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Psychoactive identity politics: What drug activists could learn from identity activists

Women of the world unite. Women fight for equality in America. A New York March, 1970.

Women of the world unite. Women fight for equality in America. A New York March, 1970.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk on a popular Israeli TV show about the practice of micro-dosing on LSD. I was invited to the program as an expert on psychedelics, yet at a certain point in our conversation one of the hosts turned to me and asked. “Tell me Dr. do you yourself use LSD?” I was ready for this question, so I told him it would be better we’d discuss my practices after the show, however I wasn’t ready for his response. “Oh, is this because of the legal implications? Are you worried you’ll have cops waiting for you when you exit the studio?”

How do you answer a question like that? Certainly, part of the reason not to speak about psychedelic experiences on TV is because astonishingly they are still prohibited by law and publicly speaking about them might get one into trouble. Yet was the question even legit? Would the same TV presenter feel equally justified in asking a sexologist on the show, “So tell me Dr? Do you personally have lots of sex?” “Oh, would you rather not discuss this on TV because you are worried what our viewers might think?”

There wasn’t really anything unusual about this TV presenter’s questions. Actually, I had come to expect this kind of approach when I am interviewed about psychedelics. Yet the experience did lead me to think about the unique situation in which the discourse about psychedelics currently finds itself. While other political minorities such as the feminist, LGBT, or black rights movement have made great strides  over the past decades, the psychedelic movement is still stuck somewhere in the 1960s, a time when racial segregation became illegal, homosexuality ceased being a crime and feminist consciousness soared – but experimenting with psychedelics became illegal and punishable by law. Since the rise of the minority rights movement it has become increasingly unacceptable to stigmatize women, LGBT, blacks and other disadvantaged groups, yet as “Stoner sloth”, the recent anti-weed  campaign against weed reminds us, it is still accepted as perfectly legitimate, even desirable, to stigmatize drug users and paint them as dumb and lazy. In a world where disadvantaged groups are ever more vigilant about microagressions, it is still considered safe to debase drug users using derogative terms, portray them as recklessly irresponsible fiends,  and blame them the ills of society. This happens although various reports have shown that stigmatization of drug users leads to discrimination, lower addiction-recovery rates, and even torture and abuse. The legal persecution of drug users makes things ever more complicated, deterring many from raising their voice against the demeaning stereotypization of drug users for fear of being stigmatized themselves.

But what if it became clear that there is a need to be vigilant when speaking about drug users as when speaking about other disadvantaged groups, and that the discrimination and persecution of drug users are another form of minority discrimination?

 

The identity politics of psychoactives

LGBT protest against ROTC treatment of gays and lesbians. University of Wisconsin, 1990.

LGBT protest against ROTC treatment of gays and lesbians. University of Wisconsin, 1990.

Adding psychoactive drugs to the discussion about minority rights is a risky undertaking. To start with, many have difficulties recognizing drug users as a minority group. Indeed, while the majority of citizenry is composed of drug users (certainly if one includes alcohol or coffee), drug users hardly ever identify themselves as a group. At the same time, minority activists themselves might revolt against the idea, reminding us that  gender and race are biological realities, whereas drug preferences are not. Still, some support for the way the politics of consciousness might fit into the greater discussion about minority politics might be found in the acceptance of LGBT as an identity, although some have claimed sexual orientation is but a choice. The Wikipedia entry on identity politics states that the term might refer to a variety of possible identities, based not only on race, gender and sexual orientation but also on ideology, nation, culture, information preference or even musical or literary preferences. In that case, might we not consider psychoactive preferences as something which relates to a person’s identity? In actuality, the tendency to experiment with altered states of consciousness is arguably as natural and ubiquitous as the need to experiment with sexuality. All human cultures, indigenous or modern, make some use of mind-alterants, a tendency which often emerges already in childhood. Some people have a special propensity for experimenting with altered states of minds – yet they are not dumber, more dangerous, or in any way inferior to those who do not share this tendency, as is often suggested by anti-drug organizations.

The rapidly growing discourse on identity politics is fraught with discussions about privileged and discriminated groups, in which certain groups are acknowledged to be privileged over other disadvantaged groups. However, nobody speaks of the privilege of being able to use a favorite substance without fear of police violence and incarceration. Since the use of any drug necessarily also entails a lifestyle (consider, for example, the differences between alcohol, cannabis and coffee cultures) privileging some drugs over others is fundamentally privileging some types of cultures over others, and historically the drugs being privileged were those sanctioned by privileged groups, while prohibited drugs have been those used by marginalized groups. Marihuana was outlawed as part of a racist campaign which targeted Mexican immigrants; opium as part of a campaign against Chinese immigrants; cocaine in a scare campaign which demonized black users and psychedelics as part of a campaign to subdue the 1960s counterculture. The current war against drugs is also heavily mixed with race politics as evidenced by the fact that while 5 times as many whites use drugs, African Americans are 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for drug use. At the same time, sanctioned drugs, such as coffee, Ritalin or Prozac are those which are considered to allow the efficient management of human impulses and emotions for the optimization of economic production. Favoring some drugs over others is often favoring certain values over others. Being able to use your favorite drug without fear of incarceration is also a form of privilege.

 

Raising the consciousness about consciousness

Are the politics of consciousness a form of identity politics? The answer is far from simple, and yet, half a century after the beginning of the war against drugs and the rise of awareness to the unacceptable role that certain modes of speaking play in the discrimination of marginalized groups, it might be time for drug users and legalization advocates to learn a lesson in consciousness raising by embracing their identities and demanding a discussion about drugs which is free from stereotypes, debasement and dehumanization.

 

Update 10/07/2016

Psymposia have recently run an excellent series on psychedelics and identity politics which resonates and expands on the questions explored here. Check it out here.

The Psychedelic Society Revisited: On Reducing Valves, Reality Tunnels and the Question of Psychedelic Culture

This essay was originally published in the August 2015 edition of Psychedelic Press UK. It continues the exploration of some ideas which were discussed in an older essay which was published in this blog under the title “Culture is not your friend: on the countercultural ideology of psychedelic thinkers.”  

 

Some thirty years ago, in May 1983, Terence McKenna’s contact lenses failed him during a critical moment of his speech at the psychedelic conference in Santa Barbara. Unable to read from the page, McKenna had to resort to improvising. Listening to the recording after the event, he couldn’t help but notice the crowd’s reaction to a certain bit in his improvised talk, when he’d spoken the words “psychedelic society”. He had never used the phrase consciously before, but hearing the ripples that went through his listeners when he brought up the concept made McKenna wonder about its possible meanings.

Terence McKenna in the 1980s.

Arrived at the concept of a psychedelic society by coincidence. Terence McKenna in the 1980s.

A year later, in a classic June 1984 talk which was given at the Esalen Institute, and later adapted into a chapter in the 1997 psychedelic anthology Entheogens and the Future of Religion, McKenna proposed some of the possible characteristics and implications of such a psychedelic society.[1] A psychedelic society, he suggested, need not be one in which all members ingest psychedelics themselves. Rather, it is a society which orients itself and lives in the light of the irreducible Mystery of Being; a society in which problems and solutions are displaced from their traditional central role, and which puts “irreducible Mysteries” in their stead. Such a society, McKenna suggested, would be less keen to find clear and definitive answers, and more open to exploring reality without imposing simplified structures upon it. It would be more immune to the disastrous urge for simple clear-cut answers and identities, which characterizes human societies, and more open to co-existing with the doubts and contradictions inherent to the cosmos.

McKenna’s vision of a psychedelic society was closely related to another of his most popular ideas: the idea that culture and ideology are not your friends. According to McKenna, ideology and culture are tools which give other people the power over one’s experience and identity, since they lead individuals to shape their identity according to pre-conceived forms. If you identify yourself with brands or with the popular ideas about what is beautiful, true, right or important, you are giving away the power over your experience to other people. You let others tell you what to think, instead of thinking for yourself.

Not to mistake culture and ideology as your friends meant seeking to understand reality in one’s own terms instead of buying into pre-packaged ideological and cultural deals such as communism, capitalism, democracy or totalitarianism. Psychedelics were the tools that would enable that to happen, for as McKenna repeatedly argued, psychedelics are boundary dissolvers, belief breakers, deconditioning agents which raise doubts in you whether you are a Hasidic Rabbi or a Marxist anthropologist.(Mckenna, 2012, p. 61)  “The plants … don’t address cultural values, they blast through them, they address the animal body, the mammalian brain.”(“Terence McKenna – ‘Culture and Ideology are Not Your Friends,’” n.d.) The psychedelic human being was thus to be a person that creates his own culture and ideology. The psychedelic artist was to be the artist whose work is uniquely original, transcending the limits of pre-conceived styles and forms. The psychedelic thinker, the one thinker to think outside the established norms of thinking.

And there was another, even more fundamental, flaw to culture and ideology. Belief in itself, argued McKenna, was limiting to the individual, because every time you believe in something you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite. By believing something, you are virtually shutting yourself from all contradictory information, thus once again performing the sin of imposing a rigid simplified structure upon a infinitely complex reality.[2] A psychedelic society, McKenna suggested, “would abandon belief systems for direct experience.”(Mckenna, 2012, p. 58)

Reading the Psychedelic Society many years ago, in a time when I immersed myself in the universe of McKenna’s writings and talks, I was captivated by the idea. Yet in the years to come my thoughts of the subject have become less certain and unequivocal. Like many of McKenna’s ideas, the concept of the psychedelic society as a society without belief and ideology was a brilliantly articulated and inspiring notion, yet it seemed to have a suspect air of unexamined utopianism. Was it possible to live without culture and ideology? Was a society without certain types of shared beliefs and constructs even conceivable? In this essay, I wish to convey some of my thoughts and reflections on the subject following a recent encounter with a Spanish psytrance tribe.

 

A genealogy of the psychedelic counter-cultural idea

His Mind at Large theory was a philosophical precursor for McKenna's psychedelic society. Aldous Huxley.

His Mind at Large theory was a philosophical precursor for McKenna’s psychedelic society. Aldous Huxley.

McKenna’s notions that culture and ideology are not your friends, and that belief is intrinsically limiting, were closely related to two other key ideas in the history of psychedelic thought: Aldous Huxley’s Mind at Large Theory and Timothy Leary’s idea of Reality Tunnels. Huxley’s Mind at Large Theory, elaborated in the Doors of Perception, suggested that Man’s view of reality is limited by a “reducing valve” which filters out his perception of reality so that it includes only the thinnest trickle of perceptions necessary for his survival. The function of consciousness, Huxley argued, following such thinkers  as French philosopher Henry Bergson and the English epistemologist and philosopher C.D. Broad, was not to channel the myriad impressions perceived by the senses into our awareness, but rather to filter out the staggering noise of details which fills our raw perception. Consciousness was the mechanism which allowed us to edit out of our awareness the sound of birds chirping in the background while we are working to complete an important task; or making us neglect to notice the special way in which light reflects upon the skin of an apricot we are about to consume.

Were we to become engrossed in the many details perceived by the senses, we might become unable to function efficiently, Huxley argued, so consciousness edits out from our experience what it considers inconsequential information. In this way, an infinite world is reduced into our finite and more manageable, but also infinitely poorer and incomplete perception of reality: what we call a worldview.

Same as with McKenna’s culture and ideology, Huxley’s reducing valve was a mechanism which cuts down on the complexity of reality by fitting it into pre-conceived forms which make us more immediately efficient in terms of evolutionary survival, but immensely less open, creative, and aware. And culture was also a type of reducing valve. “What we see through the meshes of this [cultural] net is never, of course, the unknowable ‘thing in itself’ … What we ordinarily take in and respond to is a curious mixture of immediate experience with culturally conditioned symbol.”(Huxley, 1963)

The extraordinary value of psychedelics, Huxley argued, lay in their ability to allow us to loosen this reducing valve of perception and let ourselves behold reality in a fuller, richer way, bringing us closer to the Mind at Large, the ultimate reality of things, and enabling us to revolutionize psychology, spirituality, education and society. Psychedelics were tools for “cutting holes in cultural fences … the most urgent of necessities.”(Huxley, 1963)

We all view reality through a reality tunnel. Timothy Leary.

We all view reality through a reality tunnel. Timothy Leary.

About a decade after Huxley suggested his Mind at Large concept, Timothy Leary proposed his own take on the idea: the concept of the Reality Tunnel. Same as Huxley’s reducing valve of perception before and McKenna’s Culture and Ideology concepts after, Leary’s reality tunnels, later further elaborated by Robert Anton Wilson in books such as Prometheus Rising,(Wilson, 2009) were a pre-composed pattern which limits and distorts the perception of reality by reducing complexity and options. A person’s reality tunnel would determine their perception of the world, editing out those bits of perception which do not fit their beliefs, while singling-out and enlarging those details which fit well together with the persons’ particular reality tunnel. A capitalist, for example, would avidly gather any fact and piece of information which might support their claim that capitalism is the best economic system, easily forgetting and discarding any piece of information which might contradict that view. Similarly, a sworn communist would avidly collect any article of information which might support their claim that communism is the best economic system, quickly forgetting and discarding any piece of information which might contradict that view. Reality tunnels were ubiquitous and included “Eskimo totemists, Moslem fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, Marxist Leninists, Nazis, Methodist Republicans, Oxford agnostics, Snake worshipers, Ku Kluxers, Mafiosos, Unitarians, IRA-ists, PLO-ists, orthodox Jews, hardshell Baptists etc. etc.”(Wilson, 2009, p. 169) All of us harbor established ideas about minorities, religions, nationalities, the sexes, the right ways to think, act, feel, govern, eat, drink and what not. Reality tunnels act to help us fortify these ideas against any challenging information.[3]

Like Huxley’s reducing valve, Leary and RAW’s reality tunnels are a physical metaphor (a valve in the case of Huxley; a tunnel in Leary’s case) for mental “structures” which reduce an irreducible reality into the impoverished worldviews Man holds. The two concepts were both highly compatible with McKenna’s Culture and Ideology are not your friends. A subtle difference existed, however, in the main focus of each of these theories, and in the ways in which they were habitually framed. Whereas Huxley’s reducing valve metaphor was mostly concerned with how consciousness edits the impressions of senses into our perception, Leary and RAW’s reality tunnel concept was primarily concerned with how consciousness endlessly works to create ideological constructions and obstruct other possibilities from view. McKenna’s culture and ideology are not your friend argument, in turn, was primarily concerned with the ways in which external constructs imported by consciousness serve to limit not only our worldview but also our identity and our possibility to exist as unique, authentic beings.

Thus, as I have previously shown,(Hartogsohn, n.d.) Huxley’s reducing valve, Leary and RAW’s Reality Tunnels, and McKenna’s Culture and ideology are not your friends are basically different aspects of one the same idea – that the structures of the mind serve to limit our perception and experience of reality in a disempowering way, and that psychedelics are the antidote which allows us to dissolve these limiting structures and beliefs. If one might speak of psychedelic philosophy as a coherent body of thought, then this would certainly be one of its most basic tenets and features: the ideal of the psychedelic minded individual as a person who perceives and experiences reality in the fullest, richest, most flexible and least-prejudiced way possible, who methodically trains himself to loosen his reducing valve, who is profoundly aware of the limiting power of reality tunnels and ideologies and learns to avoid them or deal with them in conscious, intelligent ways. This idea, which has different variations in the thought of Huxley, Leary, RAW and McKenna can also be found in the work of later psychedelic and countercultural thinkers such as Douglas Rushkoff[4] and Erik Davis.(Hagerty, n.d.)

 

A society without a culture?

Was this a psychedelic society, or to the opposite, a betrayal of the idea of a psychedelic society. Woodstock, 1969.

Was this a psychedelic society, or to the opposite, a betrayal of the idea of a psychedelic society. Woodstock, 1969.

In suggesting the concept of Psychedelic Society McKenna took a psychedelic and countercultural ideal, that of a unique life not given to pre-conceived cultural and ideological structures, and moved it from the personal to the societal level. In the same way that human beings should strive to live as free as possible from pre-given notions and ideas, so should society confront the world in the most creative and open-minded way possible without adhering to cultural structures.

As McKenna was fond of saying, quoting the British entomologist J.B.S Haldane: “The universe may not only stranger than we suppose. It might be stranger than we can suppose.”(Mckenna, 2012, p. 57) Our society’s tools for understanding the universe are limited by nature. Every culture in history believed that it got 95% percent of the world figured out, and that the other 5% will soon be in grip, argued McKenna. Modern culture, like so many before it, enjoys gazing back on the ideas of its predecessors with an air of ridicule, congratulating itself on finally getting it right. However, this claim was none the less ludicrous and parochial in our time than it was in the time of the pharaohs, and where was it even written “that semi-carnivorous monkeys can or should be capable of understanding reality?”[5]

A psychedelic society, by contrast, would be a society which doesn’t purport to have reality neatly organized by some popular ideology. Rather it would be willing to explore questions and possibilities.  Such a society will, moreover, not just abstain from confining itself to one version of reality. Rather it would put the great mystery of being, the paradoxical, unfathomable nature of reality, at its very center.

Still, there seemed to be inherent dangers to the injection of idea that culture and ideology are not your friends into the social level. Culture, after all, stands at the basis of human society. It is the thing that emerges in any place where joint human life exists and it is difficult to imagine life without it. If one were to relinquish any form of culture, after all, one would have no art, no music and not even language, for what is language if not shared cultural constructions which inhabit the mind of the individual and shape it into a template which is unique to the culture.  Ridding ourselves of ideology was an equally tricky thing to do. How would society function for example if we just stop believing in democracy and human rights? And after all, as one commentator noted, did not the culture and ideology are not your friend meme itself have a underlying thread of individualism, “a very western (especially North American) culturally based belief.”(Hartogsohn, n.d.)

It was not possible to throw away all of culture. As McKenna himself pointed out, there are some parts of it we wouldn’t want to discard, like the Sistine chapel, the Rembrandts, the Piero della Francescas and even the scientific method.(“Terence McKenna – ‘Culture and Ideology are Not Your Friends,’” n.d.) You didn’t want to throw out the baby with the water, and getting rid of a the whole of culture was moreover a highly risky business. McKenna’s point was that you wanted to spend as much time creating your own culture/ideology with you and your friends, rather than just consuming something created by somebody else. This, however, did not, could not, mean disavowing any type of shared cultural creativity. McKenna himself, after all, was a huge cultural buff, and an avid aficionado of various cultural artifacts such as the writings of James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan, and C.G. Jung, or the esoteric knowledge contained in the I Ching. Despite his tirades against culture, McKenna was an insatiable consumer of myriad forms of culture, which trickled into his thought and informed his ideas and thinking.

You still wanted to be able to keep at least some of what was good about culture, while editing out those parts of it that were useless and counterproductive. But how was one to accomplish such a task – a question all the more pressing in the absence of any ideology to guide oneself – is something that McKenna, to the best of my knowledge, never really answered.

There existed an inherent tension between the wish to purge humanity of the demons of culture and ideology, and the humble realization that by casting away these two we risk losing the very things that make us human: our ability to inhabit a shared mind-space, indeed the very conditions which allow us to co-exist as a society. McKenna argued that culture and ideology are not you friends, but he never went as far as saying that society is not your friend, even though it was not clear how a of society without any ideology or culture would look like.

***

Even though the terms and exact ways in which a psychedelic society would function remained vague, there seemed to be two fundamental ideas that would characterize such a psychedelic society. 1. It would live in the light of the great mystery of being. 2. It would seek to eradicate ideology and diminish the prominence of culture in a way that would allow for greater degrees of openness and creativity, as well as a more unique experience of being.

If there ever existed a society of the sort, then it might very well have been Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Kesey, after all, was also the prototypical psychedelic leader, a self proclaimed non-navigator whose main function was to inspire and allow those around him to explore and lead themselves.

The direct, immediate and overpowering experience was at the center of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who were more interested in endlessly breaking boundaries than in reaching any final destination. As Kesey later said in an interview quoted in part six of Oroc’s Pyschedelic Revolution series to which I will come in the next part,(Oroc, n.d.)

The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be thinking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is o seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants and mystery bloom.(Faggen, 1994)

However, was it not telling that the Merry Prankster’s free-wheeling and anarchic ride across the united states also left a trail of acid and DMT casualties along the way, as the intrepid group continued it trip furthur and beyond? And even the pranksters arguably only existed as a truly psychedelic society for that short and adventurous period of time. Perhaps in order to exist as a psychedelic society without any cultural and ideological you needed to be in a state of constant revolution? Such a state is one which very few societies, if any, could maintain for a sustained period of time.

 

Confronting psychedelic culture in the Vega

In the spring of 2015, after a year in Spain, I arrived to my first Spanish psytrance party. The location of the party was south of Granada, in the hilly area known as the Vega. There had been some 100-200 psychedelic ravers in the event, a small and select gathering of the relatively small Spanish trance tribe, with plenty of old timers as well as dedicated young ravers.

What can a random meeting of psychedelic trance ravers teach us about psychedelic society? The Vega, near Granada, Span. 2015.

What can a random meeting of psychedelic trance ravers teach us about psychedelic society? The Vega, near Granada, Span. 2015.

I had arrived to the party after a long period of psychedelic abstinence. The night before, I had read James Oroc’s sixth and final installation in the series on what Oroc calls the second psychedelic revolution (defined as the psychedelic movement that reemerged ever since the 1990s).(Oroc, n.d.) The ultimate chapter of this engaging  series had been the most compelling and inspiring answer to the question of why psychedelics matter that I have encountered since McKenna’s Psychedelic Society. Oroc suggested that in an ego-obsessed society wildly and blindingly driving itself to its own mutually assured destruction, the rediscovery of the transpersonal experience and the interconnected of all things, and the breaking down the disastrous somnambulism of technological civilization, is humanity’s only chance for survival. The psychedelic perspective was the one required for humanity’s adaptation and survival, the antidote for humanity’s current position of aimlessness, blindness and general numbness.

The second psychedelic revolution, Oroc claimed, was actually part of a fifth cycle in a history of psychedelic cultures. This fifth psychedelic culture, the modern psychedelic culture whose roots can be found already in the discovery of mescaline at the end of the 19th century, followed four major sustained psychedelic cultures in history, which included Ancient Greece with its Eleusinian mysteries; Vedic India and its soma; Mexico’s Toltec, Mayan and Aztec cultures; and the ancient Chavin civilization of Peru.

Oroc’s bleak portrayal of the state of human civilization contrasted strongly with his view of this fifth psychedelic culture, which he described as exceptionally intelligent, tolerant and open-minded. A society with incredible creative resources, which is in the process of breaking out of the festival model in order to build permanent communities of responsible psychedelic users. “Responsible psychedelic use can build community,” Oroc insisted.(Oroc, n.d.) Yet another reason why psychedelic were so crucial too our culture.

And still, at the same time, Oroc seemed aware of the many pitfalls psychedelic culture is in risk of falling into, acknowledging a “growing move towards hedonism, escapism and a flirtation with the fantastic”, and confessing that even he was despairing at times “that the message is being lost in all the beautiful pictures and the pretty lights.”(Oroc, n.d.)

Arriving to the Vega psytrance party that weekend confronted me with the living reality of a psychedelic society in action – what it was what it wasn’t. Of course, one could not surmise that this specific event I half-randomly arrived to was representative in any way of the whole of psychedelic culture, yet somehow, by the virtue of its generic character, it actually did seem to represent much about the current state of psychedelics in culture and society.

Observing the event as an outsider to the scene, I could sense the community and it’s spirit – an manifestation of a society centered around the psychedelic experience. Psychedelic society, after all, was not only a theoretical concept discussed in Californian psychedelic conferences. It was also an actual way of life which emerges in various environments and conditions.

Encouragingly, psychedelic culture has been growing steadily in the past decades, supporting a growing stream of psychedelic books, music, movies and festivals, and arguably driving and inspiring more informed psychonauts than ever before to embark on their own personal voyages. Concomitantly, some of the less savory parts of the enmeshing of psychedelics within a globalized consumerist culture have also been becoming more and more evident in the psychedelic culture. Many of them were to behold here on the fiesta. This culture was fraught with escapist hedonism and excessive drug use which seemed to trivialize and drain the psychedelic experience of its many qualities and possibilities. Many of these party people seemed to be running away from themselves as frantically as any of their counterparts in the mainstream culture – psychedelics, like any tool, I was reminded, could also be used to avoid yourself, instead of to reconnect. Furthermore, it had deeply chauvinist tendencies, meaning that it was centered around itself and believed itself superior to other sections of society; and finally, and perhaps most significantly for this discussion, it was closed off within a cultural discourse which was as formulistic and dogmatic as any other.

Observing the culture which emerged in these few days on the hilly terrain of the Vega, a culture arguably characteristic of much of the global psytrance scene, allowed one to notice the norms and rules established within the community. This culture had formed ossified structures like all others before it: certain ways of dressing, behaving, talking and thinking. In a way this societal laboratory almost seemed like the burial place for McKenna’s idea of a psychedelic society as a society without limiting cultural structures and beliefs. These Spanish psychonauts embraced what seemed like a readymade psytrance identity without giving it a second thought, undermining McKenna’s idea of carving our own individual existence instead of letting culture dictate our values and ideas to us.

Watching the mundane and trivialized manifestations of a psychedelic society in which the psychedelic experience is trivialized and arranged into ready-made cultural forms suddenly caused me to question the actual transformational potential and import of these agents for our society. In mid twentieth century, psychedelic psychiatrists such as Humphrey Osmond and Donald Jackson were spreading the idea that psychedelics were a tool which might allow humanity to confront and resolve its deepest maladies and challenges, from the existential malaise troubling the western world to the threat of a nuclear war.[6] Since then, psychedelics have been amply used, abused and increasingly assimilated into a consumerist culture. Observing the ways in which psychedelics were used and abused here on the Vega, I could not help but ask myself whether psychedelics have not lost some of their revolutionary and transformative  power in the decades that have passed. Have they not turned into just another manageable but meaningless form of amusement, too weak and negligible to pose any threat to the established forms of power and control?

Judging by the ways it has fallen into foreseeable forms and structures, this might have been the case. In many ways this psychedelic culture was non the more liberated than any other branch or sub-culture in modern civilization. It too was organized around basic themes, styles and ideas which eventually limited the spectrum of possibilities, of what it could mean to be psychedelic and to have a psychedelic experience. This almost foreseeable situation seemed pretty much determined by human nature, by the human need to belong and by the human tendency to unconsciously seek acceptance and imitate those around us. It is instructing to remember that none of the four psychedelic cultures which Oroc surveys in his piece could refrain completely from erecting their own reality tunnels. As far as we can tell, each of them had its mythologies and cultural structures. Our own psychedelic culture is no different, and perhaps one should not expect otherwise. Human rights and environmentalism are also forms of ideology. It might be useful to know that they too are incomplete, but do we really want to discard them completely?

