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?
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).
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.
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.
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?
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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
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7. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p21. Pantheon Books: New York City, USA
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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
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25. Campbell, J, 2012. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and Religion. New World Library: New York City, USA