As we head away, in the northern hemisphere, from Samhain and towards the nadir of Yule, here are a few reflections on the relationship between time, tide and magic.
As we head away, in the northern hemisphere, from Samhain and towards the nadir of Yule, here are a few reflections on the relationship between time, tide and magic.
I have recently been getting excited about the release of this forthcoming book published by those wonderful people at Starfire and thought I’d share a piece of writing that appeared in my book The Heretic’s Journey that sought to explore the key role of Nema’s work in manifesting the aeon of Maat:
In reflecting upon the Aeon of Maat and how Nema’s own work developed the initial articulation by Frater Achad, I feel one of her wisest insights relates to the importance of “the double current” in seeking to develop a more balanced magical path. In contrast to simply seeing our current age as needing the mono-message of Thelema or Will, Nema’s own journey has been towards a place where the overlapping Aeons of Horus and Maat dialogue with each other.
The issue of how Magicians in the West quantify progress has always been a tricky one. Yes, we may choose to rely on the grade system mapped out by a given Order that we participate in, but this is no guarantee of personal evolution. Grades and titles are not without value, but they seem to function primarily as markers of progress within the given sub-culture of that Order. I think a more interesting and potentially demanding question is how we translate any claimed maturation into social or cultural change.
Such dilemmas are not unique to overtly Gnostic or Magical religious paths, with most religions having to grapple with the more collective or political dimensions of their original spiritual message. Certainly in the Buddhist tradition the historical development of the Mahayana tradition (from the earlier Theravarda) reflects an attempt to explore the more collective implications of that philosophy.
The pursuit of true will as a project for the contemporary Mage certainly resonates with the existential and individualistic concerns of the 20th century that birthed Thelema, but is it enough? The icon of Horus as the conquering child certainly seems to capture the type of surging technological change of the last century, but to my mind this energy needs some counter-balance.
The primary symbolism in ancient Egypt regarding the goddess Maat reflect her position as the neter (divine principle) of justice and balance. The hieroglyph of the feather is seen as representing the breath of life, as well as the standard against which the human heart will be weighed at the judgement. Her other symbol of the ruler is in keeping with these ideas of accuracy, assessment and truth.
For Nema (and Achad) the importance of the Horus/Maat “double current” is that it at once acknowledges the need for a prophetic cleansing of a corrupt Piscean/Osirian age, while at the same time recognizing that such change needs balance and stabilization in order to prevent “Will” becoming egoic megalomania. I see great parallels between Maat and the Gnostic Sophia as the embodiment of wisdom. The punk rock energy of Horus may get the revolution started, but in the longer term we need our Aeons to overlap and to allow a multiplicity of perspectives to support us in the cultivation of a fairer society.
This idea of the Aeons being sequential and dominated by mono-mythologies is frequently promoted in esoteric lore, and while it may have been helpful and even accurate in times past, I believe that the value of such an approach is now limited. What Nema seems to be pointing towards (and which Maat herself embodies) is the importance of allowing these differing Aeonic currents to dance with and inform each other, and create what she describes as a “PanAeonic Magick”.
In my view Pete Carroll highlights something similar in his seminal “Mass of Chaos B”:
“In the first aeon, I was the Great Spirit In the second aeon, Men knew me as the Horned God, Pangenitor Panphage. In the third aeon, I was the dark one, the Devil. In the fourth aeon, Men knew me not, for I am the Hidden One . In this new aeon, I appear before you as Baphomet The God before all gods who shall endure to the end Of the Earth.”
Liber Null and Psychonaut
In contrast to those ages ruled by a singular narrative or dominant discourse, now is the time of Baphomet, a deity more overtly borne of humanity’s creative imagination. Baphomet embodies duality itself and transcends it, within their being they hold the ongoing process of dissolving and coming together.
I believe the Aeon of Maat with its core message of balance holds within it the possibility of the multiple, and the aspiration of being able to recognize numerous perspectives and approaches. Nema’s artistic depiction of N’Aton captures much of this as the half of their face that is visible contains a multitude of individuals dwelling in a futuristic city scape. N’Aton represents the potentiality of a future in which dualities are played with by the Magician: transcended, discarded, redefined and embraced in accordance with a true will that balances both individual freedom and collective responsibility.
The icon of N’Aton provides a potential map for the Magician’s project of self-sovereignty. N’Aton seeks to balance the needs for individual self-definition and collective connection. Rather than getting overly focused the type of brittle, self-obsession that can tip into solipsism or megalomania, for me N’Aton asks that any claims to insight are pressure tested in the realm of wider society. In many ways the Aeon of Maat closely parallels the description of the Aquarian age as described one of Nema’s magical colleagues Louise Martinie of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple:
The Aeon in which we are presently incarnate has been called by various names. “Aquarian” seems to be the designation which is most widely used in the New World cultures. The Aquarian mode emphasizes profound searching, a reliance on experiential knowledge, and a uniting of diverse occult systems. Aeonic Voodoo seeks to incorporate these dispositions in its structure.
He then goes on to describe this Aeon’s defining features:
Anarchism; the state of being without a “frozen” hierarchy. Postdrogeny; the abrogation of all existent gender roles so that new perceptions may manifest. Feminism; as it is in the forefront in its stand against restriction and for human liberation. Equalitarianism; the belief that all people have equal political and social rights, and Nonviolence; a refusal to subject the self or others to physical coercion.
Whether we define this Aeon as being Aquarian, of Maat, or holding a multiplicity of overlapping words, we seem to be moving towards a place where language and definitions are being asked to become more plastic and amorphous in trying to stay alive to the diversity of human experience.
Happy belated Halloween!
I’ve just returned home from a family holiday in Barcelona staying within sight of the magnificent Sagrada Familia. Over the previous 25 years I’ve seen this remarkable building grow, having visited it several times (once with Rodney Orpheus during a particularly dramatic electrical storm) . It’s quite something to encounter such a multi-generational project, a fitting setting to reflect on ideas of ancestors and families.
Upon my return to Britain I’d been asked to speak and MC an evening of talks at Real Magic, part of the Do you believe in magic? exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This was a delightful way to spend my birthday, with over 720 people attending. The evening featuring wonderful presentations from speakers Esther Eidinow, Kurt Lampe, Vikki Carr and Ronald Hutton. Do you believe in magic? is a very engaging exploration of the occult and it’s relationship with science and religion, do go along to see it if you have an opportunity.
Here’s the text of my talk that evening on Psychedelics, Shamanism and Magic – enjoy!
We live in interesting times, one sign of which is perhaps the renewed engagement by academia and museums with the subject of magic. We have interdisciplinary conferences, most recently Trans-States at the University of Northampton, bringing together magical practitioners, artists and academics. The Victoria & Albert, Ashmolean and now Bristol Museums are working to widen the cultural conversation about what have often been excluded or even forbidden aspects of the human experience.
Tonight I’ll be speaking about an aspect of the human experience which has, until quite recently, remained occult, hidden, and even forbidden, namely the use of psychedelic drugs.
