High Speech – from ‘illegal drugs’ to psychedelic sacraments

As summer slips away from the northern hemisphere and we head towards the equinox, we can gather up the sunshine of the bright part of the year and use it to nourish us as we descend into the darkness.

One of the high points this summer for me was Breaking Convention. This year 1,500 people gathered at The University of Greenwich for a three day conference consisting of over 300 different talks and events. Cutting edge virtual reality installations, cinema, stalls, art exhibitions, workshops, five parallel tracks of lectures and much more! As is traditional some of the finest moments unfolded on the lawns beside the Greenwich meridian line in the form of scintillating conversations between leading scientists, shaman, medics, ethnographers and many others. A new university building provided the setting for three amazing nights of entertainment, the high point of which for me was a set by the magnificent Henge.

 

As we move towards the mainstreaming of psychedelic medicine we can see the discourse around these substances changing in a big way. As this happens it can be helpful to begin to unpick some of the erroneous language foisted on the psychedelic community as a result of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. The words we use play an important role in how we think and act, so it’s worth remembering the simple fact that illegal drugs do not exist. While it’s a common figure of speech to talk about, for example, LSD being ‘illegal’, the law can only apply to human actions. One can be permitted in law to manufacture, distribute and possess LSD (for example if you are a research scientist) but if you’re not permitted to do so by the State then it’s the act that’s criminal not the molecule.

The insidious illusion of ‘illegal drugs’ is very powerful, even for professionals in the field. When I asked the therapists at Kings College, during my recent participation as a research subject, which of them had taken psilocybin one researcher suggested that they couldn’t answer that question without effectively admitting to have broken the law. However, as I explained at the time, this isn’t the case as psilocybin isn’t illegal in itself. Rather people can be permitted—or not—by law to handle, possess, supply etc a ‘controlled substance’. In Kings College we weren’t breaking the law, as the mushroom medicine was being used in a licensed setting. While this issue may seem like something of legal nicety it has major impacts for the way we think about psychedelic and psychoactive substances. If nothing else in a recent governmental form I was asked: “Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?” to which I was cheerfully and categorically able to answer ‘no’.

All the presentations from Breaking Convention 2019 are being uploaded to our YouTube channel; stay tuned and subscribed so you can catch the 140 plus talks from the cutting edge of psychedelic culture as they go online. Here’s my presentation, the text of which you can read on this blog.

 

I was also really pleased to be on stage with collector Mark McCloud and Monkey aka Paul Guest the leading producer of blotter art. Mark took us on an erudite exploration of LSD packaging and acid counter-culture, while Monkey, ably assisted by BC Director Aimée Tollanran an auction of rare blotter art in aid of Breaking Convention. In addition to publishing and organizing the conference Breaking Convention also provides grants to support students and researchers.

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Blotter and Badges

 

As the northern hemisphere mushroom season arrives a new edition of the Psychedelic Press Journal is about to come to fruition. Readers will be treated to an essay on the magical use of solanaceous suffumigations  (much easier to evoke those Goetic spirits with a little datura in the censer), 19th century hashish eating in the USA, and an excerpt from the story of Michael Hollingshead, the subject of a new book Divine Rascal by leading psychedelic historian Andy Roberts. Meanwhile I’m taking part in the an online international Psilocybin Summit. If you’d like to join me for my talk ‘A User’s Guide to Psychedelic Ceremony’ please follow the link to sign up. On the Deep Magic events page you can also find details of the Trans-States conference at which Nikki and I will be speaking, my appearance across the pond in Seattle for the Three Hands Press Texts and Traditions Colloquium, and in October my psychedelic magic workshop at Treadwell’s in London.

Wishing you fabulous Fall and mushrooming success!

Julian Vayne

Tribes get High: power, practice and politics in the Psychedelic Renaissance

A lecture for Breaking Convention 2019

I’d like to share my experience as a volunteer in an experiment that took place earlier this year. You’ll hear my story as well as reflections from my perspective as both research participant and ceremonialist  on the issue of the medicalization of psychedelic substances. For those for whom some of the issues around medicalized psychedelics may be new this paper,is also available on my blog with links to relevant texts.

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Wellcome Volunteer

The date is Thursday the 17th of January, my third visit to the King’s College Hospital Clinical Research Facility in the London Borough of Southwark as a medical study participant. Today the research team would be dosing volunteers with an experimental medication intended to  help people suffering from treatment resistant depression, a drug called psilocybin. 

