Working with the Body at Halloween

For me one of the benefits of  working  with the turning of the year (especially alongside the 8 colours of magic), is that I often feel as though I’m being asked to maintain a balance in relation to the diet of my magical/spiritual activity and to pay attention to the way in which such work promotes health. If for example the heights of ego magic at mid-summer risk the danger of grandiosity, so the demands of Lammas and harvest help ensure that I pressure test any sense of advancement.

In the Northern Hemisphere this time of year can be an interesting time to take stock.  Whether we call it Samhain, Halloween or All Souls, the entry into the colder, darker period of the year often provides a natural impulse to slow down and review what we are doing and how this lines-up with our personal aspirations.

One of the great benefits of having both close magical friends and using a magical diary is that they both provide aid in the process of reflection and the way that I keep returning to important themes that I would have been less aware of if I had been left to my own devices. By making the most of such support, one of the reoccurring themes that I keep bumping into, is the importance of the body in my current spiritual practice. In discussion with beloved friends over cups of tea and in deciphering the rambling stream of consciousness contained in my diaries, I have to contend with the question of what it means to experience both the joys and limitations of the physical realm.

For much of this year I have been exploring my relationship with my body by reconnecting to my love of surfing. Living by the coast, I have the good fortune of getting into the sea and exploring the pleasure and challenges that it offers. I tend to surf either without a board (bodysurfing) or on a small inflatable surf mat. Both of these approaches are viewed as somewhat eccentric within the wider surfing community, but help maximize the rider’s closeness to the power of the wave. Outwardly the rider may not seem to be doing much beyond gliding down the face of the wave, but for me they provide a direct experience of nature’s power and the ever changing conditions of the Ocean. However odd and unimpressive this might seem to onlookers, the simple and intense pleasure of this watery Tantra keeps calling me back.

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Inflatable surf action!

My relationship to surfing is a complex one. I started surfing at age 10 when living in Australia and was an enthusiastic devotee until my family returned to the UK 6 years later. For the next 10 years I hardly went in the sea, and my focus on Christianity and theological education provided all the distraction I could want. When I eventually started surfing again, I simply assumed that despite the need for more wetsuit, I would be able to resume my obsession as before. Sadly my body didn’t agree, and following the move to Devon with my partner I was quickly faced by the reality that this love of mine was making me ill. I was confronted by limitation in the form of chronic fatigue symptoms and the realization that I couldn’t really do this, and work and have a life.

The letting go of my surfing obsession was made easier by becoming a parent and the inevitable demands and focus that this requires, and yet I still can’t/won’t let go of this thing I love. Surfing inevitably teaches me all those hippy lessons about flow, and awe at nature’s beauty, but it has also taught me some important things about limitation and self-care. I now avoid those beautiful winter waves and when I do surf in warmer months, I pay attention to my diet, my Qi Gong practice and the need for rest. Other illnesses and life events have provided more stark challenges, but my ability to surf/not surf has definitely allowed me some insight in how I experience my body.

Within the excellent work that Julian has done mapping on the colours of magic to the 8 major fire festivals Samhain is seen as having strong correspondences with black magic and the realm of death. Perhaps this is inevitable as we hunker down in front of fires and contend with early sunsets, but this drawing in and reflection brings associations with endings, darkness and remembering those people or things we have lost. When we work with the body we can become aware of not only the intense pleasures that can be sensed and experienced, but also the frailty of our physical selves and their finite span.

For those of us walking a magical path, the reality of own deaths can trigger a range of differing responses. Having worked hard at refining our psyches via the rigours of esoteric endeavour, the ending of our physical life as we know it can feel like an injustice that we rage against in a desire to buy more time. Alternately, in taking inspiration from Buddhist practice, can we use our awareness of mortality to sharpen our appreciation of this moment and review how we wish to be living now?

If I knew that I had three years left, what changes would I be making in the choices I make and in the quality of my relationships?

What if I knew I had 1 year?

What if I knew I had 6 months?

Stark questions, but also ones that can inspire us to awaken and taste life more fully!

Blessed Be.

SD

 

Spiritual Freethinking

Being a human often involves the construction of stories. In trying to make sense of our own lives, those of other beings on the planet and the Universe more generally, we create narratives to help us order what might be going on. We respond to the information we receive and fuse it with our existing perspectives in order to make decisions about how we wish to live and the potential risk things pose to our current experience of being alive. Most of this time we do this amazing work without even knowing that it is going on, but sometimes we have moments when we realise that we are doing it, and that we might want to make conscious changes to our method and style.

Most religious movements and schools of philosophy lay claim to providing tools for waking us up from the automatic reliance on assumptions. The process of becoming aware of the lenses we rely on for viewing the world can be both shocking and disorientating as we try to incorporate any new insights gained. The problems for most religions come when the incoming of new, enlightening knowledge (Gnosis) begins to disrupt the presuppositions that they themselves rely on e.g. that God either doesn’t exist or is radically different from how they were initially understood to be.

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Sapere aude!

Many of the posts on this blog are penned with a view to promoting a process where we begin thinking about how we think and consider the risks involved in stepping outside the lines of received orthodoxy. If we start to question “received truths” and embrace the heretic’s path of choosing our own way, then we must realise that we will increase discomfort for both ourselves and those around us. For the freethinker, to refuse to question is often an even less desirable, stultifying path, but we would be naïve if we underestimate the disruptive force of heretical thoughts and behaviour.

Part of the creative, disruptive power of the heretic, is that they take existing received truths and they bend them. It would be bad enough if we adopted an antithetical position, but the fact that we take an image or language and inject it with a new, nuanced or odd meaning, truly infuriates those seeking to maintain their monopoly on perceived truth. The gnosis of the heretic triggers a creative process in which their artistry reveals strange variants of reality. While on one level we reject the easier answers of Faith, we often retain a symbiotic relationship with those beliefs and images. In our heresy we internalise these ordered creeds and transform them in to something both far stranger and more interesting.

For me, the adoption of such bold new readings allows the possibility of inhabiting a place of greater spaciousness that often feels more congruent with the lives we wish to live. Such territory is often at the outer edges of familiar maps and requires a level of wit and will that many of us experience as demanding and exhilarating in equal measure.