The role of mysterious substances is deeply embedded in the iconography of western magic. Where would the witch be without her bubbling cauldron, or the alchemist without the arcane paraphernalia of their laboratory? In European herbalism correspondences between plants and astrological forces informed diagnosis and treatment. Malevolent witches were imagined by some to make use of poisonous plants; henbane, datura and deadly nightshade. Scattered references in the grimoires of ceremonial magic suggest the use of mind-altering incenses.
While ongoing research gathers together these fragments of our indigenous tradition, it is primarily through the encounter between European culture and the peoples of the New World that the modern story of psychedelic substances emerges.
The term psychedelic ‘literally mind manifesting’, was coined in 1956 by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmand in conversation with writer Aldous Huxley to refer to a particular class of drugs. Their principal effect is to radically transform awareness, inducing a state of consciousness with some very curious, some might even say magical properties. The word Osmand coined was first applied to the effects of a cactus.
The peyote cactus has been used for over 5000 years by communities in the Americas. The principle psychedelic alkaloid in peyote is mescaline, isolated and identified by western chemists in 1897, and first synthesized in 1918. Two other cacti also containing mescaline are used in the Americas for a variety of purposes which could be described as medical, religious and magical. Mescaline can include visionary phenomena, synesthesia-like effects where music might be perceived as visual patterns as well as evoking a range of very profound feelings including personal insight, euphoria and peak mystical experience. The effects of mescaline, like all psychedelics, are highly responsive to what has become known as ‘set and setting’ that is the mindset of the person taking the substance and the setting or environment in which the drug is consumed. Ritual specialists use ceremony to curate the set and settings for specific purposes, such as divination or healing. While these practitioners use various words to describe their work and social role their practice is often labelled as ‘shamanism’. Shamanism is a complex and contested term which some feel should be limited to the Siberian and central Asian areas from which it derives. For others, the word has a broader pan-cultural use and indicates a certain style of what we could call ‘magical’ practice that often includes interactions with spirits and the use of altered or ‘ecstatic’ states.
In some shamanic traditions these ecstatic states are induced by practices such as long periods in darkness or solitary mediation, or through the use of drumming or chanting. All these methods are effective but psychedelic substances provide one of the most reliable ways of inducing ecstatic states and perhaps for that reason are central to many of the shamanic traditions of the Americas. This doesn’t only mean states that are pleasurable, though they may be. The etymology of the word ‘ecstasy’ points to a feeling of being ‘outside of ourselves’, to be ‘out of one’s mind’. In the psychedelic state we are propelled outside of our usual way of thinking into a form of cognition that is rich and strange.
We can see this change in these two brain scans made during research in 2014 at Imperial College London, using the psychedelic psilocybin found in magic mushrooms and also used in New World Shamanism. On the left we see the brain in it’s ‘default mode network’ state. This arrangement is, in some respects, our sense of self, our egoic identity, the pattern that consciousness habitually adopts when we are alone, ruminating on the past and thinking about the future. The right hand image shows the same brain on psilocybin. We see that the self-identity pattern is turned down and novel connections between previously discrete systems in the brain emerge. We remain conscious and aware but our perception of reality is dramatically transformed. To use the language of shamanism – we might take flight and soar over an innerworld landscape, looking down from this new vantage point to gain new insights about the world. We might encounter spirits such as ancestors or mythological figures. We have a sense of going on a journey, a trip.
On our return to everyday awareness we can bring these insights with us, leading to transformations in our social relationships and effects such as the healing of sickness. In the psychedelic state we experience the deep truth that all things are interconnected or, as the Hermetic magicians would say; ‘As Above, So Below’.
In the early 20th century the use of psychedelic substances, began to filter into European culture. Aleister Crowley dosed the audience at his Rites of Eleusis, a series of publicly performed rituals, with mescaline. His rituals, which included music, clouds of incense and epic poetry, were performed in London in 1910 making them one of the first attempts to formulate a ceremonial setting in which to ingest a psychedelic sacrament outside of the Americas. Crowley’s rituals can also claim to be the first psychedelic art-happening. In this sense Crowley’s rites were the forerunner of the Be-In’s of the beat generation and the LSD enhanced concerts of the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind.
The trickle of interest from artists, medics and researchers exploring mescaline became a flood in the mid 20th century with the discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943 of LSD Hoffman’s new psychedelic substance initiated seismic changes in culture. These included the development of the rock music festival which aimed to provide a cultural container for the psychedelic state which had suddenly become available to thousands of people.
Within European occulture of the late 20th century, while psychedelics informed the cultural context, they were not central to the emerging esoteric styles of Wicca and neo-paganism. However they were enthusiastically integrated into the practice of some occultists, notably those influenced by the work of Crowley.
A third wave of psychedelic exploration occurred in the late 20th century as a novel chemical, closely related to mescaline, began to hit the headlines; MDMA or ecstasy. The development of the rave, like the emergence of the music festival decades earlier, provided a setting in which the psychedelic state could be held. The emerging rhythms of acid house music (a term arguably coined by the occultist Genesis P.Orridge) matched those used by other ‘shamanic’ psychedelic communities such as Native American Church.
The Native American Church developed in the late 19th century in North America. The central sacrament of the Church is peyote consumed during an all night vigil which features singing, drumming, prayer and other ritual activities. The Native American Church flourished because one of the effects of psychedelics is healing. In the context of the plains dwelling First Nations people this healing was a response to the genocidal damage caused by European colonialism. In particular many Native Americans sought to self-medicate their pain with whisky and this lead to much suffering. The peyote ceremony had the power to help people see things from a different perspective and this often led to them stopping drinking. The medicine of the ritual; that is the intention of the participant, the structure of the ceremony, and the psychedelic cactus – or more succinctly the ‘set, setting and substance’ came together to effect radical personal and social transformation.
Humphry Osmand and his colleague Abram Hoffer attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony in 1958 and this inspired them to wonder if LSD could be used to help people escape their additions. Their informed speculation was correct and, until the advent of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, many hundreds of people underwent successful psychedelic therapy using LSD.
In Britain, one might suggest that the emerging popularity of MDMA served to address the cultural wounds caused by post-industrial dislocation. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment, the ever present threat of nuclear war and the miners strike. The emerging traveller communities and rave culture came under censure in much the same way that the Native American Church had done in the USA. The difference was that without an identifiable ‘shamanism’ or indigenous psychedelic tradition there was little possibility of legally defending the right to party, the sacred music defined in the UK Criminal Justice bill of 1994 as “…sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was driven underground.
But the times are changing. Whether we consider the remarkable transformations that a suitable set, setting and psychedelic substance can generate as magic, shamanism or science matters very little. For these mind-manifesting materials are being re-discovered as allies in healing a range of illnesses that are present at epidemic levels in our culture.
Today MDMA is being used in Bristol within licensed settings to help people overcome chronic alcohol addiction. In the USA it is being licensed to treat Post-traumatic stress disorder. Other psychedelics such as cannabis, ayahuasca and psilocybin are also being recognized as having potent healing effects on conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to autoimmune illnesses. The current wave of research, often described as the Psychedelic Renaissance, a term coined by Dr Ben Sessa who works in Bristol doing MDMA therapy, includes studies on the potential of psychedelics to aid creative problem solving, to helping us face death with equanimity, and to develop ways to resolve interpersonal and social conflicts.
To the Mexican Curandera or the Siberian Shaman the discovery that ecstatic trance carries with it magical transformative potential isn’t news, but for European culture this is a radical change. For European, and by extension much of Euro-American culture was disconnected from the use of substances that could safely induce ecstatic states when the great Temple of Eleusis closed in the 4th century AD.
Eleusis was the principle Mystery initiation of the Ancient World sacred to the goddess Demeter. In her temple 3000 initiates at a time would experience was many regard as the core elements of the shamanic process. They would undertake ritual purification, they would make a pilgrimage, they would fast and, crucially, they would ingest a sacred potion before descending into a vast darkened temple full of drumming and chanting. There they would face their fears and emerge into the light for a party to celebrate their rebirth. This annual ritual went on for thousands of years with its participants being drawn from all ranks of society. This shared psychedelic experience of crisis and rebirth shaped the pre-Christian pagan world. After Eleusis and the loss of the shamanic psychedelic experience European culture, one might suggest, started to behave just like an addict, rampaging across the globe in search of tranquilizers like opium and stimulants like tobacco and cocaine. Later that culture would give rise to two World Wars, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and the poisoning of the biosphere.
While we celebrate the return of the magical to academia, to museums and to a wider cultural setting we may also like to consider that the return of the psychedelic state to mainstream cultural as part of the same movement. A movement to value again the importance of the subjective, the magical and the ecstatic if we are to successfully cultivate our individual wellbeing and find better ways to live together. To find a medicine in these difficult times that heals us and, as they say in the Native American Church, all our relations.
Do you believe in magic? is open until 19th April 2020 at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.
I was very pleased to contribute to the recent Trans-States Conference in Northhampton. Here’s the paper I presented which explores the importance of metaphor in context of psychedelic healing. Enjoy!
From at least the mid 20th century western science had clearly established the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances. The proliferation of licensed psychedelic studies in the new millennium continues to confirms those earlier findings. Currently these substances are being used to treat illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance addictions and depression. Outside licensed research environments claims of health benefits associated with psychedelic substances are legion, as are the methods of their use in healing – from underground therapeutic sessions through to ceremonial consumption in religious or shamanic settings.
This current period of history is sometimes described as the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, a term coined by clinician Ben Sessa in his 2012 book The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. While research remains hampered in many jurisdictions by laws dating from American president Nixon’s War On Drugs, today psychedelic substances are the subject of numerous studies and conferences.
One of the most illustrative findings from this psychedelic renaissance, for the purposes of this discussion, is a study published in 2014 by The Beckley Institute and Imperial College in London. The study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal the effect of psilocybin, a substance first brought to the attention of western science following a gift from Mexican healer Maria Sabina of psychedelic mushrooms in the mid 20th century. Diagram (a) shows the default mode network, the ‘resting’ state of the brain and (b) the same brain after taking psilocybin.
In this simplified visualization each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks. In the psilocybin state. The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society, says:
“…there is an increased integration between cortical regions in the psilocybin state and this integration is supported by a persistent scaffold of a set of edges that support cross modular connectivity probably as a result of the stimulation of the 5HT2A receptors in the cortex…We can speculate on the implications of such an organization. One possible by-product of this greater communication across the whole brain is the phenomenon of synaesthesia which is often reported in conjunction with the psychedelic state. Synaesthesia is described as an inducer-concurrent pairing, where the inducer could be a grapheme or a visual stimulus that generates a secondary sensory output—like a colour for example. Drug-induced synaesthesia often leads to chain of associations, pointing to dynamic causes rather than fixed structural ones as may be the case for acquired synaesthesia.”
The synaesthesia described in the paper emerges as interconnectivity between previously discrete brain systems, such as vision and hearing, increases. Under the influence of psychedelics we may see things in our imagination, such as whirling fractal forms, that appear to be induced by, or intimately connected with music we may be listening to. While we may imagine what is going on as a kind of chaotic cross-wiring in the brain many aspects of the psychedelic state are remarkably coherent and even possessed of a special ‘intelligence’ as well shall explore later. In short: the brain of people that are tripping is not a malfunctioning brain.
This research is one of many modern experiments designed to elucidate how psychedelic drugs work and to provide evidence upon which theories of their action may be based.
The first wave of 20th century western scientific research into these compounds included the development of numerous models intended to explain or frame the psychedelic experience. Some of these models have been attempts at re-imagining traditional or exotic cosmologies as being commensurate with, or perhaps coded descriptions of, the psychedelic experience, other invoked ideas of the brain as a computer.
Aldous Huxley suggested that psychedelics work by opening the Doors of Perception to an awareness of the world not mediated by the perceptual filters of language or symbolic systems. Huxley calls the wider unmediated perception revealed by psychedelic substances Mind at Large:
““To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
Later in the western engagement with psychedelics other writers would propose more detailed maps of the psychedelic state. These descriptions were often influenced by notions of modernist progression and Abraham Maslow style heirachism.
The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead coauthored by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, drew on the progression of the soul described in Tibetan Buddhism to understand the variety of mental states occasioned by psychedelics. Each of the stages of an LSD trip was imagined as being a Bardo, in Buddhism a series of intermediate states of awareness that exist between life and death.
Leary went on to developed The Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness (an excellent new edition of this has just been published) a hypothesis later expanded by Robert Anton Wilson and Antero Alli, that “suggested eight periods [circuits] and twenty-four stages of neurological evolution”. The eight circuits, or eight “brains” as referred by other authors, operate within the human nervous system, each corresponding to its own imprint and direct experience of reality.
During the development of western psychedelic therapy in the mid 20th century psychoanalytic models of the state were also developed. Stanislav Groff, one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, used LSD and later breathwork in his practice. He imagined these altered states allowed subject to access and resolve issues caused by birth trauma or intrauterine experiences.
Around the same time writer and stage actress Thelma Moss was receiving LSD therapy in the USA to address problems that she identified as neurotic insomnia, depression and sexual frigidity. Writing under the name Constance A. Newland her book Myself and I, published in 1962, is a landmark text containing the first published case history of psychedelic therapy.
Rob Dickins writes:
“…the text reads like an idealised Freudian analysis. A case history that displays all the key signifiers of a Freudian model like the Oedipus complex, castration and penis envy, to name but a few but that recognises the value of LSD as reaching beyond the psychotherapeutic framework.”
More recent western models of the psychedelic state include the detailed phenomenological reading of the ayahuasca experience presented by Benny Shannon in his The Antipodes of the Mind through to Andrew Gallimores highly speculative Alien Information Theory.
James Kent’s work Psychedelic Information Theory presents an approach that attempted to unify neurological findings with the subjective emergence of new insights. Kent writes:
“Like dreams, psychedelics are catalysts for generating information in the human imagination. There are many theories about the origin of this information; the subconscious; repressed emotions; the collective unconscious; genetic memory; spirit entities; alien transmission; junk data from neural excitation; and so on. Regardless of the origin it is widely accepted that psychedelics do generate information, and not merely junk data of questionable value. Psychedelics excel at producing salient information which can have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of the subject…hallucinogens generate information by destabilizing linear perception to promote nonlinear states of consciousness.”
