Skip to content

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.

Terence McKenna on Psychedelic Animation

The article  originally appeared in The Daily Psychedelic Videomckenna2

A few months before Terence McKenna passed away, he gave a last interview to countercultural writer and pundit Erik Davis. The interview, which has since gained mythical status can be listened to on YouTube or downloaded as a podcast from the “Psychedelic Salon” website.

Listening to it recently, my attention was caught by the part in which McKenna discusses the metaphysical meaning of animation and the part where he names some of his favorite cartoons. I then searched YouTube to find some of the cartoons he mentions and enjoyed them quite a bit.

What follows is the transcribed section of the interview in which Terence discusses animation and then the actual psychedelic animation videos which Terence mentions in the interview.

Terence McKenna on Psychedelic Animations – From Erik Davis’s last interview with Terence McKenna

“I encourage everybody to think about animation, and think about it in practical terms. To look at objects, and pose these things to themselves as a model of old problems, because out of that will come a language rich enough to support an actual form of human communication that’s been very elusive and maybe never at hand at all.”

“It’s very interesting when you talk to people or listen to people, how many people who take psychedelics have cartoon-like encounters with beings. And you say: Gee, this is weird, cartoons only go back to 1920 or 1915 or something. How weird that an out there technical phenomena could just grab a whole section of human psychology and camp there with that kind of tenacity. And to me that indicates it has an archetypal claim on that territory”


“Well, The great genius of Disney… Disney is my idea of – beyond Edison and Ford or anybody  – of what we really mean by an American genius. Because he had mice who wear gloves living inside his head, but he was able to create a mechanical technology to show people these mice. So instead of just being put quietly away by his brother or something like that, he said: “No, no, you don’t understand. Money! This is worth money! If we can show people these glove wearing mice and talking ducks and all this stuff.”

“And then he was a sufficiently American Yankee genius that he saw how to take a flip book and put it on celluloid and do all that. Yeah, I think Disney is a very very far out person. He went to the platonic ideas and came back with baskets full of [???] released them in American towns and cities, and did very well.”

Erik Davis: “Animation is a great place to see the reflection of things that are happening at the culture at large.”

Mckenna: “And certain people take it to incredible Heights. Do you know that animation called “Asparagus”? You should check it out. It’s about 20 – maybe it’s 15-20 years old – but it’s very highly detailed, as realistic as a van Eyck painting, and totally surreal. Also, do you know that one by Sally Cruikshank called “Quasi at the Quackadero”? that’s a DMT extravaganza carnival basically, a cartoon carnival, but a carnival crazy enough to convince you you should go take drugs basically. And Max Fleischer is a genius and all these people.”

Absolute psychedelic genius. Robert Crumb.

Absolute psychedelic genius. Robert Crumb.

Erik Davis: “Fleischer is great. I think Fleischer is the true origin of underground comics. I think you find the most pregnant images of a certain kind of seedy – like the way that Robert Crumb presents a certain kind of seediness – and sort of failure of the bodies and spaces, and yet that’s infused with a kind of like magical eye. So you really have that both in Fleischer. You really have the mania of the Betty Boom but also a certain kind of quotidian, almost proletarian graininess to these characters.”

McKenna: “Yes, it would be very hard to imagine postmodernity without Crumb’s input. I consider him an absolute psychedelic genius. Very few people have had the influence without the karma that crumb had. He basically did all that stuff, sold the drawings and moved to a chateaux in southern France and called it quits. And got away with it.”

Asparagus – Susan Pitt (1979)

Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus was screened together with David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” for two years on the midnight movie circuit. It has a loose plot, lots of phallic imagery and surreal, psychedelic content.

Quasi at the Quackadero – Sally Cruikshank (1975)


Quasi at the Quackadero is about two ducks and a pet robot who visit a futuristic psychedelic amusement park in which you can view your thoughts, watch yesterday’s dreams, or go visit the past.

Max Fleischer Videos

 Max Fleischer was one of the leading pioneers of American animation who worked in animation since the 1910s. He invented the Rotroscope technique which has since been used in films such as Waking Life and Scanner Darkly, as well as a number of other animation techniques. Fleischer’s biggest animation stars were Betty Boop, Bimbo and Popeye the Sailorman. A few  of his videos were already featured on the Daily Psychedelic VideoBetty Boop – Ha Ha Ha,  Bimbo’s Initiation and  the Saint James Infirmary Blues in Betty Boop’s Snow White.

Wikipedia says has this to say about Fleischr’s style of animation:

“Fleischer cartoons were very different from Disney cartoons, in concept and in execution. The Fleischer approach was sophisticated, focused on surrealism, dark humor, adult psychological elements and sexuality. The Fleischer milieu was grittier, more urban, sometimes even sordid, often set in squalid tenement apartments with cracked, crumbling plaster and threadbare furnishings. Even the jazz music on Fleischer’s soundtracks was rawer, saucier, more fitting with the unflinching Fleischer look at America’s multicultural scene.”

Below are three short and psychedelic animations by Fleischer Studios. The first one was banned because of the explicit use of nitrous oxide. In the second one, Betty Boop and her partner Bimbo sell a magic potion by the name of “Jippo”, which can cure every malady and cause fantastic transformations. The third one follows Bimbo through his incredible psychic initiation.

Betty Boom – Ha Ha Ha (Nitrous oxide video – Don’t miss the part starting on 4:00)

Betty Boom M.D.

Bimbo’s Initiation

The Psychedelic Dictionary: Psychedelia and Entheogenia

The article was originally published on the Psychedelic Press website.

“Psychedelics” and “Entheogens” are two names for the same group of psychoactive compounds (usually referred to as “psychedelics”). These two terms delineate two very different perspectives on the proper way to use these psychoactive compounds.

Invented the term "Psychedelic". Osmond.

Invented the term “Psychedelic”. Osmond.

“Psychedelic” is a term which was invented by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1957, during a correspondence with Aldous Huxley, as the two were trying to find a new designation for the psychopharmacological  group of substances which included compounds such as mescaline, LSD, and the psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms). The new name was supposed to replace terms such as “psychotomimetics” (psychosis-mimicking drugs) or “hallucinogens”, two term which were deemed biased and misleading since they falsely present the type of experiences to be had with psychedelics as pathological or conversely as imaginary and without relation to reality. The etymology of the word “psychedelic” is in the two Greek words: “psyche” (mind) and “delos” (manifesting).

“Entheogenic” is a term whose meaning in Greek is “generating the divine within”. It is used to refer to the same group of substances as “psychedelic”. This term was coined in 1979 by a group of researchers which included prominent figures of psychedelic scholarship such as classicist Carl Ruck, ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and mycologist R. Gordon Wasson. The neologism was introduced due to a general feeling that the term “psychedelic” has become too strongly identified with the excessive drug culture of the 1960s and damages the unbiased discourse about traditional or religious use of “psychedelics” within a shamanic or spiritual context.

Ever since the invention of the term “entheognic”, the two words have come to designate two different approaches in regards to the proper ways to experiment with the same group of plants and molecules. While the first one relates to mostly free-style experimentation, the other relates to experiences in which religious intention plays a fundamental role.[1]

Psychedelia and entheogenia are complementary in many ways. Both are ways to increase our understanding of the universe and of ourselves; To live more fully, to love and to appreciate. And yet, they are both are fundamentally different paths, defined by fundamentally different attitudes and style. For example, many of those who support entheogenic work (i.e. shamanic or ceremonial use of power plants), discourage the “psychedelic” use of such substances as irresponsible and lacking respect. At the same time, many of those who champion the psychedelic approach regard the entheogenic approach to be too ceremonial, maybe even dogmatic, or just prefer to experiment freely without any ceremonial restraints.

In this essay I would like to examine the roots of these two approaches and assert that despite the major differences, these two approaches can actually complement each other, enrich each other, and give birth to a balanced fertile path for the use of psychedelics.


The psychedelic element

The psychedelic element is chaotic. Psychedelic use nourishes itself on colorful and often surprising interactions between the drug experience and the external world. These are the qualities which make it so interesting. The psychedelic path is epitomized in the figures of Ken Kesey, Stephen Gaskin and Hunter S. Thompson who turned the hallucinating exploration of reality into a form of art. In its root lies a basic call for psychonautic adventure, for a breathless and sometimes even frightening journey into the visionary worlds of consciousness and the symbolic bowels of the world around.

The iconic psychonaut. Hunter S. Thompson.

The iconic psychonaut. Hunter S. Thompson.

The psychedelic element has a strong relation to liminal states of consciousness, and in this respect those who called the psychedelics “psychotomimetics” or “psychosis-mimicking drugs” were right. This was conceded even by the greatest opponents of the psychotomimetic hypothesis such as Huxley and Leary.[2] However, in contrast to those psychotomimetic scientists who viewed these substances as psychosis mimicking and little else, for Huxley, Osmond, Leary and the other psychedelic researchers, the psychosis-like phenomena which were sometimes part of the psychedelic experience, were of essential meaning, but one to be overcome and transcended. The phenomena also held an important lesson about the nature of madness. As Allan Watts writes in his essay about the psychedelic experience, “The Joyous Cosmology”: “No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle”. Only the person who understands the meaning of madness, who knows what it means to be insane, can be truly sane. Only the person who understands the depths of insanity can choose sanity in its deepest sense, whereas the sanity of the person who refuses to gaze at insanity is nothing more than a thin and brittle shell under which lies a deep abyss.


The Entheogenic Element

The entheogenic element is centered. In contrast to psychedelic experimentation the entheogenic work is ceremonial and focused around prayer, meditation or healing processes. It takes place in a sheltered environment and often with the guidance or company of other experienced voyagers or healers. Thus, entheogenic work tends to be safer than the sometimes chaotic psychedelic experimentation.[3]

Entheogenia is a boot camp for psychedelia. It Is the school in which one learns the discipline. It gives one tools and techniques for work with psychedelics. It strengthens one, teaches proper ways to work with psychedelics, and deepens one’s knowledge of them. It turns them into allies in the sense meant by Castaneda: it gives a person a safe and sacred environment in which he is able to get to know these substances, to know himself, to become firmer and develop knowledge – a knowledge which enables one to be stronger later when he is in the midst of the psychedelic battle, because he has developed firmness, knowledge and power.  

Chaos vs. Order

Psychedelia is characterized by a greater amount of freedom in comparison to entheogenia. Psychedelia allows one to experiment with a wider scope of activities, than the entheogenic ceremony which has a singular and permanent center: to be able to converse with friends,  walk around in nature, write,  read, draw, watch a movie and perhaps also to put yourself in more extreme surroundings such as colorful parties, the streets of the city, or say a circus.

While entheogenia is a focused, takes place in a controlled environment and is characterized by a well-known and regular order (a shamanic ceremony, or a book of hymns such as those used by many contemporary ayahuasca groups and religions) and seeks to avoid unforeseen distractions, psychedelic use is characterized by its openness to unforeseeable elements, sometimes even it chaoticness. The psychedelic path is one in which the magical state of consciousness unleashed by psychedelics is interfaced with the external (and internal) worlds. Psychedelics act as consciousness fermenting agents, as a kind of magnifying/diminishing/distorting glass which transforms colors, sounds, thoughts, ideas, smells, emotions and what not, and which is used to gain a new perspective on the external and internal world to create an immense variety of experiences.

Psychedelia is the DJ who uses up everyday elements and mixes them into exciting new cosmic combinations. It confronts the unknown and synthesizes novel structures of experience with unforeseeable results: eating mushrooms in a park with your friends and achieving new levels of interpersonal intimacy; Going to the cinema after eating a trip to watch a 3D film and enter a parallel world; Visiting the town where you grew up after many years escorted by a molecule which makes you reevaluate your childhood, your roots and who you are. Then maybe even go to the shopping mall under the influence and get shocked but also understand consumer culture on a whole new level.

The psychedelic state is a state of stimulation. We need stimulation, especially when we are immersed in monotonous everyday existence which leads to apathy. The psychedelic wake-up call frees one for the everyday banality of the domesticated consumer-citizen of late capitalism, thus supplying a basis for deep exploration of inner and outer identity, of world and cosmos. However, the stimulation inherent in the psychedelic experience is also its more dangerous aspect: Excessively rapid and violent jolts might unstitch the frail seams of the psyche. Too intensive psychedelic work with not enough intention, rootedness and processing time can lead to the eruption of a crisis.

Entheogenia functions as a balancing and anchoring element for psychedelia. Both are in a sense a kind of yin and yang: opposing forces or paths which complement each other and give those who stride their course a full way of life in balancing the cosmic elements of chaos and order.

Transcendence vs. Immanence

While entheogenia is focused on creating a a connection with the god-light of oneness, to a transcendental experience,[4] psychedelia is aimed at connecting with the divine within the world, with immanence.

The entheogenic experience is a ceremonial experience which turns its gaze towards infinity/the white light/ensof. It’s highest goal (Even though it is not always achieved or even sought after) is the dissolution of the ego and it’s boundaries and unification with the God/Spirit/the divine through mediation or prayer (Uniomytica). Entheogens act as an accessory to prayer, meditation and healing which allows one to pray or meditate more deeply, powerfully and meaningfully – opening the path to unification with God in a way which is otherwise unavailable to those who are not part of the rare few born with the natural proclivities of mystics, as described by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience.[5]

The psychedelic experience, in comparison, is more focused in the experience of the world in which we live. It is a re-living, a boosted, enriched re-experience of the things which you already know in the world, and which now gain new meaning and magic. Understanding your relations with a closer person in a new way, understanding art in a new way, relating to nature in a new way, relating to your body in a new way, relating to yourself in a new way. Psychedelia allows one to see every aspect of reality with fresh eyes. It allows one to inject deeper knowledge and imagination into the everyday life in ways which can foster growth.

