, California in April 2017.

Psychedelic Science is co-hosted by UK think-tank The Beckley Foundation (13), founded in 1998 by Amanda Feilding, who are similar to MAPS in that they fund scientific studies and clinical trials. However, they also have a broader agenda of advocating change in policy (14) and in that their studies (15) into things which alter perception include research into how meditation affects the brain (16). The Foundation also sponsors a biannual conference in the UK, Breaking Convention (17), the first of which occurred in 2011 and the next is coming up from 30th June to 2nd July 2017 (thanks Jon Atkinson for confirmation of the dates).

Healing and feeling

Psychedelic studies are becoming more and more developed worldwide with the growth of events such as Breaking Convention and Psychedelic Science. However, if we are to truly begin using psychedelic and other methods to benefit our well-being we need to take them out of the laboratory. If we want to assist in the evolution of human culture as Mckenna suggests then we need to recognise that psychedelics are not an isolated part of it. The ancient cultures used psychoactive plants as integral part of their rituals; they were woven into their stories. The spirit of the peyote is ‘Mescalito’; a playful figure who appears sometimes as a man, sometimes as a fly or inhabiting the body of a dog, sometimes as a terrifying entity or, if he likes you, as a ray of pure light (18). Or how about a seasonal example with the Amanita Muscaria, who are guarded by a small chubby man with a big beard who can fly around giving out their gifts if you’re ready to receive them or their punishments if you are not (19).

We are no longer the same as our ancient tribal counterparts. For whatever reason, ritual use of medicinal substances has been being systematically discouraged for probably around 10,000 years, since about the time agriculture started developing – for more of my theories on this see my Language and Permaculture article here (20). It is probably not useful for us to revive the old rituals and stories because we are new people. But what it seems essential for us to do if we truly wish to use these sacred medicines as part of our culture, and not just as a fringe aspect of it confined to uncertain swallowings of unknown substances in a field somewhere or (perhaps worse) to the cold unfeeling subjugations of the clinic, then we have to weave them into a new culture which recognises their benefits not as isolated chemicals but as tools to help us enrich our lives. Key to this is that we need to also be enriching our lives in other ways. Psychedelics, after all, only show us an amplified reflection of our own mental landscapes, so it seems to make sense to be tending these landscapes regularly if we wish to have meaningful or useful experiences with them.

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Time to start tending our landscapes. Photo by David Ashwanden

Experiencing the Experience

There do already exist groups aiming at something more than simply clinical research or drug policy reform. For example, last month also saw the launch of the Psychedelic Society of Brighton (21) in the UK with their ‘Psychedelic Healing’ event (22). The event featured speakers who talked not only about scientific research but about the role of education and ritual in psychedelic culture. The Psychedelic Society UK also runs ‘Psychedelic Experience Weekends’ (23) in the Netherlands where one can go and engage in a group ‘experience’ facilitated by ‘sitters’, in a safe, comfortable and legal (they use psilocybin-containing truffles, which are legal in the Netherlands) environment.

Experiences such as these are what we can be encouraging, if we really wish psychedelic culture to evolve. One example of an environment possibly conducive to emerging psychedelic culture is certain types of festivals.  The experience of people taking psychedelics at festivals can be greatly enhanced by the presence of groups like Kosmicare UK (24).

Our encouragement of experience involves a reconsideration of many aspects of our society, such as our definition of mental illness, our loss of ritual and how we can regain it, and our sense of reverence for the world around us. At the root is our relationship with our inner selves. If we can adventure through the “inner reaches of outer space” (25) and return we can be ready to be a part of the new creative mythology of our times.

This ‘mythology’ can include sacred medicines but also needs to include so much more.

Are you ready?