The ‘linear perception’ that Kent alludes can be described in contemporary neurological jargon as the default mode network, that is the resting or idling state of the brain which is dominant when we are not engaged in a task. It is this default state which psychedelic medicine typically attempts to change. The therapist, be they a licensed medic, underground therapist or entheogenic shaman deploys the psychedelic to ‘shake up’ and reconfigure the default mode network, to curate an experience which, when the drug wears off, creates lasting change. The aspiration is that altered states lead to an altered traits. People suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lay aside their intrusive thoughts and allow joy, hope and love back into their lives. People with alcoholism can stop drinking.
But it is important to stress that this destabilization of the default mode network is not simply the pharmacological equivalent of electroconvulsive therapy, for while the neurological cross-wiring that we encounter in psychedelic experience can be wildly divergent from ‘normal’ cognition it is a neurologically coherent, phenomenologically persistent state of awareness rather than a spasmodic seizure. The psychedelic state has similarities with the stable mental states we find in states of meditation, in flow states when we are absorbed in a task, during dreaming, and the brain states we have as infants.
So how does the psychedelic state function to change or edit the default network state? While the psychedelic state may, according to Huxley, push us beyond the linguistic realm, in order to understand how neurochemistry becomes embodied narrative and thus personal transformation, we need to appreciate how the insights from this state are expressed in language, and for that we need to engage with the concept of metaphor.
The word metaphor is itself a metaphor, literally meaning ‘carrying over’. While some writers have suggested that metaphors are merely minor linguistic curiosities In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson they claim that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal work point out that metaphorical language is so widespread that we hardly notice it. So in my previous sentence the metaphor ‘ideas are objects’ is so embedded in our discourse that you probably hardly noticed that I was ‘pointing’ to ideas that are ‘scattered over a considerable area’.
Metaphors unpack complex ideas in terms of an embodied cognition. Thus the word metaphor itself unpacks the notion that ideas can be brought into relationship just as object can be carried from one place to another. Lakoff and Johnson explore numerous metaphors in their work such as ‘love is a journey’ ‘argument is struggle’ and ‘ideas are buildings’. In addition they demonstrate how any given metaphor can serve to both emphasis and downplay aspects of the complex idea it addresses. For instance the complex idea of love can be unpacked through metaphors such as ‘love is a journey’ (‘look how far we have come’) but also ‘love is madness’ (‘I’m crazy for her’) and ‘love is a physical force’ (‘we’re attracted to each other’). Each metaphor both conceals and reveals particular aspects of what we mean by ‘love’. Lakoff and Johnson note that new metaphors can be created and give an example ‘love is a collaborative work of art’
In unpacking the novel metaphor ‘love is a collaborative artwork’ they explain that the metaphor is composed of entailments, relationships to other ideas, some of which are literal and others metaphorical.
The creation of new metaphors is recognized by many therapeutic practitioners as being a crucial process in psychological healing. Mental health practitioner Judy Belmont, writes:
“Using metaphors in our therapy is quite powerful, and at times using the right metaphor seems almost magical. I have often been surprised that client resistance and confusion seems to diminish if I find the right metaphor that serves to bring on an “aha” moment in my therapy sessions. On many occasions, using a powerful metaphor can turn a session around and bring therapist and client to a new level of teamwork, especially as metaphors often evoke laughter and positive emotion, while limiting defensiveness.”
Belmont is interested in the development of new metaphors in the context of talk based therapy, where the therapist is likely to be the originator of the transformative metaphor. Contemporary western psychedelic therapy often includes the use of talk-based therapy in the preparation for psychedelic treatment and afterwards as part of an integration process. However during the psychedelic session itself the therapist or therapist team are usually non-directive. They are there to provide moral support and safety but only the most gentle of guidance to encourage the patient to engage with the experience in their own way. Many contemporary western therapeutic models of psychedelic healing place the curative process firmly within the control of the patient. This approach is exemplified by the psychedelic treatment protocol outlined in A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder by Michael C. Mithoefer, M.D. on behalf of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS):
“It is essential to encourage the participant to trust their inner healing intelligence, which is a person’s innate capacity to heal the wounds of trauma. It is important to highlight the fact that the participant is the source of their own healing. The MDMA and the therapists are likely to facilitate access to a deep healing process, but they are not the source of this healing process.”
In a section replete with metaphors Mithoefer goes on to state that:
““Inner healing intelligence” is a concept used throughout this manual to help put the participant in touch with their innate ability to heal and grow. The following analogies may be helpful in explaining the concept: The body knows how to heal itself. If someone goes to the emergency room with a laceration, a doctor can remove obstacles to healing (e.g. remove foreign bodies, infection, etc.) and can help create favorable conditions for healing (e.g. sew the edges of the wound close together), but the doctor does not direct or cause the healing that ensues. The body initiates a remarkably complex and sophisticated healing process and always spontaneously attempts to move toward healing. The psyche too exhibits an innate healing intelligence and capacity. Seeds want to become a plant; it is the natural way. A tree always grows toward the sun; it is the tree’s natural inclination”
I suggest that this psychedelic ‘inner healing intelligence’ expresses itself through the development of new metaphorical narratives about the self and its relationships. The destabilization of the default mode network resolves into coherent linguistic cognition as new ways of thinking. Like the literal and functional reality of the novel neural connections in the psychedelic brain, there is a ‘carrying over’ of meaning between what may have been previously discrete cognitive networks.
Evidence for the central role of metaphor in psychedelic healing and other forms of transformative insight can be found in numerous trip reports. Allow me to provide a few examples from contemporary therapeutic work with MDMA.
MDMA was initially used by an underground network of therapists active in Europe and America in the latter part of the 20th century before it became a prohibited substance. A cornerstone of the current psychedelic renaissance has been the return of this psychedelic empathogen to licensed clinical settings. A common protocol for MDMA therapy is for the patient to lie on a bed wearing eye-shades and headphones through which gentle music is played.
Often described an ‘empathogen’ MDMA elicits compassion for both the self and others. From a clinical perspective MDMA appears to allow people to stand outside of their problems. This imaginal perspective is common to other psychedelics, notably psilocybin. The patient is able to recall traumatic memories and perceive these from a new (metaphorical/visionary) vantage point.
One USA veteran who was successfully cured of his PTSD through MDMA therapy says:
“I had a profound moment, I guess it felt like a bird’s-eye view of how everything went down [in Iraq] and why it happened.”
Another experience, also with MDMA therapy not only suggests the archetypal motifs of a soul flight but also the shamanic motif of dismemberment and re-aggregation:
“…she felt as if multiple pieces of her own person were swooshing back toward her, being pulled through space by a powerful magnet and reassembling coherently, solidly, back in her own body. She began singing a little song in which she welcomed back all her parts.”
MDMA is not usually considered a strongly visual psychedelic however in a therapeutic setting people often report visions as part of their healing process. These may be visions of new perspectives, events and can often includes direct encounters with spirit entities.
