Surreal Witchcraft

While scholars and practitioners may continue to debate the degree to which the transcripts of the Witch trials can be viewed as axiomatic in relation to what Witches actually did, they do seem to highlight the centrality of dreaming to the Witches’ path.

To travel to the Sabbat was to enter the realm of dreams. We might to choose to frame this as a form of astral travel or a salve-induced hypnopompic experience, but it seems that to be a Witch meant that the nighttime became a liminal zone in which the fuzzy edges of consciousness were utilized for the work of magic.

The nocturnal dream journeys of the Witch embody a cognitive liberty that refuses to be imprisoned, despite the efforts of the authoritarian oppressor. However they might seek to enforce their orthodoxies or to harm and torture the body, the spirit of the Witch struggled hard in refusing the limitation of their chains. For me these heretical heroes were seen as threatening due to the way in which they embodied a more authentic and visceral humanity more connected to the sexual and the wild.

The sabbatic revelries of the Witch were almost certainly located as much in the projections of their oppressors as they were in actual practice, and yet even here we can sense the potency and strangeness of the unconscious realm. The fevered imaginings of Malleus Maleficarum with its violent suppression, reflect a sadism born of suppression. I cannot help but see the reports of the inquisitors as a distorted mirror image of the type of freedom that they secretly longed for.

The depictions of the Witches’ Sabbat are often simultaneously sensual and grotesque. They are at once conclaves of perversity and yet in their depiction they often unconsciously capture a male gaze that holds both disgust and longing. Such images seem to reflect the sense of internal conflict at work in the inquisitorial eye, and the potentially queering, alchemical impact that such perceptions of perversity can induce. In her work Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed observes:

Perversion is also a spatial term, which can refer to the wilful determination to counter or go against orthodoxy, but also to what is wayward and thus “turned away from what is right, good and proper.” For some queer theorists, this is what makes “the perverse” a useful starting point for thinking about the “disorientations” of queer, and how it can contest not only heternormative assumptions, but also social conventions and orthodoxies in general. Page 78.

For me the archetype of the Witch is innately bonded to the queer, the twisted and the perverse. In its raw nocturnal sensuality, it challenges attempts at control, and it organises itself into cells of practice for those bold enough to seek their own power and self-definition outside of the bounds of convention. The possible/partial etymology of Wicce being “to twist or bend”, for me points toward the willful pursuit of a non-straight and less linear approach.

The Witch is the dream dweller par excellence and as such they provide us (whether Witch identified or not) with a form of surreal inspiration that when embraced allows the possibility of greater queerness and greater self-transformation. To gain access to this realm, we must dare the lucid sleep where we utilize the less-filtered reality of our dreams.

The character of the Witch within the Surrealist canon is probably embodied most vividly in the work of Leonora Carrington. We have already considered the centrality of her work in manifesting that strange space between dreams and waking, male and female, real and surreal. For me her work pushes hard against the attempts of orthodoxy to contain and control the power of the female imagination.

For Carrington, the Witch embodies the figure willing to bend and distort the known and the orthodox. The richness of her many years in Mexico provided her with a vibrant example of how to meld the Catholicism of her upbringing with her own, deeper magical impulses. Her time spent with Curandera and in exploring the mythology of pre-conquest beliefs of the Maya, inspired her own journey in synthesising both Catholic and Celtic/Native British currents; as Susan Aberth observes:

This combination of the heretical with the orthodox exemplifies the multiplicity of belief systems the artist is dedicated to preserving as part of the suppressed history of female spirituality. Page 126, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.

Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen

Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975

In exploring the power of the Witch, Carrington depicts the magical circle and the Kitchen as being able to sit within the same space. For Carrington it feels that her work as a magician dissolves any dualism between artistic creation, nurture and sorcerous realms. When pursuing such integration the visible and invisible, the known and the occult inter-penetrate each other as a manifestation of a truly earthed divinity:

By transforming the domestic table into a sacramental altar Carrington creates a feminine sacred space that links worlds, providing access to multiple states of consciousness while collapsing the hierarchies that have prevented a more inclusive vision of spiritual possibilities. Ibid.

The nocturnal realm of the Witch is one in which the quiet of night’s darkness allows us more space to tune in. With day’s labour done, the hearth invites us to rest, engage and feel the edges of the coming dream-sleep. This is the place that the Witch beckons to; a place where the busy cognitions of bright sunlight are left to simmer.