References

1. Wasson, R. G, 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. McGraw-Hill: New York City, USA

2. McKenna, T, 1993. Food of The Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam: New York City, USA

3. Rudgely, R, 2015. Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants in Society. Thistle Publishing: London, UK

4. Walton, S, 2001. Out of It. Penguin: London, UK

5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City, USA

6. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA

7. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p21. Pantheon Books: New York City, USA

8. Gogol Bordello, 2005. ‘Undestructable’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhu7ux4whs – retrieved 17/12/16

9. MAPS, 2016. ‘About’. http://www.maps.org/about – retrieved 17/12/16

10. MAPS, 2016. ‘Featured MDMA Research’. http://www.maps.org/resources/papers – retrieved 17/12/16

11. MAPS, 2016. ‘MDMA Therapist Training Program’. http://www.maps.org/participate/therapist-training-program  – retrieved 17/12/16

12. Psychedelic Science, 2016. ‘Conference’. http://psychedelicscience.org/conference  – retrieved 17/12/16

13. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘About’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/about/ – retrieved 17/12/16

14. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Policy Reports and Briefing Papers’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/policy/reports-briefing-papers/ – retrieved 17/12/16

15. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Substances and Methods’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/science/substances-methods/

16. The Beckley Foundation, 2016. ‘Meditation’. http://beckleyfoundation.org/science/substances-methods/meditation/

17. Breaking Convention, 2015. ‘The Conference’. http://2015.breakingconvention.co.uk/participate/ – retrieved 17/12/16

18. Castaneda, C, 1985. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Washington Square Press: New York City, USA

19. McKenna, C, 2013. ‘When Santa was a Mushroom: Amanita Muscaria and the origins of christmas’.Entheology, 1/10/13. http://entheology.com/research/when-santa-was-a-mushroom-amanita-muscaria-and-the-origins-of-christmas/ – retrieved 17/12/16

20. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture part 1: Why we need to focus on terminology to take permaculture to the next level’. Permaculture News, 14/12/16. http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/15/language-permaculture-part-1-need-focus-terminology-take-permaculture-next-level/ – retrieved 17/12/16

21. Facebook, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Society of Brighton’. https://web.facebook.com/psychedelicsocietybrighton/?_rdr

22. Facebook, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Society of Brighton Launch: Psychedelic Healing’. https://web.facebook.com/events/1825383351076287/ – retrieved 17/12/16

23. Psychedelic Society UK, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Experience Weekends’. http://psychedelicsociety.org.uk/experience-weekends – retrieved 17/12/16

24. Kosmicare UK, 2016. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/ – retrieved 17/12/16

25. Campbell, J, 2012. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and Religion. New World Library: New York City, USA

Rising Phoenix: Magic and Art at Europe’s largest Fire Festival

All photos by David Ashwanden – for more see his Phoenix flickr album here

Last week I had the pleasure of joining the volunteer team at what is probably Europe’s largest gathering of fire performers, the Phoenix Fire Convention in Germany (1). Having worked as a fire performer and been involved in the circus community for the past few years I thought I kind of knew what I was getting into. Yet nothing could have prepared me for what I found at the Phoenix festival – magic, deep connection and lots of amazing skills.

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Setting up The Fire Space

What does fire mean?

It is all around us nowadays – from the man walking by you in the street lighting his cigarette to the somewhat tamed flames of the circuits sparking inside the machine on which you are reading these words – and sometimes it can be easy to forget the raw vitality of this most elementary power. Yet fire is today as dangerous to touch as it was for our Promethean ancestors, and though we may feel we have trained it to do our will, a visit to any dry country in the summertime could swiftly show you that we are by no means always in control.

 

What does Phoenix mean?

The legend of the phoenix originates in Ancient Greece, though as a mythological symbol it has counterparts in many cultures (2), as do many of our most profound societal symbols (3). It is generally described as a large, beautiful bird with lustrous red or purple feathers (etymologically, ‘phoenix’ stems from the Greek word for ‘purple’, a colour associated with fire and the sunrise) (4), which burns on the fire and dies but is re-born from the ashes of the same fire. As a symbol of a fire festival, then, it is pretty apt.  However, the fire-bird is more than a symbol – it is actually an integral part of the festival. Every night at dusk the Phoenix, a large metal sculpture, was ceremonially set alight. Only when it had burned completely did the fire space of the festival, a large carpeted area which at its capacity could safely host around 30 fire performers at a time, open.

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Setting the Phoenix Alight

The ritual nature of this helped to set a tone of respect and mutual appreciation. Many of us play with fire on a weekly or even daily basis and from watching some of the people in the fire space it was clear that more than a few feel totally at home when surrounded by flames.  This familiarity, however, perhaps makes it all the more important to remember what we are playing with and to accord it the respect it deserves.  The phoenix-burning ceremony was a beautiful way to represent this.

Sacred Space

Preparation of sacred space to show the importance of an activity is something which can help a lot in directing focus and attention on one’s actions, on the present moment and on appreciating what the world is giving to us. This by no means needs to be religious; but there are many aspects of modern Western culture which can be seen to be lacking this appreciation and sared-isation. Luckily, this lack means there is space for the creation of new ceremonies and placement of new importance on places and events. As a volunteer helping to set up the fire space at the Phoenix, I was part of a team of people who helped to turn a piece of dusty, stony ground into a smooth, carpeted dance-space. The care and attention going into this was emphasised by the fact that the festival hired a group dedicated to fire-space preparation to organise it, who are named very aptly The Fire Space (5).

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Setting up the Fire Space.

This is something I have actually done before though not on such a grand scale, and though not everyone may use the word ‘sacred’ to describe the activity, it was done with such care, attention and love that there doesn’t appear, to me, to be a difference (for more on my definitions of ‘sacred’ and on the importance of sacred space see my article here) (5).

Magic Circle

Feel like you don’t have your own ‘sacred space’? Maybe you can create one…Photo by David Ashwanden

What does convention mean?

Altogether there ended up being around 800 attendees at the convention: jugglers, spinners, sculptors, whippers, people who could move their bodies in ways I’d not dreamed possible before and of course, people bringing many many examples of fire-toys, from places as diverse as Denmark, Costa Rica, Canada, Australia, Spain and many others, even Wales.

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Fire swords in the pre-dawn light.

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LED toys in the ‘Blacklight Space’.

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Spinning with the gigantically impressive ‘Triplengs’.

Each day of the convention was filled with workshops so that we could learn more about the skills we already have or pick up an entirely new skill if we wanted. More importantly than these learnings, however, seems to be the gathering together of people who share the same passions, which seems to accelerate learning even if there is no formal teaching.

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The magic of gathering together.

The location of the festival was in the beautiful Thuringia hills, and it seems indicative of the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the conventioners that on the Saturday night, hundreds of local villagers came to see the Gala show and join in a little bit themselves.

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One of the Gala Show comperes: Pete the Witch Doctor.

Even the weather was appropriate, with burning hot sun every day of the festival, which finally broke into an awesome lightning storm on the evening of the final day, as the Phoenix was carefully cleared away.

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Even the sky was playing with fire.

Flames of Earth

Our human society is full of fire, you can even say it is built on fire. There are many aspects of the way in which we use fire which can be seen as massively destructive, even if they do seem to provide us with convenient things such as means of travel or communication. One reason why we may be causing so much self-destruction, as explored by Abram (7) and others, is our lack of connection to the beauty and power of fire and its symbolic equivalence within the burning of our own spirits. With this in mind it seems clear that a step towards responsible use of the earth’s resources is recognition of the sacred art which we can create with it, and which it always possible to create with it. That is not to say that fire performers are not using the Earth’s resources, but we are tapping into the raw energy of the fire in a way in which you may not consider when you, for example, take a ride on a bus. Is this recognition and love part of creating a re-considered use of resources? Perhaps.

One final tradition of the festival was that everyone who attended was given a tiny corked bottle on a string. Into this we put a small amount of the ashes from the burned phoenix. Next year, the phoenix can only rise again with the help of the returning festival-goers, who can contribute the ash it needs for the rebirth.

As if we needed another incentive to come back…

Do you enjoy these photos? For many more from the convention, check out David Ashwanden’s flickr album here.