While each of us need to discover our own optimum means for accessing spaces of cognitive liberty, I have noticed that my own is often facilitated by allowing apparently disparate sources to sit alongside each other. I have been aware of my own journey in allowing the different aspects of my personal religious history to dialogue with each other. The Witch and the Cleric have been sitting down together for a beverage and conversation in the hope that new meaning might be discovered. All too often I have tried to rush them in the hope of a tidy resolution, but thankfully they have resisted my efforts!

In seeking to allow the unique parts of my own story to have a voice, I have often found more help in dreams and art than I have in theological concepts and reformulations. Of course I find great value in thinking and writing, but they often face the danger of overly concretising those states that are more subtle, subjective and sensed. In seeking to resist the urge to prematurely reconcile, synthesise or harmonise this multiplicity of voices and ideas, I have often found that artistic experimentation within a ritual context is a powerful tool.

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Occult art experiment

While others may gain greater stimulus via extended textual analysis and linear debate, on their own these have not been enough to allow me to access the type of psychological integration that I long for. The Queer and transformative states that I need in order to challenge the bulwarks of orthodoxy in my own life, have been found more readily in the images of Abraxas, Baphomet and N’Aton than in attempts at systematic theology. For me these part-made gods embody the ongoing dialogue between idealised androgyny and the complexity of Queer experience. The Queer aspirations of “Postdrogyny” and “Pandrogyne” are the first fruits of an artistic exploration of the possibility of identity. This is an Aquarian age in which our neat categories are troubled and disrupted by the bold lives of those seeking a more authentic way.

The use of sigils, collage, and altar sculpts can all be means of allowing us to inhabit a type of magical space that allows for a personal alchemy that I hope will catalyse change on a wider, societal level. This zone is the place of the crossroads, and as I have observed elsewhere:

If we journey to the crossroads in our attempt to rediscover our magic, we are inevitably entering a realm of liminal possibility. The crossroads is a meeting place of apparent opposites and seeming contradictions. The dynamic tension generated by the friction between these polarities makes it the place of initiation.
A Gnostic’s Progress p. 155

The crossroads is a place of incarnation and inspiration, and the word must become flesh (John, 1:14) in order for us to experience its fullness. May our art, inspiration and willingness to explore, allow access to such fullness! This is rarely an easy peace, but as we allow ourselves to tune into the complexity and mystery of our lives, may all of us experience greater authenticity and freedom.

So Mote it Be!

SD

A User’s Guide to Psychedelic Ceremony

I was very pleased to be an invited speaker at Breaking Convention and honoured to find that the lecture theatre was full to capacity. The vast majority of the presentations filmed at Breaking Convention will be uploaded over the next few weeks to the Youtube and Vimeo channels. However, as is traditional, the film of my talk (and that of Bruce Parry, John Crow, Karen Lawton & Fiona Heckles) disappeared in a puff of digital fairy dust. Luckily the Seed SistAs were able to re-record their talk and I’ve promised to plonk myself in front of a (working) video camera and record my talk before too long. In lieu of that recording here’s the text of my presentation at BC. Many thanks to all the people who found me afterwards to let me how much they enjoyed my talk. 

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I’m going to talk about psychedelic ceremony. I’m going to give a range of examples and finish by considering the opportunities and challenges that face us, the growing, planet wide, psychedelic community.

I suspect we the people in this room have a broadly shared consensus of what we mean by ‘psychedelic’. Our consensus would probably be around ideas like altered or extraordinary states of consciousness. The conscious bit matters; these are states of awareness, things we can recall, however imperfectly, when back in what we typically describe as our baseline or ‘normal’ states of awareness. The ‘extraordinary’ component of our definition reflects our subjective perception that these states are ones that are different, sometimes radically different, from the states of awareness that we usually in. To use one of the latest descriptions for what what the psychedelic state is; we can describe it as one in which the connectivity across brain regions is significantly changed, and increased (or perhaps more accurately ‘normal’ cognition is down regulated and other connections emerge). We know that these mind states can be induced through a wide variety of practices; sex, dance, meditation, protracted periods of darkness, breathwork and of course by introducing various substances into our bodies.

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This is your brain on drugs…

But what is ceremony? When we think of ritual and ceremony we may imagine military or civic rites. Those of formal religious or public occasions. Celebrations of a particular event, achievement, or anniversary. We may imagine that words like ritual or ceremony indicate a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. We might imagine a solemn act, formal and dignified, characterized by deep sincerity. Equally we might imagine the wild bacchanalia or carnival. Ritual and ceremony is a broad church but in the sense that I using it here I’m interested in ceremony as the intentional use of metaphor to affect the imaginal world.

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Colourful ceremony

Ceremony for me is a natural activity for symbol using, meaning making creatures such as ourselves. Sure sometimes it may be formal in nature; at other times it may well up as a spontaneous gesture. Laying flowers at the site of a tragic event, wrapping presents, ritually disposing of our dead. These are things our species does. Ceremony then is the deployment of acts that are symbolic, often metaphorical, sometimes carefully planned, sometimes free-form and spontaneously arising in the moment.

In context of the use of psychedelic drugs, psychedelic ceremony is the manipulation of sets and settings within which we might explore those remarkably potent and remarkably safe experiences offered by medicines such as DMT, ayahuasca, mescaline, LSD and all those other fascinating chemicals, the power and significance of which we are celebrating and exploring at this conference.

Why not ‘psychedelic session’? Why use the religious sounding word ‘ceremony?’ Well there are two reasons for this.

The first is that I come to psychedelics as an occultist, an indigenous shaman of the British Isles, and so I tend to think in those terms. Occultism is course the study of that which is hidden, such as the relationship between matter and mind that psychedelic drugs bring into stark relief. The practice by which this exploration happens is usually called magic which we could think of as the use of the imaginal world to extend the limits of our achievable reality.

