Natural or Artificial Psychedelics – Which are Best?

As promised in a previous post I’m going to try adding a few videos in which I explore particular subjects. These are unscripted and so inevitably I think of extra stuff to say once I press ‘stop’. This one presents as few thoughts about the relationship between natural and artificial psychedelics, and an exploration of where we consider the limits of nature and culture to be.

And a few extra points…

One additional thought is that there is now a vast range of laboratory synthesized chemicals (mostly still uncommon enough that they don’t have well established street names). Subtle variations in their effects was one of the things that inspired Alexander Shulgin to explore various ways of tweaking the phenethylamines (MDMA, 2CI, 2CB etc) and the tryptamines (LSD, A-LAD,  5-MeO-DiPT etc). As we gather more data about these substances, and as clinical exploration continues, we will hopefully gain a much deeper understanding of the pharmacology of psychedelic space. The complex relationship between molecular shape and subjective effects is subtle indeed. Reading Shulgins’ work it’s fascinating to learn how tiny changes in molecular structure can significantly change the activity, dosage range, duration and subjective experience of substances that maintain a common set of chemical characteristics. There is perhaps something of an analogy with smell here, in that just because two molecules look structurally similar does not necessarily mean they smell the same. Smell appears to be a process where the Newtonian ‘shape’ of molecules is one factor along with the fuzzy complexity of quantum biology. (You can also check out some of the fine grain psychopharmacological theory about psychedelics in this fascinating presentation by Thomas Ray at Breaking Convention 2017.)

lsd

Shamanic journey

Having access to this range of psychedelics means we can explore the potentials of this space, and that’s what humans do. Our ancestors discovered the chemical key that unlocked the DMT in Psychotria viridis and rendered it orally active. They invented ayahuasca. The work of Hofmann, Shulgin, Manske, Nichols et al. is part of this lineage, this tradition of entheogenic chemical exploration.

(Incidentally, Canadian chemist Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske first synthesized DMT in 1931, many years before it was unequivocally identified in organic sources.)

Sure ‘natural’ organic psychedelics are great, but I come from a culture where our entheogenic revival was initiated by LSD. This laboratory product was what transformed Western culture. It opened the way for the return of the plant medicines into the society I inhabit. For that I give thanks to the Bunsen burners, the reaction vessels, the pipettes, and of course to the curious twist of fate whereby a Swiss chemist ‘accidentally’ ingests this incredibly potent substance that his alchemy has brought to birth. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Finally, on the matter of the relative benefits of organic or synthetic psychedelics I think we should be mindful of the option of Arch-Mushroom curandera Maria Sabina (Peace Be Upon Her).

Albert Hofmann visited María Sabina in 1962 and brought her a gift; a bottle of psilocybin pills that Hofmann had synthesized. After trying the pills Maria Sabina announced that there was little difference between their effects and that of the Psilocybe mexicana she used in ceremony. She then thanked Hofmann saying that with these pills she would now be able to serve people as a healer even when the mushrooms were out of season.

This is a great story. A respected shaman sees no great difference between a spirit from the laboratory or from the landscape. And more than this, she explains, why she is pleased to have Hofmann’s medicine; to use it when the natural substance is not available, and to use it to help others.

sabina

Chemical romance

My culture did not have access to entheogens for many generations (they were there in the landscape but we had forgotten them). Since the time of Eleusis we’ve been cut off from ‘the medicine’. It took that chance laboratory discovery, and subsequent archetypal bicycle ride, to return my society to a connection with the psychedelic gnosis. Like Maria Sabina says, when the plant medicine isn’t available the synthetic spirit is just as good so long as we keep to our intention – to take these trips for the benefit of ourselves and for all beings.

Ahoy!

summer

Summer programme

Stuff we are doing…

Nikki and I are holding a series of retreats at St.Nectan’s Glen. The May retreat is fully booked but please keep an eye on our Facebook page and/or send us your email so we can keep you up to date. We are planning another retreat in July, then September and November.

I’m presenting a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the first intentional LSD trip on Bicycle Day, 19th April in London. This will be a participatory ritual journey, from Eleusis to Acid.

I’m is also facilitating a day long workshop on Sigils, Talismans and Magic Signs at Treadwell’s in London.

Nikki and I have the honour of providing the opening and closing ceremony at the Third Summer of Love gathering in Amsterdam in July. This is going to be an awesome entheogenic ceremony. The next day (yeah, really!) we’ll be providing talks for the Netherlands Psychedelic Society, and the day after that, a workshop on magic and altered states of consciousness. Stay tuned for more details.