References

  1. Phoenix Convention, 2016. ‘Homepage’. http://phoenix-convention.de/
  2. Garry, Jane; El-Shamy, Hasan, 2005. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature. ME Sharpe: New York City.
  3. Van der Broek, R, 1972. The Myth of the Phoenix. Seeger I trans. EJ Brill: Leidon/Boston/Tokyo.
  4. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Pantheon: New York City
  5. Fire Space, 2016. ‘Fire Space Project’. https://www.facebook.com/FireSpaceProject/?pnref=lhc
  6. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/2015. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/
  7. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

 

 

The EU Referendum: Towards a Global Citizenship?

On Thursday (23 June 2016) the citizens of the United Kingdom voted on whether or not they wish to be part of the European Union in a referendum (1). The results of the referendum, as well as the media portrayal of events leading up to and following it, have thrown up some interesting questions of identity and what it means to be united. Though much analysis of these questions focuses on the political aspects of the EU and the UK as a state, it could also be important to consider the wider implications when it comes to travelling in general, and what it actually means to be a citizen in today’s world.

United!….Are We?

Geographically, the referendum results have thrown into clear contrast the idea of the United Kingdom being one nation-state. Though most of England voted to leave the EU (1), the majority of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in (1), suggesting a lack of unity within the ‘United’ Kingdom. However, if Scotland and Northern Ireland become their own nation-states, independent of English law, the major English cities will probably wish to follow, having all voted to stay in the EU, so we could end up with six or seven new EU member states, including the country of London (which may raise some logistical questions of how the politics of England would function without the Houses of Parliament and all of the bureaucratic institutions which are based in London, but surely just a little re-organisation is needed).

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Photo by David Ashwanden

Considering our movements

One issue which seems to have been central to the referendum is the idea of ‘immigrants’ coming into the EU (see for example 2). Those voting to leave the EU may well have been doing so in order to stop more people entering Britain as an immigrant. However, there are an estimated 1.2 million British-born people currently living in other EU states (3) whose right to reside in such countries could potentially be compromised by the referendum results. If those who voted ‘remain’ were hoping to limit the number of people entering the UK, they may wish to consider these 1.2 million.

The right to travel 

It is difficult to tell what effect the referendum will have on a practical level for people who live in Britain or who have been officially designated British. However, in many ways the results seem to be throwing into clear relief the irrelevance of such official designations. How can we identify with England if we live in Italy or Spain, and England wishes to close its borders to these countries? Furthermore, in today’s increasingly connected and multicultural, multi-perspective world, what does it mean to identify with a nation-state? It is perhaps easier to feel an identity, for example, with a person who was born in a country on the other side of the globe, but who likes the same bands as you, than to your next-door neighbour who bangs on the wall every time you play their music too loud. Then there is the more holistic idea that we are all related and that a deep respect for the world around us- the trees, the mountains, the flowers, and all our fellow animals- is resonant wherever we are in the globe and whichever side of a political line we happen to be on.

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Mountains – the same, whichever nation they have been designated a part of. Photo by David Ashwanden.

The flowers, after all, do not need a passport to travel. As someone who has lived for extended periods in the mountains I was refreshingly amazed to find, on my first ever visit to the mountains of Abruzzo in central Italy, many of the same plant species as I experienced in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of kilometres away in a different so-called nation, as well as in my own native land. The plants flourish in an environment which is conducive to biodiversity, creating a resilient network of abundant life. Different from plants as we may be, it does not take too much of a leap of imagination to analogise this to humans.

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Mountain Flowers. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

International imports but no freedom to leave?

The idea that we have the right to roam and flourish on the earth while respecting it is an ancient one, and as an increasingly global society one which it may well be important to recognise. Many people are upset, angry or scared about the outcome of the referendum – which emotions do seem to be being encouraged by media outlets – but what the referendum perhaps is really showing is that it doesn’t matter which nation or group of nations you supposedly belong to. From this perspective it is not so important to join one or other identifying group but to identify yourself as a global citizen, someone who has every right to live in the world and to freely move around it. This is what I believe we are moving towards as an international society, whatever the so-called ruling governments may say.

Official recognition and doing it anyway

Yet how can we apply this holistic citizenship on a practical level? Maybe it is easier than you think. In Britain there already exist laws enshrining the rights of so-called ‘travellers’ (4), although not many of them are followed in practise. For example, the fact that ‘travellers’ are recognised as a distinct section of society is shown in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, under which councils can provide special traveller’s sites for caravans and mobile homes, although “not many public authorities do so” (4).

What appears to be clear is that if a group of people really believe that they have the right to do something, then this right exists, regardless of the law.  This can be shown in many examples; one clear one of the law catching up to what the people had decided was right is with many indigenous tribes in what is now known as the USA, who have a deep cultural relationship to the ingestion of peyote cactus which has been developing over thousands of years, and whose right to use this sacred plant was recognised in 1965 by 28 different Federal governments even though they still currently ban all other people from eating peyote (5).

What does it mean for me?

What does this have to do with being a British or other citizen? Simply that it illustrates that if you really think something should be a certain way then it can be. If taking peyote in sacred rituals is recognised as an act of religious freedom, then why shouldn’t travelling around the world and finding a home wherever you feel comfortable, regardless of the lines on the map? The indigenous American tribes are respectful of the sacred nature of the peyote and this respect can extend out to the entire world. This is how we could approach the new global citizenship: we are not simply travellers but conscious movers; every step we take is careful and everywhere we go we can recognise the beauty and the goodness present, even in cultural gestures or landscapes which may at first appear ugly. We accept that everyone’s ideas are valid, which includes all the border games and everything they entail, just in the way that indigenous tribes may well respect the laws banning other people from using their sacred plant in disrespectful ways, though as citizens of a unified and sacred planet we are exempt from such games.

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All of our ways can be beautiful. Photo by David Ashwanden.

The previous statements are simply ideas; seeds which can be taken and planted if you have the right conditions to nurture them. Whatever effects the EU referendum ends up having, we can use it as a starting point for moving beyond mere simple ideas of nationalism or groups of nations. Wherever you travel, either virtually using your computer screen or physically sensing this wonderful planet around you, remember that the “lovers of ultimate beauty” (6) can be found everywhere. The more we realise this the more we can move forwards towards a recognition of travelling as a sacred right….

…Well it is, right?

References

  1. The Guardian, 2016. ‘EU Referendum: Results and Analysis’. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-live-results-and-analysis
  2. Asthana, A, 2016. ‘Immigration and the EU referendum: the angry, frustrated voice of the British public’. The Guardian, 20/6/16. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/20/seven-towns-one-story-referendum-voters-say-too-many-foreigners
  3. Migration Watch UK, 2016. ‘The British in Europe – and vice versa’. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/354
  4. Law on the Web, 2016. ‘Rights of Travellers’. https://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/legal-help/rights-of-travellers
  5. Legal Information Institute, 2016. ’42 U.S. Code § 1996a – Traditional Indian religious use of peyote’. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1996a
  6. Gogol Bordello, 2007. ‘Wonderlust King’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3SUPPeuRdU

Intoxicating Words: Ideas for changes in language to promote positive evolution of humanity

With thanks to David Ashwanden

As explored elsewhere in this blog (1, 2), words are very powerful things. There are some which ignite such emotions and polarise opinions so greatly that it can be dangerous to use them in certain company. One example of this is the word ‘drug’. Such a small word, yet one which has been massively controversial for many decades. There are many so-called ‘drugs’ which have been deemed as inappropriate for general societal use by the lawmakers and which have subsequently gained huge amounts of support for legalisation. In particular, entheogenic or psychoactive substances such as, but not limited to, LSD, psilocybin and cannabis have been the subject of much debate.

Turn on, tune in…?

Right now, it could be argued, there has never been more reason to be interested in how things affect our minds, and how we can utilise them in a beneficial way. Although so-called ‘psychedelic’ or ‘mind-manifesting’ plant and fungi-based materials have been used by humans for thousands if not tens of thousands of years in order to enhance our human experience and connection to the world around us (see for example 3, 4), and it has been almost a century since LSD-25 was first isolated by Albert Hoffman (5), research into how LSD and similarly acting substances can affect the human mind was stifled for many decades (6) and has only recently gained a resurgence (7).

Much evidence suggests that as long as humans have had culture we have also had a deep and often sacred relationship with plants and fungi which can affect our minds in powerful ways (see for example 3, 4); yet today we are also actually gathering more and more scientific evidence on why this is so, and why such substances play a key part in our lives. This includes the latest studies at Imperial College London which show, using state-of-the-art scanning technology, what our brains look like when we ingest LSD (8), and also this past weekend saw the third edition of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in the Netherlands (9).

Many groups involved with the psychedelic resurgence are strongly advocating partial or total legalisation of such psychoactive substances as LSD and psilocybin (see for example 10). However, while such things are considered ‘drugs’ it does not seem particularly helpful for them to be legal or illegal. To keep calling them such, regardless of what the so-called decision-makers say, is to do a disservice to valuable allies to our health, and to the thousands of years of human culture when, by many accounts, our relationship to such substances was not as either a commodity to consume or as contraband to fear, but as a tool which could help to guide us through our own psyches and thus create better cultures for ourselves and those around us.

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But what is a ‘Substance’ anyway?

On Friday (26 May 2016), a new law came into force in the UK, which seems to be worded very strangely indeed. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances” which are defined as “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect” (UK government, 2016) (11)

“Psychoactive” simply means affecting the mind, so any “substance…capable of producing a psychoactive effect” includes all food and drink which we as humans consume. But don’t worry – you will not be arrested for eating a salad for dinner because the lettuce you’re eating has mildly narcotic, hypnotic and sedative effects (12); the Act covers the government’s back with this one by excluding from it “legitimate substances”, such as “food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products” (11).

Language and Medicine

Advocates of freedom of choice have argued that there are many things which one can ingest which have a medical effect, and which therefore we have the right to consume freely and without molestation from law enforcers, which could be one reason how marijuana has been classified as a medical substance in many states (13). This has probably helped thousands if not millions of people to peacefully ingest cannabis to aid them a a huge variety of ways. However, it also does not seem to address the root of the linguistic category in which our culture puts such substances.

Either they are ‘controlled’ and therefore, to speak in practical terms for a moment, if you buy them you have no idea of what you are getting, the only person’s word for what is inside the substance you will ingest is the person you buy it from, and availability is unreliable; or they are ‘products’, which seems to imply that they are a commodity to buy, sell and consume, to advertise and which has a stock market value tied to the world economy.

Does this really make any sense? Even if somehow the Psychoactive Substances Act was changed and pscychoactive substances were to receive legal blessings, for them to be treated as a ‘product’ seems to be missing the point almost as much as for them to be prohibited. Drugs, it seems, can either be condoned, sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and bars, enjoyed by the people and taxed by the state, or can be a complicated and wearisome world of underground dealings; yet the substances hinted at by the Act do not seem to me to fit into either of these categories. We have begun a resurgence of psychedelic research but it is important to remember that our heritage in such substances does not stem from the laboratory.

Which is more Psychoactive? The word or the substance?

That is not to say that such substances should not be treated with care. On the contrary, we probably need to be thinking more about what we are ingesting than ever before. But perhaps one reason why our modern society, so intent on categorising everything, has such trouble with psychoactive substances is that they can, when taken in a conducive context and with care, respect and love, encourage going beyond all categories and achieving perspectives which are higher, deeper, or altogether more novel than those usually prescribed.

As such, perhaps we need a totally new set of words to describe our relationship to these substances. This may seem like a small point, yet when we consider that much of our current society is built on words, we can begin to see how changing the definition can change our entire relationship. Indeed, as things which with nothing more than an expiration of breath and a small sounding of the vocal chords, or a couple of taps on a computer keyboard, have the power to alter the human mind radically, it seems that words are some of the most psychoactive things which we use, and it may be wise to consider how we use them.

Perhaps a more beneficial term to describe psychoactives would be ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’; for these terms imply a deep respect for what the substances can do and do not necessarily imply religion.  It could also be helpful to extend this definition to ourselves. If we consider our own beings with a deep respect and think about the effect of everything we are ingesting, as well as the word which we give out to the world, we can create a beautiful healthy ecosystem within our own bodies which goes far beyond simple consuming. The same idea can be extended outwards to the whole universe if you like.  