Ben Sessa has employed MDMA as part of a therapeutic process to help people with chronic alcohol addiction. He notes numerous examples of metaphorical ‘visionary’ experiences on the part of his patients. These include clients clearly seeing (with eyes closed) symbolic events which read more like accounts of ayahuasca journeys than of MDMA. One patient experienced a profound visionary narrative that included descending into the underworld, meeting and interacting with ancestors, and undergoing symbolic purification. Ben writes:
“Given that she [the patient] cannot – or will not – embrace my formulation that [their] experience is an internal, psychological (neurological) one, but rather is convinced she truly, “saw through to the other side” (which is what she told me this morning), to commune directly with her dead relatives, I guess we have to chalk this one down as a genuine full-blown psychedelic spiritual-mystical experience. This is relatively rare in MDMA users.”
While such experiences may be rare the descriptions that MDMA patients relate are all metaphorical though some may appear more literal. One subject who has PTSD said:
“It was amazing it was like I got to do brain surgery on myself, and go into my mind and see the thought patterns and the belief systems that had calcified in there and rewrite them”.
In another example a subject with PTSD recounts how while under the influence of MDMA he had a vision of descending into the basement of a building and meeting a red-eyed entity. Within the experience itself, he was able to recognize this being as being emblematic of his own rage. Once the patient embraced the visionary being he was able to attain a profound healing insight:
The nature of metaphors, as the deployment of embodied knowledge to illuminate abstract ideas, fits naturally with the action of psychedelic substances. In these examples the common metaphors – of descending in order to ‘get to the bottom of things’ and of ‘seeing is understanding’ – are present.
At the level of the individual neuron psychedelics increase plasticity and dendritic connections. At the level of functional brain systems they dramatically increase the interaction between previously discrete brain regions. Thus the subjective ‘carrying over’ of metaphor has a solid (physical) neurological basis observable through techniques such as fMRI scanning.
The importance of this multi-levelled ‘carrying over’ or more succinctly ’connection’ emerges strongly in contemporary psychedelic therapy. Lead clinical psychologist at Imperial College Rosalind Watts conducted a study with people suffering from treatment resistant depression who were treated with psilocybin therapy. Of the 17 out of 20 participants who responded positively to the experience all of them described a feeling of ‘disconnection’ as being part of a core component of their depression. This sense of ‘disconnection’ was only identified by these patients during of after the psychedelic session and not before.
Ecologist Sam Gandy discussing psilocybin therapy explains how this sense of connection extends beyond the self and into the wider natural world:
“In both clinical and non-clinical populations we can see this nature connection increase [with psilocybin use]. There are a few correlative studies that show that psychedelic users tend to be more nature connected, but it’s hard to know what causes what, but there are some studies now that show [psychedelics] do have a causative role to play…with the Imperial [College] depression subjects a follow up study on their nature relatedness at 7-12 months later they still rated very highly for nature relatedness.”
It would seem that the connectivity in the psychedelic mind allows us to discover re-connection within the self, within our social context, and our place within the whole of the natural world. (Or as we occultists would say ‘As Above, So Below’.)
Globally we are facing an epidemic of depression, identified by the World Health Organization as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. We are also in a time of mass extinction on our planet as a result of human activity. In this context the deployment of psychedelic healing, through which the individual can come into a more sustainable, healthy relationship with the self and the world, could offer a powerful mediciine not only for individual wellbeing but could perhaps help change the apparently suicidal trajectory of our species as a whole.
The psychedelic state is one in which novel and coherent connections emerge at the neurochemical, neurofunctional and subjective narrative levels. When conducted in a supportive set and setting a coherent ‘inner healing intelligence’ is activated in a way that enables radical psychological changes to happen that can persist long after the drug effect wears off. The insights occasioned by psychedelics are often described in metaphorical terms because metaphors are a key process through which we understand abstract experiences, such as psychological states, by reference to embodied reality. The sense of connection that psychedelics induce goes beyond the individual, allowing us to come into new, healthier relationships not only with ourselves and our community but the biosphere as a whole.
As psychedelic therapy develops it may become useful for clinicians to understand the favoured metaphorical language and cultural discourse of patients in order to support their inner healing intelligence. It the light of our current ecological and mental health crises it may also be beneficial to develop methods to encourage more people to seek healing through the psychedelic state for the benefit of themselves and all other beings.
Many of us long for the divine and the mysterious, but what is it like to actually gain a glimpse of these things?
In his masterwork The Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto, valiantly sought to map out those shared human experiences that lay at the heart of religious seeking. For Otto when we view the vastness and mystery of the Universe, we are met with both Dread and Awe. Dread and Awe act as two sides of a coin in which the vastness of time, space and the magnitude of life erode our sense of control and understanding. Just when we think we might be getting it, it’s that “oh shit” moment when we realize that barely have a clue.
A couple of years ago I wrote this and for me it captured something of my own encounter with mystery and what Otto describes as “the numinous”:
“As I gaze out at the night sky, I find myself unable to find lasting meaning in any prevailing metaphysical position, be it a theistic one or that of the strict rationalist. The mystery and expansiveness of space seems to empty me of the trite and obvious. My sense of awe seems to both induce a sense of mild panic as I glimpse the limits of my control and understanding, while at the same time beckoning me onward into the depths of the unknown.”
The more time I spend working with the Dread and Awe the more I am struck but the powerful parallels that exist with both existential philosophy and its application within existential psychotherapy.
The origins of both of these movements lie with Søren Kierkegaard and the way in which his own radical reading of Christianity led him to grapple with the uncertainty connected to the experience of existence. As is well documented these ideas were taken on by Jean-Paul Satre who, in being inspired by his reading of Heidegger, gave the lecture in 1945 “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Existentialism as a philosophical school sought to centralize the experience of the individual in the face of a Universe within which the Judeo-Christian God had been declared dead.
In facing a Universal vastness that had no apparent meaning, how were we as humans supposed to find authenticity and a sense of our true essence? What lies at the heart of being beyond the superficial roles and labels that society may want to hand to us? These questions were a major preoccupation for the early Existentialists. Thinkers such as Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus were relentless in their pursuit of making choices congruent with authentic being (i.e. in “Good Faith”). When faced with absurdity, the existentialists were stark in their assessment that such insights triggered both Dread and an underlying sense of despair.
The impact of the existentialists was profound and they not only spawned weird adventures in art, literature and theatre, but they also inspired radical forms of psychotherapy.
Building upon the insights of existential philosophy, existential psychotherapy sought to explore the way in which these ideas regarding meaning, freedom and impermanence could be explored within the healing context of a therapeutic relationship. Therapists such as Otto Rank (who broke with Freud in the 1920’s), Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were central to the development of an understanding of our shared human experiences that was less focused medical diagnosis.
In contrast to Freud and his focus on pathology, existential psychotherapy tends to view experiences of anxiety, alienation and even depression as part of a normal maturation that most humans will experience in response to the disconnect experienced between our experience of self and the world we inhabit. More contemporary thinker/therapists such as Irvin Yalom believe that psychological dysfunction arises when we try to avoid these givens of life. While current schools of so-called “positive psychology” may view such perspectives as being doom-laden or negativistic, an existential approach maintains that in confronting such realities, the true value of life and consciousness comes into sharper definition.
