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’!

gathering

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

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