I am in no way condoning ingestion of any psychoactive substances – not even lettuce leaves – if you do not want to. But the power of the way in which we speak about the things which we ingest is deep and strong, and it seems that we can harness this power to help to create a better world; not simply an extension of an old paradigm but a reflection of all of the potential which we have inside us and a recognition of all of the tools which can help us to fulfill it.

References

  1. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Using Our Language-Shadows.’ Abundance Garden, 1/11/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/using-our-language-shadows/  
  2. Haworth, c, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 03/03/2015. – retrieved 7/6/16 https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/  
  3. Campbell, J, 1988. The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume II, Part 3. HarperCollins: New York City.
  4. McKenna, T, 1993. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution). Bantam: New York City
  5. Hoffman, Dr A, 1996. ‘LSD: Completely Personal’ – translated from the original German (LSD Ganz Persönlich) by J. Ott. from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 1996. Available online here: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v06n3/06346hof.html  – retrieved 7/6/16
  6. University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, 2007. ‘The Medical History of Psychedelic Drugs’. Available online as part of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): http://www.maps.org/images/pdf/history_of_psychedelics.pdf – retrieved 7/6/16
  7. Schiavenza, M, 2015. ‘Seeing Opportunity in Psychedelic Drugs’. The Atlantic, 8/3/15. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/a-psychedelic-revival/387193/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  8. Imperial College London, 2016. ‘Brain on LSD revealed: First scans show how the drug affects the brain’. Science Daily, 11/4/16. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160411153006.htm
  9. ICPR 2016, 2016. ‘About’. http://www.icpr2016.nl/about-icpr-2016/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  10. Psychedelic Society, 2016. ‘Arguments for Legislation’. http://www.psychedelicsociety.org.uk/arguments-for-legalisation – retrieved 7/6/16
  11. UK Government, 2016. ‘Psychoactive Substances Act 2016’. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/psychoactivesubstances.html
  12. Plants for a Future, 2016. ‘Lactuca Sativa Garden Lettuce – Medicinal Properties’. http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Lactuca+sativa
  13. Lethco, CW, 2006. ‘Worldwide laws on cannabis possession for medical purposes or cannabis-based medicene’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_and_medical_status_of_cannabis#/media/File:Legality_of_cannabis_for_medical_purposes_new.png

 

Tuning Into Nature

It seems increasingly clear that much our action as humans is detrimental to the world around as, not to mention to our own species. News reports abound in tales of lack of earth care with companies ripping out the soil to extract minerals and oil (see for example 1), lack of people care with those fleeing from disaster or conflict are met with guard towers, barbed wire fences and a demand for the right papers (see for example 2), and lack of equal distribution of resources when we see how much food we produce in the world, and how much of that is thrown away (see for example 3).

 

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Our human-made creations are beautiful, but only as part of a whole which includes non-humans as well. Photo by David Ashwanden

 

Oh No!?

All of these lacks seem indicative of a number of trends within our human culture. The first one to note and which it is useful to be keenly aware of is what could be called the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon. This is the tendency of people, from the level of global media down to individuals you may meet on the street, to focus on the negative side of whatever is going on. The reasons for the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon are many, varied and have been developing for a number of years.

What seems important now is to realise that, though there may be things going on in the world which are creating unbalance, upset and disharmony, there are also many things which are helping to create positive, balanced and harmonious situations. If we always focus on the negative side we are giving energy to it and therefore helping to manifest more of whatever it is we supposedly do not want.

…OK…

It is perhaps not as simple as if we see a problem we should just ignore it and it goes away. What exists, exists, so there is not really any point in denying it. If we want to truly live, we must also accept dying and the idea of death around us. This idea is explored in many works of art, and indeed it has been noted that the job of the artist is to show how close we are to death in order to appreciate life (see for example 4).