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Me being totes shamanic

The second and bigger reason is that the sense of the sacred that these substances can generate I feel demands the use of a word that goes beyond the apparently ‘secular’ expressions ‘session’ or ‘experiment’. The word ‘ceremony’ itself derives from a Latin root that suggests ideals of holiness, sacredness and awe. Sure many people eschew anything that sounds ‘religious’ but I feel that using this word shows both respect to those indigenous traditions who use entheogens, and reclaims the word from the dead hand of doctrinal belief. We need not throw the baby of the sacred out with the bathwater of dogma.

Looked at through the lens of contemporary neurology we could say that this sense of the divine is what we experience when the psychedelicized brain lights like a christmas tree in an fMRI scanner. Considered in a historical sense we can see how psychedelic substances are often implicated in the genesis of religions; the blue-throated mushroom of Shiva, the burning acacia of Moses, the kykeon of Eleusis.

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Ancient advert for kykeon

We are fortunate to be living in a time when knowledge about methods to hold, support and direct the psychedelic state is abundant. There is a great confluence of wisdom from ‘traditional’ practitioners, underground psychonauts and licensed scientific researchers. In the West, since the time of Tim Leary et al., we have known that the mental state and the environment can profoundly influence the way that our drug trip unfolds. Western culture itself has created ceremonial settings in response to the emergence of two widely availabile psychedelic drugs. Our first attempt at this was the creation of the music festival, our culture’s collective response to LSD. Later we created the rave to hold the experience of MDMA. Our indigenous shamanic intelligence gave rise to the First and Second Summers of Love.

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Oh my God look at the litter, blah blah blah…

Psychedelic drugs are special, powerful things that by their very nature stimulate a feeling of ‘the sacred’ and this feeling runs deep. This feeling often inspires people not only to create specific environments, and ceremonies for their psychedelic sessions, but also during the process of producing the drugs in the first place.

Whether we are mindfully rolling a joint, or singing as we stir the bubbling pot of ayahuasca, the preparation of these medicines that can evoke a sense of the divine is itself a sacred process.

There is, for example, some fascinating research to be done on the use of ceremony by contemporary clandestine chemists. I spoke with Casey Hardison and asked whether he did anything he would consider to be a ceremony when he produced, for instance, LSD. Casey told me that he used crystals, smudging with sage and other practices during some of this work. He had a practice of setting LSD to crystalize while music played. ‘Righteous Rasta music’ structured to echo the pattern of the chakras in Asian esoteric anatomy. Asked why, Casey said that his intention was that the molecule would somehow be affected the music, helping those who took the drug to “absorb the energy of loving themselves, allowing them to have the highest vibrational experience”. 

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Casey Hardison – the naked LSD chemist

Casey was by no means unique in this practice. To quote Cosmo Feilding Mellen in an interview about the film he directed The Sunshine Makers:

The purity of different types of acids was an important part of psychedelic culture. People believed that the purer the acid, the better the trip. It was all very subjective, of course – Owsley would pay attention to the music they were playing in the lab at the point of crystallisation, and would then pray over the equipment to imbue it with positive vibes. Tim (Scully) was a rational scientist and initially thought it was all mumbo jumbo, but he eventually got sucked into it.

The unfortunately still incarcerated LSD chemist William Leonard Pickard mentions the ritualization of psychedelic synthesis in his wonderful book The Rose of Paracelsus. In a recent email to me he wrote:

“Indigo [an LSD chemist] mentions Gregorian chant during synthesis or crystallization, often Amazonian shamanic, soft, gentle chanting. From my interviews of very high-level mfgs in the 80’s-90’s for drug policy research, I recall most fondly one individual [who would] never dream of conducting a crystallization without Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ playing in one continuous loop, quite loud, for many hours from start to finish. He did so for years. Something about the beauty of the molecules finding each other, and the harmony of the seasons. The Vivaldi seems to be a lineage in certain groups.”

In all these examples, leaving aside any parapsychological or subtle physical interpretations of what may or may not happen when one crystallizes LSD in the presence of music, what we can see is that these chemists are doing ceremony. They are creating a set of poetic, metaphorical relationships to influence their set by changing their setting (putting on certain music). They are doing so while in a psychedelically altered state (lab accidents, as even extremely thorough Swiss chemists know very well, can happen). They are using this poetic language of behavior with a specific intention – that of making the best LSD, making good medicine.

So let’s break down the idea of psychedelic ceremony in a little more detail and give a few examples of practices.

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The toasted Hof

When we drink alcohol we say ‘cheers’! We make an invocation to the spirit of happiness, perhaps a toast of greater or lesser complexity. So too in many traditions and approaches to psychedelics will people take a moment before they take the drug. That pregnant pause we have, sat before the awesome reality of the loaded DMT pipe. Some like to say a prayer over their drugs, some do this by offering their lover a pill in their mouth, ending the kiss with the words ‘have a good one’.

Depending on the nature of the psychedelic adventure the location where the experience will unfold may have been specially prepared. The style may be very varied. From complex patterned fabrics and ready-to-undulate-when-the-mushrooms-kick-in wooden floors, through to white walls and soft cushions. The point about the space is that it supports and directs the experience and therefore, in whatever way we choose, it demands our attention. Re-set your Set by sorting out your Setting. As we clean the room, and place our power objects around us; pictures of our family perhaps, or of deities, of sports cars or kittens (if that’s our thing) we develop a deep sense that all is well. The mutual relationship of Set and Setting means any act of preparation (which could instead be about getting all glammed up if we are going out clubbing) is an instinctive ceremonial process.

Some spaces look very clearly like psychedelic ceremony. The beautiful crescent altar of the peyote circle, marked with the long glorious road that the participants take through the night together. Other ritual spaces may have a more modern look, with specially selected images projected upon the walls, sigils glowing in the blacklight and rotating dream machines. As psychonauts we make these chemical autonomous zones, these ceremonial spaces, in many ways. From spontaneously arising moments when we realise and respond to the sacred, through more formal group rituals, to gatherings so large we call them festivals.

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Ceremonial space

There are many groups in many countries that meet to do these kinds of ceremonies; some are peer-led, others with more formal structures, often inspired by indigenous entheogenic cultures of the Americas  For some people their psychedelic ceremonies are solitary affairs, perhaps lone psychogeographical wanderings or night long solitary vigils, still others make pilgrimage to the temples where God is a DJ.

Once we are tripping we can use our skills to make the best use of our time in that space however it is constructed. While sometimes all we need is to lie down and let the experience take us, at other points we may like to do stuff; anything from contemplating the aeons old architecture of our own hands, through to creative practices such as making art or singing and dancing.

As the psychedelic state is so plastic we can make interventions here; in some contexts we might think of these as acts of psychological neurohacking, or perhaps acts which sound more like sorcery, in any case these are examples of deploying symbolic activity with an intention.

For example. We can use mimetic magic also known as sympathetic magic. We create a psychological link as X happens so Y follows, magical thinking or perhaps thinking magically. This works especially well when we are high and different (novel) parts of our minds are connected. The embodied psychedelic experience recalls the magicians’ axiom ‘as above so below, as within so without’. In psychedelic ceremony we are deploying symbolic action within the interrelated network of all things which, when not high, we experience as discreet objects.

Let’s take a not too woo-woo psychological example of how this works: We might for example become aware that, when difficult memories of a failed relationship arise during the trip, that we screw our face up and hunch our shoulders. In the psychedelic state, where everything in the mind (and who knows, perhaps all things in the universe) is connected, we make a magical link; ‘as I relax my tense muscles so I find a way to sit in equanimity with the pain of my past’. As we relax, passing through the journey of that intention, our state of mind while tripping, and our subsequent relationships with others after we come down, also relaxes and becomes easier.

Then there can be things that look more like spells in the proper witchcraft pointy hat sense. One might do a spell to encourage the conditions in society in which the benefits of psychedelic drugs can be appreciated. This spell could aim to find ourselves in a better relationship, as a species, with these divine medicines. One might do this by creating a magical sculpture, a physical form for a spirit, giving it a name and celebrating it as a god. Offering our psychedelic gnosis to it, desiring that it is empowered to carry this intention into the complex web of wyrd that connects all things. (You can see what we in magic call the ‘material base’ of such a spell, cast from within psychedelic ceremony, in the museum here at Breaking Convention).

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Magical things in The Psychedelic Museum

Let’s consider another ceremony which can be deployed very easily by the psychonaut. We can think of this as a handy neurohack.

We know that our bodies primarily get our conscious attention when things go wrong. We experience the alert of pain and discomfort when there is a problem. Most of the time we don’t notice our left foot unless it hurts.

We also know that cultivating an optimistic and grateful attitude has benefits on everything from the functionality of our own immune systems and mental health and that this well-being in turn affects others. This practice boosts us, and thereby helps those around us, it’s a particularly powerful charm against depression both individually and culturally.

(Technically this is left-hand path vajrayana, fourth turning of the wheel of dharma shit we’re talking here; check it out if you’ve not already grokked that stuff).

To cultivate this beneficial attitude we take a moment to thank all those things that are good. To deliberately take our attention away from the painful and the incessant human desire to solve whatever current is ‘the problem’. One way of by doing this is by smoking in a ceremonial style.

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Smokin’ Sabina

Let’s set the scene for this easy to do psychedelic ceremony: I walk away from the bonfire and the pumping sound system. I’ve got a pre-rolled joint or tobacco smoke in hand. I kneel down on the dry grass. I am here to pray. I ceremonially breathe the smoke of the joint up to the sky, then directly down onto the earth, I then blow it to the left and right and finally towards the moon above me. This metaphorical ritual process orientates me within the world. I use the joint to focus me in the moment and I pray, speaking about what I love, counting my blessings. There are many imagined locations to which we might address our prayer. Simply to ‘The Universe’, or for the those more theologically inclined ‘the Great Goddess’. Personally I rather like ‘Great Spirit’ and ‘Great Mystery’, and sometimes ‘Baphomet’. We may silently formulate our prayer or it speak aloud. Our prayer remembers all those things we are grateful for; those who love us, our health, this life, these medicines, the cool of the night air. Whatever we really love and what fills us with joy and we take delight in.

When I’m done I bury the end of the joint in the earth, nod my thanks to the moon and return to the pumping sound of the party…

Our psychedelic ceremony, however we do it, unfolds…

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Cards and crystal

Perhaps, for example, towards the tail end of the trip, you decide to do some divination by consulting the tarot, using those obscure occult images to explore the relationships of things in your life that are important. Changing your perspective and looking on the problem as though from the outside, finding new possibilities. You can do something similar through a process which psychologists call a ‘sculpt’ using found objects to represent characters or situations. Just as the psychedelic state joins up bits of our brains so we can express and reflect on this process by using external symbol sets to discern the new meanings that arise.  These techniques of divination can be usefully employed when we are high: from ones where a meaning is sought in what some claim is random stuff, such as clouds, the shapes in fire or the first three runes picked from a bag. By interpreting these symbols, and perhaps manipulating them in some way, we open ourselves to new possibilities. It’s also the case that, in my experience, what parapsychologists call ‘hits’ happen more commonly when we are in an altered state of awareness.

Whether simple or highly structured, lasting just half an hour or several days, eventually our psychedelic ceremony comes to an end.

As the dawn breaks we perhaps sweep clear the circle around the crescent altar and place the final sticks with impeccable care on the arrow fire. We tidy up after the party. We thank the spirits or the power of the time, the place, the medicine. We allow ourselves time to come down, to enjoy the shamanic return to a world renewed and full of possibility. To reflect, to eat, to sleep, to dream.

And, each of us a shaman, we bring back the insights from that trip into the ultraworld for the benefit of ourselves and community.

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Psychedelic insights

What insights might we gather from these psychedelic adventures? Too many to list of course, but considering the value of these substances in themselves, what might be learnt?

  • That psychedelics have the potential to be amazing, fascinating medicines that feed our souls and inspire our spirits.
  • That the benefits of these experience could be just the medicine our species needs.
  • That we could  live in a culture which nurtures settings in which the self-administered and autonomously interpreted psychedelic experience is open to all who seek it

And to realise this possibility we know that in many ways, and many places, there is work to be done.

We are living in a time of increased licensed research and I’m deeply appreciative of the work of organisations such as the Beckley Foundation, MAPS, The Tyringham institute and others for their herculean efforts. But their work is hampered by both the laws and culture surrounding the prohibition of these substances. Both things that need to change.

As things are now we know that the law relating to psychedelics is critical to our story. Most of us here, I would conjecture, took our first psychedelics in unlicensed and therefore possibly criminal circumstances. Given the severity with which some states punish the use of psychedelic sacraments, but for the Grace of God, we are all potentially the prisoners of prohibition.

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William Leonard Pickard

For some people prohibition hits hard. I mentioned my chickens in an aside when writing an email to Leonard Pickard, who is in jail (serving two life sentences)  for LSD manufacture. He told me in his reply that he’d not seen any creatures, besides humans, for 17 years. This is the real horror, the real bad trip – as we speak Leonard is shut away in his prison and we ourselves are only part-way free. So we must use all the strategies we have to transform this situation, even as these sacraments we have taken have changed us.

As a community of practice, we share our insights at gatherings such as this conference. Inspired, respectful and considerate of the teachings of contemporary indigenous psychedelic cultures, and informed by the discoveries of licensed and underground researchers. 

We have a tremendous opportunity in this, the psychedelic renaissance. By sharing our collective wisdom I hope that we can build a culture suitable for a post prohibition psychedelically upgraded world. More intelligent, more creative, more humane, more curious than perhaps ever before. Because, while it’s easy to get Messianic about drugs, we could really be onto something here. Perhaps these substances really are that powerful, that important to our species. These are medicines for the mind and therefore for our culture, and we should not be afraid to use them.

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The psychedelic triangle

Through deploying psychedelic ceremony we are learning to make our own medicine. ‘The medicine’ as a whole is the combination of the psychedelic experience within a set and setting designed to enhance its transformative and entheogenic potential. The medicine is the complete psychedelic triangle of set, setting and substance.

Ceremony does not necessarily imply orthodoxy and I would like to see us maintain a variety of psychedelic spaces. Spaces for psychedelics as legitimate tools for healing, for research, for spiritual and for recreational use in our society. There are many medicines.

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Searching for meaning

The medicine of psychedelic ceremony can heal our souls by providing opportunities for revelation, rapture and fun. Used as medicines these substances offer opportunities to transcend our limitations. Psychedelics employed in this manner can support our human search for meaning in a way predicated on personal spiritual inquiry rather than rote doctrine of any stripe. These are substances that entwine the scientific and the sacred, the religious and recreational, substances that can help make us whole.

With our wounded cultures and ecocidal behaviors it is clear that some wholeness and healing would not go amiss. We could do with this good medicine.

Stay high and stay free!

Ahoy!

JV

Want Magic? Just Do It!

There are certain perennial questions asked by people that are new to magic (and indeed any aspect of human endeavour) which basically boil down to variations of ‘where should I begin?’. This is a perfectly reasonable inquiry. Before plunging into anything new we like to know where we can find support (good books, reliable online sources, helpful organizations and peer networks), and what are the first steps (what practices to do). The issue of support, especially peer support, these days is perhaps easier than it was in ye olden dayz (i.e. before teh internetz). Even though there are undoubtedly a range of opinions (and of course some card-carrying crazy folks) online, the intelligent user (by checking sources and looking at how relationships are between a given person or group and the wider esoteric community) can usually sift the wheat from the chaff. However the problem of ‘where to begin’ is perhaps trickier now than it was in the past simply by dint of the vast range of ideas on offer.

When I started exploring magic there were perhaps hundreds of books available on the subject (back in the late 1970s). These had to be bought (in specialist shops or via mail order catalogues) or obtained through the slow process of inter-library loan. (I remember how excited I was, age 13, having requested The Key of Solomon on receiving the letter informing me that this grimoire was ready me to collect at local library.) While my access to esoteric texts was much easier that it would have been for my ancestors (especially for someone like myself from a working class background living in the provinces), I certainly wasn’t drowning in a sea of data. If I had a book that captured my interest I would read and re-read. If I wanted to try some occult practice it was a case of studying the few texts I had available and picking something from there. As a kid (when frankly I should have been out climbing trees and riding my bike) I worked through tattvic visualizations given in books on the magic of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I did yoga by following the instruction of Lyn Marshall and my first try at candle magic was informed by the writing of Michael Howard (Peace Be Upon Him). I used what I had, it wasn’t much but it got me started.

As I reached my teenage years I began to save funds to buy the items of ritual paraphernalia I wanted. This was the early 1980s. I had read about Wiccan ritual and various ceremonial styles (as described by Crowley, and in texts such as The Flying Rolls and Seasonal Occult Rituals by W.B.Gray). This provided me a wishlist of stuff; athame, white handled knife, cords, pentacle, chalice… a whole collection that I imagined would be my essential magical tools. I obtained a ceremonial sword, of the classic Solomonic design, from Lois Bourne (spending a fortuitously uneventful afternoon wandering around the Hertfordshire town in which Lois lived with the weapon until my Dad came and picked me up in his car) along with a lovely heavy copper pentacle inscribed with the traditional Wiccan signs.

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“First the Magic Sword…”

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“Fifth the Pentacle…”

I bought my chalice from the fabulous Seldiy Bate and Nigel Bourne at a psychic fayre event. (Surrounded by white light and crystals, we three gathered in a corner full of witchy darkness and pungent resin-on-charcoal style incense.) I filled in more blanks on my occult paraphernalia shopping list; a wand courtesy of Dusty Miller and sundry items from the wonderful Occutique in Northampton. Then I was ready to obtain what I considered to be the most important ritual item (as someone strongly in tune with that Witchcraft style); my athame.

As the witches ‘magical weapon’ I knew that I needed something that was really awesome. Finally, after much searching of cutlers and the few occult shops who sold that sort of stuff, at a psychic festival in London, I came across the marvelous Elizabeth St. George. Elizabeth was a real radical, I guess in some ways a chaos magician before that term had even been coined. I recall visiting her home in London and noticing a bust of E.T. in her temple, ‘a wonderful spirit to work with, ideal for interplanetary magic’ she assured me. It was from Elizabeth that I purchased my athame. A cool looking knife with a dark Toledo steel blade, turned ash wood handle and lunar crescent guard.

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(My athame – a bit like this design only better).

I’d been rather discombobulated by my visit to Elizabeth’s home though. Sure I kinda got the idea of working magic with E.T. but there was more, ‘I don’t really cast a circle’ Elizabeth informed me. ‘I make the whole of this temple protected’. I guess it took me a while to realize that a ‘magic circle’ is an imaginal construct. Unlike if one were to draw a literal circle in a square room, casting a magic circle would not either leave the corners of the room unconsecrated or extend beyond the room to include part of the house next door.

There I was with this totes magic item, my athame, and I knew that before I used it, it would need consecration. I understood consecration to be a process of a) removing any previous vibes from the object so that it was ‘virgin’ and ready to be b) charged with magical power and dedicated to the Great Work. The banishing bit was easy. I recall (following the advice in one of those 1970s occult coffee table books) sticking the blade of the athame in the earth while the sun shone. I guess the sympathetic magic was something along the lines of ‘bright sunshine burns up any lingering ‘shadows’ in the object’. (The UV component of sunlight of course has the literal effect of bleaching and killing bacteria and this cleansing effect was commonly employed by our ancestors long before microscopy). I plunged the blade into a flower bed in the back garden of my family home, the sun beat down. I assumed the process was working.

The next stage was more complex and that’s where I hit a problem. I had various books providing rituals for consecrating objects – from The Key of Solomon through to Mastering Witchcraft. The difficulty was that I felt such an important, indeed central bit of the witches kit, needed a consecration process that was super powerful. The relatively simple rituals given in the books I had simply didn’t seem grand enough. Had I had access to the internet I would have been submerged in even more suggestions on how to accomplish this magical act. I had access to the instructions given in the Book of Shadows that had been published at that time (this was before Janet and Stewart Farrar released The Witches Way), yet nothing seemed quite impressive enough. I imagined a ritual that addressed my own cosmology, maybe including a few of my fave deities such as Thoth and Set, Cernunnos and Hecate and Baphomet. I felt such an important ceremony had to be outstanding and full to the brim with occult symbolism.

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Cutlery lore

Having banished my athame with sunlight I wrapped it in silk (using an old scarf belonging to my Mum, on reflection probably made of nylon) and put it to one side. I carried on doing yoga and meditation and candle magic. I began to make forays into rune signs and sigils, I made myself (rather inexpertly) a robe. But my witches blade lay unused, shrouded in fabric, on my bedroom altar.

By the time I was 16 I was invited to join a coven. A remarkable event that saw the High Priestess of the group thoughtfully speaking with my parents in order to confirm that they knew what I was up to. I remember that first ritual in a large room in a house in north London; it was magical.

I also recall how the High Priestess of the coven asked if I had an athame. ‘Yes’ I replied, ‘though it’s not consecrated yet’. I handed her the knife.

‘Better get it done then!’ She proffered me the pentacle from the altar and placed the athame on it. Muttering some words about power and blessing the High Priestess sprinkled my knife with consecrated salt and water, she wafted incense over it, smoke curled round the pentacle and over the blade. She took an altar candle and waved this over the knife and beneath the pentacle. I could feel the warmth on my hands.

“There it’s done.’ She said, “ready to use!”

Later that evening I had the honour of performing the consecration of the wine with my now fully activated athame. I was told to keep the knife under my pillow for at least a month so it could soak up my vibes and we could bond. I was also told to ‘use it!’

I’d become stuck in that ‘where to begin?’ when it came to what I imagined to be the terribly important business of consecrating my athame. This ‘option anxiety’ led me to procrastinate. I was waiting to do the Work until I found what I thought would be the best (i.e. most super-power-majix – the ideal) way of consecrating this tool. By cutting the Gordian knot of my own confusion the High Priestess had released me from this self-imposed paralysis (and of course this was the powerful magical act I needed!). 

Fast-forward thirty three years and I observe similar behaviours among occultists and psychonauts. While it’s sensible to solicit advice, and to consult the terabytes of esoteric data online, there is nothing like cutting through those Gordian knots and getting on with the Great Work – for that is where the magic is; in the act. That’s one of the reasons I rather like the chaos magical approach, where practice wins over theory, and doing is emphasized over being.

We may not have what we think of as the optimum conditions to practice. We may have all kinds of pressures, of time, of not feeling we know enough yet, of waiting until we can find a teacher, whatever. But to do magic we must ‘dare’, and though our first steps may falter we will at least have begun our journey.

As the Goddess Nike might say, ‘just do it!’ Or to quote from one of the idiomatic versions of ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’ that Nikki Wyrd and I collected for The Book of Baphomet ‘It’s all bullshit, just pick something!’

(As an epilogue to this story, when I consider the magic bling I purchased, I notice that the only thing I still regularly use is my incense burner. A lovely cast iron bowl with a figure of eight serpent coiled beneath it, head rearing up into the perfumed smoke. This item cost me a grand total of £2 from a junk shop in London and ironically has never been formally consecrated.)

JV

Working with Recent Ancestors

In my recent re-exploring of the Ma’at current, I have been struck by the importance of how we work with concepts of balance and time within the magical project of personal and collective alchemy.  As already considered, for me part of the genius of Nema’s work is the way in which the scales of Ma’at seek balance in the present by consciously engaging with the future (as embodied by N’Aton), and the history of our primal drives (the forgotten ones).

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The moment of Truth

As part of my day-job I run a small family therapy clinic that aims to help groups of people consider how they communicate with each other. When I sit with families of all different shapes and sizes (some formed by biology and others by intention), I try to invite them to be curious about how they connect to each other and also whether there are ways in which they would like to improve communication. Part of what we do together is to adopt a detective-like interest in the often unspoken principles that shape our interactions. When these principles are applied to the practicalities of daily life they often become manifested as ‘scripts’ that determine the way people relate to each other. As with scripts in a play, we are often given rules about a whole range of things (such as who cooks the food and who resolves the arguments) that have been handed to us by previous generations. These scripts are often shaped by deep-seated beliefs regarding gender, illness and success, and within families we can be warned against departure from these via cautionary family legends regarding disasters that will befall us if we do.

In exploring with people why they think this type of therapy might help, our initial piece of work is often focused on trying to bring these previously buried beliefs above ground. One tool that we can employ to unearth this material is a genogram, or family tree. By mapping out the members of a family through three or four generations, we can begin to gain a picture of how styles and stories have been co-created over time. The scripts we inherit aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but often the people who attend family therapy are doing so because these scripts are no longer functional and are causing people to get stuck.

This is a process of externalisation where (at least for that moment) we consciously consider a difficulty as if it were separate from the group or individual reflecting upon them.  When we can name the scripts at work and the principles that might lay behind them, so we can create a small sense of space to explore within. In being able to stand slightly Meta to these narratives, we can begin to consider the possibility of improvising new styles of interaction that allow different types of behaviour to be considered.

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Genogram, or Sigil; or both?

As you are reading this description of this style of work, I’m hoping that you as magically curious folks are beginning to spot parallels with some of the ritual processes that you are engaged in. Magic that has a focus on the initiatory transformation of Self almost inevitably has to engage with some of the baggage and conditioning that we have inherited. If my magic is focused on allowing more liberated and peaceful versions of who I am, then I will need to begin a process on naming those inherited scripts/thought forms/entities that I experience as limiting. Whether we describe this conditioning in terms of Tantric Kleshas (shells) that need breaking down, or as parasitic entities that need to be ritually contained, by magically externalising them, we create the possibility of engaging with them in a more creative manner.

This process of trying to understand repeating patterns of behaviour and how they have been manifested within an individual’s history has also been helpful in my own work with my ancestors. At the beginning of our monthly Zen Hearth we consciously honour “Our Gods, Our Ancestors and the Spirits of this Place” and like many people not every ancestral relationship is an easy one. For me, being able to take one step back in trying to understand the origins of difficult dynamics has allowed me to gain some insight on any positive values they have passed to me. This does not absolve anyone of abusive behaviour, but it does provide a potential opportunity for gaining a new and wider perspective.

For me the therapy room and the magical circle have a number of similarities. Hopefully both provide the opportunity for safe exploration, the gaining of insight and the potential for healing. Both of these environments invite us to take risks, but hopefully the scaffolding of solid theory and good practice allow us some degree of confidence in stepping out. In my experience, both work well when there is a high level of transparency about the process being undertaken and sensitivity to the dynamics of power at play.

Part of why I continue to describe myself as being as a magician as well as being a bit of a mystic, is that in contrast to some forms of mystical encounter, I work hard at naming and understanding the process of what I do. Yes emotional and/or mystical stuff may occur as a result of my framing of my ritual activity, but the scene setting and conscious structure of the work allows me a more conscious process of integration. I have lots of builders and crafts’ people in my family line, and although many of them might struggle with the strange path I have followed, I hope at least that they can appreciate my attention to detail!

SD

Getting Higher: On Coming Up

Well, after some years of writing and polishing the manuscript, incorporating feedback and observations for innumerable friends and allies, and spending long hours at the computer my, ahem, magnum opus, is ready for publication!

Phew!

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Check out the cool mandala on the cover!

While my name is on the cover, this work is another collaborative venture. It includes a range of strategies to hold and direct the psychedelic experience and many of these have been things I’ve learnt from shamans, witches, magicians and many others. I’ve been honoured to take part in ceremony with people who hold lineages in the use of psychedelic medicines going back thousands of years. I’ve also learnt methods from some fabulous people in the more modern esoteric schools of Thelema, Wicca, Druidry and Chaos Magic. What I offer in Getting Higher is my understanding of the wisdom of these various practitioners.

I’m also very pleased to have my practice and understanding informed by people working in the fields of medical and scientific research on psychedelics. I’m especially grateful to the organizers of Breaking Convention which biennially provides a conference of three days of glorious intellectual and cultural reflection on psychedelic consciousness. If you want to understand and connect with the emerging psychedelic renaissance then you need a ticket now.

I’m very pleased to have had the support of the wonderful Psychedelic Press UK, and their arch editor Nikki Wyrd. I’m also honoured to have the legendary Pete Loveday as the illustrator for the book. Pete is a wonderful chap and frankly something of childhood hero. His Plain Rapper and Big Bang comics in the latter part of the 20th century cast a wry psychoactive eye over the culture of festival scene, The Peace Convoy, drugs, and authoritarian Tory rule (plus ça change). All Pete’s work is hand painted and the detail of the design is amazing. If people are interested I’ll see if I can get prints (or even perhaps blotter art) sorted out.

We’re having a book launch at The October Gallery in London on the 25th of April and you are warmly invited. The evening will be convened by the phenomenal Dr David Luke who graciously provided the foreword for this book.

Advanced orders for Getting Higher are being taken now for a May 1st publication date. Kindle and all that jazz will follow in due course.

Eagle eyed visitors to this blog (and thank you gentle reader, we’ve had over quarter of a million views to date) will have spotted the Getting Higher link. This is where I’m hoping to post resources for people who are engaged in entheogenic ceremony. As it says on the page, if you want to contribute to these resources in any way please get in touch.

Finally another thank you. To all the medicine carriers, all the spirits, all the magic that surrounds us everyday. Whether we use entheogens to notice this magic, or breathwork, or silence, or gardening, or a thousand other ways, may we all wake to remember the wonder of the world. Thank you Great Mystery for this.

Ahoy!

JV

PS – here’s a video trailer for the book. Enjoy your marketing experience, and thank you 🙂

Witch on DMT – For Science!

DMT is an iconic substance; one of the central ingredients of the magical potion ayahuasca, fuel for the entrancing soliloquies of Terence McKenna and the beautiful art of Pablo Amaringo. This powerful psychedelic was also the one that the fabulous Nikki Wyrd was injected with at the winter solstice last year – for science!

Nikki was a participant in an experiment conducted at Imperial College, London. In due course I’m sure she will publish exactly what happened, but she can’t share much at the moment because the experiment is ongoing (and no one wants to mess up the data). Both physiological and psychological information was collected, as subjects had the chance to take this often highly visual psychedelic in a clinical setting. The aim is to understand more about how this substance operates, its potential to help us explore how the brain (and mind) works, and the mechanisms by which it exerts its possible therapeutic effects.

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Actual pics of Ms Wyrd as psychonaut to follow once the research is complete!

Now anyone who has been paying attention to the fact that substances such as DMT have regularly proved (for millennia) both philosophically useful (in terms of helping people explore consciousness) and healing (in various ‘traditional’ psychedelic cultures) may wonder why we need such research? There are several answers to this, including the strategic one; that increased licensed use of psychedelics may lead to a wider social acceptance that these are valuable, rather than dangerous, substances. Another reason is that detailed scientific studies (this year will see researchers injecting people with DMT whilst inside fMRI brain scanners) can help us measure and understand exactly what happens to DMT in the body.

Science helps us to learn real data, supportable facts, which sometime challenge our assumptions. For instance; in the case of DMT it now considered something of ‘fact’ that it is produced in the pineal gland. The notion that this most visionary of chemicals is made in the third-eye chakra is a pretty cool one. This idea may have originated as a conversational suggestion from Rupert Sheldrake, and appears as a conjecture in Rick Strassman’s seminal DMT The Spirit Molecule. It’s an idea that is not without merit and it has to be said that today, 20 years after Strassman’s work, there is still research to be done on the chemistry of the pineal (at least judging by a kitchen conversation between Ben Sessa and David Luke I was party to a couple of weeks ago). However even if the pineal gland does make DMT, it appears unlikely that it could be the main source of endogenous DMT. That honour, it seems, belongs not to the ajna chakra but instead to the lungs.

A chemical cascade involving the enzyme INMT, which is always present in the lungs, could produce DMT in amounts  sufficient to create significant alterations in consciousness. The location of DMT production in the lungs also points towards an answer for why we have DMT in our bodies (and the bodies of many, many other living things) in the first place. It could be, as per the mythology, that DMT is there in order to let us crash into a universe of elves in order to impressed by their dazzling non-Euclidian architecture. It could perhaps have been encoded into us by some ancient alien race from Sirius or wherever, or sharpening Occam’s razor, or it could be something much more pragmatic and important to our biology.

What DMT is for in the body is the subject of some fascinating research by the charming Dr Ede Frecska. If you watch his video (filmed at Breaking Convention in 2015) you will get to hear what, for my money, is one of the best opening lines of any presentation on psychedelics: “I have a dream to have DMT in an ampule for IV use in every operating room, every intensive care unit, and every emergency vehicle.”

It appears that DMT acts to stop cells dying, it slows damage caused by oxidative stress and that’s why it is one of the few substances which are actively transported across the blood-brain barrier in humans (the others are glucose and vitamin C). As Ede explains in his engaging lecture there is a clear (and testable) chemical pathway, focused around the lungs, for our bodies to make DMT and for it to be rapidly absorbed by the brain for its neuroprotective benefits.

This scientific insight has lots of fascinating consequences. It means, for example, that we have a clear physiological mechanism by which the body could be flooded by psychedelic DMT at birth, perhaps at death, and when the body is under oxidative stress. Knowing this perhaps adds an additional layer to our understanding of the power of breathwork. Ritual practices such as full immersion baptism and many other body technologies for changing awareness may also make use of our endogenous DMT, encouraging the lungs to allow this psychedelic to persist in the bloodstream from where it is actively gobbled up by the brain.

I wonder whether the subjective effects of DMT echo what is going on at a cellular level? I wonder whether all those fractals, faces and, for some, the deep sense of the reality of the experience, is something that serves to stimulate us when we are in trouble? Small amounts of exogenous DMT certainly increase attentiveness, so maybe the call to ‘sit up and pay attention’ in the DMT trance is a turned up version of a biologically rooted ‘hey! Pull yourself together!’. At higher levels of endogenous DMT, the creation of an internal landscape, of the type we might encounter in the exogenous DMT trance, could be a property that serves to keep the operating system of consciousness running (i.e. awareness of an apparently objective external world) while the hardware (the brain) is under stress. Maybe DMT space is what the brain does until it can reboot, a hyperdimensional screensaver before normal consciousness comes back online? It is also interesting that current research suggests that DMT may have a directly healing effect on the brain (probably through its effect on the sigma-1 receptor).

Whether the effect of DMT on subjective experience is something that has been evolutionarily selected for, or whether it’s just one of those wacky epiphenomena (or the work of hyper-dimensional aliens…), is open to question. What is perhaps more certain, given recent research, is that those visitations by Guardian Angels, ancestors and other imaginal beings in moments of physical crisis (such as near drowning) could be visions made accessible by the production of DMT in the body. (Note, this isn’t the same as saying these things are not ‘real’ – whatever that means, see my article on the subject).

Many wonderful scientific insights into psychedelic substances will be presented later this year at the mother of all psychedelic conferences Breaking Convention. The lastest scientific investigations, funded by groups such as MAPS, The Beckley Foundation, and others, will bring cutting edge information to the conference. Add to this a goodly assortment of psychonauts, independent researchers, historians, shamans and others, and you’ve got a powerful psychedelic potion indeed! I’m pleased to know that some of the scientific data I’ll be hearing about will have been gathered with the help of practising spiritual psychonauts such as Ms Wyrd (who, probably, as a result of many years spent in meditation, was able to remain perfectly still during her DMT assay, producing electroencephalogram readings that were, according to the researchers, ‘impeccable’).

Finally, I hope and indeed pray that we can, as psychedelics ask us to do, keep our minds open as science and magic meet in our renewed quest to understand how best to use these marvelous substances.

Ahoy!

JV

STOP PRESS! More science news; a few hours before releasing this blogpost, a paper revealing the crystal structure of the human 5-HT2B receptor bound to LSD was published. Yet another speck to add to our ever-growing pile of knowledge.