While the entheogenic experience is often focused in the relation with the unity of things, the psychedelic experience is often related to the experience of the many. Whereas the entheogenic experience is basically a spiritual experience, the psychedelic experience is to a great extent a cultural experience.[6]

The Golden Path

Some people will always prefer psychedelic experiences over entheogenic rituals, while others  will feel the opposite way. These differences are to a great extent the result of differences in temperament and style. Psychedelic people are often wilder, more anarchic  in nature, less discriminating about using chemicals and non-psychedelic drugs and will demand a more spontaneous, flexible relation to the drug experience. Entheogenic people, in contrast often tend to have a more rooted style of life, with a more structured and regular form of spirituality, and are guided by firm principles about the proper way to use entheogens (which they will never call drugs, but “medicines”). In a way, one could say that psychedelia represents the secular, cultural aspects of the drug experience while entheogenia represents the spiritual aspects.

From my personal perspective it is recommendable for any psychedelic person to explore the entheognic world at some stage in his life (given the opportunity to do entheogenic work with honest experienced people). The entheogenic element is to my mind crucial in preventing the banalization of the psychedelic experience, which might become repetitive and aimless without the clear line supplied by entheogenia. The entheogenic element functions as a balancing force which guards one from the too violent jolts and shakes which sometimes occur due to intensive psychedelic use.

It is hard for me to say whether it is recommendable for every entheogenic person to explore the psychedelic path. While a psychedelic person would normally have no basic principals which prohibit from participating in an entheogenic experience, the religious character of entheogenia sometimes prohibits “recreational use” of psychedelics. The use of power plants for non explicitly religious purposes might seem as sacrilege. Maria Sabina, the legendary shaman who led Gordon Wasson on his first mushroom experience in the Mexican Oaxaca mountains in Mexico in 1955 claimed that after the westerns flocked the area in search of the mushrooms, the mushrooms had lost their power. This can be a valid reason to make a distinction and avoid using a plant with whom we work ritually for recreational purposes. The entheogenic approach to the sacred power plants is imbued with so much delicacy, love and awe that it is worthy of protecting. Truly sacred values, ideas and objects are so rare in this chaotic postmodern world in which we live, that preserving them demands a devout relationship of love and respect, so that they remain this way. For this reason for example many of those who drink Ayahuasca in ceremonial setting would never drink it at home, even though they might do that with mushrooms.[7] However, in my opinion the importance of spiritual work does not categorically negate the validity and importance of the wild psychedelic experience in the style of Kesey, Gaskin and Hunter S. Thompson. That kind of idea, although it might be more politically acceptable, actually ushers in a kind of psychopharmacological Puritanism which many of the proponents of the psychedelic experience such as Leary and McKenna warned us against.[8] And anyway, it is clear than many people have a deep-felt need for both aspects.


Imagined the psychedelic-entheogenic revolution. Allen Ginsberg.

Imagined the psychedelic-entheogenic revolution. Allen Ginsberg.

The idea that the psychedelic and entheogenic paths can and should exist side by side is not new. It has been around ever since that historical moment when Allen Ginsberg, the first seer of the psychedelic revolution of the sixties had his first mushroom trip in December 1960. I will close the essay by citing from Timothy Leary’s first (of many) autobiography “High Priest” which describes the original psychedelic vision which Ginsberg had on that day. In a reality where the two schools of psychedelia and entheogenia often seem disconnected or at odds with each other, it is worth going back to the innocence and lucidity of the original vision received by Ginberg:

“And then we started planning the psychedelic revolution. Allen wanted everyone to have the mushrooms. Who has the right to keep them from someone else? And there should be freedom for all sorts of rituals, too. The doctors could have them and there should be Curanderos, and all sorts of good new holy rituals that could be developed and ministers have to be involved. Although the church is naturally and automatically opposed to mushroom visions, still the experience is basically religious and some ministers would see it and start using them. But with all these groups and organizations and new rituals there still had to be room for the single, lone, unattached, non-groupy individual to take the mushrooms and go off and follow this own rituals – brood big cosmic thoughts by the sea or roam through the streets of New York, high and restless, thinking poetry, and writers and poets and artists to work out whatever they were working out.” (Timothy Leary. High Priest. P. 25).

[1] It is important to note that the distinction presented here  between these two terms is not as clear cut in the discourse of today’s psychedelic community, and many might use these two terms interchangeably. Also, the word “psychedelic” was used for both meanings in the psychedelic discourse of the sixties, before the invention of the term “entheogenic”. The distinction between “psychedelic” and “entheogenic” presented here is a meant to highlight a basic principle in the discourse of psychonautics, based on the common use of these terms in contemporary psychededelic/entheogenic discourse.

[2] See for example Leary, Metzner & Alpert. The Psychedelic Experience. p. 24.

[3] The number of psychedelic casualties is significantly smaller (up to almost non-existent) in native societies which use these plants traditionally as well as in contemporary ayahuasca religions when compared with recreational psychedelic users.

[4] Even though it has pronounced immanent aspects, in as much as man finds the divine within.

[5] Some mystics can of course achieve entheogenic levels of awareness without entheogenic means. Also, peak experiences which resemble psychedelic peak experiences might happen at certain points in a person’s life such as when falling in love, in the birth of a first child or after 40 hours without sleep. Such experiences however happen very rarely and unexpectedly for most people, and as the late McKenna used to say, psychedelics are the only way we know that allows us to access these states of consciousness quickly, reliably and in a way which can be empirically recreated, with the smallest risk in comparison to other techniques used throughout history.

[6] That is. It can also be cultural, but it will most often also include cultural elements.

[7] Of course respecting and protecting the sacredness of your power plant is a delicate matter even when one partakes solely in entheogenic work.

[8] See for example Paul Krassner’s interview with Leary, published in Leary’s “Politics of Experience”, where Krassner charges Leary that his campaign for the religious use to psychedelia has neglected the rights of all those who simply want “to get high”. Leary defends himself there, proclaiming the right to get high without any particular agenda or ideology to be a basic human right.

The state of psychedelic research: An interview with Rick Doblin

The state of psychedelic research: An interview with Rick Doblin

In August 2012, I met Rick Doblin at his home near Boston to interview him for my research about the role of set and setting in the psychedelic debate of the 1960s. We set out on a long walk in the park, as Doblin explained to me the current state of psychedelic research. Lately, I met Doblin at the Psychedemia conference which took place at the University of Pennsylvania in September 2012 and had the chance to discuss the topic with him again. The interview below is based on both those conversations. It was originally published on Reality Sandwich.


rickdoblin2“You know, it was actually the holocaust that was my main motivation for doing what I do,” told me Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), late one night as we are sitting together after a long day of lectures in the psychedelic conference Psychedemia.

“The Holocaust brought you to psychedelic research? How?”

“It was my recognition that this catastrophic abuse of power and violence was made possible by ignorance, fear, scapegoating and people projecting their shadow onto others. Psychedelic psychotherapy and the mystical sense of unity that psychedelics can generate can be an antidote to all of those things.”

Having a strong metaphysical foundation for your work is probably necessary when that work entails challenging the current status of the law, government agencies, and well entrenched fears; however things are not always that serious with Doblin. Sporting a friendly, seemingly perpetually cheerful smile, and always enthusiastic to discuss the burning issues of research, Doblin, who earned his PhD in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, looks like the perfect poster boy for psychedelic research. He has been playing a central role in advancing the cause of psychedelic research since 1986, when he founded MAPS, an organization which acts today as the central connecting and facilitating platform for psychedelic research around the world. In the past decade, MAPS has been leading the research on MDMA, treating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in war veterans. It has also sponsored research on the use of LSD and MDMA for treating patients with end-of-life anxiety in terminal patients, and the use of ibogaine and ayahuasca for the treatment of opiate addictions.

“The way psychedelic researchers are doing this now is that we are focusing on two main fields in making psychedelics available through prescription” says Doblin. “Heffter Research Institute is leading the effort on psilocybin, focusing its research on the use of psilocybin for end of life anxiety, while we at MAPS are focusing on the use of MDMA for the treatment of PTSD”.


More than a life’s work

“Seven to ten years,” is what Doblin says it will take until MDMA is approved by the FDA as a treatment for PTSD, if all goes well. After it is approved for PTSD, doctors will be able to prescribe it off label for other conditions as well which could lead to its recognition as an effective treatment tool for other psychological afflictions.

Seven years might sound like a long time, but the fact that Doblin is even in a position to speculate about when MDMA might be legally available for treatment speaks volumes about the progress psychedelic research has made since he founded MAPS in 1986, a year after MDMA was made a schedule I illegal drug. Doblin’s role in bringing psychedelic research back to the lab might readily be compared with that of the 1960s “Dr. LSD” Timothy Leary, who was responsible in the eyes of some for getting psychedelics illegal in the first place. In a sense it seems as if Doblin, who has dedicated two impressive academic papers to examining Leary’s work in the 1960s and has uncovered some thought provoking flaws in that early research, dedicates his life to fixing the damage done to psychedelic research in the 1960s. While Leary’s work was sometimes criticized by opponents for lacking a rigorous methodolgy, exaggerating benefits and underestimating the safety risks, Doblin has put the emphasis on a cautious, careful approach and rigorous methodology. Most importantly, Doblin seeks to bring the change from within the establishment and not by rejecting or antagonizing it.

“Today, we are more aware that there are complex issues that have to be looked at,” he says “and this also has to be done more cautiously, because we’re coming to a freaked out culture that had a bad trip with psychedelics and we’re trying to talk them through it and work through these things. I feel like there is this growing sense of opportunity for psychedelic research. It’s still fragile but it’s not that fragile, and it’s international, and it has to be done in a really transparent, open way. People are fascinated by this stuff and they should be, it’s all about love, connection, feelings, spirituality.”

You’ve been involved in psychedelic research for 3 decades; bringing psychedelic drug research from research moratorium, into FDA approved Phase 2 trials, and now working to bring them into Phase 3, which will take even more time, money and tackling of bureaucracy. It’s a long and complicated process. Do you see it as your life’s work?

Doblin: “Actually it’s more than a life work. Ten years ago I was very worried that my interest in psychedelics would be perceived by young people as this idealistic naïve idea of the hippies that had been discredited by all the conservative drift and the failure of the sixties. I was worried because it is more than a lifetime’s work, that if it didn’t all get done by my generation it might not ever get done because other generations might not value it; that we were isolated, self-deluded hippies. But what I’ve found is that there are more than enough people in the younger generations who are interested in psychedelics. Most of my staff is in their 20s, just turning 30 or so, and they are really connected to the spirit of what we’re trying to do. That helps me feel that I can try to optimize the timing of initiatives, in terms of when we get our data out, when we have the latest media announcements and so on.”

A lot of people in the psychedelic community have criticized the use of a medical model in the past. It is often noted that most people don’t want to spend a psychedelic experience together with doctors in a medical setting, and that the medical model doesn’t address the full potential of psychedelics. What do you say to that as somebody who stands at the forefront of medical psychedelic research?

Doblin: “That it is totally right. We don’t want a medical priesthood or a religious priesthood, because there are different kinds of benefits. There are physical benefits, marital counseling benefits, spirituality benefits, creativity benefits and recreational, celebratory benefits. My background is psychology, governance and public policy. What I’m trying to do is pick a strategy that will lead to the widespread availability of the legal use of psychedelics. I think that will come through psychedelic prescription medication. In a way we already have legal medical use with ketamine, which is a prescription medicine for anesthesiologists and can be prescribed off-label. The idea of using psychedelics as a medicine is likely to be most in line with what has already happened in the mainstream. The spiritual use of psychedelics is currently limited to participation in small religious groups and plays an important role in changing cultural attitudes, especially the use of ayahuasca, but expanding to personal freedom to use psychedelics for individual spirituality, creativity and personal growth is too close to legalization to lead the way.”


A psychedelic renaissance

For an outside observer, the return of psychedelic studies would probably have seemed highly improbable just 25 years ago. Psychedelic studies had been put on a moratorium at the end of the 1960s and seemed to be a thing of the past that would never be allowed to happen again. However, since 1990, the volume of academic research papers on psychedelics has been rising steadily. In the past decade this growing flow has turned into an impressive corpus of studies about psychedelics coming from labs but also from an increasingly wide variety of academic disciplines, and giving rise to talk of a psychedelic renaissance.

“FDA is willing to do science over politics. That’s the key thing.” says Doblin. “They’re willing to have a rational scientific debate.”

What caused this change of attitude?

Doblin: “The change at the FDA wasn’t actually due to the debate over psychedelics. It happened as a result of something bigger that was going on in the FDA bureaucracy, related to influence from the pharmaceutical industry and Congress to speed up the FDA drug development review process. This led in 1989 to the creation of the Pilot Drug Evaluation Staff, a new group at FDA with the responsibility for reviewing research with psychedelics and marijuana along with medications for pain, headaches and other indications. They wanted to show that they had processes that would expedite drug development and they wanted psychedelic and medical marijuana research to proceed so they could demonstrate their new processes.  This led in 1992 to a recommendation by an FDA advisory committee that human studies be resumed and regulated by the FDA the way they regulate any major pharmaceutical company. They FDA got NIDA and the DEA and the drug czar to agree to that by making it seem as if those little non-profit psychedelic people would never get past the FDA drug development system, because according to the pharmaceutical industry it costs more than a billion dollars to get a drug out into the market. But it won’t actually cost MAPS a billion dollars, more like $15-$20 million.”

Why? Where was the flaw in their line of argument?

Doblin: “You have to look at where these numbers come from, which is the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. The different pharmaceutical companies send financial information about their research efforts to this central place under conditions of confidentiality.”

“First off, pharmaceutical companies are for-profit entities. There is a concept called opportunity cost, which means that while they are investing their money in research for no return, they could theoretically be using it to invest in the stock market or in bonds. Even in this investment climate, they were calculating that they could be earning 12% a year on what they’re spending for research. They may have modified that, but a few years ago that’s what they were using. When you take into account compounding interest, and that these research processes sometimes take 15-20 years, actually half of that billion dollars is this opportunity cost. But we don’t have that because as a non-profit we don’t consider money spent on research as a lost investment opportunity.”

“Then there is another factor, which is that these companies only have a few successes. In fact, they have a lot of failures. So the cost of all of their research effort is amortized over these few successes. So if they’ve spent half a billion dollars but only got 2 success then each one cost 250 million. With psychedelics, we know they work, we just have to prove it, we don’t need to study thousands of different new molecules to come up with a drug that works.”

“They come up with something that’s patentable, so that they can control it, but there is something new about it. So they have to spend a lot of money proving safety. But with MDMA we have the advantage of it also being ecstasy, and governments all over the world have already spent over $300 million dollars on trying to show why it’s bad, with all this research in the public domain. Plus, tens and tens of millions of people have taken it so we know all the side effects that go through emergency rooms. The FDA knows more about MDMA than about any other drug that they have ever approved, and this is true also about LSD, psilocybin and the other classic psychedelics and marijuana.”

“So when you subtract all these costs to pharmaceutical companies that we don’t have to spend, then you start trying to calculate what it will cost you to conduct the research needed to prove safety and efficacy in your specific patient population. One factor is that the larger the treatment effect and the less variability in the results, the less subjects you’ll need. So I can’t tell you how much it’s going to cost but my guess is about $15 million dollars. I think the costs are reasonable, particularly since the research expenditures are spent over 8 years or so, so we don’t have to raise the funds all at once.”

Where do you get your funding from?

Doblin: “Donations from individuals and family foundations have been the only source. No government grants yet, since the government is still in middle of supporting the war on drugs. . No pharmaceutical grants since psychedelics are off-patent and can’t be monopolized and compete with other psychiatric medications that people need to take every day. But overall, controversy has lessened, and the need for new treatments for PTSD and end-of-life anxiety and addiction, has increased. We get support from the baby boomers, some of whom are returning to psychedelics again after all these years of absence while they focused on careers and family. Time is on our side. There are a group of boomers who have been successful financially now getting spiritual again as they get older. These people are helping financially, and also culturally, because these are people with good reputations, people you’d be surprised who had good experiences with psychedelics.”

“I think our chances for private funding are quite reasonable. However, each time we get more data, then the next level is more expensive but also more people are willing to get involved. I have been talking with a foundation in England, and they were considering whether it is a reputational risk or a reputational opportunity for them to support MDMA/PTSD research. Unfortunately, they see it as a reputational risk. This foundation is the largest in England, it has $20 billion dollars in assets and gives away about a billion dollars per year but they are still not ready to get involved, so we have to keep trying with them for another couple of years. We have to get to the end of Phase 2, which will cost about $3 million, and then have Phase 3 which will be about $10-15 million.

A map of MAPS MDMA studies worldwide

A map of MAPS MDMA studies worldwide

When process is completed, what kind of model do you see for psychedelic therapy in the future?

Doblin: “The treatment form depends on the condition that you’re treating. But in general it will be non-directive, client focused, following the emotional threads brought up by patients, both positive corrective experiences as well as working through trauma. I think particularly of using it for end of life therapy, for PTSD. Outside of treating diagnosed psychiatric indications, it can be used for couple’s therapy, for spiritual growth, and even one day for rites of passage at all ages, eventually even to make bar mitzvahs more meaningful, or in your later teens or 20’s to help people decide what they want to do with their lives, and throughout the lifespan. When I turned fifty I felt that I needed a big dose of LSD-assisted psychotherapy just to adjust to getting older.”

Can all of this really fit that within the scope of therapy?

Doblin: “No, because it goes beyond curing clinically diagnosable mental illness. These are existential issues of being alive, not pathologies. That’s one reason why we’re not looking into couples therapy. MDMA could be great for couples therapy, but that’s not a disease. So how do you make it into a medicine for couples therapy? You have to make it into a medicine for a disease and then doctors can prescribe it off label for couples therapy and other conditions. You get it approved for one thing, and then physicians have the freedom to prescribe it for other purposes. But I think it’s initially going to be approved for use only in psychedelic clinics. The therapists will be regulated and the set and setting will be regulated.”

So the set and setting will actually be part of the regulation process? It is actually part of what we look at when we look at the results of research, right?

Doblin: “Yes, and it’s also what the FDA looks at in their regulation. They’ve been regulating the setting in our research studies. They will be talking to us as to what we recommend for the setting. And the setting will initially most likely be similar to the one in which the research was conducted – because that’s all we did in our research: we showed that people got better when they took it in this particular setting. We didn’t show that they took the drug at home, went to the beach, had a great time and now they’re better for their PTSD. We showed that it is effective in a particular setting. So it’s likely that they’ll be requirements for the psychiatrists and therapists who are going to prescribe it. There is going to be a certain kind of training that they’ll have to receive. The training will be in the method that was used to approve the drug. But then it’s also very likely that there will be rules for the setting, the physical location. For example: that there has to be a bathroom that you can get to from your room so that you don’t have to walk through a public space, or that you have to be able to spend the night there, or that there is monitoring and co-therapist teams to make sure someone is not abused or raped by unethical therapists, and that there has to be safety equipment in case of emergencies.

Are there any major opponents for psychedelic research at this point? Is there anybody that is really trying to stop this thing?

Doblin: “I think there are some academics funded by the NIDA who will say that MDMA is too dangerous to be used even once in therapy, because of the supposed toxicity and memory problems. There was a big psychedelic conference in England called ‘Breaking Convention’ in April, 2011 with a panel that was focused on MDMA research. The panel discussion featured a fellow by the name of Andy Parrot who is the leading opponent of MDMA research in the scientific community. As you can see on the video of that debate that’s posted on the MAPS website, he’s got a lonely position that’s really difficult to defend scientifically, and it seems he does that for the publicity and attention. There are not a lot of people left in the scientific community who say that it’s too dangerous to be used therapeutically, but there are still a few, and Andy Parrot is one of them.

Where we’ve got so far with the military, after 15 years of trying to get them interested in MDMA/PTSD research, there was a meeting two years ago with senior Veteran’s Administration (VA) people and senior psychiatrists at a major research university. Unfortunately, the VA people said it was too politically complex for them to get involved at this time but it’s important research and somebody should be doing that. Now we’re trying again to see if things have shifted over time.

The opponents are sometimes parents groups that think that the best way to protect their kids is to tell them scare stories and block research into benefits, because there are supposedly only bad drugs with only risks and no benefits. But this sort of dishonest drug education doesn’t really work. The pharmaceutical companies are not opponents because they just don’t see us as a threat. The DEA is not very thrilled about it, but we’ve outmaneuvered them. The military has got more power than the DEA. The veterans have more power than the DEA, and they want to see this research take place.


A psychedelic driver’s license

The topic of drug legalization has been a locus for hot debate in American society over the years, and one which many psychedelic research advocates seek to separate from the issue of scientific research. When asked about the relation between psychedelic research and psychedelic legalization Doblin says that’s one of the hardest questions.

“It all comes back to the methodology. I think it is better, even from a scientific point of view, for people to disclose their biases. Otherwise you have a conflict of interest. When somebody says ‘what’s your view on this related matter?’ you can say ‘it’s unrelated and I don’t want to talk about it’. However, if you think that prohibition is this vast injustice and is a definitely related area which has also been inhibiting the research, then I believe it’s best to admit that. This is not the least controversial path in the short run. However, our strategy is a long run strategy.”

Still, Doblin argues, we don’t really want all drugs to be available to everybody all the time. Same as with alcohol, regulation will be needed, but a smarter one. Doblin is a proponent of the “drug driver’s license” concept which was also championed by Leary back in the 1960s. It follows the notion that like guns and cars, drugs are tools which can be used or abused. In the same way that a person needs to get a license to drive a car or own a gun to insure his safety and the safety of others, that person will have to go through a certain kind of training to get a license to use a certain drug. More knowledgeable drug users, who were taught to use drugs in a safer more intelligent way, should lead to decreased drug casualties. Also, Doblin argues, since violating the terms of a drug license would lead to its retrieval, users will have more to lose and be more careful not to abuse drugs. “It won’t make the black market disappear, but it will make it smaller, which will make it more difficult to obtain drugs illegally, and it might make people think twice before they do things which will put their license at risk” he says.

Until the psychedelic driver’s license meme becomes dominant, MAPS is doing other work to minimize drug harm. The organization has been involved with different educational activities like the “Psychedelic Crisis” video, which teaches YouTube viewers how to help a person having a bad trip. Another one of these activities has been setting up psychedelic emergency clinics in festivals. “We have been doing this psychedelic emergency service at Boom Festival and at other large festivals where people do a lot of drugs” says Doblin. “We will have therapists and volunteers to help people who need it. The Boom festival, for example, has spent 30,000 euros to provide this psychedelic emergency service. They funded teams that were there 24 hours a day. This work envisions how things might work in a post-prohibition world, because people are going to be using these things recreationally.”

How many emergencies do you have in such a festival, and how do you handle them?

Doblin: “Sometimes over a hundred. The treatment takes place in this large geodesic dome which is separated into different spaces by white sheets. Mostly what we say is: ‘you didn’t intend this to happen but you can see this as an opportunity.’ So it’s more of a therapeutic approach, like short term acute psychotherapy. In a sense, for the volunteers who provide the support, this turns into a kind of training program for therapists. And we don’t have to worry about getting arrested for providing this sort of support because in Portugal drugs are decriminalized which allows having measures to increase the safety of drug use. So at Boom they have people with thin layer chromatography drug testing, and people can bring the stuff that was sold to them and have it tested to say what it really is. And they tell you for free if it’s fake and if it’s pure. That brings you back to the question of legalization. Widespread use by young people in the 1960s, is what has panicked people and then led to the criminalization of research. So now that we got some of the research back, non-medical use is still illegal, and if people get scared of the illegal use they could shut down the research. By focusing on harm reduction, we help prevent that from happening.”

And that depends on the public discourse about drugs and psychedelics. Do you see a sign for change in the way these things are perceived in the general society and culture?

Doblin: “More and more people are hearing the word ‘psychedelic’ being said by doctors wearing suits and ties, so the term ‘psychedelic’ is becoming rehabilitated. The two hardest symbolic obstacles we had to overcome in order to show that the psychedelic renaissance had really arrived were to start LSD research, since LSD is the symbol of the 1960s, and then to start research at Harvard, which is where Leary was. Once those research goals were accomplished, people were like: “Shit! They’re doing this at Harvard!” Recently we had this article in about our initial success in our first MDMA/PTSD study, and it was republished in the Navy Seals website, and reported by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, without saying that this was a terrible thing. Someone just wasn’t paying attention, but that tells you something. Our work with war veterans has really moved us forward. So when you look at the big picture of psychedelics and psychedelic research today, I think things are going pretty well”


On Psychedelic Aesthetics

The Roots and Future of Psychedelic Visual Media: How Psychedelic Aesthetics Took Over the World.

Originally published on The Daily Psychedelic Video

If one were to judge the state of the psychedelic visual style in 1980, one would probably consider it to be an obsolete fad which receded into the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although decades have passed since the psychedelic sixties, psychedelic elements are today deeply integrated into contemporary visual culture from Avatar to videos by Beyonce and Rihanna.

The story of psychedelic visuals did not begin in the 1960s. It is in fact an extremely long tale which stretches from mankind’s prehistorical mystical visions, through the psychedelic revolution of the sixties, to modern consumerist media society and beyond. In order to understand the appeal which the psychedelic visual style holds for our postmodern culture one must get back to the roots of psychedelic aesthetics in the visionary experience.

Huxley’s  analysis of psychedelic aesthetics

“Prenatural light and color are common to all visionary experiences” wrote Aldous Huxley in his Heaven and Hell “and along with light and color there comes in every case, a recognition of heightened significance. The self-luminous objects which we see in the mind’s antipodes possess a meaning, and this meaning is, in some sort, as intense as their colour.”[1]

The origin of intense coloring in the visionary experience. Aldous Huxley.

Visionary experiences has many possible characteristics, but the most common of which, according to Huxley, is the experience of light: “Everything seen by those who visit the mind’s antipodes is brilliantly illuminated and seems to shine from within. All colors are intensified to a pitch far beyond anything seen in the normal state, and at the same time the mind’s capacity for recognizing fine distinctions of tone and hue is notably heightened.”[2]

Huxley’s lengthy discussion about the aesthetics of the visionary and psychedelic experience in Heaven & Hell remains one the most perceptive pieces about the roots of psychedelic aesthetics. His rich background as a scholar of aesthetics, a scholar of mysticism and a pioneering practitioner of psychedelic journeys, allows him to examine the issue of the visual characteristics of psychedelia from a large historical and philosophical perspective which is essential if one is to decipher the true meaning of psychedelic aesthetics.

All psychedelic visions are unique, claimed Huxley, yet they all “recognizably belong to the same species”.[3] What they have in common are the preternatural light, the preternatural color and the preternatural significance, as well as more specific architectures, landscapes and patterns which tend to reoccur across psychedelic and visionary experiences. For Huxley this intense color and light was one of the primary and most indelible characteristics of what he called the mind’s antipodes, the unknown territories to which the psychedelic voyager is transported.

Looking at the traditions of various cultures, past and present, Huxley found a common ground between their accounts of the heavens or the fairylands of folklore and  the lands of the antipodes. He noted the existence of Other Worlds, mythological landscapes of fantastic beauty in many of the world’s cultural traditions. In the Greco-Roman tradition there were the Garden of Hesperides, the Elysian Plain and the Fair Island of Leuke. The Celts had Avalon, while the Japanese had Horaisan and the Hindu Uttrarakuru. These other worldly paradises, noted Huxley, abound with intensely colored and luminescent objects which bring to mind the psychedelic visionary experience. “Every paradise abounds in gems, or at least in gemlike objects resembling as Weir Mitchell puts it, ‘transparent fruit.’”[4] Wrote Huxley. Ezikel’s version of the Garden of Eden notes the many various stones in the garden, while “The Buddhist paradises are adorned with similar ‘stones of fire’”. The New Jerusalem is constructed in glimmering buildings of shimmering stone. Plato’s world of the ideals is described as a reality where “colors are much purer and much more brilliant than they are down here”.[5]

Mystical paradises were always glowing with color and light. Avatar.

Huxley introduces many more examples of ancient cultures which establish the import and centrality of glimmering gems and precious stones in various mythologies. The implication he draws from this consistency is that the “otherwise inexplicable passion for gems”[6] must have had its roots in “the psychological Other World of visionary experience”.[7] In other words, “precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.”[8]

Moreover, Huxley notes, “among people who have no knowledge of precious stones or of glass, heaven is adorned not with minerals but with flowers”. Many more examples follow for the various intensely colored, shiny and often luminescent objects in which man had sought the semblance of the Other Worlds, among them candles, works of jewelry, crowns, silks and velvets, medals, glassware, the vision inducing stained glass windows of churches and even ceramics and porcelain ware.  All these, argued Huxley, act to transport human beings into higher realities: “contemplating them, men find themselves (as the phrase goes) transported –carried away toward that Other Earth of the Platonic Dialogue, that magical place where every pebble is a precious stone.”  Shiny objects, argued Huxley, remind the unconscious of the mind’s antipodes and so allow us to experience a taste of visionary consciousness.

The human urge to be transported into the numinous realm has found its expression in mythologies and religion, but also in art. Huxley notes a number of artists who used colors in transporting ways such as Caravaggio, Geroges de Latour, and Rembrandt. Indeed, he notes:

“Plato and, during a later flowering of religious art, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that pure bright colors were of the very essence of artistic beauty”.

Although Huxley argues that this categorical equation of beauty with bright colors leads to absurdity, he also finds this doctrine to be not altogether devoid of truth. “Bright pure colors are the essence, not of beauty in general, but only of a special kind of beauty”: the beauty of works of art which can transport the beholder’s mind in the direction of its antipodes.

Modern taste is often reserved about using intensely bright colors, and prefers the more restrained and undemonstrative palette of minimalism and modernist design. The reason, argued Huxley, is that “we have become too familiar with bright pure pigments to be greatly moved by them”.[9] In the past, pigments and colors were costly and rare. The richly colored velvet and brocades of princely wardrobes, and the painted hangings of medieval and early modern houses were a rarity reserved for a privileged minority, while the majority of the population lived a drab and colorless existence. This all changed with the modern chemical industry and its endless variety of dyes and colors. “In our modern world there is enough bright color to guarantee the production of billions of flags, and comic strips, millions of stop signs and taillights, fire engines and Coca-Cola containers”, and all those objects which in the past might have possessed a transporting numinous quality were reduced by the new industrial consumer market into ordinary banality.

The evolution of psychedelic aesthetics in modern times

The potential of psychedelics to act as powerful catalysts for creativity in general and for visual artists specifically was  noted by researchers of psychedelics already in the 1950s. Oscar Janiger who administered psychedelics to artists was immediately flooded with artists enthusiastic to explore their creativity through the use of psychedelics. “Ninety-nine precent expressed the notion that this was an extraordinary, valuable tool for learning about art”[10]. Ron Sandison noted a patient whose style changed completely after a psychedelic experience “and she began to paint in the style she wanted to, which was imaginative”.[11]

Many more anecdotal accounts of the artistic merit of psychedelics appear during these years. However, the great aesthetic shift ushered by psychedelics would only come as a result of their popularization in the mid-1960s. The psychedelic revolution has brought the visionary aesthetic which stood at the center of many works of art and religion back to the foreground of western culture, but now through the prism of the emerging pop culture of the 1960s.

San Francisco psychedelic poster artists such as Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, Stanely Mouse & Alton Kelley redefined the boundaries of numinous aesthetics by integrating it into commercial psychedelic posters which advertised bands and  rock concert. These psychedelic artist, who experimented with colors and forms  were inspired to a great extent by the Art Noveau movement of early 20th century and it’s emphasis on organic forms and lines, as well as in the idea of life as art. The aesthetic of these  posters would define a new artistic style that would be widely distributed and collected.  Meanwhile, psychedelic art flourished outside the poster genre. Visual artists such as Mati Klarwein, Robert Fraser and Milton Glaser designed psychedelic album covers for the likes of Miles Davis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Mati Klarwein’s psychedlic cover to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

Other forms of psychedelic aesthetics have emerged in various cultural domains. Psychedelic fashion was popularized by rock artists and countercultural figures and even introduced into couture by designers such as Emilio Pucci, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin. Psychedelic light shows by psychedelic light show artists and groups such as Marc Boyle, Mike Leonard and The brotherhood of light became a popular trend in music concerts. (Here one should also note an extremely popular form of  psychedelic aesthetics, which is the luminescent culture of Burning Man Festival, whose fascination with glowing colors  have turned it over the years into a distinct form of light-worship, a spiritual fest ordered around the heavenly glow Huxley referred to in his work). Psychedelic architectural and inner designs flourished in the communes and were experimented with by a variety of architects and designers as thoroughly documented in the book “Spaced Out”.

What these various genres of psychedelic aesthetics had in common was the use of intensive coloring, extensive use  of natural lines, extensive use of op-art as well as of elaborate patterns and designs that sought to transport the viewer into a different state of consciousness. Like the other forms of psychedelic culture, psychedelic aesthetic was a new artistic genre which was rooted in the psychedelic experience and at the same time a cultural artifact which attempted to recreate some of the elements of the psychedelic experiences within the domain of culture.

A distinct form of light worship. Burning Man.

Yet, by the late sixties psychedelic aesthetics have already left the realms of the counterculture, and started being absorbed by the larger culture, as their commercial potential began being tapped into by various enterprises from Pepsi and McDonalds to Campbell and General Electric so that by the mid-1970s, the psychedelic visual style had been largely absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture which the hippies sought to change.

The evolution and reemergence of psychedelic video

Psychedelic art, fashion, design and architecture were all contributed greatly to the creation of a psychedelic culture expressed in various artistic forms. Yet when it comes to reproducing the psychedelic experience, it seems that film and video had an altogether different potential. Psychedelic visions are after all not not static, buy dynamic and related to sound. An effective use of moving pictures and a soundtrack can powerfully recreate elements of the psychedelic experience. This would appear to be part of the reason, why psychedelic film and video would achieve an even greater popularity than did the more static reproductions of the psychedelic experience such as art, fashion, design and architecture.

Already Huxley noted in his Heaven and Hell  that the equivalent of the magic-lantern show of earlier times is the colored movie. “In the huge, expensive ‘spectacular’, the soul of the masque goes marching along” wrote Huxley. He was fascinated by various films with visionary properties, such as Disney’s The Living Desert and claimed that film has the power to create a “vision inducing phantasy”. Psychedelic elements have actually emerged on film already as early as the 1920s as could be seen in this short silent animation film from 1926 as well on Disney’s 1940s films Fantasia and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which both contained elaborate psychedelic sequences, and whose chief visualist is reputed to have participated in Kurt Beringer’s mescaline experiments in 1920s Berlin.

The 1960s psychedelic genre of film distinguished itself through such films as “Psych-Out” (1968), “The Trip”, (1967), “Easy Rider” (1969) and of course the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” (1968) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  which was frequented in cinema by numerous tripping hippies who immensely enjoyed the closing hyper-psychedelic 30 minutes sequence.

And while the attraction and novelty of the psychedelic style seemed to diminish in the beginning of the 1970s, the attempts to recreate the psychedelic visual aesthetic on film kept evolving. Experimental movie makers such as Vince Collins and Toshio Matsumoto explored psychedelic aesthetics throughout the 1970s, while new motion pictures introduced movie-goers to more elaborate and sophisticated cinematic renditions of the psychedelic experience, created about with the help of new production techniques and technologies in films such as Ken Russel’s 1980’s Altered States  and Terry Gilliam’s 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

But while these might seem as solitary examples, a far deeper cultural momentum was at work, advancing the integration of psychedelic aesthetic into popular culture. As I showed above, Huxley already noted the visionary aspect of commercial designs such as colorful printed advertisements or neon lights. As technology and media evolved side by side with late capitalism, psychedelic aesthetic and consumer society would find a common field of resonance. Electronic media, which media theorist Marshall McLuhan described as humanity’s nervous system, and which Erik Davis called a technology of the self, would become a new and most effective form of consciousness altering medium. The visual properties of psychedelics, which expressed themselves not only through color but also through a new and more dynamic approach to video editing, would become integrated into the popular culture, while better, bigger screens and higher resolutions created a distinctly psychedelic hyper-real quality in many of the new clips and videos.

And so, while it might have earlier seemed that psychedelic aesthetic became a thing of the past, a quick examination of today’s popular culture would teach us something radically different. Psychedelic visual style is to be found in the music clips of the many of today’s leading music artists, and not only alternative groups such as MGMTChemical Brothers or Birdy Nam Nam but also in the music clips of many of today’s leading pop artists from Beyonce to Lady GagaRihannaKesha and Nicki Minaj. Psychedelic visionary aesthetic also became an integral part of today’s commercial world from Takashi Murakami’s impeccable Louis Vitton’s commercials to commercials by SonyHyundai and Yoplait. Psychedelic videos are being created today, by web users, as well as by commercial firms and popular artists at a higher rate than ever before.

This does not mean that all these videos are psychedelic in the same way. One could distinguish between more superficial use of psychedelic motives characterized mostly by psychedelic coloring, design and editing, which can be found in more mainstream oriented productions, and more distinctly and explicitly psychedelic videos which include more hardcore psychedelic motives such as multi-perspectivismmulti-dimensionalityfigure transformationmandalas and fractalic imagery. In this way one could distinguish between soft-psychedelia and hard-psychedelia.

“the self-luminous objects which we see in the mind’s antipodes possess a meaning, and this meaning is, in some sort, as intense as their color” wrote Huxley. “Significance is here identical with being”. In this, Huxley wished to point out that in contrast to surrealism, for instance, the psychedelic aesthetic is not symbolic of anything else. It is the thing itself. Its beauty needs no explanation, for it is self-evident in its color, richness and harmony. The meaning of the psychedelic visuals is “precisely in this, that they are intensely themselves”.

And this is perhaps what makes psychedelic aesthetics so appealing to today’s popular culture. The psychedelic aesthetic style, which is rooted in the visionary Other Worlds described by the mystics of humanity, is so successful precisely because it is distinguished first and foremost by its “suchness”; because it does not symbolize anything concrete, and can hence be seen as arguably indifferent to content and used for a wide variety of purposes. At the same time the powerful responses it evokes, a result of mankind’s age old fascination with the colors and light which characterized the psychedelic visions of the Other Worlds, turn it into such a powerful mind-altering tool for media.

The future of psychedelic media

One might ask whether the use visionary elements in consumer culture still holds and delievers  the deeper psychedelic values, or whether psychedelic visual style has become abused by other purposes. One thing should be clear, however: psychedelic aesthetics in media are here to stay. They are integrated into the cultural production system, and new technologies such as 3D screens and video glasses are about to make them ever more effective and powerful.

The advent of 3D screens, which are making their way into the consumer electronics market these days are one factor which is bound to make psychedelia an even more prominent force in our visual culture. The psychedelic experience has always been about perceiving new and unimagined dimensions, and the addition of a new dimension to media, has an inherently psychedelic quality to it. As a genre which is based on bending our perception and creating rich media environments to inspire awe, psychedelic visuals can benefit greatly from the new possibilities unleashed by the new dimensions. Indeed, Avatar, the most successful 3D film up to date, is distinguished by its extensive use of psychedelic aesthetics. Meanwhile Independent psychedelic video makers have already started to integrate the 3rd dimension into their works with mesmerizing results. The first examples of 3D psychedelic videos are so much more psychedelic and transporting than 2D psychedelic videos that this suggest that psychedelic videos will profit from the integration of the 3rd dimension into media more than any other genre of video.

Meanwhile, augmented reality projects such as the “Google Glasses” suggest that in the not so remote future one might perceive the world through high-resolution 3D screens. This in turn raises the possibility that the augmented reality glasses will be used not only to present useful data, but also to produce visual filter effects (such as changing colors or patterns) which will be screened on reality and allow us to see reality through altered senses, much in the same way that Instagram allows us to manipulate still pictures today. Rich augmented reality environments would repackage our surroundings, freeing us from the visual constraints of the real world and transporting us into other more magical realities which will present themselves from within our glasses. Thus a new market for virtual psychedelic environments and landscapes might emerge.

Psychedelics and electronic media are both powerful mind-altering tools capable at producing awe-inspiring transformational visual experiences. Psychedelic visual culture has had an appetite for using new media to enhance and recreate psychedelic experience since the invention of the strobe light and the days of Stewart Brand’s “Trips Festival”. New developments in technology and media suggest that the wedding of the psychedelic visual culture and electronic media will only become stronger in the years to come.


[1] Huxley, The Doors Of Perception, 48.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Ibid., 51.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

 [9] Ibid. 57.

[10] Doblin, Beck, and Chapman, “Dr. Oscar Janiger’s Pioneering LSD Research: A Forty Year Follow-up” Available at:

[11] Abramson, The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy, 83.

The Chosen People of Iboga: A Conversation with Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis

Originally Published in Reality Sandwich.

By the time Dimitiri Mobenga Mugianis reached 40 years of age, he was ready to die. After cultivating an ever-worsening cocaine and heroin habit, the Detroit born and raised artist, poet and activist had just lost his wife, who died of an heroin overdose while pregnant.

Mugianis had been active in Manhattan’s Lower East Side artistic and political scene during the eighties and nineties, while keeping a habit, and had by that time lost all sense of purpose in his life. He had gone back to Detroit and was living in his parents’ basement, spending his days shooting drugs.

“There was no more fun. I was just really wasted and defeated. I was ready to die” says Mugianis, “and I really wanted to. My only goal when I was turning 40 was to go to Greece and then come home and die.”