Firmly rooted in this acceptance we can look at the lack of harmony and balance in the world, accept it, and move towards a more positive-seeming future. What appears to be key to assisting this movement is our own attitudes, as human beings, towards the other beings which inhabit this planet along with us. David Abram (5) suggests that we can trace back our lack of care for the world around us exactly to the time when we first developed phonetic language and with it the ability to construct abstract ideas and concepts. Abram and others have pointed out that with this ability we can create the illusion of being ‘abstracted’ from the rest of the world, as we can separate ourselves in our minds from other animals, plants, rocks, indeed all the living, breathing, more-than-human world (5). The problem with this is that it is a false idea, since we are still connected in a very fundamental way to this world, regardless of how many abstract ideas and virtual realities we bring into it.

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Animals – connected to us through the physical realm, however disconnected we may seem. Photo by David Ashwanden

How can we then bring back our understanding of ourselves in line with our physical connection to the rest of the world? One way is to be aware that there is more than one type of language. You may be able to speak English, Italian, Spanish, French, German – you may even think in a number of different human languages, and your mind be open to new perspectives from the subtle differences of thought which exist between them. Yet you can be as polylingual as any UN translator and still miss the languages which are perhaps more important to learn, especially now. These are the older, half-forgotten languages of the earth and sky, of the plants as they grow and as they die, and even the rocks and minerals underground. Opening ourselves up to sense these languages is maybe one of the most fundamental steps we can take towards creating positive change in our world.

I use the term ‘language’ to describe this way in which we can communicate with the more-than-human world around us, though you can interpret it how you like. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of the first phenomenologists, calls the process of being alive ‘reciprocal participation’ (5) as we are constantly not only perceiving the things around us but also being perceived by them, in an interaction which we in our modern cultures are perhaps forgetting.

…Oh Yes!

Re-connecting with these languages is surprisingly simple, and you have probably already experienced it in life. The process is a constant communication, what could be called a ‘tuning in’ to nature and to all of the life which is surrounding you.

You may not necessarily agree with the way in which I am framing this connection; it may not fit with your world view to think of rocks as alive, or to see the way in which the trees whisper in the first rising wind of a summer storm as anything to do with a communication to you. What is important is not the words which I am using but what lies beyond them; deeper than the words is the blood which links all of us, the steady beat of your heart which drums in rhythm with all the world, if only you can tune into it.

 

Many cultures place music and dancing as highly important aspects not only as enjoyment but as physical connection to the music of the environment. Tuning into nature is about becoming aware of your own body and how you dance as much as it is about becoming aware of the rest of the world. Dance is a powerful and very immediate way of communicating, where words are both unnecessary and superfluous.

So if you’ve read this far, forget the words. Words are useful to convey ideas, but unless we also connect to the deep and fundamental family of all the living beings of the world the words are empty, useless, and potentially dangerous in their false promises of separation. So forget these words. Forget all the words which may be rolling around in your head, demanding your attention and your time, and for just a moment, give time to your breath instead. Try following your feelings. Go outside under the full moon; stand in a field and watch a lightning storm; jump into the sea without resisting her cold, welcoming touch; run around in the rain and listen to the changes in sound, in scent, in texture of the world becoming wet; sit still in the forest and come to that place where words no longer matter.

However your rhythm goes you can connect it to the greater rhythm of life around you. Give it a try; you never know…It may even be a joyous experience.

References

  1. Good, K, 2015. ‘How Drilling the Earth for Natural Gas is Fracking up Human Lives Across America’. One Green Planet, 27/2/2015. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/impact-of-fracking-on-human-health/
  2. Tomlinson, C, 2016. 5000 Migrants Turned Away As Macedonia No Longer Recognises Afghans As ‘Refugees’. Breitbart, 23/2/2016. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/02/23/5000-migrants-turned-away-as-macedonia-no-longer-recognises-afghans-as-refugees/
  3. Institution of Mechanical Engineers. ‘Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not’. Imeche: London. Available as a PDF here: https://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/global-food—waste-not-want-not.pdf?sfvrsn=0
  4. Campbell, J, quoted in ‘Mythos: Vol III, Episode 3.5 Into the Well of Myth.’ PBS: Arlington, Virginia.
  5. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City