At the same time, psychedelic culture did allow more freedom to explore than any other culture I know, and was potentially more tolerant and welcoming to those who decided to explore and depart from the established norms. Although most people chose to carve their psytrance identity within established forms and norms, there was also a possibility to create your own unique identity. Moreover, the psychedelic experience, by merit of its highly personal and subjective character, which differs from person to person and from one occasion to another, still fostered a highly personalized experience which allowed each individual to have their unique experience of this festival. In other words, this society was not perfect, and it was still liable to assume borrowed cultural forms and norms, and yet it also allowed its members a higher degree of freedom and incentive to explore their truly personal and unique perspectives of the cosmos.

And there was another, more fundamental way in which this group of people demonstrated the superior transformative power which psychedelics could hold for society and the individual. This aspect was related to the first part of McKenna’s definition of the psychedelic society. McKenna envisioned psychedelic society as a society which exists in the light of the great mystery of being, of a connection to something that is grand and unfathomable. And that, ultimately, was the thing that drew all these people together – the fact that they had all shared the overpowering experience of connection to something greater and beyond; that any two people who were truly part of this culture had shared the same experience of confronting something mythical, great and beyond expression. It was the relationship to this something, found in the experience of psychedelic trance, that bound all these people together. And here was McKenna’s psychedelic society, by definition. It was not perfect. It had many failings and shortcomings but it centered itself around the greater mystery, it was tolerant, and it was organized around a uniting experience and ideal of love. And that, finally, answered my questions regarding the possible import of psychedelics after decades of abuse and trivialization of the psychedelic experience. Despite these long decades of widespread trivialization, the power of this medicine to raise people’s degree of openness and tolerance towards the other, to refocus their life away from materialistic desires and to raise communal and environmental awareness, was still the best bet humanity had to build a better, more sustainable world. This random and temporary psychedelic society erected in the Vega for the weekend was not perfect, and the psychedelic society to come won’t be perfect either. It will undoubtedly still harbor many of the diseases and sicknesses of our present close to terminally-ill society. Ridding ourselves of those is a hard and challenging work as any serious psychonaut knows. All the more so when viewing the problems of humanity on the collective level. And yet, this experience was our best bet for a saner, healthier future for humanity.

Conclusion

My experience in the Vega led me to ponder about that seemingly failed aspect of McKenna’s vision of a psychedelic society: the fact that psychedelic society tends to assume pre-defined and particular forms of culture, which in their turn come to limit it and prevent it from being something else, more formless and free. In this way psychedelic philosophy has become limiting for psychedelic thinking, psychedelic visual forms have become limiting for psychedelic aesthetic, and psychedelic sounds have become limiting for psychedelic music. Was this to be avoided? Can the forming of an cultural formulas be avoided? Artists, thinkers, and people in general mirror each other and their surrounding like Indra’s net of pearls. It is difficult to imagine living in isolation from culture. Being human, finally, also means existing as part of a society, and this means sharing ideas and notions with society, and allowing it to define us, at least to some extent. Culture is not our friend, but it is not our enemy either. It is something to be reckoned with and consider attentively; Something to dance and pirouette with, while we live our life, sorting out what makes us unique and what binds us to unnecessary structures. Psychedelic culture is bound to take forms. It will always take forms, and yet we should be aware not to fall back onto them. We cannot exist with no ideology at all, much less with no culture at all. The allure of culture, ideology and belief will never go away, as our human mind tends to slip back to them whenever possible. But we can be more conscious and aware about how we interact with them, and that is perhaps what McKenna really meant when he said that culture is not your friend. Separating the wheat from the chaff, learning how and to what extent to let culture in while not harming our autonomy and blunting our uniqueness, that was the true challenge of the psychedelic society.

[1] (Mckenna, 2012, pp. 75–85) The original talk by McKenna can be viewed here: (“Terence Mckenna – Psychedelic Society (1984) – YouTube,” n.d.)

[2] Terence’s apocaliptaryian 2012 idea stood in strong opposition to this. In a way it was his own betrayal of his ideal of a life with belief and ideology.

[3] Leary’s most popular slogans “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” and “Question authority and think for yourself” were both aspects of this idea. Calling upon the individual to drop out of society’s pre-conceived perceptions and reality tunnels, and to think for oneself instead of accepting imposed structures of thought.

[4] (Rushkoff, 2011); (Rushkoff, 2003); (Rushkoff, 2013)

[5] (“Terence McKenna – ‘Culture and Ideology are Not Your Friends,’” n.d.) See also in (Mckenna, 2012)

[6] See (Osmond, 1957); (Terrill et al., 1962)

Rapé, sananga, kambo, psychedelics: Why spiritual seekers seek pain

Recent encounters with a number of shamanic medicines whose most immediate effect is pain and physical discomfort led me to consider the role of pain in the psychedelic healing process.

Shamanic snuff medicine. Rapé.

Shamanic snuff medicine. Rapé.

A shamanic ceremony in which I recently participated included 4 types of medicines: ayahuasca, tobacco, rapé and sananga. While the first two are probably known to most readers (though some might be unfamiliar with consecrated use of tobacco), rapé and sananga seem to necessitate an introduction. Rapé, the better known of the two, is a shamanic snuff medicine. It is blown into the nostril by a practitioner who uses a pipe, causing a sudden burning sensation in the nose and the sinuses, as well as a running nose. Such uncomfortable sensations are followed by a number of supposed benefits. On the most immediate level, the use of the substance is followed by a feeling of clarity in the head and the nasal cavities. Other alleged benefits ascribed to rapé are significantly more dramatic. According to the site “Shamanic Snuff”, for example, rapé use “helps to re-align and open all your chakras, improves your grounding, releases any sickness on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels.”

Sharpens visual perception and facilitates night vision. Sananga.

Sharpens visual perception and facilitates night vision. Sananga.

I had known rapé before. The sananga, on the other hand, was entirely new to me. These “sacred” eye drops (colirio) are instilled in the eye by a practitioner, and are said to cause intense burning sensation, an experience which persists for a number of minutes, during which the patient is directed to breathe deeply and into the pain. Sananga is reported to sharpen visual perception and even allow users to experience a sort of infra-red night vision. Again, on the less immediate level there is talk of far more dramatic benefits. Sananga is said to solve a host of eye disease and also burn the inner anger residing in the individual, leading to an intense state of relaxation following the period of pain. The shaman who introduced sananga to me explained that the pain caused by sananga causes the release of endorphins, produced by the body to ease the pain. These endorphins stay in the body after the sananga is gone, leading to a feeling of utmost relaxation.

Personally, I have a strong aversion to sudden intense pain, plus I have ultra-sensitive eyes, so I gave up on sananga without a second though. However, I did have rapé blown into my nose, and I could see some of the appeal of the experience.

Makes you swell like a frog. Kambo frog.

Makes you swell like a frog. Kambo frog.