Dimitri’s first journey to his ancestors’ homeland was already set, however following a lead he got from a fellow junkie friend, he decided to stop in Amsterdam on the way, and make a last attempt to kick his habit. There he would visit a Dutch woman by the name of Sarah, who was known to treat junkies using a then little-known, highly powerful hallucinogenic African root called Iboga.

“I had first heard about Iboga years earlier, in 1989, through my friend Adam Nodelman who came to New York with his wife at the time” tells Dimitri. “Adam was a musician and politically active in anarchist circles. His wife, who was a Dutch woman, was involved in the junkie movement, and they were telling me about their experiences with the Junkie Union in Holland. We were shooting together and they told me that they had gone through with the Iboga thing and that it was amazing. Clearly, they had relapsed, but they had gone through it and it was amazing. They told me stories about it, and this kind of stuck with me in the years ahead.”

Harlem Shaman

Cut to NYC, August 2011. I am visiting Dimitri in the New York Harm Reduction Experts center in Harlem, where he invited me to join one of the weekly shamanic Bwiti (Gabonese Iboga religion) influenced ceremonies he has been organizing in Harlem for the neighborhood’s junkies and vagabonds during the past months.

Things were supposed to turn out differently for Dimitri. He was supposed to be in Costa Rica at the moment, starting the “most amazing Iboga clinic in the world,” but a few days before he was ready to leave the country, he was arrested for possession of Ibogaine, a schedule I drug in the US, and spent 24 hours in jail, his first time there in the decade since he had stopped being a junkie and started treating people with Iboga. His passport had been taken from him and he was forbidden to leave the US until further notice, waiting for authorities to make a decision in his case.

Dimitri prefers to look at the bright side, though. The predicament gave him a chance to do much needed spiritual work in one of Manhattan’s roughest parts. “Bwiti took away my Iboga so I can become a better shaman. Bwiti took away my passport so I have to stay in one place. Bwiti put me in a jail cell and made me claustrophobic so I have to meditate. I’m grateful to Bwiti for putting me there, because I got to see again what they fucking do to people. It is a sin, a crime, to take away the sunshine from somebody. These people haven’t seen the sunshine for two years. That is really unjust.”

“What happened was a great opportunity for transformation, and I’m incredibly grateful” he says, and even though it sounds absurd, coming form his mouth I can almost believe it.

A few days before, in the NYHRE, about 20 junkies are gathered together in the middle of the day to perform a shamanic ceremony in a small candle-lit room. After 15 minutes of silent meditation, Dimitri and his close friend and coworker Bovenga are now singing Bwiti songs and consecrating the space using burning ritual herbs. Dimitri is dressed in ceremonial clothing. A majestic feather is attached to his forehead. He and Bovenga paint the faces of those in the room glowing colors, moving from one person to the other, and blessing them, while the junkies play the maracas and other musical instruments which were laid on the table at the center of the room.

Reminiscent of indigenous power plants ceremonies, but grounded in Harlem’s harsh reality, the whole scene seems highly surreal at first, like straight out of an particularly bizarre Burroughs novel. The people here are homeless. Many are drug users, many of them fresh out of jail. Many of them are HIV positive. However, after a few minutes, the initial peculiarity of the scene recedes to the background, and another thing becomes clear: in the harsh reality of Harlem, Dimitri is bringing hope, love and compassion to people whose lives had been strewn with alienation and pain.

This is a struggle of mythical proportions between the heaven and the earth, between the good and bad in everyone’s soul, and Dimitri is the urban shaman, toiling at the extraction of all demons and the healing of all souls. He prances around the room addressing the gods and the hearts vehemently, making passionate speeches about the importance of pleas, intentions and prayers. He calls to the spirits of the Bwiti to come and cure the people in the room. His charisma and big heart wipe away all differences. “Many shamans that suffered from a particular disease know it better than anybody else. So this is my malady that I work with,” he says. People here respect Dimitri because they know that he knows the demons of drug addiction from first hand experience.

This doesn’t mean that everything is nice and easy, of course. Tensions erupt at one point of the session, and one of the participants decides to leave the room, something which Dimitri says hasn’t occurred before. However, by the end of the session, after singing and praying together, this small and seemingly highly improbable community of people led to God in the quest of inner strength looks united and in peace.

Before closing the session, Dimitri has a sad message. One of the group members had died the previous week of a heroin overdose. Death is ever-present, here, as it is around the world of Iboga drug treatment in general. A few days later, when I meet Dimitri near the Yippie Museum Café on the Lower East Side, he tells me that a friend of his, an Iboga provider (the term for Iboga therapists in the community) who has spent the last couple of years repeatedly going back and forth between Iboga and the needle, has finally died of an heroin OD.

These kinds of events make some of Iboga’s opponents dubious about the Iboga treatment, but for Dimitri a relapse doesn’t mean that treatment hadn’t succeeded or that an Iboga experience was any less valid than in the case of former users who were permanently healed of their addiction.

“If success means stop using for ever, well then I don’t care about that. I think everyone who comes to contact with Iboga is profoundly changed. One of those changes is more satisfaction for them and the outside society.”

“I stopped using heroin and that’s great, but there are plenty of folks who continue to use and still have amazing changes happen in their lives. I’m still working on my first experience 9 years ago.”

Dimitri’s line of argument runs even deeper though. His idea of healing is fundamentally different than that of the mainstream medical establishment, and based in an entirely different weltanschauung.  “The psychiatrist and the scientist want to measure everything, but they cannot measure love. That is not quantifiable.” He goes on to tell me the story of Marcus, a homeless addict who was one of his first Iboga patients.

Marcus had a horrendous, extremely difficult experience and disappeared completely during the second day of treatment, while Dimitri was resting and to his utter devastation.

“Two weeks later I was sitting in the park and Marcus comes to me. He was wearing the same t-shirt. He did things for money he wasn’t proud of. He also had a bunch of CD’s under his arm that he obviously had stolen. He was limping through the park, just looking terrible. I was running to him. I was almost crying when I saw him. He threw his arms around me and said: “Thank you Dimitri. You changed my life.”

“So who are we to say that it didn’t change Marcus’s life? Who are we to call him a failure? When we tell people what is successful and what is not successful we set people up against failure. Emma Goldman said that everyone has a right to beautiful and radiant things. So did Marcus, and so does every street junkie out there.”

The Path of Bwiti

Gabon, the home of Iboga and the Bwiti religion, has been a center of Iboga use for thousands of years. Although reliable data on the subject is lacking, Dimitri estimates that about 300 thousand of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gabon participate in Bwiti ceremonies, events which involve the ingestion of the Iboga bark root.

“It is far more prominent than Ayahuasca in south or central America. You walk into a village and everyone knows what you know. The children eat it. The babies eat it. The old people eat it. The pregnant women eat it. The dogs eat it. Everyone eats it. It is used for different sorts of initiations, for passage into adulthood, and as medicine for many ailments.”

Gabonese Bwiti comes in many shapes and forms, which range from the Christian to the native indigenous, and encompasses a myriad of bizarre hybrids. “I have seen Bwiti where people’s faces were painted and they were wearing big pope hats with huge crosses on them, and I’ve seen Bwiti that was completely leaves and flowers. This is a way that African culture survived and changed,” says Dimitri.

Unknown in the west until the middle of the 19th century, Iboga has made its first  appearance outside Africa in 19th century France, but it was only in 1962 that its anti-addictive properties were first discovered, an event which interestingly occurred in the very same place in which we Dimitri and me are sitting, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that has harbored radical politics and culture since the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1962 Howard Lostof, a heroin addict who lived here, got hold of some Ibogaine, which he intended to use for recreation. After consuming the Ibogaine, Lostof was amazed to find that his desire for heroin had disappeared, as well as the horrifying withdrawal symptoms of stopping heroin use.

From that moment and to his death in 2010, Lostof fought for the recognition of Iboga as a treatment for heroin addiction. Making the case for Iboga, which has been classified as a schedule I substance in the US (a substance deemed to be of high potential for abuse, unsafe for research, and with no established medical use in treatment) hasn’t been easy. But in the past decades Iboga treatment has received increasing attention, and the enthusiastic responses by many of its patients has given it the reputation of a magic cure, a label which Dimitri decidedly objects to.

“Iboga doesn’t get anyone off a drug” says Dimitri. “That’s not what it does. It interrupts the physical dependency on drugs.”

So it’s not a wonder drug?

“It is a wonder drug, but the wonder isn’t that you walk away forever. The wonder is that you change your fucking life and your mindset, and you might go back again to being a heroin addict unless you put some work into it. It is just like with ayahuasca. It is not consumerism, not a consumerist product — but the work you put into it.”

“Look, there are a lot of Ibogaine providers who are completely fucked up. You are not going to take these things and eat them and then the world is going to be OK. Bwiti wants you to engage with it and work, and to try to live a clean life.”

“The problem is that Bwiti gives you so much power that people think it’s over. That the whole thing is over, that the spell has been lifted. You can lift the spell, but if you go back to the shit again, you are going to fall back into it. I felt the same thing. But I was lucky.”

After the addict is rid of his addiction, it is the socio-economic factor which plays a crucial role in deciding whether he will go back to his habit or not. “It all depends on where the person is going back to,” says Dimitri. “The formula I got from Ritchie, my friend that connected me with Sarah, was: you need to go to therapy, and you need to do something with your life, physical, mental, spiritual. And I stuck to it.”

The Chosen People of Iboga

The son of Greek immigrants, Dimitri grew up in a house where politics were a matter of constant debate. His parents, both politically active left wingers, have instilled in him a perpetually burning awareness of the injustices of the world.

“Growing up in a political house was sort of like growing up in a religious house, not in the sense of being dogmatic because they weren’t strict communists, but every day you would hear about what’s wrong with the world, and how you should go about the world.”

So how did you end up doing heroin?

“I was coming of age in Detroit in the seventies. Everyone I knew did drugs. My brother sold drugs. Most people who use drugs, use it and move on. I just didn’t. I had an affinity to heroin. I loved it. All my heroes did heroin. When I first started doing it, it was fucking great for a long time.”

Weren’t you worried about the risks?

“To me it was an attraction.”

However, the attraction that held up for many years eventually faded and gave way to an unrelenting habit whose clench became harder and tougher. “What I would do is about a 150 to 200 dollars worth of heroin and 100 milligrams of methadone every day. It means going to the methadone clinic 6 days a week, sometimes shooting up in parking lots or in the bathroom of the methadone clinic, shooting up cocaine and heroin at the same time. The heroin made me feel good but the cocaine made me psychotic,” recounts Dimitri in Michel Negroponte’s excellent documentary film “I’m Dangerous with Love” (2009) which tells the story of his Iboga work.

“By the time I was ready for Iboga my life was completely over. I was turning 40 years old, my wife had died pregnant from addiction, and I had a lot of anger.”

Back to 2002, when Dimitri had his first Iboga experience with Sarah, the Dutch Iboga healer.

Like many other African beliefs Bwiti is a religion that puts great stress on man’s relation to his ancestors. The Iboga session run by Sarah was of a therapeutic character: not a Bwiti ceremony, and yet Dimitri’s most profound experience was an encounter with an ancient female ancestor.

“Suddenly I was in Greece, in the Peloponnese – my mother’s side of the family. I saw this sort of image of a female being in the ground, from my mother’s lineage. A matriarch. This female, my ancestor, was saying that she has been dead for thousands of years. So long that she has become earth. I woke up [from the Iboga trip] and I was fucking grateful. It was an experience which was really life changing in many ways. Suddenly, I moved from being completely addicted to being, three days afterwards, in a point where all the desire for the drug is gone.” I met my friend Adam who happened to arrive for an Iboga treatment with Sarah at exactly the same time, and we ended up spending 10 days together running around Holland completely sober. I’ve been clean ever since.”

And there was more to Dimitri’s first Iboga experience, than just letting go of his past addiction: There was a future as well, and a heroic one, at that. “Iboga told me all this stuff, and from the moment I woke up I knew that I was going to be on a radio show called ‘this American life’. I knew that there will be a documentary about me. I knew that I would become a spokesman for Iboga.”

From that moment on, Dimitri’s life trajectory has been radically diverted towards a new mission: running around the world in the quest to save every junkie, one after the other, offering them compassion, faith and the medicine.

“My life has always been a mission, but I had changed a mission. I switched plants. I went from coca and opium (that is – poppy) to Iboga. My life has been run by plants for a long time, so now when we do a ceremony I always thank poppy and coca, because they were great. We don’t want to insult them. We just gotta move on.”

One of the things which distinguish Dimitri and makes him, in this reporter’s eyes, much more truthful and trustworthy than many other drug experts who say that there are good drugs and there are bad drugs, and a sharp line that divides the two, is that he doesn’t discard the junkie’s point of view or his experience, that he does not condescend the junkie and his choices.

Dimitri has faith in the junkie; he considers working with him “an honor.” He does not turn the junkie into a social outcast. On the contrary, he sees the junkies as a kind of chosen people – chosen by Bwiti to help spread it in the west. “If you look at the Jewish tradition or the Muslim tradition, as well as many others, it’s always about colonized slaves rising up from the lowest of the low. Spirit, God, Energy, whatever you call it, always chooses these people: in this case the pygmies and the junkies”.

“Bwiti is very smart” says Dimitri. “Bwiti said, ‘how are we going to find our way to the world?’ So, it showed it to the pygmies, who are great because they work hard and are a fun people, and the pygmies took it to other people, and then somehow it got to the Lower East Side of New York. So Bwiti turned into Iboga, which turned itself into Ibogaine, and they put it in who? In the junkies hands! Why? First of all, because a junkie is fearless and crazy. And they have no past. A junkie doesn’t own a house. They haven’t talked to their parents and children. They’ve got no fucking future. They are already fucking dead. And they already lived a spiritual existence of denial, and self flagellation and living alone, and also incredible bliss. The perfect candidates. And they are also very charming, otherwise they wouldn’t live for so long. So the qualities that turn you into a junkie are also the qualities that Iboga figured were the best. It looked all over the world and said: I will cure this. This is the philosophy or the theology of American Bwiti, or universalist Bwiti. That we the junkies are the chosen people of Iboga.”

African Healing

For many years, Dimitri has practiced a secular form of Iboga, one which does away with religious ceremonialism and instead focuses on the therapeutic effects of Iboga, without stressing its African roots and spiritual import. He gave Iboga treatments in hotel rooms, relying on the physical effects of the drug to cure his patients.

This changed radically after visiting Gabon and participating in a Bwiti ceremony for the first time. There, confronted with the Bwiti culture, a society which puts Iboga in the center of its spiritual life, and integrates it into all levels of its existence, Dimitri found out about the fundamental importance of something which has been a central concept in psychedelic theory since the 1960s: set and setting: the idea that the content and character of a psychedelic drug experience is dependent on the preparation and intention as well as on the physical, social and symbolic surroundings in which the experience takes place.

The African way just made sense in so many ways. To begin with, there was the music.

“I’m a guy from Detroit who grew up with African American people. I love black girls. I’ve been married to several. In Gabon, music was the centre of everything. This was the same music that had led me since I was a kid when I heard Motown for the first time, when I heard blues for the first time, when I heard rock & roll, and Jazz and gospel for the first time. You could hear that same music in Gabon: The music that saved my life. Like in the Velvet Underground song: ‘My life was saved by rock & roll’. My life was saved by that.”

“And they were playing right in front of me. And they were dancing all night long: The old people, the young people. What we’ve lost in our culture: dancing with old people and children. The Bwitists can heal you by dancing, just like the shipibo [tribe] will find out what is wrong with you and they will sing through the plant into you. It’s all part of what has been lost. The fact that your grandmother knew how to go and pick some leaves somewhere in the forest, or in any case, that you are not that far away from someone who could boil some shit.”

“These people could speak in front of a crowd. Everyone knows that there, because it’s the Bwiti. So there was a social form, a set and setting that was old and precise, and there was trance music of continual dancing all night long. So it was very difficult, but the framing and the setting were that you had the support of everyone.”

“Once I had experienced that I knew that it was something I had been looking for me entire life. I’ve been in music from punk to house music and jazz. I’ve been involved with musicians and artists all my life. I was a poet for a while. And here it was. The healing arts and the performing arts are not separated. They are merged. After going through the ceremony there was no way I could go back to doing Iboga treatment without a ceremony. ”

And this is where you break off with the medical model for the therapeutic use of hallucinogens?

“I don’t have that many great experiences with doctors. I don’t know what about you. I don’t want to trip with them. The medicalization of this is, I think, actually dangerous.”

“That’s why for me it makes no sense to go back into a room. I have no interest in sitting in a fucking hotel room. It’s not any fun. This is much more fun, and it’s also a lot more work. To prepare for Bwiti is much more work. We do a series of ritual baths. We do conversations. We do offerings. The ritual has evolved to become something else than the traditional way.”

The Future of Iboga
Only about 500 people have been to Gabon to eat Iboga thus far, Dimitri estimates. When I ask him if he is not worried that, as in the case of ayahuasca in South and Central America, Iboga tourism could become a massive and arguably harmful influence on the Iboga culture he seems less concerned than I had expected.

“I know that in the very small world of Iboga and Bwiti, I have a little place. So I

know that what I’m doing creates a reaction in the world, just because I’m talking to you and to other people. I look at Brazil and Peru and see the good and the real bad effects of massive people coming down there for shamanistic tourism. And one of the main people responsible for people going to Gabon right now is me. In the English speaking world, anyway. That’s not a lot of people, but it was 20 this year, and there were five last year.”

“The thing is that Iboga is much harder. It also takes much longer. There are more deaths associated with it. The physical effects are much more difficult. There is the junkie connection, and then there is the thing with Africa and Gabon.”

“I hear people who want to come to Gabon as a tourist: Good fucking luck! Because it’s not like Guatemala. It’s not like that at all. It’s not geared for anything but difficulty and malaria. Gabon is incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive.”

“Culturally and mentally Gabon is much further away than south or central America. If they say I’ll be right back and they come back in two days, they wonder why you’re upset. Also it can become incredibly ugly.”

In what way?

“Well, the scars of colonialism and post colonialism are everywhere. The westerner comes with a preconceived notion, well meaning but often with unconscious racism of the “noble savage” kind, and are often disappointed. The Gabonese are very poor, even the great Ngangas and they see us as walking ATM — so it can be very confusing and upsetting for all concerned — also the treatment of women, the poverty and the obsession with western consumerism — which is what the seeker is running from — but we must remember that our cultural imperialism is very strong witchcraft.”

“When you step into this world you need to remember that it is not all light. I think that is what many people interested in this stuff today fail to realize, is that it’s also a lot of darkness.  These people who are shamans, be fucking careful with them – like you would with a lawyer or with a doctor, because there is a lot of fucking darkness. This stuff has almost killed me, several times. Everyone involved in Iboga in terms of their work suffers incredibly. It is one thing to eat it once, but it is another to start treading this path, because the shamanistic path is not a spiritual path. It is a power path. Europe is fucked, we all know that, but it had some good stuff coming off it as well, like liberation, and like this sort of self reflection. We have discovered a balance which doesn’t exist in Africa. So when you go to eat Bwiti there, be careful.”

Can you reconcile those contradictions? I mean, it sounds like it can become infuriating.

“It totally is. If you go there you will be pissed off real quick. The thing is, what are you going to do? So that’s why I don’t see Iboga happening that quickly. I see it slowly happening. I see it as a tool. A crucial tool.”

And Iboga is happening. Slowly but surely. Or as Dimitri wrote on his facebook profile this week: “Osama Bin Laden – Gone. Muammar Gaddafi – Gone. Kim Jong Il. – Gone. Dana Beal — Still Standing!”[1]

Iboga’s path to acceptance in the modern world remains strange, mysterious and full of unexpected turns, but despite an ongoing war fledged against it by law authorities in the US and beyond, Iboga treatment is getting more and more recognition through the writings of literary figures like Daniel Pinchbeck, the research of academics like Professor Kenneth Alper from the NYU Langone Medical Center, and the devout work of activists and therapists like Beal and Mugianis. The Iboga root that delivers ancient African healing to the aching lost souls of the West, brings hope that someday this troubled modern culture will discover a new-found peace of its own.

Culture is not your friend: On the countercultural philosophy of psychedelic thinkers

“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, and what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you, it disempowers you, it uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture” [i]. This famous passage from McKenna’s 1998 “Valley of Novelty” series of lectures epitomizes one of the most fundamental ideas of psychedelic thinking.

“Culture is not your friend”. Terence McKenna.

Psychedelic counterculture is not only countercultural in the sense of being peripheral or opposed to mainstream culture: It is countercultural in the deepest sense of the word, by rejecting the whole concept of culture, a concept which is viewed as a constricting complex of values, concepts and ideas which are imposed on the individual in the name of uniformity, thereby limiting human potential for thought and expression.

According to McKenna, the victims of culture include all those who are subjected to its dogmas, values and ideologies: From the young man going to kill and die in a war against people he never met in the name of culture, to those who limit and suppress their sexual identity and preferences in order to conform to culture’s moral dictates, as well as to those whose aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities are shaped by culture’s limiting constructs of expression and thought – in short, everybody. By embracing cultural forms such as ideologies, trends or brands, we are giving up on the precious opportunity for individual expression inherent in human existence. By defining ourselves through a predetermined concept or structure, saying for example:” I am a Marxist” or “I am an Apple fan” – one gives up his chance for self-definition. Culture, as McKenna puts it, is an intelligence test – and those who choose to embrace it fail the test.

The roots of counterculturalism

Culture is the valve which constricts our doors of perception. Aldous Huxley.

The psychedelic-countercultural idea forms a distinct current in the philosophy of many of the major psychedelic thinkers of the past 50 years such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary,  Robert Anton Wilson and Erik Davis.  However, its roots run much deeper. Indeed, in a way it is even prevalent in the ancient role of the shaman who according to McKenna has a “wider view because he is not a part of culture”. The shaman might appear to be a member of the culture but according to McKenna his perspective “is broader, deeper, higher and wider than the culture that created him.”[ii]

This countercultural tendency of psychedelic thinking is derived directly from an essential aspect of the psychedelic experience, an experience which transplants the individual back into the body, to the naked facts of its biological existence, and exposes the common perception of reality as a cultural construct, or a “game” as Leary used to call it. The psychedelic experience is also characterized by a sense of universality and unity which undermine concepts of nation and state, and by inner journeys which send the human being into strange and fantastic terrains which make conventional models of culture, previously seen as absolute, seem limited and arbitrary. 

Similar ideas to those expressed by McKenna in his “Valleyof Novely” series of lectures have already been discussed in the middle of the 20th century by psychedelic philosopher Aldous Huxley. “History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity” asserted Huxley in his 1963 essay “Culture and the individual”.[iii]

Culture, according to Huxley is a hypnotic agent which has “given us, generation after generation, countless millions of hypnotized conformists, the predestined victims of power-hungry rulers who are themselves the victims of all that is most senseless and inhuman in their cultural tradition.”[iv]

Culturally formed consciousness is distorted by the preconceptions of culture, which Huxley likens to a net which constricts one’s field of view. “What we see through the meshes of this 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, of sense impressions with preconceived ideas about the nature of things.”[v]

Indeed, even the idea of “Cleansing the doors of perception”, so central to Huxley’s seminal Doors of Perception is interpreted in “Culture and the Individual” as related to the cleansing of perception from the imposed pre-conceived concepts of culture. “To become fully human, man, proud man, the player of fantastic tricks, must learn to get out of his own way” writes Huxley “only then will his infinite faculties and angelic apprehension get a chance of coming to the surface. In Blake’s words, we must ‘cleanse the doors of perception’; for when the doors of perception are cleansed, ‘everything appears to man as it is—infinite.’”[vi] Culture is thus seen as the very valve of perception whose constricting impact on our potential as human beings Huxley so passionately lamented.

Huxley was hopeful that psychedelics might prove useful as tools which will free man from the despotism of culture. “Always desirable, widespread training in the art of cutting holes in cultural fences is now the most urgent of necessities.” He wrote. “Can such a training be speeded up and made more effective by a judicious use of the physically harmless psychedelics now available? On the basis of personal experience and the published evidence, I believe it can.”[vii]. To those who ridiculed his involvement with the psychedelics calling it “Having Fun with Fungi” He answered with the question: “But which is better: to have fun with Fungi or to have idiocy with Ideology”?[viii]

During the 1960s  Timothy Leary, the most prominent advocate of the use of psychedelics during that period was also questioning the role of culture in the constricting our patterns of thought and imprinting our perceptions and reactions. In one of his lectures from the 1960s Leary Considers one of Konrad Lorenz’s famous imprinting experiments. Lorenz showed that newly born ducks will get imprinted and follow the first moving object they encounter after being born. He described a duck who was imprinted by a basketball upon birth, and who followed the basketball wherever it went, even trying to suck milk out of it. Leary asked his listeners to consider what kind of hallucinatory basketballs, they might be carrying in their heads – cultural basketballs that have been imprinted in them since birth.

Leary asked his readers to “think for yourself and question authority”, and his most famous slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out” could also be seen as a characteristic expression of the anti-cultural character of psychedelic thought: The turning on was to be achieved through the use of psychedelics, the tuning in was to one’s consciousness and inner world, and the dropping out was a  way out of society’s games and value systems which dehumanize the individual. “Everything we accept as reality is just a social fabrication” wrote Leary[ix], inverting the accepted model of realty: Through the use of psychedelics, things which formerly appeared as real such as nations, moral values and aesthetic preferences are suddenly divulged as constructed by culture and meaningless to the individual true self, while other, inner realities which are conventionally dismissed as “hallucinated” are considered to have a higher degree of validity.

The fallacy of culture

Originated the term “Kulturbrille” (Cultural Glasses). Anthropologist Franz Boas.

The idea that our perception of reality is mediated by culture has its roots in the thought of Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, who coined the term “Kulturbrille” to refer to a set of ‘cultural glasses’ that each of us wears and which provide us with means of perceiving the world around us.

Robert Anton Wilson, who elaborated many of the ideas proposed by Leary’s in the 1960s, during the 1970s and onwards elaborated on the idea of Kulturbrille in his concept of “Reality Tunnel”. According to Wilson ideology and models of the world in general are a “reality tunnel” which shapes the way we view the world. A reality tunnel is a kind of “brainwash” and Wilson maintained that “the easiest way to be brainwashed is to be born” [x]. Culture, in his eyes, was a tool for programming the minds of human beings. Such programming is done by all cultures, and predisposes the individual to view the world through a particular reality tunnel which will shape his view of reality whether it be that of “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.”[xi]

The thing which unites the people who hold all these extremely different views of the world is their commitment to a certain ideology or worldview through which they see all things. Thus, they tend to gather any piece of evidence which will support their particular worldview and dismiss any piece of evidence which will go counter to it –creating a customized, highly particularized and view of the world to suit their own predispositions.

The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. Robert Anton Wilson.

The common name for such a distorted culturally-bound perception of reality is “ideology”, a concept which psychedelic thinking sees as a prime example for the fallacy of culture. Psychedelic countercultural thought is deeply anti-ideological and has a deep rooted skepticism regarding all ideologies and rigid theories: political, cultural or scientific. The inherent fallacy of ideology is that it limits the infinite nature of reality into a narrow worldview which is bound to go wrong. “Belief” maintained Wilson, “is the death of intelligence”.[xii]

Psychedelic thinking, by contrast, champions the idea that every ideology or theory is incomplete by nature, since it tries to impose a finite model of the world on an infinitely complex reality. “The universe” as Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, quoting British biologist J.B.S. Haldane “may not only be stranger than we suppose, it might be stranger than we can suppose”. Thus, the attempt to perceive its complexity may not only be futile – it may even be harmful, since it inevitably leads to fallacies. Every culture in history believed that the cultures that came before held ludicrous notions about the world, notes McKenna. Each of these cultures, he continues, congratulated itself on having reached an almost perfect knowledge of the world, convincing itself that it already figured out 95% of the picture, and that the missing 5% would soon arrive. Yet each of these cultures was wrong – an observation which seems to accurately mirror our present western culture and science as well as all its predecessors.

Wilson who invented the concept of “maybe logic”, a logic which transcends the positive and the negative by adopting a permanent state of agnosticism, was perhaps the most careful to avoid this fallacy. In his books he often made a point of not committing to any idea and to discussing any idea using his “maybe logic” – a logic which seeks to avoid the use of “be” verbs, and keep every idea and fact under a permanent question mark. His ideal was that of general agnosticism. Agnosticism not only about God but about everything: a general state of not-knowing which will free us from the narrow worldviews of common absolutist world-models which attempt to explain the world and thus distort it.

Two final questions

As I noted above, the countercultural and anti-ideological idea held by many of the psychedelic thinkers is one of the most characteristic features of psychedelic thinking. However, while it is a tremendously persuasive and eye-opening criticism of the social and cultural reality, it also leaves at least 2 questions which are in dire need of an answer.

The first one is the question of whether it is desirable or even possible to abolish culture. Culture, after all, has given us “law, science, ethics, philosophy” and made possible “all the achievements of talent and of sanctity” as Huxley felt necessary to note[xiii]. Even McKenna felt compelled to agree that we do not wish to abolish culture altogether, since some of it is valuable, such as for example “the Sistine chapel”. Both have made preliminary attempts at distinguishing those parts of culture which are positive and inspiring from those which are misguided and cancerous. A convincing and final answer about how to distinguish between those parts of culture which are worth preserving and those which should be forsaken, is however nowhere to be found.

A second implication of the counter-cultural argument which has been addressed only too rarely, is the implication of this line of thought when it is being directed towards the psychedelic culture itself, as noted by Lorenzo Hagerty, host of the psychedelic podcast show, “The Psychedelic Salon” who introduced McKenna’s talk “Culture and ideology are not your friend” saying: “I hope you will give some serious thought to his [McKenna’s] famous remark about culture being the ultimate cult. And that includes our own psychedelic culture by the way”.[xiv] Individualistic and boundless as it might be, psychedelic culture can not eschew the traps of culture altogether, and it is perfectly capable of imposing a particular and limited form on the boundlessly infinite experience of the psychedelics. A thought to be kept in mind.

[i] Terence McKenna: Culture is not your friend, 2007,

[ii] Terence Mckenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, 1st ed. (HarperCollins, 1992), 14.

[iii] “Culture and the Individual”, n.d.,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Timothy Leary, Flashbacks (Tarcher, 1997), 32.

[x] Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising (New Falcon Publications, 2009), 169.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati, 9th ed. (New Falcon Publications, 2008), ii.

[xiii] “Culture and the Individual”, n.d.,

[xiv] Psychedelic Salon. “Podcast 011 – ‘Culture and Ideology are not your friends’”, n.d.,

A short history of the cinematic trip

The history of cinema presents us with a considerable number of attempts to recreate the psychedelic experience[1], an experience which confronts the cinematic artist with an extraordinary challenge – to capture a deeply physical, emotional, mental and spiritual experience through the limited means of sound and moving picture.

This short list of cinematic renditions of psychedelic trips is not intended to offer a complete list of the genre. It is only a selection of some of what I consider to be the more interesting and influential trip sequences in the history of cinema. Some of the trips depicted in these videos are magical and enchanted while others are vicious and vile; some are divine and purging while others are funny or just weird. This is of course due to the manifold aspects of the psychedelic experience, which appears in many forms, in life as well as in the movies.

Before the 1960s

The first trips in cinema were animated and often involved animals which got terribly stoned under curious circumstances. Felix the Cat (1927), a pioneering example, is a silent film in which the Felix the cat eats a shoe and a tin can from the garbage and experiences some kind of strange iron poisoning which send him into a delirious world of hallucinations where he is chased around by a giant chicken, sees Santa Claus transforming into a witch, and fights an imaginary cat which keeps turning into a sausage. The trip sequence in this video starts at 4:13.

Another early animated attempt to recreate the psychedelic experience in film can be found in Disney’s Dumbo (1940). Here, the flying elephant drinks magical water out of the well and is transported into a powerful hallucinatory state in which he beholds dancing pink elephants and fractal, kaleidoscopic visions. Peter Stafford’s “Psychedelic Encyclopedia” claims that the chief visualist for Disney’s Fantasia (1940) participated  in the mescaline experiments conducted in Germany by Kurt Beringer during the 1920′s; and Artist Paul Laffoley claims that Disney himself experimented with Mescaline “On a regular basis” during his stay in Germany in the 1930′s. So that the relation between 1940s Disney films and psychedelics is still far from clear.

The sixties

A great number of films dealt with the psychedelics during the 1960s, when the psychedelic movement was in full swing. Most of these films, like “Wild in the Streets” and “The love ins”, were B movies of which tried to capitalize on the hippie phenomenon by turning it into a sensation. Many of these films were done in the tradition of exploitation cinema, indulge in the use of nudity as a cheap thrill and have a rather voyeuristic character.

Roger Corman’s “The Trip” which was based on a script by Jack Nicholson (who is also known for his interest in psychedelics), is a movie dedicated to the description of one long and deeply meaningful trip. Peter Fonda, who plays the protagonist, was known at the time as one of the leading representatives of the burgeoning counterculture inHollywood, and the film sometimes carries a somewhat naïve yet appealing character of trying to make a point for the psychedelic experience.

The Easy Rider cemetery trip scene (here, regrettably, in Italian dubbing) is another classic 1960s cinematic rendition of the psychedelic trip experience. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper visit the Mardi Gras festival and then arrive at a cemetery, where they ingest LSD together with two prostitutes. The scene makes use of fish eye lenses, unusual camera angles, background noises and an hectic editing style to capture the psychedelic experience.

Altered States (1980)

The eighties were not a particularly psychedelic decade, however in 1980 Ken Russell directed “Altered States” a fascinating and awfully troubling film which is loosely based on the character of isolation tank pioneer John C. Lilly, who experimented with the conjoined use of LSD and isolation tanks in the beginning of the 1960s.

This film could be called a psychedelic horror film, as it is strewn with incredibly dark visions in which the hero meets the Devil, baphomet and other demonic apparitions. This particular scene is replete with biblical motives and religious symbols, and has an extremely sinister atmosphere. Beside the use of dramatic music, slow motion and esoteric symbols the scene is especially notable for its elaborate use of blue-screen techniques for the recreation of the visionary experience.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

In 1998 Terry Gilliam released his brilliant version of the book “Fear and Loathing inLas Vegas” written by gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson, which featured Johnny Depp as the drug obsessed reporter Raoul Duke.

In this unforgettable scene, Duke walks into aLas Vegashotel loaded with an incredible mixture of mind bending drugs. The result is one of the funniest descriptions of an hallucinatory experience in film. Gilliam does extraordinary work in capturing the dynamics of the psychedelic experience, and uses the newly arrived CGI effects to create the visual distortions typical to a psychedelic trip. However, Gilliam has more than just technology going for him. He also has an amazing talent for capturing the highly weird and bizarre form of perception which can turn the world into a carnival of weird mutants during a psychedelic trip.

Blueberry (2004)

“Blueberry” (A.K.A “Renegade”) is a rare film in the sense that it has a unique trip-like feeling from beginning to end. The “Blueberry” trip sequence has already reached a certain cult status on the web and become one of the best known cinematic descriptions of the ayahuasca experience.

While the sequence heavily relies on CGI effects, and is in that sense typical to the digital turn in the cinematic renditions of psychedelic trips – it is also breathtakingly beautiful. The relentless and exquisite movement between different layers and dimensions during the trip recreates the multi-dimensionality of the psychedelic experience in an extraordinary way.

Taking Woodstock (2009)

The “Taking Woodstock” trip sequence, is in my eyes a work of cinematic and psychedelic genius. It manages to capture a graceful psychedelic experience in a delicate and incredibly nuanced way, which is in my eyes, the most sensitive treatment of the psychedelic experience to this day.

This is not incidental, as the makers of “Taking Woostock” actually did thorough research on the subjective effects on psychedelics, and how these could be tastefully and effectively adapted to the screen. The result has been called “a stunner with overlapping pastel lighting effects, green-screen animation, shifting film speeds, lens trickery and undulating CGI…”

Viewing this sequence, I can almost feel what the protagonist is feeling as he slowly enters his psychedelic journey. The sequence pays great attention to the gradual movement into a different order of perception: the sublime glowing of the colors and the orgasmatic shivers of the skin and palpitations of the heart.  It enfolds in a way which is typical for many psychedelic experiences: from the womb-like feeling of the caravan, into the magical world outside and onward into a spectacular peak experience where Jake watches the Woodstock crowd turn into one vibrating tissue and his eyes are filled with tears of awe and joy.


A psychedelic cinematic quest

The attempts to recreate the psychedelic experience in cinema will always be incomplete at best. Capturing such an all encompassing experience through the use of visual and audial means alone is after all a task which can not be performed in an entirely faithful way. However, by examining the history of the psychedelic experience in cinema, one is confronted with the various audacious attempts of performing this task, which teach us not only on the limitations of cinema but also on its ability to act as a mind-altering medium, even to the degree of mimicking the effects of mind-altering substances, a psychedelic cinematic quest which will surely continue to enfold in the coming years, simultaneously with the evolution of media.

[1] When writing of movies which attempt to recreate the psychedelic experience, I am referring here not to movies which have a visually psychedelic qualities such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Speed Racer” – but only to films which show one of the protagonists consume some kind of hallucinogenic substance (equivalent to a psychedelic) and then try to recreate his experience for the viewer.

Avatar: The Psychedelic Worldview and the 3D Experience

The article originally appeared in the Reality Sandwich web magazine in January 2010.

For years, the psychedelic community has been anticipating the arrival of a new psychedelic medium which will be ushered in by the appearance of a new technology. The idea that technology and media can enhance psychedelics and even have psychedelic qualities has, after all, been an integral part of the psychedelic movement since the electronic trips festival of the sixties, Timothy Leary’s enthusiasm for personal computer technology in the eighties, and Terrence McKenna’s advocacy of virtual reality technologies and the internet in the nineties. Bets have been placed on 3D, HDTV, virtual reality, and other technologies, however, for a long time none of these seemed to take off in a massive way or fulfill its psychedelic potential in a way widely appreciated by the public.

Relations between psychedelics and popular culture continued, however, to be prosperous and fruitful. As noted by psychedelic thinkers such as McKenna and Eric Davis, psychedelic aesthetics have been continuously assimilated into mainstream media, as for example in the visual language of contemporary commercials and mainstream films.

The 2000’s have been highly psychedelic in media. Ever-increasing film and screen resolution, the use of bright, colorful imagery in commercials and music videos, the imaginary landscapes created by computer generated animation, and the use of extravagant and highly associative visual language have all contributed to a psychedelic tendency in media in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, the advent of computer generated 3D cinema brings on a hope for a major psychedelic turn in electronic media.

Psychedelics and the 3D Experience

Psychedelics have always been about pushing the boundaries of perception, and adding new dimensions to our perception of reality. Similarly, media has continuously sought to add ever more dimensions in its efforts to technologically capture and represent reality — from still photography to the moving image, from silent films to “talking pictures,” and from B&W to color, where the evolution of film seemingly stops. For the past 60 years, motion pictures have had more or less the same appearance in terms of the basic characteristics determined by screening technologies. Now, a new generation of 3D films aims to bring a whole new dimension to entertainment media.

What could be more psychedelic than a medium that requires the viewer to wear strange- looking, outlandish glasses that distort one’s view of the world? What better metaphor is there for the psychedelic experience, and the idea that we are continuously experiencing the world through different valves and filters, than the use of lenses that expose a whole new dimension of perception?

The 3D experience and the psychedelic experience make us appreciate the visual richness of the world and become enchanted by the multi-dimensionality of reality.  3D is a highly psychedelic experience not only in the fact that it adds a new dimension to media perception and renews our sense of wonderment at the visual world, but also in shaking our perceptions of the world by giving a third dimension to a picture screened in two dimensions. In one of cinema’s earliest and most famous screenings, the crowd ran away from the theatre after an approaching train appeared on the screen; when watching a 3D movie for the first time, many people gasp, clutch their hands, get a dry throat, and after leaving the theatre, some people report a distressing sense of dizziness. 3D dissolves the boundary between drugs and technologies. If you take off the glasses during a 3D screening and look around the theatre, you will notice that the people around you don’t see you, since the 3D glasses block and darken the majority of their field of view. The uninhibited, almost primal expression one can see on their faces is not unlike that of trippers under the influence of some drug.

3D is the new and the most immersive media drug to have emerged out of our high-tech media complex, the most successful attempt to emulate the effects of the psychedelic state.

Psychedelic Storytelling

Hollywood cinema has been flirting with our culture’s subconscious for some time now. Blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi films, ever-more popular in recent years, have acted as a Jungian shadow to our culture’s proclaimed rational and materialist view of reality. Films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, andThe Golden Compass have presented us with a re-enchanted world. These movies posit an unseen and outlandish reality existing alongside the “normal” world, and this serves to support a growing sense of paranoia about the deceptive qualities of consensus reality and the existence of hidden and enchanted dimensions to our world. Cinema has thus functioned as our culture’s collective dream, bringing to view its most repressed archaic realms.