Carrington’s work depicts a form of alchemy truly plugged in to chthonic power. Her Witchcraft rejects a false dichotomy between folk-magical practice and the depths of spiritual transformation. For her the Celtic Sidhe that inhabit much of her work are both the spirits of the earth and the holders of alchemy’s secrets. With the incoming of a Roman Christianity hell-bent on homogenization, the old gods choose to go underground and inhabit those mounds or “Sid” that still hold such allure for those drawn to the serpentine energy of the land. If we risk reconnection to such power, transformation becomes possible in a way that rejects false dualities, and allows creation from a place of deep rootedness.

SD

 

 

 

Recovering the Healing Ecstasy – The Return of Psychedelic Medicine (to the West)

These days have been called the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ and for good reason. Over the last few years licensed research, conferences, publications and (positive) mainstream media coverage about psychedelics has been popping up like, well, magic mushrooms. There are less well publicized contributory factors to this in the underground too. Across the world the Medicine Community (i.e. people making use of psychedelics as entheogens or sacraments in their own spiritual practice) has been dramatically increasing in number. The gathering of tens of thousands of people in Oregon for the recent total eclipse is just one example. Elsewhere the underground is currently blessed with the availability of excellent quality MDMA and LSD (so I’m told). The recent draconian and bonkers legislation against psychoactives in the UK has been shown to be deeply flawed… can this Third Summer of Love get any better?

The answer is ‘yes’!

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Fulfilling the prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor.

Something major, indeed an event of seismic proportions, has just happened. In the USA the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized MDMA therapy as a breakthrough treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This amazing leap forward for (legal) psychedelic medicine has been brought to you by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The cultural space in which this remarkable volte-face (from the American criminalization of MDMA in 1985, to its recognition as a valid, safe and highly effective therapeutic agent) has been nurtured by many organisations and individuals; from research bodies such as the Beckley Foundation, pressure groups such as Transform, and many individual acts of advocacy and (to use a religious metaphor) people bearing witness to the value of the psychedelic experience (even at great personal risk).

The announcement by MAPS (covered here by CBS) marks a sea-change in the story-line of Western medicine, one that picks up the amazing work being done by researchers in the early days of late 20th century psychedelic science. More broadly the recognition of MDMA as a breakthrough therapy represents an official validation of what I would describe as a shamanic practice. The point about MDMA therapy is that it’s not a case of prescribing Ecstasy to patients and letting them get on with it. The therapeutic protocol developed by MAPS researchers includes both ‘MDMA assisted’ and non-MDMA psychotherapy sessions. MDMA theapists are given this empathogenic and entactogenic medicine as part of their training, gaining an experiential understanding of the space their patient will be in. (I’m not sure how many psychiatrists have tried electroconvulsive therapy in order to better understand their patients experience).

With one or more skilled healers present, the sessions, both psychedelic and non-psychedelic, are carefully supported and guided. This process, the intelligent management of psychedelic Set and Setting to promote healing, is exactly what a shaman does. In the case of treating PTSD the therapists help the patient to remember their trauma and to find new ways to orientate themselves in relation to past difficult experiences. Whether this process is imagined as a species of shamanic soul retrieval or a way of inducing the optimum arousal state for therapy, the point is that the therapists are accompanying the patient on a psychedelic-supported healing journey. They are psychedelic shamanic psychopomps; and the FDA recognizes that this process works!

This announcement is significant in that it will hasten the development and deployment of MDMA assisted therapy in the USA and hopefully in Europe too. It also marks the return of not only legal psychedelic research but of approved psychedelic therapy. With the exception of the first wave of research, following the discovery of LSD, this return is the first time since the days of the Eleusinian mysteries that mainstream culture has openly embraced the healing potential of the psychedelic journey. Given the record-breaking levels of mental illness in our culture the return of this profound and very effective method of healing has come (to quote Terence McKenna) ‘not a moment too soon’.

The great irony of this story is that a medicine that entered our culture at the end of the 20th century, which made people want to dance and love each other, is only now being permitted back into legal use because so many in our society are damaged by abuse and war. There is a black humor in this, or perhaps a magical, alchemical narrative. But however we understand what is going on, and whatever our preferred terminology, this Third Summer of Love may finally be a time when our culture honestly engages with the healing potential of the psychedelic experience.

To again quote Mr McKenna, “we’re not dropping out here, we’re infiltrating and taking over’.

JV

Divine Androgyne (Part 3): Monstrous Alchemy

The impact of Queer experience on the ideal of androgyny is a truly disruptive one. Gone are our neat Kabbalistic flow charts and clear cut Neoplatonic stages of descent. In contrast to these linear sequences, this Queered Androgyny is an ever oscillating, multi-directional chaos-star whose many rays can be simultaneously moving both outward in expression and engagement, and inward in reflection and self-nurture.