For me as a Magician seeking to work with ideas of Dread and Awe, the insights of existentialism provide helpful keys to unlocking the process via which my own initiation is deepened. In truly looking at the world’s vastness and impermanence so I create the possibility of seeing with a Zen-like “Shoshin” or beginners mind. In experiencing Dread I recognize the limits of what I can know and yet the sense of awe I encounter also helps me pursue what Viktor Frankl called “The Will to Meaning”.
Magic asks us to see with new eyes and what we see is often not comfortable Magic accelerates and intensifies our experience of dread, but in doing this so the possibility of activating our will becomes both more necessary and thus possible.
“Know Thyself, Create Thyself!”
Check out Steve’s review of Asexual Erotics on Phil Hine’s blog.
As summer slips away from the northern hemisphere and we head towards the equinox, we can gather up the sunshine of the bright part of the year and use it to nourish us as we descend into the darkness.
One of the high points this summer for me was Breaking Convention. This year 1,500 people gathered at The University of Greenwich for a three day conference consisting of over 300 different talks and events. Cutting edge virtual reality installations, cinema, stalls, art exhibitions, workshops, five parallel tracks of lectures and much more! As is traditional some of the finest moments unfolded on the lawns beside the Greenwich meridian line in the form of scintillating conversations between leading scientists, shaman, medics, ethnographers and many others. A new university building provided the setting for three amazing nights of entertainment, the high point of which for me was a set by the magnificent Henge.
As we move towards the mainstreaming of psychedelic medicine we can see the discourse around these substances changing in a big way. As this happens it can be helpful to begin to unpick some of the erroneous language foisted on the psychedelic community as a result of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. The words we use play an important role in how we think and act, so it’s worth remembering the simple fact that illegal drugs do not exist. While it’s a common figure of speech to talk about, for example, LSD being ‘illegal’, the law can only apply to human actions. One can be permitted in law to manufacture, distribute and possess LSD (for example if you are a research scientist) but if you’re not permitted to do so by the State then it’s the act that’s criminal not the molecule.
The insidious illusion of ‘illegal drugs’ is very powerful, even for professionals in the field. When I asked the therapists at Kings College, during my recent participation as a research subject, which of them had taken psilocybin one researcher suggested that they couldn’t answer that question without effectively admitting to have broken the law. However, as I explained at the time, this isn’t the case as psilocybin isn’t illegal in itself. Rather people can be permitted—or not—by law to handle, possess, supply etc a ‘controlled substance’. In Kings College we weren’t breaking the law, as the mushroom medicine was being used in a licensed setting. While this issue may seem like something of legal nicety it has major impacts for the way we think about psychedelic and psychoactive substances. If nothing else in a recent governmental form I was asked: “Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?” to which I was cheerfully and categorically able to answer ‘no’.
All the presentations from Breaking Convention 2019 are being uploaded to our YouTube channel; stay tuned and subscribed so you can catch the 140 plus talks from the cutting edge of psychedelic culture as they go online. Here’s my presentation, the text of which you can read on this blog.
I was also really pleased to be on stage with collector Mark McCloud and Monkey aka Paul Guest the leading producer of blotter art. Mark took us on an erudite exploration of LSD packaging and acid counter-culture, while Monkey, ably assisted by BC Director Aimée Tollan, ran an auction of rare blotter art in aid of Breaking Convention. In addition to publishing and organizing the conference Breaking Convention also provides grants to support students and researchers.
As the northern hemisphere mushroom season arrives a new edition of the Psychedelic Press Journal is about to come to fruition. Readers will be treated to an essay on the magical use of solanaceous suffumigations (much easier to evoke those Goetic spirits with a little datura in the censer), 19th century hashish eating in the USA, and an excerpt from the story of Michael Hollingshead, the subject of a new book Divine Rascal by leading psychedelic historian Andy Roberts. Meanwhile I’m taking part in the an online international Psilocybin Summit. If you’d like to join me for my talk ‘A User’s Guide to Psychedelic Ceremony’ please follow the link to sign up. On the Deep Magic events page you can also find details of the Trans-States conference at which Nikki and I will be speaking, my appearance across the pond in Seattle for the Three Hands Press Texts and Traditions Colloquium, and in October my psychedelic magic workshop at Treadwell’s in London.
Wishing you fabulous Fall and mushrooming success!
A lecture for Breaking Convention 2019
I’d like to share my experience as a volunteer in an experiment that took place earlier this year. You’ll hear my story as well as reflections from my perspective as both research participant and ceremonialist on the issue of the medicalization of psychedelic substances. For those for whom some of the issues around medicalized psychedelics may be new this paper,is also available on my blog with links to relevant texts.
The date is Thursday the 17th of January, my third visit to the King’s College Hospital Clinical Research Facility in the London Borough of Southwark as a medical study participant. Today the research team would be dosing volunteers with an experimental medication intended to help people suffering from treatment resistant depression, a drug called psilocybin.
Having checked with the researchers it was okay, I’d brought a ‘lucky mascot’ along for the ride. ‘Izawa’ is the name given to the spirit who works for ‘the liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings’. A circle of chaos magicians in northern England created – or perhaps contacted – this entity in 2011 fashioning a representation of the spirit as part of their ceremony.
Today this ally would accompany me on my trip.
Participation in the trial had meant reducing my use of substances that might compromise the research. Since the December solstice I’d eschewed what, in the language of contemporary medicine are ‘drugs of abuse’. This includes methamphetamine, heroin and cannabis (only one of these three was an issue for me) but somewhat ironically not tobacco or alcohol. It was now January and I enjoyed being ‘straight edge’ for science for over a month.
Days before the dosing session I’d undergone detailed physical and psychiatric assessments. This necessitated completing various standardized, somewhat repetitive, questionnaires: are you feeling suicidal? (‘no’), have you thought about any means of committing suicide (‘no’), have you thought about where you might commit suicide (‘er…no’). Through to questions intended to identify Schizotypal personality disorder such as “Have you ever seen things invisible to other people?” (‘look, I know what you’re getting at here so, in the context of this evaluation, no’).
Blood and urine and physical tests had confirmed the absence of any drugs in my body. My general health was fine: we were all systems go.
The day before dosing I’d met the team of therapists who would be working with me and five other volunteer subjects. The therapists were an international cohort of mixed ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds all smiling, all clearly fascinated with the idea of psychedelic psychotherapy.
We assembled in the ward where, the following day, we would take the medicine.
One of the researchers explained how about 15 minutes after taking the drug, if we had received what they called the ‘active dose’ we might notice something:
“When you are wearing the eye-shades”, they explained “at first it will; be just like normal. Then after a while, if you have had the active dose, it will be as if you are looking into space, perhaps a space filled with stars or even images.” A delightfully simple and gentle way of describing the powerful visionary experiences that psilocybin can induce.
“If you find places in the experience that are dark or difficult don’t be afraid” they further counselled us. “The darkness is where the treasure lies, follow it and find the treasure”, more elegantly simple instructions, clearly from someone who knew this territory well. Our instructor amplified this advice by repeating the core message (some might say mantra or charm); ‘go in and through’. We were introduced us to a simple breathing pattern that would help the process; breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4 then breath out for a count of 8.