In August we’ll be in Wales to run a shamanic workshop  We’re also speaking at Beyond Psychedelics in Prague in June and Ozora in Hungary at the end of July.

Hope to see you soon!

Julian Vayne

Witch on DMT – For Science!

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

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

brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahoy!

JV

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

 

 

From the Vastly Deep – the reality of DMT entities and other spirits.

The question of the ‘reality’ or otherwise of aliens/elves/spirit beings seems to be a perennial one.  At two of my recent lectures, to The Birmingham Psychedelic Society and this month at the Nova Stella moot in London, this was a subject of concern. Aficionados of N,N-DMT, ayahuasca and some other psychedelics (notably high doses of psilocybin) also get to wrestle with this problem.  What are the ‘spirits’ that we may encounter when in these altered states?

Perhaps one of the greatest modern commentators on the Western encounter with the entheogenic spirit realm is Terence McKenna, he famously and carefully engineered our appreciation of the entities from DMT space.  He developed a highly open-ended mythology that permitted multiple interpretations of his nevertheless emphatically held ideas (the importance of psychedelics in the evolution of humans, the existence of intelligence in the DMT experience, and of a world heading towards an apocalyptic omega point). McKenna remains, in much of his writing and lectures, radically uncertain (or perhaps unwilling) to advance a simple single answer to the question ‘what are these DMT spirits really?’.

DMT heads

DMT heads

Earlier, in the 20th century, Aleister Crowley also addresses the question of the ‘reality’ of entities such as gods, angels, spirits and demons. He counsels the student of magic to be simultaneously respectful of the phenomena and suspicious of its ultimate origin and meaning.  And while Crowley, like McKenna, got swept up with an apocalyptic narrative (that of being The Beast 666), much of AC’s work espouses a significant degree of indeterminacy when it comes to the ‘reality’ of these things.

Crowley writes in Magick in Theory and Practice:

“In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”

Psychedelic chemist and counter-cultural hero Casey Hardison, in conversation with Andy Roberts, considers this issue too. In an interview in the forthcoming book by Roberts, Acid Drops (out later this year through Psychedelic Press UK), Casey is asked for his views on the objective reality of these entities. In a characteristically brilliant answer Hardison opines thus:

Andy Roberts: Some people have claimed that during a psychedelic experience they have had contact with/been contacted by what might be termed intelligences or entities. Have you had any such experiences? If so can you give an example?

Casey Hardison: I have no certainty this has ever happened to me. I have, however, made shit up to this effect. I tend to think that the molecules themselves are entities. And, they have given me great insight into the vastness of my intelligence. Sure, I’ve seen the typical machine elves laughing at me and thought ayahuasca was an alien being that resides in my brainstem but I was high at the time.

AR: Do you think these experiences represent objective/real experiences involving entities external to the mind/body, whether their origin is earthly, extra-terrestrial, inter-dimensional, aspects of our mind/psyche or a mixture of any of these and more?

CH: No. I think that these experiences are personifications of the DNA instincts innate to us. They appear to be generated and sensed by our own brains. Jung would call them manifestations of the archetypes. Plato had his perfect forms. I tend to keep it simple and not tool off about possible alien intelligences. In short, I do not know. If there are aliens, I can’t wait to try their drugs.

 

DMT and related tryptamines may flick a neurochemical switch in our heads that induces a sense of ‘the real’,  but that is not the same as saying that the subjective experiences generated by this medicine are real in the same way that the screen you’re reading these words from is real. While many DMT visions may contain similar content, and while psychedelic drugs may promote conditions where phenomena such as apparent telepathy take place (leading to shared visionary experience), the notion that these chemicals allow us to interface with a ‘separate reality’, as Castaneda might have put it, is sparse.

Break on through

Break on through

Such notions of an ‘astral plane’ (existing as an ‘objective’ realm in the way our apparent world does) are not only the preserve of popular shamanism. Neurologist Andrew Gallimore hopes that one day we can get the dose and duration of DMT right so that; “we can envisage a time in the near future when a brave voyager might spend hours in their [the DMT elves] realm, asking specific questions, performing experiments, and bringing us closer to an independently verifiable relationship with citizens of an alternate universe”.

The curious thing (for magicians) is that DMT entities are trumpeted as ‘real’ denizens of some imagined (but in no way objectively supportable) alternate universe, whereas gods, ghosts, servitors, nature spirits and all the rest get (perhaps conveniently) forgotten. This says more about researchers’ lack of sensitivity to other ‘entities’ not encountered through psychedelics, and the continued use of facile real/not real conceptual models to understand imaginal entities, than it does about the entities themselves. Sure, when we have our ontological noses tweaked by the dance of a ‘jewelled, self-transforming basketball’ (as described by McKenna), while high on drugs, we may be shocked by what we encounter. However, when people report spirits in other contexts (such as hauntings, channellings, UFO abductions and evocations) some folk are more prone to dismiss them as purely subjective perceptions.

Aside of the proposal of getting super high on intravenous DMT, there are other methods to explore the reality of spirits. One of my favourites is the so-called ‘Philip Experiment’ conducted by the Toronto Society for Psychical Research in the early 1970s. To cut a long and fascinating story short, the group created a fictional entity (‘Philip’) who they proceeded to ‘contact’ by deploying the usual technology of spiritualist séances. As one might predict, even though the spirit was ‘imaginary’ (including a backstory that deliberately contained logically contradictory information), the team soon end up getting ‘actual’ psychic phenomena. Thus the spirit became ‘real’ and, following media attention such as the book Conjuring Up Philip and more recently the film The Quiet Ones, is now a global phenomena. For all I know there are places in the world where ‘Philip’ is worshipped as a god (aside of the Island of Tanna).

A conjurer's grimoire

A conjurer’s grimoire

So how might we as magicians, as people that work with spirits (with or without the administration of strange drugs), make sense of what’s going on and escape the dead-end of Cartesian dualism that demands that spirits be either ‘real’ (in the way that ravens and writing desks are real) or imaginary (by which we really mean ‘not true’)?

When we begin to unpack the ideas contained in words like ‘spirits’, we can get closer to a more nuanced appreciation of what may be really going on. ‘Spirit’ is a small word with a vast collection of potential meanings. Wikipedia observes:

The word spirit is often used metaphysically to refer to the consciousness or personality. The notions of a person’s spirit and soul often also overlap, as both contrast with body and both are believed to survive bodily death in some religions, and “spirit” can also have the sense of “ghost“, i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person.

So let’s take that example of the ‘spirit’ of a human person. Where does that spirit live? What creates it? Out of what stuff does it emerge? Where does it go when the person dies?

Let’s start with the body. (This is particularly relevant since the word spirit is from the Latin ‘spiritus’ meaning ‘breath’.) The physical body of a person exists in intimate relationship with the environment.  People are be born, nourished and raised. As we develop physically we are admitted into the collective conspiracy of language and culture. Our minds emerge through this network of relationships. The physical architecture of the body itself is also about relationships, it is a vast interplay of electrochemical interactions. If we say that there is a ‘spirit’ here, that spirit consists of the sum total of these socio-cultural and electrochemical processes. We might say that the spirit is the name we give to our recognition of the entity that arises from this complex web of interactions. While alive we typically imagine that the spirit dwells somehow within the body of the person we associate with it, but in the event of illness or death that spirit may be released from the confines of the body.

For example; it may have been the case that at least one person in ancient Israel was the human individual that inspired the Gospels to be written. If that person existed they had a body made of interacting physical forces existing within a cultural space. After death (especially when powered by the miraculous story of a resurrection) they inhabit only the cultural space.  This postmortum entity grows and becomes branded as the ‘Spirit of Christ’.

Once we understand that ‘spirit’ is the word we give to personality or entity that apparently emerges from a series of processes (physical and cultural) we can see why we apply the word in so many contexts. We can meaningfully talk about the spirit of a place, an epoch, an ancestor and more. Does this mean the spirits are ‘real’? The answer is clearly ‘yes’.

We often encounter this approach in magic where the practitioner is encouraged to embrace their perception of these spirits as (real) entities. As Ramsey Dukes and many others have pointed out, imagining that the recalcitrant office photocopier has a personality (as does your car, boat, computer or whatever) confers a variety of advantages as a strategy to interact with the world. This is hardly surprising because interacting with self-aware entities is what the human nervous system is designed to do so. Our brain has evolved to recognise faces above all else and our whole organism is geared up to interact with other humans. We are a deeply social species. In ceremony when we invoke the gods we interact with them as though they are ‘real’ independent beings because that viewpoint provides the best results.

Facial recognition

Is your facial recognition software working?

However there are other times when we may be only interested in one small set of interactions within a system. By way of an example; if I were a doctor helping a patient with diabetes, while I would want to talk to them as a thinking, feeling, intelligent entity, I would also want to approach the measurement of the level of insulin in the blood as a predominantly mechanical chemical process. It’s about using the most appropriate conceptual tool for the job in hand. To give another example with a slightly different emphasis; if I look at a painting I could describe the image in terms of its position within the canon of Western art (the art historical view).  I may decide to talk about the image in terms of what it means to me and how it makes me feel (the personal aesthetic view). If I’m a conservator of paintings I may be primarily interested in the chemical composition of the paints (a purposeful, reductionist mechanical view).  Like the wise men feeling the body of the Elephant, each view is ‘a truth’ a ‘reality’. Truth is inevitably partial. Depending on what we want to achieve the person (and especially the magician) selects the approach that is the most helpful. Inside the ritual we interact with ‘the gods’; outside we may choose to view them as psychological constructs or convenient fictions.

The dichotomy of real/unreal is dissolved by this way thinking. Breaking down this dichotomy allows us to admit the reality of subjective perception (of ghosts or DMT elves) but doesn’t seek blunt Occam’s razor and postulate a different order of reality populated by entities that exist in some vaguely hypothesised alternative universe.

A close look at all disincarnate entities, from Father Christmas through to Aeonic Word transmitting Holy Guardian Angels, shows how these things emerge from the cultural experience of the person experiencing them. In the case of the haunting of Philip this imagined being was conjured into a certain setting (1970s spiritualism and parapsychology) and true to form behaves in ways that make sense in that context.

So in summary we can suggest:

  1. A spirit is our perception of an external (ie non-self) entity.
  2. This spirit emerges from a complex set of interactions which may include physical processes (eg the spirit of a living person that dwells in a body) and cultural forms (eg a character in fiction).
  3. We can choose to interact with the spirit as a separate entity without assuming that it has any kind of ‘objective’ reality.
  4. We can choose to interact with one or more of the processes that appear as a spirit entity, and disregard the idea of its apparent personality.
  5. We can admit the real subjective experience (‘I met a ghost’) and simultaneously recognise that cultural and other factors inform our experience (in Medieval Europe people met fairies, in modern America they may encounter grey-style aliens).

As I told the audience when I spoke at The Birmingham Psychedelic Society, during my first journey with ayahuasca I encountered the spirit of the brew as the Queen of the Forest. While I was dancing in the ceremony a giant mantis-like entity descended from the ceiling and, amusingly, in a voice that sounded rather like Kenneth Williams, said, ‘well, how nice to see you here!’ Now it may be the case that in some imagined spiritual-quantum-woo alternate universe this being has a separate existence. However I would suggest that the spirit was the emergent property of Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis + the ceremony (which was Santo Daime style, containing songs about the Queen of the Forest) + my mind. This isn’t the same as saying the spirit wasn’t ‘real’, for it was undoubtedly a genuine experience for me of an objective entity. Rather, I suggest that the ‘spirit’ is the sum total of these interactions (including presumably my familiarity with the genius of the camp-Cockney comic) expressed in my awareness, at that time, as an apparently external talking entity.

Ooh Madrinha!

Ooh Madrinha!

Remember Casey says, ‘I tend to think that the molecules themselves are entities’ which is another statement of this magical approach. DMT entities are real but they live not in a different dimension but instead emerge when human brains meet this molecule. For me this is a much more satisfying (though admittedly more subtle) answer to the perennial question of real/not real. This approach places magic and spirit realm within the universe we inhabit and chimes in more closely with many animist and panpsychic views of reality both ancient and modern. This approach explains the confusion that ethnographers sometimes face when interacting with animist cultures (whether they are researching in ‘traditional tribal’ or ‘modern (post) industrial’ contexts); that there often seems to be no hard and fast distinction between people, animals, spirit beings, ancestors and gods. While the Cartesian tradition in Western thought desires neat distinctions this isn’t how many (and perhaps most) cultures actually work.

We should, as Dr Gallimore suggests, continue to explore the DMT realm, but I wonder if framing this exploration in terms of a quest to discern whether the elves are ‘real’ or not, is to misunderstand the phenomenology of spirits. Or, as The Queen of the Forest in her incarnation as Kenneth Williams might say, ‘stop messing about!’

JV