This principle of Androgyny is fed as much by the lived experience of unique, individual Androgynous people as it is by the realm of aspirational metaphysics. It as much as about the creativity of the Radical Faery and Butch Lesbian as it about Adam Kadmon or Ardhanarisvara. For me, to work with this form of Androgyny means to acknowledge both a dialectical process that seeks to capture the world of ideal forms, while at the same time experiencing a dialogical reality in which a multitude of positions need to be held together without a necessary resolution.

Ardhanarishvara

‘Can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl’

To seek deep benefit in engaging with these ideas and images seems to require that we tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. So often this form of doubt, confusion and psychological tension is seen as a negative or a hindrance to spiritual development and yet I believe this does not need to be case. For those of us seeking to walk an occult path, we are often called upon to make use of emotions and methods which our exoteric cousins view as dangerous or retrograde. If however we are able to engage consciously with the sense of resistance experienced in grappling with the complexity of such dialogues, then this very tension can bring about alchemical change.

If the stated aim of magical work is to create change, it would seem somewhat odd to then resist the transformation when it comes; and yet in my own life this has so often been the case. Change can happen at many levels and impact both how we experience ourselves and how we engage in relationships with others. Often the routes to change are manifested in dilemmas, loss and conflict, and the keys we need are to be found in attending to the strangeness of our dreams and the currents of the unconscious made manifest in our Art.

This is the unconscious territory that the Surrealists were so adept in exploring in their work, with the strange often jarring images revealing aspects of self that were bizarre, blurred and often monstrous. In alchemical terms this connection to the unconscious and the shadow represent the stage of nigredo or “blackening”. For the surrealists such territory was vital to their artistic inspiration and similarly for our magical work to have any really depth or sustained power, we must tap into this libidinal black flame of inspiration.

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Leonora Carrington Inn of the Dawn Horse

We have already explored something of the fertile intersect that exists between Surrealism and the artistic deployment of occult ideas and images. Themes as diverse the etheric double, the daemonic and the Witches’ sabbat were explored to varying degrees and there seems to be a significant connection between this use of magical themes and the often weird animalistic characters with which they populated their artistic landscapes.

The link between the magical, the animal and the potentially Queer is present in much Surrealist work and for me the most engaging aspects of such exploration, lies in the way in which it seems to capture that zone of liminal strangeness and mystery. The Surrealist imagination was alive to potency to be found in understanding the animal (whether actual or in more mythic forms) as a way of recontacting the sensual and instinctual realms that weave through the body. For me this wilder magic seems to connect to an almost pre-verbal stage of development that resonates with Spare’s idea of “atavistic resurgence”.

The folklore of the Lycan and Vampyre point us towards a magical worldview in which we can explore the vitality gained through a deeper connection to the visceral. Similarly the Witches’ animal familiar the “Fetch”, or the animal-dimension of Norse soul-lore breach our polite attempts to conceive of a humanity devoid of wildness.

In contrast to the clean, vertical fusing of Ardhanrisvara, the truly Queer genius of Levi’s depiction of Baphomet is partly located in the way in which the animal sits alongside the male and female. In trying to work with our own processes of dissolving and coming back together, Baphomet’s animal dimensions remind us of the power, joy and danger that can be accessed when we risk tuning into the whole of ourselves.

My own attempts to access these states has come via bodywork, dance/shaking states and prolonged trance drumming. I have also had a great deal of pleasure revisiting Gordon MacLellan’s excellent book Sacred Animals which provides some excellent practical guidance for exploring these themes. The ability to inhabit these places feels vital for those of us seeking to embody both freethinking and the magic of the Queer. These places beyond binaries and old certainties rarely allow prolonged rest, but they are undoubtedly transformational!

SD

 

 

 

 

 

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.

crowley

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.

sessa

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.

leonard

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.

JV

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.

troop

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.

hat

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.

kyk

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.

wood

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”. 

Casey-1

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

The Psychedelic Museum: Celebrating the Summers of Love at Breaking Convention

This gallery contains 17 photos.

