Writing on Drugs: Three fabulous books to Feed your Head.

Secret Drugs of Buddhism: Psychedelic sacraments and the origins of the Vajrayana

The Buddhist tradition generally eschews the use of substances that cloud the mind but psychedelics (which, by definition, make manifest the mind) are by no means absent from the story of Asian religion. While modern Buddhists may take refuge in the idea that ‘drugs are bad’ (with certain notable exceptions such as the Zig Zag Zen school of Allan Badiner et al.) both Buddhism and Hinduism emerged from a cultural landscape rich in Amanita muscaria, Cannabis sativa and Panaeolus cambodginiensis.

In this book Mike Crowley hunts the questing beast of soma through layers of Sanskrit metaphor and potential botanic sources, following this elusive substance as it emerges into Vajrayana Buddhism as the sacramental nectar of immortality amrita. This analysis is the entheogenic equivalent of ‘who shot JFK?’,  and many theorists have spilt much ink trying to nail down the culprit; what kind of stuff was this food of the gods really? Our author, an accomplished scholar of  Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese takes the broad view and intelligently and generously explores the options and opinions on this matter. Crowley, as well as being a fan of psychedelics, is also deeply embedded in the spiritual culture of Asia, having become an Upāsaka of the Kagyud lineage in 1970.

Mike’s suggestion is that it is the psychedelic effect that maketh soma, not its exact pharmacological identity. His view, that the Vedic soma may have started out (in the north) as Amanita and later (as cultures spread south) became psilocybin rich mushrooms, makes a lot of sense. It’s the entheogenic experience, this embodied encounter with the divine, that matters – whether that state is provoked endogenously through pranayama and protracted periods of fasting and solitary medication or by any number of substances – the effect is much the same.


While the debate about the psychedelic nature (or not) of Soma and Amrita is far from over Mike has made a valuable contribution to the discussion and does so in a book which is well supported by notes and references and that, in itself, is a delightful read.

Check out this lecture by Mike Crowley on The Secret Drugs.

To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic

To Fathom Hell… is a brilliant and very engaging book. Our story begins with a depressed psychotherapist seeing his clients (while secretly fantasizing about the gruesome ways they might die), painfully conscious that the therapy he provides has very little effect. Accidentally attending a conference on psychedelic medicine, our despondent hero teams up with psychedelic therapist and maverick Dr. Langley. Their partnership works, and together they embark on a project to create a centre in which they can deploy psychedelic medicine.

Author Ben Sessa is the perfect person to imagine such a story, as a well respected psychiatrist and advocate of the value of psychedelic psychotherapy. (Check out Ben’s wonderful TED talk). Psychedelic therapy sessions using MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin are described, expertly written by one of the few people in Britain legally qualified to undertake this kind of work.


The novel skillfully leads us into this world and, while there is an engaging plot, much of what happens are conversations in which the theory and practice of psychedelic therapy is expounded. In this way To Fathom Hell… stands in the lineage of Aldous Huxley’s works where the narrative provides a setting in which ideas can be elucidated and explored.

Our Somerset Pala (the fictional psychedelic Island of Huxley) becomes the template for numerous therapeutic communities up and down the British isles. This isn’t just about getting squaddies PTSD sorted by arming them with MDMA – it’s about the transformation of culture; starting with the broken and moving towards healing those who do the breaking. The novel builds to a tremendous climax which put me in mind of the denouement from The Illuminatus Trilogy; a crescendo that feels both riotous and joyous.

A rollercoaster of a good read this tale is engaging, funny, dark and transcendent much like the psychedelic experience itself.  You can read more about To Fathom Hell, Sessa’s debut novel, and purchase your copy of the book via Psychedelic Press UK.

The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments

The final book I want to recommend is the genuinely awesome (in the proper sense of the word) volume by William Leonard Pickard The Rose of Paracelsus. This book was written by Leonard, using paper and pencil, in the US prison where he is incarcerated for “conspiracy to manufacture LSD”. Before he was busted (or set up…) Leonard was a research associate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, a Fellow of the Interfaculty Initiative on Drugs and Addictions at Harvard, and Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA. On all levels this is a Brother who knows what he’s talking about.


Reading The Rose… is, quite honestly, like tripping on acid. The long text (656 pages) can’t be adequately defined as a either a novel or autobiography. The language is rich, powerful, lyric, poetic, terrifying, visceral, sublime. Reminiscent in style to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, the narrative of clandestine acid chemists, governmental intrigue, simple human stories of suffering and (sometimes) redemption weaves a spell over the reader. Add to this the real-world knowledge of the grotesque circumstances of Leonard’s imprisonment (he is serving two life sentences, has already served 17 years, is 71 years of age and is in a high security prison) and this book becomes even more poignant. The Rose… pulls the reader in, but has to be put down. The chapters, as rich and dense with references and allusions as they are, require time to be digested. I needed periods to reflect and frankly sometimes time to meditate and pray, during my first reading of The Rose…

I was pleased to be present at the Breaking Convention session on The Rose… where we were treated to readings from the text, including a recording of Leonard himself (once a month Leonard gets to make a 15 minute monitored phone call from jail).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The proceeds go to support Leonard’s family (his son was a newborn as his father went to trial) and I would encourage readers of the text to check out his page and, in whatever way they can, to send thoughtful correspondence and messages of solidarity to him (he does have some access to email).

With Leonard’s permission, here is a recording of me reading an excerpt from the early section of the book where the hero meets one of ‘The Six’. (This hexad of high level psychedelic chemists, rather like the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, have developed super powers following years of exposure to vast quantities of LSD.) In this section our protagonist makes contact with Crimson, the first of The Six.

The Rose of Paracelsus is a truly psychedelic read. Highly recommended.


Journeys into Deep Space – a review of ‘Black Horizons Perspectives’, by Dr Lloyd Keane

Books on magic and spirituality are often full of people on journeys. Some folks head into the desert (like the Hero of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho), while others head up mountain paths or take to the sea in ships. To pursue change or self-discovery one moves from where we are now in the hope that our travelling will somehow shift our sense of confusion and supply us with meaning. Such metaphors can be helpful when employed skilfully, or they can turn into a mammoth cliché-fest that is essentially without real content.


Lloyd Keane wants you to take a road-trip with him into deep space and he is completely unapologetic about how weird this shit is about to get. As a Jung scholar and Master Cosmonaut within the Esoteric Order of Beelzebub (an order within the Temple of Set), Lloyd is used to traversing some fairly strange internal terrain. Having known Lloyd for the past seven years, I can attest to his dogged commitment in pursuing the type of initiatory magic espoused by the Temple of Set and his willingness to do so using both the creative and intellectual tools at his disposal.

In Black Horizons Lloyd introduces us to the insights that he has gained in working with the concept of deep space travel as a means of understanding our processes of inner awakening. The Esoteric Order of Beelzebub makes significant use of the teachings of Gurdjieff within their school and those acquainted with these ideas will be aware of the way in which space travel is used to convey a sense of strangeness and the potential challenges connected to such journeys.


Explorer by Lloyd Keane

As we well know, getting lost in space is easy to do! While Lloyd makes no attempt to spoon-feed the reader he does provide some meaningful markers that the budding cosmonaut might use in attempting such treacherous voyages. While not being overly prescriptive in trying to dictate what stages of exploration must look like, he identifies a process of initiatory change in the following terms:

  1. Tyro – How do we stir our inspiration and desire as a means of fuelling our journey?
  2. Seeker – Having left the launch pad, how do we actively engage in the early stages of exploration and creativity while avoiding potential pitfalls?
  3. Explorer – How do we begin to express what we are experiencing so as to create a powerful feedback loop for self-transformation? Here we begin to dig-in to engagements with dark-matter and the deeper dimensions of internal exploration.
  4. Watcher – How do we begin to exemplify these transformations so that they impact upon others? For me this is the challenge of integrating insights gained and continuing our alchemical work within the more mundane aspects of our lives.

What I find so refreshing in his approach is his willingness to side-step the well-trodden paths of occult language and metaphor in helping us gain new perspectives on accessing our own process of Xeper or becoming. While having been deeply immersed in the language of Hermetic Kabbalah and Thelema, Lloyd has been able to use the black flame of his own creativity to access new insight into the challenges and potential rewards that such work offers. As a testament to his own process of inspiration, the book features numerous examples of Lloyd’s weird and inspiring art work.

Through the structure of the work described, Lloyd asks us to experience the very real and existential dimensions that we experience in the face of mystery and the vastness of deep space. Rather than trying to minimise the sense of terror that we might encounter, he encourages us to actively explore our sense of awe in the face of darkness and the unknown. As we embrace the type of bravery that allows us to remain open and curious in the face of vastness, so the initiate begins to cultivate a new sense of poise for engaging with their life.


Watcher by Lloyd Keane

Throughout this work, Lloyds style is clear, humorous and for a Left-Hand Path magician, refreshingly self-effacing. At the end of each of the 4 main sections he provides suggestions for further reading and inspirational films with which to fan the flames of our own work. While not being dictatorial about rituals or technologies that one must use, this work is full of intriguing suggestions and Lloyd provides us with some helpful vignettes of his own ritual work within the Temple of Set.

I would highly recommend this work for those interested in gaining an intimate and honest reflection upon a Priest of Set’s initiatory work, and how a contemporary magician can creatively evolve new, future-oriented metaphors for exploring the path of human transformation.

The book is currently available via Lulu

Here’s a link to Lloyd’s personal website: