Tag Archives: Terrance McKenna

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

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.

Olive wood 2

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