Originally posted on the psychedelic museum:
Rather like the psychedelic experience itself, Breaking Convention (BC) is a whirlwind of stimulating new ideas, interconnections and ramifying insights, a place to have preconceptions challenged, and a place to celebrate. This biennial, always sell-out conference on psychedelic research and experience, is a wondrous melting pot of influences. In…

Divine Androgyne (Part 2) : Androgyny as Spiritual Ideal

For me (unsurprisingly) combining both Queerness and a gnostic approach to religious exploration reveals considerable overlaps. It is my belief that our experience of being an Outsider can be encountered in a number of different parts of our lives at any given moment, and that insights gained or progress made can benefit the wider story of how we live and experience our lives.

The concept of Androgyny as a religious aspiration can be found in a multitude of cultural settings and across a vast period of time. Authors such as June Singer and Mircea Eliade have produced highly valuable work documenting the wide range of spiritual contexts that have sought to explore Androgyny as both an expression of cosmological wholeness and as a goal of personal integration.

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We like dancing and we look divine…

Geographically it spans pretty much the entire globe (Australasia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas) and encompasses traditions as diverse as Tantra, Judaic Kabbalah, Hermetic Alchemy and a variety of Native animistic traditions. Eliade highlights that the employment of the Androgyny as an organizing idea has an enduring resonance due to the way it simultaneously points toward the primal unity of opposites (often in a numinous pre-historical realm), while at the same time trying to map the process of human development.  Part of its ongoing appeal seems to be the way in which it seeks to hold in parallel our Gnostic longings concerning divinity, and our own experience of psychological transformation. The wholeness of all binaries held in tension within a single being  offering us the hope that our own ennui will be soothed via our own internal marriage of opposites.

In her seminal Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty goes some way in identifying the possible range of androgynous forms as represented in religious and mythical iconography. In this highly valuable work she examines the Androgyny as a manifestation of aspirational unity (“fusing”) e.g. Ardhanarisvara, and of chaos (“splitting”) e.g. the necessary differentiation enacted via puberty rituals. The ideal of fusing can be seen as having many resonances with Jung’s goal of integrating the contra-sexual self (Anima/Animus) while the desire for reverting to an undifferentiated pre-creation has some parallels to Freud’s primal wish for death.

In trying to garner such an overview we will always struggle to contain the complexity of such a topic as it seeks to engage with both the mythic archetype and the lived reality of how gender non-conformity is manifested in day-to day human existence. While the highly balanced “vertical” androgyny of Arhanarisvara may represent an iconographic and aspirational success as an embodiment of fusing, for me the messier, potentially Queerer movement in, out and back through multiple identities, may hold as much value as manifestations how we actually live with the tensions of binaries. Those trickster stories of amputated penises and ecstatic cross-dressing may come closer to embodying the type of embraced imperfection or “Queer failure” (see Judith Halberstam’s work) that makes our lives more possible.

For me Androgyny has a vital role in pointing us towards the occult, the enigmatic and the hidden. The Androgyne’s weird complexity offers the possibility of both transcendence of the erotic (via the nullified eunuch) and at the other extreme a vast realm of erotic possibility when unchecked by the natural limitation of childbirth. In the projected fantasies of its viewer the hermaphrodite’s complex sexual possibility is both potentially alluring and terrifying. To engage with them may result in a cornucopia of new sensual experiences and/or our ultimate destruction via their alien genitalia. They become avatars of Baphomet in being both sex and death, our dissolving and coming back together.

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Rebel, rebel…

The Eunuch as an androgyne also presents us with a type of dialogical tension in which story and fantasy intersect. Via their various degrees of genital nullification they may represent both a state of idealised asexuality or a perfect servant who while safely sterile is also the potential recipient of other people’s penetrative activity. The chaste harem attendant and Hijra sex worker represent both ends of this dichotomy, but in both cases they hold a magic in that their very presence is potentially unsettling and disruptive.

In the gospel of Matthew chapter, Jesus made the observation:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it. (Matthew 19:12)

Androgynes of either nature or via human creation disturb our perception of what we think of as natural. If we also account for the broad range of folks who would embrace some form of Transgender identity we also see a vast number of possible responses (changes pursued in external presentation, surgery, hormones and psychology). The magical potential of the Androgyne for me lies in the sense of uncertainty that they induce. This sense of liminality may attract or repel depending on our own level of comfort around self exploration and our ability to sit with not knowing. Often this feels connected to the distance between Androgyny as an idealised spiritual icon and the messier reality of Androgyne as a Queer embodiment. This lived experience for me feels richer, more complex and a more creative expression of individual creativity.

For me the ongoing value of Androgyny as a spiritual goal or organizing principle lies in its ability to be challenged and informed by the reality of Queer lives. This dialogue between the distant ideal and the flux-state of day-to-day creativity is one that we need to keep working with. Let’s keep talking!

SD