The confidentiality of the session, housekeeping, safety, and other matters were all addressed and I left feeling confident that the experience would be held well by the team. I didn’t sleep much that night though. I was too excited. For me this event represented many things. It was a concrete opportunity to help in a process that I’ve worked for, in my own way, for many years. To help manifest what my magical colleagues from the north described as the ‘liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings’.
I arrived early on dosing day and made my way to a park adjacent to the hospital where I planned to do some tai chi, and generally spent time with the trees.
As I sat in the park I was visited by a robin, a bird which is a totem for my Dad who passed away a few years ago. I’d been with him during his final days. Prior to my participation in this experiment that was the last time I was in a hospital setting. I greeted this welcome visitor and asked for its blessing.
Once in the research department I chatted amiably with the receptionist. A nurse was busy preparing the ward in which six of us would simultaneously dosed. The window blinds were closed and lamps resembling candles glowed softly beside each bed. Large pale coloured rugs were laid on the floor to minimize the sound of footsteps and make the place feel as cozy as possible. Silk flowers decorated the room, a picture book of botanic illustrations by each bedside. Vaporisers gently perfumed the air with sandalwood. Screens were unfolded behind the beds, decorated with an abstract design reminiscent of dappled sunlight. I installed Izawa at my bedside and introduced the spirit to the person who would be my sitter, a smiling, thoughtful young man I’d met the previous day. I popped a catkin gathered from the park into one of the tubular structures protruding from Izawas’s body.
That morning I had drawn a tarot card, The Wheel of Fortune, an apposite symbol. This study was double blind; neither researchers nor volunteers would know whether participants would receive a placebo, or 10mg of synthetic psilocybin, or the ‘active dose’ or 25mg.
The Wheel of Fortune spins; the nurse moves to each bedside, opening the randomly selected medicine pots, pouring their contents into tiny paper cups at each bedside.
The researcher who had so thoughtfully described the psilocybin experience the previous day reminded us of the breathing pattern: In for a count of four, hold for four, out for eight, relax. Accept what arises and go ‘in and through’.
I cradled the paper medicine pot in my hands, made a prayer over the contents and swallowed the cluster of tiny pills. Putting on the headphones and eye mask I lay down and relaxed and waited.
The music was a classical piano piece, deeply textured and beautiful. I listened intently.
I’d only had a light breakfast and knew that if this was an active dose, I’d start to feel something within 20 minutes.
Then it started.
Something was happening, that unmistakable sensation of the wyrd and the wonderful. This was at least 10 milligrams. Quickly I revised my estimate upwards; this was the ‘active dose’. Fortuna had smiled.
With eye-shades on and the music playing I began to sing quietly as I lay on the bed while rushes of energy moved through my body. Little flutterings and stutterings and twitches and yawning, the kind of effects I’ve come to expect with this medicine. As the music changed to drum beats and textured electronic sounds, I found myself rapidly ascending into the psychedelic state.
The trip was profoundly influenced by my setting. Not the calm room, transformed from daytime ward into twilight psychedelic ceremonial space, but the very fact that I was in a hospital. I brought to mind the people I’d seen in the days during the preparatory sessions in its corridors: harassed looking medics, confused visitors, earnestly conversing relatives, patients – their bodies sprouting tubes – being pushed on beds between wards . I felt repeated shivers of energy moving through me and wondered if I was somehow detecting the bustling auric field of the place. The injured arriving in blue-lit, siren-shrieking vehicles, patients receiving their life-changing news, people dying, people being born.
My body twitched and danced, an organic layer lying orthogonal to a stream of energy connecting heaven and the deep that was my whole being. Yellow hi visibility jacketed police thronged my inner vision. Here I was, legally taking psilocybin in the heart of London while out there the police, who of course, have got much better things to do, were tasked with busting people for using the same substance that I had consumed in a licensed setting.
This tension had a personal relevance. I thought about my Mum, who worked as a nurse in Accident and Emergency for over a quarter of century. Of my Dad who had been both a military medic and a senior member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. I thought of how this therapy might help members of my own family were it to be accessible in a conventional medical context. Perhaps they could then benefit from the psychedelic insights and healing that I’ve discovered in ‘traditional’ and underground settings?
My sitter was immediately and gently by my side as I removed the headphones, eye-shades and sat up in order to visit the bathroom. The short corridor from the ward to the toilet was dimly lit with LED nightlights. Once inside I regarded myself briefly in the full-length mirror. Yep, eyes like saucers. Returning to the ward I glanced through the window. Outside the car park was full of scurrying people, ambulances, police cars and taxis. I was tripping pretty hard as the carpet undulated beneath me. I quipped to my sitter, “It’s about 3am in this club!’ He grinned.
We’d taken the medicine at 10:30am and by 3:45pm I was beginning to come down. By 4pm I was sitting up in bed, eye shades and headphones off, the music quietly audible through speakers in the room. I glanced at the other beds. One person seemed to have left – I guessed they’d received the placebo. Another volunteer was weeping. This individual was being ably supported by their sitter. Their tears had a gentle cathartic quality, soon replaced with wry laughter at the cosmic joke of it all. Later I discovered that this volunteer has never taken any psychedelic drugs before.
I poured myself some water, sitting up on the bed, my blanket wrapped around me. In my imagination I offered the water to the important people in my life. Wishing that all beings could have access to clean water. I sprinkled a little on the floor and acknowledged the spirit of the place before finally taking a sip. Turning to my sitter I asked; “Is there any tea on this spaceship?’ he smiled and went to prepare a brew.
Later I ate, breaking my fast with fruit and salad and bread. As evening fell I was interviewed by the team, provided my initial reflections on the experience, and was pronounced fit to go.
The other volunteer who also appeared to have received the ‘active dose’ and I were last to leave. We spoke for a while as they waited for their taxi. “It was like I could see it all,” they said “all the past and future, all the connections. All the horror and all the beauty and even the joke of it all. It was amazing!”
And so it is, this psychedelic state. This remarkable form of awareness where our minds perceive the embodied truth that ‘everything is interconnected’. And while this realization may be ecstatic it may also provide us with challenging material – and to meet these challenges we need to consider the wider context of my trip in the hospital that day.
The King’s College Hospital Clinical Research Facility is funded by the National Institute for Health Research who get their cash primarily from the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care and also by The Wellcome Institute, that is Big Pharma. The trial I specifically participated in was funded by Compass Pathways, a for-profit company developing psilocybin therapy in Europe and North America. These facts may give us pause for thought.
Today there are commentators in the psychedelic community who are moved to warn us about the problematic aspects of psychedelic medicalization. Some have wondered if the whole psychedelic renaissance is doomed (though they remain happy to sell their books, artworks or workshops to us as it crumbles). In the opinion of some pundits by taking part in this trial I am at least a dupe if not an active conspirator in a sinister deep state plot.
Now we should certainly aware of how sociopathic tendencies in our culture may wish to deploy these drugs. History teaches us how the Roman military encouraged the culture of wine drinking in order to subdue barbarian tribes. We may recall the deplorable tale of how in the 19th century the British East India company weaponized opium against the Chinese Empire and there are those more recent attempts in the 20th century to weaponize mescaline, LSD and the rest. These days may fear that we shall become numb to our pain; medicated with Mac Mindfulness and anesthetized by esketamine nasal spray, docile, unable and unwilling to rise up again oppression. These fears need to be acknowledged as entirely plausible – for the Moksha medicine of Huxley’s Island to become the debilitating Soma of his Brave New World.
We also know that simply using psychedelics does not necessarily make you a good person. On a scale smaller than that of shadowy governmental departments, things can go very wrong within the psychedelic community. One may take iboga and only come away with pinchbeck revelations, or encounter shocking abuses while under the influence of toad venom. These bad things happen well outside of state actors. It is therefore essential that – as people who love and appreciate these substances – we are alert and ready to address such problems in compassionate and intelligent ways, wherever they emerge.
Concerns about the medicalization and state use of psychedelics seems most often expressed by people (as far as I can tell predominantly white men) living in The United States of America. This makes sense to me. The USA is a nation with a proud tradition of individual liberty, an impressive pioneering spirit and wary attitude towards governmental power. It is also a nation with many serious challenges and wounds which express themselves in draconian drug laws, rampant militarism, and in my view a, barbaric and economically exploitative approach to medicine. Meanwhile psilocybin and MDMA treatments in the UK will be delivered through the National Health Service making them free of charge at the point of provision. I therefore wonder if the fears of capitalist exploitation of psychedelics in the USA would be better addressed not by problematizing developments in psychedelic medicine but by campaigning for accessible healthcare in that nation.
While some commentators rail against any state involvement in psychedelics it’s worth remembering that some of these sacraments were originally products of commercial enterprise. Big Pharma, for all it’s faults, gave us psychedelic medicine too. And though we may distrust the re-emergence of a licensed capitalist psychedelic economy (which we should remember existed in the early and mid 20th century) these medicines cannot remain underground and only available to wealthy guys, rolling around on Adam in the privileged playgrounds of Esalen and Burning Man.
However I don’t believe that physicians should be the only people with a lawful right to use these drugs and admitting psychedelics into medicine settings should, in my view, go hand in hand with other changes to make these substances more widely accessible.
As someone who lives in one of the most oppressive and closely monitored countries in the world (the UK) I appreciate the American appetite for decentralization and personal liberty. I support moves to change the laws around psychedelic drugs, and in some respects America is leading the way through developments such as the vote to decriminalize entheogenic plants in Oakland. That people should have access to psychedelics in settings other than medical ones is obvious, especially to those like me who use these substances in ceremonial and recreational settings. There is no reason why the shaman and the scientist and the clinician and the private individual could not all have access to these materials. In fact the ironic thing is that the private individual and the shaman already do, though they may operate within a culture of fear and repressive legislation which hardly serves to support good practice or intelligent use. It is our doctors, our healers, who are forbidden from using these valuable medicines.
As the psychedelic renaissance unfolds there are naturally difficult ethical choices to be made. There was the choice I made when I signed up for the Compass Pathways trial, the choice that MAPS made to accept money from the Mercer Family. Rick Doblin gives a clear account of the thinking behind that decision, just as I can explain why I decided to participate in the Compass research. Sure Rick and I could be part of some great MKULTRA/MOSAD false-flag operation of The New World Order but I propose another reading. As Terence McKenna said: ‘we’re not dropping out here, we’re infiltrating and taking over’.
Some might argue that my taking part in this trial makes me a collaborator with the evil machine of imperialist-capitalist violence which is cheerfully doing it’s thing while the ice-caps melt. But then I think of my Dad and of the apparent contradiction in his role as an army medic; the contradiction between healing medicine and the harms of war. But this contradiction is also a connection.
MAPS have chosen to work with veterans as a stratagem to speed the development of MDMA therapy that will eventually be open to everyone (allowing for America’s poor healthcare provision). And while we may be dismayed at the deplorable contexts in which people have developed PTSD, we cannot morally ignore their wounds. Would it be a compassionate response to argue: ’I’m sorry, but you chose to go to war so you’re not getting a blood transfusion because otherwise I’ll just be supporting the war machine’. Clearly not, and while some detractors of the medicalization of psychedelics recognize this they don’t appear able to propose any answers.
I also wonder whether, even though sanctioned by the military, psychedelic therapy may have other effects than just fixing people’s PTSD. Perhaps soldiers treated with MDMA are unlikely to return to work shouting “kill kill kill’. Are they perhaps more likely to oppose militarism, less likely to send their kids to war, more likely to support attempts at dialogue as a means of conflict resolution? Time I guess will tell.
I would also argue as does physician Gabor Mate that healing, at it’s best, is a process that inevitably has a radical social dimension:
“In essence, healing is a highly subversive act in our culture. Whether in a medical or more direct psychotherapeutic sense, our work with people is about subverting their self-image as isolated, simply biological or simply psychological creatures, and helping them see the connections among their existence, the nature of the culture we live in, and the functioning of all of humanity. It’s about challenging the idea that someone’s value is dependent on how well they fit into an abnormal, unhealthy culture. Ideally, as healers in the broadest sense, that’s what we should be doing.”
Psychedelic therapy may also help us heal by fundamentally changing how medicine is done. Now the therapist must learn to sit, like the shaman of old, with the patient and facilitate the conditions in which they can do their own healing. A far cry from the bumbling pharmacology of sedation and the ubiquitous 10-minute consultation. We may be witnessing a transformation from psychiatry as a discipline with ‘labels for everything and cures for nothing’, into an approach to healing that successfully combines ancient knowledge and modern science.
For western psychedelic medicine is indebted to the wisdom of ancient cultures, and not only by having learnt about psilocybin through Maria Sabina’s generous gift the sacred mushrooms. In 1953 two psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmand took part in a Native American Church peyote ritual. They observed first hand how psychedelic ceremony was helping First Nations people overcome their dependence on whiskey. In the light of this observation they wondered if they could use LSD to treat addiction. So when our medicine people; our doctors and nurses and clinicians, sit in psychedelic therapy with their patients, they do so in a lineage that includes the Red Pheasant First Nation people of Saskatchewan. Moreover in their report to the government not only did Hoffer and Osmond argue for the safety and healing power of the peyote ceremony but they also acknowledge the ethical limitations on the rights of the medical profession to stake a claim these substances:
“We believe most medical men would object if asked to judge whether to allow or prohibit members of any church from practicing their religion and enjoying their sacrament. It does not seem to us that, as medical men, we have any competence to decide upon these matters.”
But it is clearly in the competence of physicians to determine whether psychedelics could be a valuable part of their practice.
On a personal level my trip that day in the hospital was about connecting my own passion for psychedelics and their transformative power with the opportunity that licensed therapy could provide to my own family and many other people; the kind of people who don’t undertake ayahuasca pilgrimages, people who don’t dance away their cares on the ecstatic dance floor, and who don’t attend conferences like this one. But people nevertheless who could be healed by the sensitive use of these ancient sacred medicines and who would be able to access these treatments through the NHS. As an advocate of psychedelic inclusion I hope that I have helped to medicalize the mushroom medicine which I also regard as a sacrament.
May this marvelous opportunity, these magical medicines, help heal those in pain and heal too the disconnections and addictions within medicine itself. May these medicines be available in many ways so that they are accessible to all who might benefit from them. May our culture be transformed for the better by the liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings.