Tag Archives: entheogens

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).

circle-dance

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.

Forest

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

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Sacred Spaces

All photos by David Ashwanden

A lot of the time, one hears tales of natural landscapes being destroyed: flourishing, paradisal ecosystems interrupted to make way for what generally seems to be a poor exchange: a bit of petroleum, perhaps; a shopping centre, or even a parking lot.

Raising awareness of such operations is important, and the question of whether or not a particular piece of land should be developed often seems even more pertinent when the land in question has a deep cultural or spiritual significance. Yet it seems equally important to explore how we relate to such events, and the extent to which we understand our own impact on sacred spaces.

Mt. Bromo

Saving Space

It seems for every environmentally-destructive operation there is a reaction against such destruction. One example is Greenpeace’s Stop the Tar Sands campaign (1), whose focus is on the destruction of Athabasca, the ancestral homeland of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (2). Though Athabasca is in modern day Canada, the campaign is based in the UK; a recognition that in our increasingly interconnected world we can have an affect on things seemingly far away from us. Another example of this is the case of Quemado. Quemado is a mountain in Mexico which is currently the home of a community of Wixarikas (known in Spanish as Huichol), who have one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (3) – i.e. they are still practicing more or less the same rituals which they have practised for thousands of years, rather than is the case with many earth-worshipping traditions, which have been revived after being lost (see for example 4). Quemado has recently come to the attention of some people in the UK, as the Wixarikas’ homeland is being threatened by plans from the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp and Real Bonanza (6), who both wish to dig up the mountain in order to extract silver from it. This article (5) reports on how the Wixarika used to inhabit the Wirikuta Desert, a place which still remains holy to them and to which they still continue to make a month-long pilgrimage each year in order to harvest the sacred plants which grow there.

The definition of holy

It seems clear that there are many better things which could happen to Quemado Mountain than to be turned into one more habitat-destroying and inefficient mine; and it is admirable that people are taking up the cry of those whose homes are threatened by such entities as the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp. One thing that seems as though it could be seen from a slightly different perspective, however, is the article’s pointing out the fact that Quemado is a holy mountain – so even more reason for it to be respected. Yet the article itself points out that the Wixarika only live in El Quemado now because they moved there to escape various waves of colonialism in Mexico; “conquistadors, missionaries, slavers, settlers, ranchers, and the murderous Catholic fundamentalists, Los Cristeros”; and even consumer-capitalism (5). Their ancestral holy place is the desert to which they travel every year for the sacred mescalito or peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) harvest. This is not to say that El Quemado is not holy or should not be respected; but rather to throw into question the whole idea of how to define what is holy anyway. the article seems to imply respect for the Wixarika’s homeland as a sacred space; yet the website it is published on is a UK-based one, far away from the mountain in question and the culture which is being held up as admirable; one whose people have “pure open hearts, extreme honesty, zero bullshit, a genuine spiritual focus, utter reverence for Nature, and who exist in a permanent and instantly tangible magical reality” (5).

Perhaps one way in which we can truly learn from such a culture is to bring this kind of thinking into our own lives. The mountain was not holy before the Wixarikas moved onto it; what does this say about mountains? What does it say about the places where you live?

Making Sense of Where we Are

It is of great importance to respect the world in which we live, and if anyone feels they see an imbalance which they wish to set right, they should try to change it. But any change we attempt to make “out there” is going to be severely reduced if we do not look at how we can create more harmony and balance in our own lives. Where you live, is there a place which is generally worshipped? Does your culture make a pilgrimage to somewhere special?

Chances are, if you live somewhere like the UK then your immediate answer to such questions would be “no”. Yet it is worth thinking into this a little. Perhaps you do not feel a particular pull from the place you live; but why do you live there? Maybe there are no places deemed “special” by your country, race, belief system, town, village or even friends which you relate to – but isn’t there somewhere which you find special? This could be anywhere; from the particular way your room feels when you sit in that chair at a certain time of day, to the notable majesty of the tree you pass on your way to work every day. If there are special places in your life which you like to visit, take a moment to consider what makes them attractive to you. Perhaps it is that you can relax there; that you feel a sense of beauty or peace, or you can come together with friends or family and so feel more connected and integrated.

It's amazing what you can find that is special. Photo by David Ashwanden

It’s amazing what you can find that is special. Photo by David Ashwanden

The examples of what such places could be are as many as there are people. It is worth recognising, however, that if you have somewhere which evokes any of those feelings in you, this could also be defined as “holy”. That doesn’t mean that you need to start a religion about it; merely that it commands your respect, and therefore, perhaps, it can help you feel more respect towards yourself and by extension, to everyone else.

Feeling the connection

That you can make your own life more magical by respecting your immediate environment still extends to the rest of the world. Yet rather than following campaigns whose stated aim is the prohibition of something – such as stopping the tar sands – it may be more helpful to look at what we can create. In choosing to sacred-ise the world around us we can help to engender a culture of mutual appreciation. For example, rather than trying to decry the silver companies, which after all are made up of humans who almost all probably believe they are doing the right thing, it may be more beneficial to look at how your own activities fit into the proposed mine. Silver is used a lot for jewellery and decorations; but much more of it is used to create electronic equipment such as phones and laptops (6). Perhaps by choosing to reduce the demand for silver, by using recycled electronic goods and opting for products such as Fairphone (7) over brand-new goods, we can show that the silver mine is not only destructive to the ecosystems around it and to the Wixarika culture, but it is itself irrelevant.

Mt. Arjuna

Making Sacred Spaces

Your holy place could be anywhere; from the local nightclub where you never fail to let loose and have fun with your friends, to that quiet bend in the river under the cliffs where you sit alone, undisturbed by all except the occasional passing sheep. The key thing about the Wixarikas is that they made the Quemado Mountain holy when they began living there. They show their respect to and appreciation for the mountain in countless ways. One admirable thing which humans have is the ability to change our environment. When done carelessly and without thought this leads to such clear ecological disasters as the Athabasca Oil Sands and the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp’s plans for El Quemado. Yet when done with conscientious respect it is marvellous what we can create.

Feel like you don't have your own 'sacred space'? Maybe you can create one...Photo by David Ashwanden

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

References

  1. Greenpeace, 2015. ‘Stop theTar Sands’. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/stop-the-tar-sands/

  2. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.acfn.com/#!about/c1enr

  3. Stacy B. Schaefer, Peter T. Furst, People of the peyote: Huichol Indian history, religion & survival. UNM Press, 1998. p. 236

  4. Bonewits, I, 1979/2007. “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso- and Neo”. http://www.neopagan.net/PaganDefs.html

  5. Psychic Deli, 2013. “Occupy Quemado: Holy Mountain or Holey Mountain?” Psychedelic Press, 1/3/13. http://psypressuk.com/2013/03/01/occupy-quemado-holy-mountain-or-holey-mountain/

  6. Lewis, Dr J, 2012. “Huichol Indians Protest Silver Mining Plan at Sacred Mountains”. Silverseek, 23/2/12

  7. Ferre, E.C, 2015. “The Many Uses of Silver”. http://geology.com/articles/uses-of-silver/

  8. Fairphone, 2015. “About Us”.www.fairphone.com/story