Having witnessed these two pain related experiences which are sought after by modern day spiritual seekers from within the ayahuasca subculture made me reconsider a third experience which is popular in this subculture and which involves intense pain. Some of the readers might have heard of the kambo frog extract, a medicine based on the venom extracted from the body of the giant tree frog or giant monkey frog and which is inserted into the body of the person being treated, causing extreme bodily discomfort which includes nausea, feebleness, and a dramatic swelling around the head which causes the person to temporarily resemble a frog. In the days following the experience, people report feeling greatly cleansed and invigorated, with some reporting dramatic reduction in the need for sleep and food. And again there is a host of alleged benefits from this profoundly discomforting process, including a reinvigoration of the immune system, detoxification of the liver and the entire digestive system, as well as the curing of a many of diseases from Parkinson to depression.

The protestant work ethic and the psychedelic work ethic

Considering these three phenomena of the rapé, the sananga and the kambo, all of which can be encountered mostly in relation to the milieu of ayahuasca communities, it seems as if a pattern is emerging: a growing popularity of substances which are used to induce pain or physical discomfort of sorts. This phenomena might not be all that new. As often noted by McKenna, alternative techniques for the achievement of altered, visionary states of consciousness traditionally included various types of pain and discomfort such as self-flagellation, self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, and prolonged fasting. Yet the question remains, why? Why do spiritual seekers seem so keen on experiences involving intense pain or discomfort?

rape4

Before we try and answer this question, it should be noted that the experience of pain and discomfort can be seen as an inherent part of the psychedelic experience in general , and not just in rapé, sananga and kambo. Some kind and degree of discomfort is invariably related to most types of purging psychedelic experiences. The degree to which the ingestion a plant hallucinogen is followed by the feeling of purging is generally dependent upon the degree of discomfort that is involved in its use. Ayahuasca, Peyote and even magic mushrooms, are notoriously known for their foul taste, and for the intense bodily (and mental) discomfort they cause, which commonly includes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, among other phenomena. Yet these plant psychedelics leave their users feeling purged and cleansed. Even synthetic psychedelics such as LSD often include a degree of bodily discomfort, and can feel purging to some degree. MDMA, on the other hand, is all joy and love with very little pain or discomfort, which is perhaps the reason why it has no purging effect. In fact, an intense MDMA experience is all too often accompanied by a devastating bummer or down.

A person receiving kambo venom.

A person receiving kambo venom.

Experiencing difficulty and illness to their fullness is an essential element of the psychedelic voyage. Such difficulty and illness can take both bodily as well as mental form, and its expression reaches its peak in death/rebirth experiences, in which the individual must die in order to be reborn again. Death as the ultimate form of illness leading to rebirth as the ultimate form of cleanse.

It almost seems as if the psychedelic experience and perhaps the visionary experience in general have some kind of protestant ethic which is supported by the body and the nervous system. Drugs which only make you feel good, but don’t challenge you, like cocaine, heroin and speed, also precipitate a down which occurs once the drug is out of the nervous system, and are also the ones that make you addicted. By contrast, drugs whose use involves a great degree of physical discomfort, such as the natural psychedelics, are non-toxic, non-addictive and leave you feeling purged. No pain, no gain. It’s also almost as if psychedelic use supports a kind of spiritual protestant work ethic in which one has to suffer in order to rise and soar.

Are ski-lifts an illegitimate shortcut or just another way to get to the top of the mountain?

Are ski-lifts an illegitimate shortcut or just another way to get to the top of the mountain?

This is particularly ironic and interesting since the protestant work ethic was one of the major reasons why people in the west came to distrust psychedelics in the first place. During the 1960s psychedelic controversy, psychedelics were often portrayed as “cheap thrills”, thrills that get their users to a state of “instant nirvana” too easily, without having earned it honestly. Participators in the psychedelic debate such as Timothy Leary and Sidney Cohen used to argue about whether relishing the view from the top of the mountain is the same whether you got there using a ski-lift or after a long a and arduous hike; The top of the mountain being, of course, the mystical experience, arrived at through sustained spiritual work, or through the use of drugs. Cohen maintained that “the mountain climber has sweated and striven against the dangers. His view must be different from the ski lift rider’s because it incorporates the struggle and the triumph.”[1] “The shortcut may get you to the same summit. The view may be the same, but what a difference between the one who sweated and struggled to get there, and the one who rode to the top on the back of a chemical carrier.”[2] Timothy Leary, on his end, insisted that “It’s not a case of either/or, it’s both/and. If you want, you can sweat and suffer hiking today, and you can choose to zoom up tomorrow using technology … all the secrets of life are shortcuts. I think people deserve every revelation they can get.”[3] Does a chemically triggered spiritual experience have the same value as one arrived us through hard, laborious work, and is it even legitimate? Such questions were high on everybody’s mind in the 1960s moral discussion about psychedelics.[4]

The protestant work ethic also played a central part in the social discussion about  psychedelics users. Hippies were accused of being lazy, unproductive, and disruptive of the work ethic. The hippie ethic which replaced work with play was a main object of criticism in papers written by psychiatrists who were concerned that psychedelic use could lead to a “generation of psychedelic dropouts”[5], and worried that psychedelic users would “never be able to gain the lost ground” leading “less productive … lives.”[6]

In my PhD research The Psycho-Social Construction of LSD: How Set and Setting Shaped the American Experience 1950-1970, the issue of the protestant work ethic proved to be the ethical crux of many of the objections to psychedelic use in the 1960s. In many ways, it remains so to this day. Yet, if there is a psychedelic work ethic which can be found in psychedelic use and in psychedelic communities particularly, perhaps protestant ethicists need not be so alarmed. In the Santo Daime church, ayahuasca ceremonies are habitually referred to as “works,” a term which emphasizes that the ceremony demands concentrated effort and dedication on the part of the practitioner. Members of the church “work” with the ayahuasca brew with the purpose of channeling its energy into purposeful, constructive activity. The degree to which the practitioner is able to “work” with the energy lucidly and dedicatedly determines, to a great extent, the benefits to be reaped.

The bodily (and sometimes also mental) discomfort and pain which is involved in many purging and vision-inducing practices seems to be an almost inherent part of the experience. It is not that different from life, really. Jerking our bodies out of their comfortable state of rest and equilibrium is often necessary for transcending our limits and achieving a greater degree of wholeness and well being. Examples can include every day activities such as physical exercise, physical work, or even stressful events (speaking in front of a crowd is one my favorites). It is through the dedication, devotion and intention which one puts into the process of confronting one’s difficulties and challenges, that one is eventually able to transcend them. Protestant work ethicists can rest. Psychedelicists do have a work ethic, it’s just another type of work they do.

 

[1] Sidney M.D. Cohen, The Beyond Within: The LSD Story (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 98.

[2] Richard Alpert and Sidney Cohen, LSD, ed. Lawrence Schiller, PDF Version. Available online., n.d., 44, http://www.scribd.com/doc/9639651/LSD-Richard-Alpert-Sidney-Cohen.

[3] Timothy Leary, Flashbacks, 1st ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher, 1983), 52.

[4] Finally, what Cohen and Leary both seemed to overlook, to my mind, was that this was not a question of both/and, neither a question of either/or in the sense meant by Cohen. If psychedelics do indeed take you to that final stage of the spiritual road, as Cohen seems to suggest, then one needs to be honest and note that the question is not whether to get there easily on the ski-lift, or more arduously on the hiking trail. Considering the length and difficulty of the spiritual path and the very few who reach its conclusion and achieve the mystical states induced by psychedelics on their own, it should be noted that the vast majority of the population would never reach that summit at the end of the spiritual path without  psychedelics. The choice, in most cases, is not between getting to the top on the ski-lift or getting there hiking. Rather, it is getting there and observing the view after riding the psychedelic ski-lift or never getting there at all.

[5] Donald B. Louria, “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” New England Journal of Medicine 278, no. 8 (February 22, 1968): 435–38, doi:10.1056/NEJM196802222780806.

[6] E. Robbins et al., “Implications of Untoward Reactions to Hallucinogens,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 43, no. 11 (November 1967): 994.

Why cannabis if often trickier to handle than major psychedelics

During a recent conversation I had with a leading psychedelic activist, I was surprised when the person suggested that psychedelic legalization wasn’t really that urgent. Actually, it can still wait, the person said. It was cannabis which needed to be the first legal mind-alterant to introduce psychedelic consciousness into the legal marketplace. Since it is easier to handle, and since it is already ubiquitous anyway,  it will serve as a good introduction for the main dish to come later: major psychedelics.

I could see where this person was coming from. Cannabis is considered to offer a mellower experience than the psychedelics, something which is also implied by its designation as a minor psychedelic. Yet my own experience had been fundamentally different. Over the years I have encountered many serious psychonauts who found that for them cannabis is more tricky to handle than major psychedelics. And here’s why. The difficulty which one might encounter with major psychedelic can be of many types, but more often than not it lacks the kind of confusion and incoherent thinking which is common in an overdose of cannabis, and people tend to overdose on cannabis much more than they do on major psychedelics. Moreover, it is easier to handle a psychedelic “overdose” than a cannabis “overdose”.

Before seeking to substantiate these claims, I should explain what I mean when I use the term overdose in relation to major psychedelics and cannabis. One does not usually speak of overdosing in relation to cannabis or psychedelics because psychedelic overdoses are in no way fatal. You cannot die from over-dosing yourself on psychedelics as you can with Alcohol or Heroin. Nevertheless, if one defines overdosing as getting a stronger effect from a substance than one has intended, and than one is able to handle – then those cannot be denied, and are actually something which any dedicated drug user expects (or should expect) to encounter at one stage or another, same as most casual alcohol drinkers expect to experience a hangover at one point or another of their drinking career.

Luckily, by contrast to the normal type of overdose, a psychedelic overdose of the kind is in no way fatal and most serious psychedelic users learn how to avoid them. This can be easily done by measuring your dose, knowing your limits, and designing a safe environment for the experience. Moreover, by contrast to other types of drug overdose, a psychedelic drug overdose can usually be diverted and turned into a fruitful experience, provided that one is in a safe and positive environment. One person’s overdose can become the same person’s transformative trip with the right type of environment and attitude.

However, the situation with cannabis is substantially different. Because people smoke cannabis more casually than psychedelics, and because cannabis is commonly considered easier to handle, the level of attention given to issues of set and setting is significantly lower.

Furthermore, while people tend to consume psychedelics by oral ingestion, a route of administration which delays the effects and makes the onset more gradual, cannabis is habitually consumed by smoking. This difference in the route of administration is decisive. One of the basic principles of psychopharmacology is that the quicker the onset of drug effects, the more addictive a drug becomes. Changing route of administration or the speed or drug onset fundamentally alters patterns of use. After all a quicker more rapid onset of effect is a crucial factor in what makes heroin more addictive than opium and cocaine more addictive than coca leaves. A quicker onset of drug effects creates an association between the ritual of consuming the drug and it’s immediate effect, and causes a craving of repeating that ritual and achieving the rapid kick-effect. This is why many people enjoy smoking cannabis for smoking’s sake, and will continue smoking even after getting the effect they wanted, whereas the same people would not think about eating another cannabis cookie, if they are already feeling the effect of a cookie they ate an hour ago, and then eating another one two hour later. The eat the cookie for the effect, not for the taste – and so their consumption is more proportional to the state of mind they wish to achieve. This is not the case with smoking cannabis, so while many individuals could settle for one or two puffs from a joint made of pure cannabis, knowing to put the boundary is more difficult for most people who relish smoking. This difference makes difficult cannabis experiences way more common than difficult psychedelic experiences. And in certain ways, these are also much more insidious.

Whereas in a bad psychedelic experience one is obviously ill, and the need to lie down and rest is evident,  in a cannabis overdose the individual usually still seems fine  on the outside – from within, however, he or she might be psychologically undermined by growing fear, uncertainty and confusion. Overall, this experience often proves more difficult to recognize, communicate and to handle than overdoses from major psychedelics. It is also much more sneakier and difficult to shake away, which is the reason why many people stop smoking cannabis. Most difficult psychedelic experiences which are handled properly can be resolved in a cathartic manner. A cannabis overdose, on the other hand, lacks that cathartic quality of a psychedelic “overdose”(which often leads to a positive death/rebirth experience). It might lead to interesting ideas, but more often not, it ends with a head ache and excessive mental ruminations.

 

A call for serious cannabis education

The good news is that cannabis overdoses are easy to avoid if one knows one’s limit and smokes accordingly. Cannabis doesn’t have to be more complicated than major psychedelics. It is mostly that way because of the way it is normally being consumed. Because cannabis is habitually consumed by smoking and without the same level of attention to set and setting, difficult psychedelic experiences are significantly more common with cannabis than they are with major psychedelics, and for many people the relationship with cannabis turns out to be more challenging to handle than their relationship with major psychedelics.

The slowly spreading decriminalization and legalization of cannabis is an opportunity for introducing psychedelic mind-alterants into society, but with ever more sophisticated technologies which make it possible to get concentrated THC effects, such as dabbing, it is of the essence that these are accompanied by a realistic vision of the challenges of cannabis smoking, and an education that will teach people about how to use cannabis safely and beneficially.

Six winning psychedelic reality show formats for a legalized age*

survivor2Yesterday I published a new piece on the Daily Psychedelic Video which deals with an intriguing topic: what type of new Reality TV formats might arise when psychedelic legalization comes?

A few of the suggestions included in the article: A Psychedelic Big Brother show in which contestants stay dosed the entirety of the show, an Acid Survivor version and a psychedelic cooking show. Everything is presented in the spirit of humor and wild imagination, of course…

Check it out here.

 

Psychedelics and Nutrition – Carnivorous Cultures vs. Fungal Cultures

One of the positive side effects of psychedelics is their ability to improve one’s nutritional habits. In his book LSD: My Problem Child Albert Hofmann relates how extraordinarily his sense of taste was enhanced after his first LSD trip. The experience of great excitement one gets when biting into carrots or lettuce after a psychedelic experience — sensing their rich sweetness — is tantamount to eating for the first time after six days of fasting. Suddenly, each fruit and vegetable regains its original heavenly taste, as though we are experiencing, for the first time, the real taste of food.

 

Psychedelic Eating

Mushroom_by_devilmaycryubPsychedelic experiences tend to change our relation to food in many other ways. Ayurveda and other spiritual traditions recommend performing a ceremony prior to eating: contemplating the source of your food, and giving thanks to it, for surrendering its vitality and life so that you can live on.

Ayurveda also teaches us to dedicate our full attention to the food we are eating, in a manner befitting the act of sacrifice, while receiving the life of the food: not to talk while eating, not to watch television or read the newspaper; to eat in meditation and in concentration. Mindless eating is a sort of barbarism, like mindless murder.

Psychedelic experiences tend to change our relation to eating in a way parallel to that recommended by a number of spiritual traditions. Devouring food during a psychedelic experience, or shortly thereafter, bestows entirely new dimensions on the act of eating. I remember a special moment when, before consuming a grapefruit, I saw its glowing vivaciousness for the first time. I held it for minutes, which seemed like eternity, fondling it, inhaling its rich scent, feeling it alive and pulsating in my hand. I remember the moment of peeling its skin, which felt almost like a type of defloration — only much enhanced since our intercourse was totally unique, as it would happen only once, and end with our complete and irrevocable unification. The red flesh of the grapefruit was exposed for the first time to the light, and while I stripped away its skin, I intently watched its composition — tens of thousands of miniature succulent fruit pieces interlaced into what seemed like a huge crimson wing, composed of myriad translucent membranes.

That feeling of endless intimacy that I shared with that grapefruit is difficult to describe. I felt as though it was the first time in my life that I was actually seeing what I was putting into my mouth, and this tremendously enhanced the experience of eating.

I ate together with friends, and the act of sharing the food reminded me of the act of grokking, which Robert A. Heinlein so famously describes in his Stranger in a Strange Land. I was not only eating the food, I was becoming one with it. The concept of eating suddenly received its full significance — as a mystical ceremony, an act of uniting, a sacred deed accompanied by the categorical imperative to completely change and give full respect to the food that I eat.

 

Pyschedelic Nutrition

I do not mean to claim that every person who will use psychedelics will change his nutrition. Of course, you can use psychedelics and still eat indiscriminately. One of the common impulses after a psychedelic experience is to run directly to the nearest hamburger stand. You can fall victim to it once, or even for many years, but a serious user of psychedelics will often start receiving messages which call upon him to:

  1. Stop destroying the body with harmful nutrition. — Malignant nutrition is the continuation on a personal level of the ecological pollution caused by the human race.
  1. Stop taking the lives of others. — Develop a moral basis to your nutrition. Start eating consciously — because barbaric eating is the basis of barbaric existence.

Eventually, although many might disagree, the use of psychedelics is — in my eyes — incompatible with eating meat, or to be more exact, with eating the industrial meat grown in cattle concentration camps and consumed today in larger doses than at any other time in our civilization’s history. A person who is in close contact with the mushroom (or other psychedelics) will eventually receive, again and again, that same message which calls upon him to forsake this path. He can ignore it once, twice, or even a hundred times — but with many people, the message will eventually be heard. One stops eating meat or limits meat consumption one way or the other; I have seen this happen many times.

Amusingly, even those opposed to the use of psychedelics are aware, in some distorted way, of their influence on our eating habits. This Anti-LSD film from the sixties tells the story of a girl who takes an LSD trip for the first time and goes to a hot dog stand, ready to voraciously shove a hot dog into her mouth, but after she drowns her hot dog with ketchup and mustard she hears a voice. Suddenly she sees the hotdog as a living creature, and the creature begs her not to eat her and take her life. For the makers of the film, this awakening sensitivity is clear evidence for LSD having driven the poor girl crazy.

 

Carnivorous Cultures and Shroom Cultures

This brings me to the modern meat-addicted consumer society. While the mushrooms ban the eating of meat, carnivorous society bans the eating of mushrooms. Eating meat and eating mushrooms present, so it seems, two mutually exclusive cultural alternatives.

While the psychedelic alternative signifies the potential for a society based on awareness to our body, our ecological surroundings, and our fellow men, the meat society is a society based on:

Destruction of the Body — Eating red meat is, according to many clinical studies, one of the prime factors contributing to cancer, heart problems and many other medical complications.

Ecological Damage – The UN has already declared that the gigantic mass of cattle which is being grown on planet earth, and the great amounts of methane gas emitted by these animals, is one of the chief reasons for global warming.

Economic Damage — Caused by the growing medical expenses needed to take care of millions of meat-stuffed citizens suffering from cancer, heart problems and other medical complications caused by the excessive eating of meat.

Moral Damage — The meat society is based on the mass-killing of life kept in concentration camp conditions. This society, based on sin, cannot help but be a basically violent society — and this is without getting into the more philosophical ideas many spiritual traditions hold regarding the negative effects of meat-eating.

In comparison to the millions who die because of meat eating, there has yet to occur even one case of death which was caused directly by eating mushroom, and while detractors of psychedelics might spread scare stories about people jumping of rooftops, the scientific literature provides evidence that users of psychedelics are not especially prone to psychosis and actually enjoy somewhat better mental health than the general population.

Despite this overwhelming data, our society prohibits psychedelic mushroom eating and allows, or even advocates, the eating of meat. For the carnivorous society which sanctifies the values of war and carnage, the harmonious values of the mushrooms are an intimidating alternative which must be suppressed at any price, because they might raise questions about the entire carnivorous civilization and its values of force and authority.

Eating meat and eating mushrooms are more than just two nutritional options — they are cultural alternatives, different modes of thought: of relating to the body, to nature, to the other. As long as our society chooses to fortify the former by supporting monstrous corporations dedicated to the raising and killing of cattle, and ban the latter with billions of dollars spent on the “war on drugs,” it cannot pretend to be surprised about the bad shape in which our planet and culture find themselves.

 

* A version of this article was previously published in Reality Sandwich.

The American Trip: Set, Setting, and Psychedelics in 20th Century Psychology

This week the new special edition of the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) Bulletin appeared. The theme for the new issue is Psychedelics in Psychology and Psychiatry, and it contains an article I wrote, based on my PhD research, which I’m wrapping up these days.

The article mixes the story of 1960s psychedelic research with some technological theory to offer a new perspective on the role of set and setting, in the story of the psychedelic sixties.

To read the “The American Trip: Set, Setting, and Psychedelics in 20th Century Psychology” by Ido Hartogsohn

To read the entire Spring 2013 MAPS Bulletin.

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