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Psychedelic Spirit

Having checked with the researchers it was okay, I’d brought a ‘lucky mascot’ along for the ride. ‘Izawa’ is the name given to the spirit who works for ‘the liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings’. A circle of chaos magicians in northern England created – or perhaps contacted – this entity in 2011 fashioning a representation of the spirit as part of their ceremony. 

Today this ally would accompany me on my trip. 

Participation in the trial had meant reducing my use of substances that might compromise the research. Since the December solstice I’d eschewed what, in the language of contemporary medicine are  ‘drugs of abuse’. This includes methamphetamine, heroin and cannabis (only one of these three was an issue for me) but somewhat ironically not tobacco or alcohol. It was now January and I enjoyed being ‘straight edge’ for science for over a month. 

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Eyes and feels

Days before the dosing session I’d undergone detailed physical and psychiatric assessments. This necessitated completing various standardized, somewhat repetitive, questionnaires: are you feeling suicidal? (‘no’), have you thought about any means of committing suicide (‘no’), have you thought about where you might commit suicide (‘er…no’).  Through to questions intended to identify Schizotypal personality disorder such as “Have you ever seen things invisible to other people?” (‘look, I know what you’re getting at here so, in the context of this evaluation, no’). 

Blood and urine and physical tests had confirmed the absence of any  drugs in my body. My general health was fine: we were all systems go. 

The day before dosing I’d met the team of therapists who would be working with me and five other volunteer subjects. The therapists were an international cohort of mixed ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds all smiling, all clearly fascinated with the idea of psychedelic psychotherapy. 

We assembled in the ward where, the following day, we would take the medicine. 

One of the researchers explained how about 15 minutes after taking the drug, if we had received what they called the ‘active dose’ we might notice something:

“When you are wearing the eye-shades”, they explained “at first it will; be just like normal. Then after a while, if you have had the active dose, it will be as if you are looking into space, perhaps a space filled with stars or even images.” A  delightfully simple and gentle way of describing the powerful visionary experiences that psilocybin can induce. 

“If you find places in the experience that are dark or difficult don’t be afraid” they further counselled us. “The darkness is where the treasure lies, follow it and find the treasure”, more elegantly simple instructions, clearly from someone who knew this territory well. Our instructor amplified this advice by repeating the core message (some might say mantra or charm); ‘go in and through’. We were introduced us to a simple breathing pattern that would help the process; breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4 then breath out for a count of 8. 

The confidentiality of the session, housekeeping, safety, and other matters were all addressed and I left feeling confident that the experience would be held well by the team. I didn’t sleep  much that night though. I was too excited. For me this event represented many things. It was a concrete opportunity to help in a process that I’ve worked for, in my own way, for many years. To help manifest what my magical colleagues from the north described as the ‘liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings’. 

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A walk in the park

I arrived early on dosing day and made my way to a park adjacent to the hospital where I planned to do some tai chi, and generally spent time with the trees.

As I sat in the park I was visited by a robin, a bird which is a totem for my Dad who passed away a few years ago. I’d been with him during his final days. Prior to my participation in this experiment that was the last time I was in a hospital setting. I greeted this welcome visitor and asked for its blessing.

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Setting up the setting

Once in the research department I chatted amiably with the receptionist.  A nurse was busy preparing the ward in which six of us would simultaneously dosed. The window blinds were closed and lamps resembling candles glowed softly beside each bed. Large pale coloured rugs were laid on the floor to minimize the sound of footsteps and make the place feel as cozy as possible. Silk flowers decorated the room, a picture book of botanic illustrations by each bedside. Vaporisers gently perfumed the air with sandalwood. Screens were unfolded behind the beds, decorated with an abstract design reminiscent of dappled sunlight. I installed Izawa at my bedside and introduced the spirit to the person who would be my sitter, a smiling, thoughtful young man I’d met the previous day. I popped a catkin gathered from the park into one of the tubular structures protruding from Izawas’s body. 

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Atu X

That morning I had drawn a tarot card, The Wheel of Fortune, an apposite symbol. This study was double blind; neither researchers nor volunteers would know whether participants would receive a placebo, or 10mg of synthetic psilocybin, or the ‘active dose’ or 25mg.

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Pot luck

The Wheel of Fortune spins; the nurse moves to each bedside, opening the randomly selected medicine pots, pouring their contents into tiny paper cups at each bedside.