James Cameron’s Avatar, as well as adding a new level of psychedelic visual richness to the 3D film, also features a good deal of these subversive messages and ideas. It is as anti-civilizational and anti-technological as a John Zerzan book, psychedelic like a Terrence McKenna talk, and glorifies the indigenous and shamanic world view. The fact that some people have failed to appreciate these highly explicit traits in Avatar, and call it clichéd or hackneyed is, to my mind, largely based on blindness to Avatar‘s role as a mythic specimen of our culture.

Some people who didn’t like Avatar‘s story told me that its main shortcoming is that it is told in a too conventional way. It tells a story we all already know. I could certainly see what they mean, but then again it made me think of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth concept which claims that there is one basic story that returns in most of the world’s ancient myths. This story, which features the hero with a thousand faces, is a story in three parts (departure-initiation-return) which Campbell describes as follows:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”[1]

There is only one story that really matters. This story has been with us ever since the invention of myth and it is the same as the classic story of the heavy psychedelic trip, which is about departure from your everyday world and conception of yourself (taking the drug, and going on an inner journey), death/initiation (facing your demons, which sometimes leads to a feeling of death), and return (the spiritual rebirth which is the catharsis well known to many users of psychedelics). This story, hard-wired into the structure of the far-reaching psychedelic experience, is the primal story, the one that entheogens have conveyed to humans over thousands of years in shamanic cultures around the world. The psychedelic story, told to us by a plant, might even be the origin of the monomyth.

Even though I adore movies such as Pulp FictionMemento andShortcuts, I also keep my heart wide open for our primal story. I believe that the hero who overcomes his challenges and goes on to triumph, a story which stands at the basis of many religions and myths, is of utmost importance to our culture. It is the psychedelic story that defies logic but gives us hope. So please, do tell us this story again and again, because it makes us believe, because it gives us hope, and that is what we need, and without it we are lost; it is the only story really worth telling. Avatar tells that story.

Avatar and the World of Shamanism

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine arriving at the alien planet of Pandora to replace his recently murdered brother as the operator of an avatar, an hybrid entity identical in physical structure to that of the alien natives of Pandora, but controllable by a pilot with matching DNA.

Jake now has two twin brothers. One dead, the other, an alien incarnation of himself.  In order to penetrate this alien being, Jake must empty his mind, go into dream-state, and connect with him in a special pod from which his consciousness is technologically projected to the Avatar. The life of one is the dream of the other. Where one reality ends, another reality begins.

Transmigrating between two parallel realities is a highly psychedelic idea. This is, after all one of the central tenets of the shamanic view of the world. As extensively described by Michael Harner and others, many shamanic cultures see the reality exposed by psychedelics as the one true reality.

Zhuangzi told us that he once dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he woke up he didn’t know if he was Zuhangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zuhangzi. What is reality and what is a dream? Some claim that our whole waking life is just a dream; others propose that we live to dream, and that waking life is just a secondary phenomenon to support dreaming.

Jake falls asleep and connects to an ancient and enchanted land of the cultural subconscious, where he will confront the indigenous shadow of civilization.  After establishing contact with the Na’vi tribe, Jake will undergo an inner transformation. He will learn to perceive nature’s sacredness, like a Na’vi tribesman, and even begin to see nature as his mother.

Psychedelics invoke a kind of dream experience. They are about traveling between dimensions, leaving the commonplace dimension of reality for an enchanted world. But for a citizen of the west living in a modern society ignorant of the shamanic (and psychedelic) view of reality, penetrating the enchanted realm of the psychedelic experience is a wholly different experience than it is for an indigenous person who was raised within a shamanic context. Following the concept of the re-enchantment of the world in contemporary spiritual thought and culture, as used by Christopher Partridge and Wouter Hanegraaff, one should say that the western user of psychedelics does not enter an enchanted world but a re-enchanted world. He re-enters his world, perceiving a world formerly devoid of spiritual or non-materialistic reality with new eyes, the supernaturally inclined eyes of psychedelics.[2] Jake enters this re-enchanted world, the world of shamanism, by becoming a Na’vi tribesman.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a botanist trying to establish relations with the Na’vi, a quest not unlike that of ethnobotanists and anthropologists such as Richard Evans Schultes, Michael Harner, and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, researching the role of psychedelic substances in shamanic cultures.

The Na’vi, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Pandorian hominid aliens, is spiritually led by the Tsahik, (C. C. H. Pounder) a female shaman who interprets the will of Eywa, the great mother, whose name and essence seem to resemble both that of Eve, the mother of all life, as well as Gaia, the planet mother of all life. The Na’vi culture, similarly to other shamanic cultures, believes in the “flow of energy,” a “network of energy that flows through all living things.” It pays great respect to the “spirits of animals” and when a Na’vi tribesman kills an animal, he performs a ceremony to consecrate its soul, as is done in many archaic cultures. The individual’s rite of passage includes learning to ride the Ikran, a giant carnivorous bird, which resembles the giant mythic bird that appear in various shamanic cultures such as those of the northwest coast of America, and is closely related to the figure of the Shaman, who is often associated with large birds such as the eagle. If all that wasn’t psychedelic or shamanic enough for you, the Na’vi people also worship a “tree of souls,” through which, while dancing and singing, they connect to the planet’s soul, and become a part of the collective consciousness. The meaning of the word ayahuascain the Quechuan language, it is worth mentioning, is “vine of the souls.”

The singing ritual held by the Na’vi around the tree of souls, in which all members of the tribe become one with it, might remind one of contemporary ayahuasca ceremonies. One of ayahuasca’s active chemical constituents, harmaline, was originally known in the west as telepathine, and indeed many indigenous cultures claim to join their minds under the influence of ayahuasca and reach unanimous group decisions in states of collective consciousness, a claim corroborated by McKenna who has also claimed to have witnessed telepathy during ayahuasca ceremonies.[3]

McKenna described the shaman as the one who, when you come to a village in the Amazon where foreigners appear maybe once a year, is distinguished from all others by the fact that he is not at all interested in your fancy boat or watch. The shaman transcends cultural boundaries; he looks at you to see what kind of person you are.

Seeing is important. “I see you,” one of the sacred greetings of the Na’vi, refers to seeing into a person, seeing his essence and actual being. When Jake arrives to the Na’vi tribe and is about to be killed by the angry crowd, it is the Tsahik, the shaman, who examines him with her wide-open eyes to recognize his essence, and then decides to let him stay. Later in the film, when all have turned against him, after his apparent betrayal of the tribe has been exposed, she will also be the one to set him free. She has seen something.

Jake is allowed to stay, and then something interesting happens. Borges, in his “Story of the warrior and the captive” tells us of Droctulft, a barbarian warrior who fell in love with the Roman city Ravenna and with the concept of civilization. He deserted the barbarian armies and joined the Romans in defending the Roman empire. In a diametrically opposed way, Avatar is about a warrior coming from a hyper-technological society to destroy nature falling in love with the forest, and defecting in order to defend it.

“One life ends, another begins.” The Avatar story is as anti-civilizational and neo-primitivist as it gets. When Jake is accepted to join the tribe for a period of apprenticeship, the tribe’s Tsahik says, “We’ll see if we can cure the madness.” The madness referred to by the Tsashik is of course the madness of civilization, the madness of the materialist technological world from which Jake comes. From the shamanic point of view, civilization is madness (and vice versa). This madness must be cured; one reality tunnel must be given up and exchanged with another one. “Hallucination” and “reality” must change places, in a process remarkably similar to that of the psychedelic experience.

As Terrence McKenna never grew tired of reminding us, the psychedelic experience dissolves boundaries. It dissolves the boundaries between “reality” and “hallucination,” between “madness” and “saneness.” After all, the common thing to the psychedelic movement and the anti-psychedelic movement is that they both proclaim each other insane.  While under the influence of psychedelics, and to a significant extent also during periods of psychedelic use, one experiences the world as magical. The everyday world of yesterday suddenly seems to be the bleak, colorless one, the deadly illusion of an unaware mind. Two opposites, hallucination and reality, dream and waking life, suddenly exchange places. Could the dream life be the true life?

This is what is happening to Jake. He wakes up in his pod and suddenly real life is not in the cold technological world of his unit, but in the forest, running on giant tree branches, riding his giant carnivore bird, the Ikran, and being with his love, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of Tsahik and her husband Eytucan the clan leader. Jake must choose between cultures and world views, between the technological world with its materialistic worldview and the forest with its shamanic perception of reality. Like Droctulft, he changes sides. By the end of the movie he will be calling the humans “aliens,” and in the closing scene of the movie he will kill his human incarnation and transform himself completely into the avatar.

Avatar is not only psychedelic in form but also in message.

Reality Pods

In 1954, John Lilly, a neuro-physician on his way to becoming one of the pioneers of research into the nature of consciousness, invents the isolation tank — a pod which isolates the person inside it from external stimulation and triggers an alteration of consciousness. Lilly, who kept close relations with the Californian counterculture of the sixties, also combined his isolation tank experiments with psychedelics, going into long trips inside his tank, a practice memorably presented in the film Altered States (1980), which was loosely based on Lilly’s work.

40 years later, the pod is back, and not for the first time. A decade beforeAvatarThe Matrix featured a person lying in a pod, isolated from reality, and communicating with another reality. What does it mean for us that the two most influential mythic films that our culture has produced since Star Wars both feature a person lying in a pod communicating with a different reality, a being split into two parts, one of them artificial. Could this mean something? Could they mean that we are the ones inside the pod, disconnected from our true body?

Taking off one’s 3D glasses and inspecting the movie viewers, identical looking with their 3D glasses on, staring at the screen, immersed in a 3D world, unable to see their physical surroundings and completely unaware of them, one might think that the 3D experience is the pod. But more generally, the pod might represent all our technological shells, from clothing to our cars and our houses — the technological shells that keep us away from direct contact with the world.

Avatar, it is worth noting, is a highly ambivalent and even paradoxical film. It uses the most advance technology to go on a long harangue against technology. But it has the maybe naïve hope that our pod experience, like Jake’s, will make us want to leave our pods and reconnect with our bodies.

A New Wave of Psychedelic Cinema

In his inspiring book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken tell the story of one of the first giant Sequoia trees to be discovered by the American settlers, in Calaveras County, California. More than 300 feet in height and thirty feet in diameter, the tree was unlike anything the western world had ever seen. An entrepreneur by the name of George Gale saw a great business opportunity. He and his associates decided to cut down the Sequoia and take it to be exhibited around the world. The 2,500-year-old tree was so big that its felling took several weeks to accomplish, even with a big group of workers. Hawken tells us that when the tree finally fell, the noise woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away. The huge tree held so much water that it remained green for several years after being cut. When parts of the tree were presented in New York and London, the exhibitions caused a public outcry against the utter cruelty of its destruction, and this was one of the triggers of the environmental movement.

The story of that great Sequoia is mirrored in the story of the giant hometree of the Na’vi people which is destroyed by the bulldozers and explosives of the “Sky People” (Earth people). When Jake, praying at the Tree of Souls, asks Eywa (Mother Nature) for help, he says, “See the world we come from. There is no green there. They killed their mother.” And indeed the myth of the matricide, the killing of Mother Nature that stands at the base of Avatar, is not fictional at all. Indigenous tribes have been going extinct for the past few hundred years, and are today facing major calamities brought on by oil companies and ruthless international corporations, the mercenaries of civilization who invade the jungle to supply our ever-increasing appetite for energy and products.

One of the most engaging sequences in Avatar is the one in which the Na’vi tribe are fleeing the violence and destruction brought upon the forest by the machines of technology. When I watched it for the second time, it seemed to me that these Na’vi people escaping the machines were actually us, humanity, trying to flee the consequences created by our technologies in the beginning of the 21st century.

Avatar relates a violent and realistic story that is taking place as you read this, which is why its message is so important. But it is also a story of a conversion, of Jake’s conversion from the way of technology, from the promethean culture of the “sky people,” as the humans are called by the Na’vi, to the way of the forest. Avatar is a story about transformation, one which humanity direly needs these days, when a radical transformation of our relation with nature has become a necessity.

With its psychedelic qualities and ideas, shamanic values, and indigenous politics, Avatar challenges the reigning values of our culture on the most fundamental level. That this film, which challenges all that is sacred to western materialistic thought and champions shamanic ideas and values deemed to be ludicrous by the dominator culture, has already earned more than a billion dollars and is quite probably on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time, is for me no less than amazing. Avatarbrings psychedelic visuals and ideas as well as shamanic values to millions of mainstream moviegoers. Could that have anything to do with the fact that it is in the new digital 3D? Considering that the next big 3D event is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a story jammed with weird acting mushrooms and even weirder realities, it seems that we might be facing a kind of psychedelic renaissance brought on by 3D cinema.

Could Avatar and Alice in Wonderland be the first messengers of a new psychedelic wave ushered in by a new medium with psychedelic tendencies? Could they be the ones to bring psychedelic values and ideas into mainstream thinking? I’m not sure that would be enough; however it seems that one of the techniques traditionally used to create the 3D effect in cinema might be helpful as a metaphor in understanding the place these films might play in today’s culture. The Pulfrich Effect, used to create stereoscopic images, relies on the principle that the human eye processes information slower in darker conditions to cause one eye to see reality in delay, thus creating a 3D illusion when watching moving objects. It is as if your two eyes were watching the screen from two different points in time, or from two different points in space. Similarly, the new 3D wave allows us to view culture from two distinct points of perspective in space and time: one of a culture completely immersed in consumerist mania, the other of a culture which keeps a strong relation to its mythic roots in nature. This multi-dimensional effect, which allows us to view ourselves from two different perspectives at the same time, might hint at the transformations ahead.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30 / Novato, California: New World Library, 2008, p. 23.

[2] By this I do not mean to claim that psychedelics are supernatural, at least not here, but only that they encourage the formation of a supernatural view of reality.

[3] Again it is worth noting that I am not claiming that telepathy actually occurs during ayahuasca ceremonies, although something resembling it is definitely at play in some cases, but only that ayahuasca is considered to be telepathic and conducive to collective states of consciousness in many shamanic cultures.