The researcher who had so thoughtfully described the psilocybin experience the previous day reminded us of the breathing pattern:  In for a count of four, hold for four, out for eight, relax. Accept what arises and go ‘in and through’. 

I cradled the paper medicine pot in my hands, made a prayer over the contents and swallowed the cluster of tiny pills. Putting on the headphones and eye mask I lay down and relaxed and waited. 

The music was a classical piano piece,  deeply textured and beautiful. I listened intently.

I’d only had a light breakfast and knew that if this was an active dose, I’d start to feel something within 20 minutes.

Then it started. 

Something was happening, that unmistakable sensation of the wyrd and the wonderful. This was at least 10 milligrams. Quickly I revised my estimate upwards; this was the ‘active dose’.  Fortuna had smiled.

With eye-shades on and the music playing I began to sing quietly as I lay on the bed while rushes of energy moved through my body. Little flutterings and stutterings and twitches and yawning, the kind of effects I’ve come to expect with this medicine.  As the music changed to drum beats and textured electronic sounds, I found myself rapidly ascending into the psychedelic state. 

The trip was profoundly influenced by my setting. Not the calm room, transformed from daytime ward into twilight psychedelic ceremonial space, but the very fact that I was in a hospital. I brought to mind the people I’d seen in the days during the preparatory sessions in its corridors: harassed looking medics, confused visitors, earnestly conversing relatives, patients – their bodies sprouting tubes  – being pushed on beds between wards . I felt repeated shivers of energy moving through me and wondered if I was somehow detecting the bustling auric field of the place. The injured arriving in blue-lit, siren-shrieking vehicles, patients receiving their life-changing news, people dying, people being born.

My body twitched and danced, an organic layer lying orthogonal to a stream of energy connecting heaven and the deep that was my whole being. Yellow hi visibility jacketed police thronged my inner vision. Here I was, legally taking psilocybin in the heart of London while out there the police, who of course, have got much better things to do, were tasked with busting people for using the same substance that I had consumed in a licensed setting.

This tension had a personal relevance. I thought about my Mum, who worked as a nurse in Accident and Emergency for over a quarter of century. Of my Dad who had been both a military medic and a senior member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. I thought of how this therapy might help members of my own family were it to be accessible in a conventional medical context. Perhaps they could then benefit from the psychedelic insights and healing that I’ve discovered in ‘traditional’ and underground settings?

My sitter was immediately and gently by my side as I removed the headphones, eye-shades and sat up in order to visit the bathroom. The short corridor from the ward to the toilet was dimly lit with LED nightlights. Once inside I regarded myself briefly in the full-length mirror. Yep, eyes like saucers. Returning to the ward I glanced through the window. Outside the car park was full of scurrying people, ambulances, police cars and taxis. I was tripping pretty hard as the carpet undulated beneath me. I quipped to my sitter, “It’s about 3am in this club!’ He grinned. 

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25mg later…

We’d taken the medicine at 10:30am and by 3:45pm  I was beginning to come down. By 4pm I was sitting up in bed, eye shades and headphones off, the music quietly audible through speakers in the room. I glanced at the other beds. One person seemed to have left – I guessed they’d received the placebo. Another volunteer was weeping. This individual was being ably supported by their sitter. Their tears had a gentle cathartic quality, soon replaced with wry laughter at the cosmic joke of it all. Later I discovered that this volunteer has never taken any psychedelic drugs before. 

I poured myself some water, sitting up on the bed, my blanket wrapped around me. In my imagination I offered the water to the important people in my life. Wishing that all beings could have access to clean water. I sprinkled a little on the floor and acknowledged the spirit of the place before finally taking a sip. Turning to my sitter I asked; “Is there any tea on this spaceship?’ he smiled and went to prepare a brew.

Later I ate, breaking my fast with fruit and salad and bread. As evening fell I was interviewed by the team, provided my initial reflections on the experience, and was pronounced fit to go. 

The other volunteer who also appeared to have received the ‘active dose’ and I were last to leave. We spoke for a while as they waited for their taxi. “It was like I could see it all,” they said “all the past and future, all the connections. All the horror and all the beauty and even the joke of it all. It was amazing!” 

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Festival wristband

And so it is, this psychedelic state. This remarkable form of awareness where our minds perceive the embodied truth that ‘everything is interconnected’.  And while this realization may be ecstatic it may also provide us with challenging material – and to meet these challenges we need to consider the wider context of my trip in the hospital that day.

The King’s College Hospital Clinical Research Facility is funded by the National Institute for Health Research who get their cash primarily from the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care and also by The Wellcome Institute, that is Big Pharma. The trial I specifically participated in was funded by Compass Pathways, a for-profit company developing psilocybin therapy in Europe and North America. These facts may give us pause for thought.

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Voices of doom

Today there are commentators in the psychedelic community who are moved to warn us about the problematic aspects of psychedelic medicalization. Some have wondered if the whole psychedelic renaissance is doomed (though they remain happy to sell their books, artworks or workshops to us as it crumbles). In the opinion of some pundits by taking part in this trial I am at least a dupe if not an active conspirator in a sinister deep state plot.  

Now we should certainly aware of how sociopathic tendencies in our culture may wish to deploy these drugs. History teaches us how the Roman military encouraged the culture of wine drinking in order to subdue barbarian tribes. We may recall the deplorable tale of how in the 19th century the British East India company weaponized opium against the Chinese Empire and there are those more recent attempts in the 20th century to weaponize mescaline, LSD and the rest.  These days may fear that we shall become numb to our pain; medicated with Mac Mindfulness and anesthetized by esketamine nasal spray, docile, unable and unwilling to rise up again oppression. These fears need to be acknowledged as entirely plausible –  for the Moksha medicine of Huxley’s Island to become the debilitating Soma of his Brave New World

We also know that simply using psychedelics does not necessarily make you a good person. On a scale smaller than that of shadowy governmental departments, things can go very wrong within the psychedelic community. One may take iboga and only come away with pinchbeck revelations, or encounter shocking abuses while under the influence of toad venom. These bad things happen well outside of state actors. It is therefore essential that – as people who love and appreciate these substances – we are alert and ready to address such problems in compassionate and intelligent ways, wherever they emerge.

Concerns about the medicalization and state use of psychedelics seems most often expressed by people (as far as I can tell predominantly white men)  living in The United States of America. This makes sense to me. The USA is a nation with a proud tradition of individual liberty, an impressive pioneering spirit and wary attitude towards governmental power. It is also a nation with many serious challenges and wounds which express themselves in draconian drug laws, rampant militarism, and in my view a, barbaric and economically exploitative approach to medicine. Meanwhile psilocybin and MDMA treatments in the UK will be delivered through the National Health Service making them free of charge at the point of provision. I therefore wonder if the fears of capitalist exploitation of psychedelics in the USA would be better addressed not by problematizing developments in psychedelic medicine but by campaigning for accessible healthcare in that nation. 

While some commentators rail against any state involvement in psychedelics it’s worth remembering that some of these sacraments were originally products of commercial enterprise. Big Pharma, for all it’s faults, gave us psychedelic medicine too.  And though we may distrust the re-emergence of a licensed capitalist psychedelic economy (which we should remember existed in the early and mid 20th century) these medicines cannot remain underground and only available to wealthy guys, rolling around on Adam in the privileged playgrounds of Esalen and Burning Man

However I don’t believe that physicians should be the only people with a lawful right to use these drugs and admitting psychedelics into medicine settings should, in my view, go hand in hand with other changes to make these substances more widely accessible.  

As someone who lives in one of the most oppressive and closely monitored countries in the world (the UK) I appreciate the American appetite for decentralization and personal liberty. I support moves to change the laws around psychedelic drugs, and in some respects America is leading the way through developments such as the vote to decriminalize entheogenic plants in Oakland. That people should have access to psychedelics in settings other than medical ones is obvious, especially to those like me who use these substances in ceremonial and recreational settings.  There is no reason why the shaman and the scientist and the clinician and the private individual could not all have access to these materials. In fact the ironic thing is that the private individual and the shaman already do, though they may operate within a culture of fear and repressive legislation which hardly serves to support good practice or intelligent use. It is our doctors, our healers, who are forbidden from using these valuable medicines.

As the psychedelic renaissance unfolds there are naturally difficult ethical choices to be made. There was the choice I made when I signed up for the Compass Pathways trial,  the choice that MAPS made to accept money from the Mercer Family. Rick Doblin gives a clear account of the thinking behind that decision, just as I can explain why I decided to participate in the Compass research. Sure Rick and I could be part of some great  MKULTRA/MOSAD false-flag operation of The New World Order but I propose another reading. As Terence McKenna said: ‘we’re not dropping out here, we’re infiltrating and taking over’. 

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Receiving my travel expenses from Compass Pathways. Disappointed by the absence of my MOSAD de-coder ring.

Some might argue that my taking part in this trial makes me a collaborator with the evil machine of imperialist-capitalist violence which is cheerfully doing it’s thing while the ice-caps melt. But then I think of my Dad and of the apparent contradiction in his role as an army medic; the contradiction between healing medicine and the harms of war.  But this contradiction is also a connection.

MAPS have chosen to work with veterans as a stratagem to speed the development of MDMA therapy that will eventually be open to everyone (allowing for America’s poor healthcare provision). And while we may be dismayed at the deplorable contexts in which people have developed PTSD, we cannot morally ignore their wounds. Would it be a compassionate response to argue:  ’I’m sorry, but you chose to go to war so you’re not getting a blood transfusion because otherwise I’ll just be supporting the war machine’. Clearly not, and while some detractors of the medicalization of psychedelics recognize this they don’t appear able to propose any answers.

I also wonder whether, even though sanctioned by the military,  psychedelic therapy may have other effects than just fixing people’s PTSD. Perhaps soldiers treated with MDMA are unlikely to return to work shouting “kill kill kill. Are they perhaps more likely to oppose militarism, less likely to send their kids to war, more likely to support attempts at dialogue as a means of conflict resolution? Time I guess will tell.

I would also argue as does physician Gabor Mate that healing, at it’s best, is a process that inevitably has a radical social dimension:

“In essence, healing is a highly subversive act in our culture. Whether in a medical or more direct psychotherapeutic sense, our work with people is about subverting their self-image as isolated, simply biological or simply psychological creatures, and helping them see the connections among their existence, the nature of the culture we live in, and the functioning of all of humanity. It’s about challenging the idea that someone’s value is dependent on how well they fit into an abnormal, unhealthy culture. Ideally, as healers in the broadest sense, that’s what we should be doing.” 

Psychedelic therapy may also help us heal by fundamentally changing how medicine is done. Now the therapist must learn to sit, like the shaman of old, with the patient and facilitate the conditions in which they can do their own healing. A far cry from the bumbling pharmacology of sedation and the ubiquitous 10-minute consultation. We may be witnessing a transformation from psychiatry as a discipline with ‘labels for everything and cures for nothing, into an approach to healing that successfully combines ancient knowledge and modern science.

For western psychedelic medicine is indebted to the wisdom of ancient cultures, and not only by having learnt about psilocybin through Maria Sabina’s generous gift the sacred mushrooms. In 1953 two psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmand took part in a Native American Church peyote ritual. They observed first hand how psychedelic ceremony was helping First Nations people overcome their dependence on whiskey. In the light of this observation they wondered if they could use LSD to treat addiction. So when our medicine people; our doctors and nurses and clinicians, sit in psychedelic therapy with their patients, they do so in a lineage that includes the Red Pheasant First Nation people of Saskatchewan. Moreover in their report to the government not only did Hoffer and Osmond argue for the safety and healing power of the peyote ceremony but they also acknowledge the ethical limitations on the rights of the medical profession to stake a claim these substances:

“We believe most medical men would object if asked to judge whether to allow or prohibit members of any church from practicing their religion and enjoying their sacrament.  It does not seem to us that, as medical men, we have any competence to decide upon these matters.”

But it is clearly in the competence of physicians to determine whether psychedelics could be a valuable part of their practice. 

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Suitable settings for psychedelics

On a personal level my trip that day in the hospital was about connecting my own passion for psychedelics and their transformative power with the opportunity that licensed therapy could provide to my own family and many other people; the kind of people who don’t undertake ayahuasca pilgrimages, people who don’t dance away their cares on the ecstatic dance floor, and who don’t attend conferences like this one. But people nevertheless who could be healed by the sensitive use of these ancient sacred medicines and who would be able to access these treatments through the NHS. As an advocate of psychedelic inclusion I hope that I have helped to medicalize the mushroom medicine which I also regard as a sacrament.

May this marvelous opportunity, these magical medicines, help heal those in pain and heal too the disconnections and addictions within medicine itself. May these medicines be available in many ways so that they are accessible to all who might benefit from them. May our culture be transformed for the better by the liberation of the psychedelic experience for the benefit of all beings.

Aho!

Julian Vayne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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