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 possible –  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 a 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 individuals 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 Dobin 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 I believe 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing Scales – psychedelic prisoner support network

Regular readers of this blog will know my interest in psychedelics and the anti-prohibitionist movement and today I’m pleased to announce another development in that story. Scalesofjustice.org is the online presence of a developing network intended to support people in jail because of their involvement with psychedelic substances.

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While the grotesque imprisonment of William Leonard Pickard and many others continues there is a change in the air. Last year in the USA presidential pardons led to the release of Timothy Tyler who had served 26 years for selling LSD. In May of this year Antonio Bascaro was released after serving 39 years for cannabis related offenses. Globally convictions are being quashed, prisoners of the Drug War are being released, and the cultural conversation is moving away from prohibition towards decriminalization and regulation.

As we move forward in the psychedelic renaissance it’s important that we remember the prisoners of the Drug War, especially those under censure for using substances that we increasingly recognize as valuable, even sacred medicines. When Timothy Leary was imprisoned in 1970, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love audaciously organised his liberation, but during these days of the psychedelic renaissance we need to go one better. Let’s begin our work to liberate all the psychedelic prisoners, in whatever way we can.

Please like, share and subscribe to Scales. If you’re able to offer your skills and time please do get in touch via the contact form. At the moment we’re particularly looking for people with skills in infographic production, journalism and fund raising. If you have a story to share, or are in contact with a psychedelic prisoner please make contact with us.

Thank you.

Stay high, stay free!

Julian

 

Keeping the Doors of Perception Open

For many years, me and Greg Humphries—artist, magician and woodsman—have been rambling over the Devon and Cornwall landscape, exploring the hidden psychogeographical, mythical and mystical aspects of the place in which we live. On the 16th of April 2018, the 75th anniversary of the day that Albert Hofmann first accidentally ingested LSD-25, we took one of our walks along the Cornish coast; our mission, to hide a psychedelic treasure.

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Bring me my bow of burning gold…

Greg recently exhibited some of his art at the Penwith Gallery in St.Ives, Cornwall. On show was the The Bow of Albion: For The Herald Of The New Aeon, an exquisite longbow, complete with arrows, quiver and magnificent leather case—all made by hand. Also on show were three of The Doorstops of Perception (well, once the doors of perception are opened, one might well require something to stop them banging shut!). One of these beautifully hand-carved doorstops is the principle object contained in the ‘time capsule’ we have buried.

Along with the Doorstop is a badge showing the iconic Albert Hofmann blotter art (the rest of the badges were given away at a ceremony three days later).

Also in the magical box was a picture of the artist, actress and magician Pamela Coleman Smith. The monogram signature ‘PCS’ can be found on each of tarot cards she designed. Just as there is a great (and not before time) reappraisal of female occultist artists such as Ithell Colquhoun, I hope it will not be long before ‘Pixie’, as Coleman Smith was known, gets a proper retrospective.

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Consulting Pixie’s tarot by her graveside, and giving thanks for her work

Why do this kind of stuff? In some ways it’s a continuity of the kind of psychogeographical projects that Greg and I have found ourselves doing throughout our longstanding friendship. (One of these is documented in our book, Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography, available here, for a limited period with full-colour pictures—until summer solstice 2018—after which it will only be on sale as a monochrome version). In other respects this is a new process: to directly (re)enchant the magical landscape of our place through our art.  Like our ancestors, we are making offerings to the spirits of the land, and in our own small way enchanting for the rediscovery of magic in all our lives.

Unlike the days of yore, when Greg and I recorded our walks with occasional photography, the ubiquitous magical tool of the mobile phone allows us to capture and share the digital traces of our adventures.

So, as per the reading above, our wand-waving knights set off toward the Tower…

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On the skyline The Tower of the Winds

There to sing with the wind…

Greg charges, prepares and blesses The Doorstop of Perception…

Artworks are created…

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Greg reflects on the nature and practice of psychogeography within the animist paradigm…

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Carefully setting the turf back,

Leaving no visible trace

On this power spot,

The spell is cast.

 

Ahoy!

Julian Vayne

 

Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography is reviewed here and here.

 

 

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.)

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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.

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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!

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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

On Letting Go – or, How Not to Get Sick on Ayahuasca…

I once wrote that ‘letting go is the critical ability for navigating psychedelic drugs’ and this is true on many levels. At a Treadwell’s workshop on altered states and at the fabulous Berlin psychedelics conference Altered, people have spoken with me about the challenge of ‘letting go’ in relation to psychedelic sacraments. In both cases my interlocutors were considering taking ayahuasca for the first time. In both cases they’d come to me for reassurance about that whole ‘being sick’ thing.

Ayahuasca can provide an opportunity for spiritual exploration, for self-discovery, for healing, problem solving and much more. As experiences go it can be dazzlingly beautiful and illuminating, and it is true that it can also make you feel nauseous. 

People have heard that taking ayahuasca involves vomiting. I too had these concerns before I took this medicine.  In addition I was afraid that peyote would also make me vomit. I was worried that MDMA would make me overheat and die, I was worried that LSD would make me psychotic and that smoking cannabis would turn me into a hippie…

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Tasty blend of herbs

Joking aside, all these fears do have some basis in reality. Ayahuasca can make you want to vomit, LSD taken in unwise circumstances can scramble one’s brain and toking weed may indeed encourage the consumption of vegan food.

In the case of ayahuasca (or peyote or many other psychedelics) the fear of vomiting is emblematic of the normal human fear of losing control; what looks like fear of being sick is actually about letting go in a much bigger sense. But take heart! Not everyone throws up on the magical Amazonian medicine. I’ve taken the brew many times, sometimes at a high dose, and I’ve not yet vomited on ayahuasca.  I put this this down to having spent many years using other psychedelic drugs where I would register nausea as body load caused by both adrenaline and the stimulation of serotonin receptors in my gut. I’d simply take my attention elsewhere to combat the nausea and it would go away.

Ever the scientist, I once tried eating a chicken tikka baguette not long before an ayahuasca session to see if that might bring on la purga (and turned down my instinctive process to disregard nausea). No luck. I might of course be sick in the future on this or another psychedelic medicine, then again maybe I won’t. When I spoken to a friend, who is much more familiar with ayahuasca than me, he said this wasn’t that unusual and that accords with my experience. Certainly in most  of the ayahuasca sessions I’ve attended the majority of those present didn’t vomit. I have however cried copious tears in the company of The Queen of the Forest; tears of both sadness and joy (sometimes at the same time). Crying for me is a thing,  it’s my physiological catharsis. I cry at the movies, so maybe the ayahuasca spirit uses that channel rather than my gut.

Chicken Tikka Baguette
Not the recommended dieta

The point is that we all fear losing control: our position in society, our face, our well-being. We don’t want to be the gringo covered in his own faeces looking like a J.P. Sears reject, we certainly don’t want our transgressive al-chemical adventures to harm us, or indeed others.

We are right to be thoughtful, mindful, when we approach psychedelic drugs. Sure there will always (I trust) be high spirited, youthful scrapes but, especially as adults, when considering taking a jungle brew (and more so in the case of obscure or new substances) we are wise to be cautious. Accidents, rare reactions and other difficulties can and do happen. However these are very, very rare with the ‘classic’ psychedelics. We know ayahuasca is basically safe because we’ve been testing it on humans for many thousands of years, likewise peyote. Even peyote’s modern daughter MDMA , though a new kid on the block, is known to be a very safe drug. The numbers prove it. Allowing for the problems of unknown dose, composition and other issues caused by prohibition, illegal MDMA is reported to have killed 63 people in the UK in 2016 (this is from government data which also lists 24 deaths as being due to ‘cannabis’, so it may be worth taking these figures with a pinch of salt). This total, whilst still significant and tragic, is very small when considered in the light of the 492,000 people that took one or more doses of this powerful unregulated drug (meaning, zero quality control or any accurate dosage information available at point of sale) in 2015/16. (MDMA use in the UK may be as high as 125 million doses per annum, on the basis of a hefty 200mg per dose of the estimated 25,000kg of Ecstasy consumed in Britain each year.)

Fear doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It is perhaps what we should feel approaching a transformative experience such as can happen when you drink ayahuasca (or take MDMA). Let’s listen to what Terence McKenna (peace be upon him) says about fear and psychedelics:

“One of the interesting characteristics of DMT is that it sometimes inspires fear – this marks the experience as existentially authentic. One of the interesting approaches to evaluating such a compound is to see how eager people are to do it a second time. A touch of terror gives the stamp of validity to the experience because it means, “This is real.” We are in the balance. We read the literature, we know the maximum doses, the LD-50, and so on. But nevertheless, so great is one’s faith in the mind that when one is out in it one comes to feel that the rules of pharmacology do not really apply and that control of existence on that plane is really a matter of focus of will and good luck.”

Psychedelic drugs require us to abandon ourselves to the experience, in the same way that in possession states we (that is; our usual way of thinking) must get out of the way. The Loa enter the ecstatic dancer, temporarily driving out their day-to-day self,  as their body becomes a horse ridden by the gods.

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Raving – still safer than horse riding…

Psychedelic drugs are antithetical to systems of control in a variety of senses. At a raw biological level that’s how they work. The fact that the world looks weird when we are high on ayahuasca is because the control systems in our neurology are being disrupted. Edge detection, motion and colour detection bits of the brain become cross-wired. The ability of your mind to smooth out the visual world into a seamless film (which isn’t how your biology takes in the scene at all, see Nikki’s article for more of this) is compromised by the weird chemistry of the vine and the leaf. Then the visions come; of vertically symmetrical faces, with eyes, mouths and tentacles (visual cues our biology is optimized to notice). What’s going on is that the control systems of our minds are so weakened that content floods between brain regions, creating cognitive chimera and marvellous mental mashups. Out of this creative chaos arise visually perceived sub-personalities or the archetypal programs of our unconscious mind (…or however one likes to think of these things). The spirits  enter our imaginations just as they enter the body of the ecstatic Voudou raver. We let go of control, becoming a vessel for the teaching of the medicine, and in losing ourselves, find ourselves reborn.

Let’s reconsider that basic form of control which preserves our adult decorum; what if the ayahuasca strips away our digestive competence and we make a fool of ourselves?

Any good ayahuasca season takes account of the fears, and indeed in many styles of practice this purging is seen not as a problem but as an opportunity for healing and cathartic release. Small plastic buckets and plenty of tissues are usually provided and, however it is managed, the fact that participants may need to vomit is planned for. By re-imaging this vomiting as ‘getting well’ or ‘la purga’ the experience, while not necessarily pleasant, can be a positive transformative part of the trip. Peyote can have a similar nauseating effect, and again good rituals will take this into account.

Within the design of the Native American Church peyote ceremony the central crescent altar is made from local soil. This soil is dug from a pit to make what is sometimes called a ‘Getting Well Hole’. Any vomit is disposed of into this hole. The soil from the crescent altar is used to fill it in the end of the rite. Flowers from the ceremony may be left on the replaced turfs covering the pit. Thus the process of ‘getting well’ isn’t just an annoying side effect of the drugs but is deeply incorporated into the ceremonial process.

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Altared state

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Getting well whole

More extreme loss of biological control (really needing to poo) usually only happens at high doses of psychedelics, and even then is usually within manageable bounds. Higher doses of any substance means more body load. A very high dose of anything will make you shit yourself as the body deploys one of its basic defensive (control) mechanisms. I’m reminded of a tale told to me by David Luke of some people he is researching who took far, far, far too much LSD (>20,000μg each). As soon as they drank the liquid (in which was dissolved more acid than they bargained for) they all immediately shat themselves, projectile vomited, and then spent a very, very, very long time tripping (one of them is still seeing strange things many years later).

Lots of things at high dose can make us throw up. I’ve seen people throw up on rapé snuff, 4-AcO-DMT, ketamine, cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca and MDMA but (even as someone who rarely goes to pubs) I’ve seen many more people throw up through drinking too much alcohol. In cultures like mine, where alcohol is a protected species of psychoactive and therefore commonly available, most people will have likely seen and possibly experienced vomiting from excessive drinking. Yet the fact that booze can potentially make us spew does not seem to be a major reason for people not trying alcohol.

With many psychedelics my view is that going-in slowly is a wise and polite approach to the spirit of a medicine. I agree that an initial Big Experience can be valuable, sometimes high doses are definitely what is indicated. But for many substances respecting the medicine can simply mean starting off gently. Drink less –  booze or ayahuasca – and you’ll probably feel less like vomiting.

Some styles of medicine worker like to make a big impression and strongly encourage the ‘heroic dose’ approach. Recently I’ve had a couple of people talk to me about shamans giving what they felt was too high a dose of a medicine, certainly too high for the recipients comfort. When I suggested asking the shaman for less they indicated that this would probably be met with a refusal. ‘Shaman knows best’ it would seem, an approach which ignores the feedback of the client. If you want less, particularly of a powerful substance such as 5-MeO-DMT, that’s what you should get. However wise the medicine person thinks their approach is, it is also wise to remain open to information from the client. For some medicines it’s not even an issues of having to take one big hit. 5-MeO-DMT for instance (the primary active ingredient of the psychedelic venom of the toad Bufo alvarius) can be taken in several bursts during a session, gradually increasing (or decreasing) the dosage as appropriate. There is no significant tolerance built up in a single session, and indeed subsequent inhalations of smoke can enhance the intensity of the trip while using less material. This approach is particularly helpful for people with less experience of psychedelic drugs. It also makes good sense in terms of testing for those rare but not unknown idiosyncratic reactions to a new medicine.

The wisdom is this: it is always possible to add more, but difficult to take away too much.

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…the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

A good psychedelic facilitator works to create a set and setting that is supportive and transformative. For those who are new to this territory, with all their fears of losing control of bowel and brain, it’s important for the wise shaman to create an environment where the substance component of the ritual is used intelligently. We want this space to feel safe because it’s important in my view that lots of people have access to the psychedelic experience. This means not just backpacking, adventurous hippie types but many others too. These folks may come from backgrounds where they have been told that drugs are bad, will send you mad and potentially kill you. Unlocking this control can be a powerful journey.  Sometimes blowing open closed minds can work wonders. But let us also cultivate a circumspect form of practice that gently leads people into the psychedelic waters rather than throwing them in at the deep end.

Care and attention are the skills needed to create the best set and setting within which to address our fear of losing control. We care for the vomiting ayahuasca traveller by providing buckets and toilet rolls. We care for panicked festival psychonauts by creating supportive spaces (like this and this) where they can be helped to ride the dragon of a challenging trip.

For my part, when people express their concerns to me about vomiting on ayahuasca I tell them the truth. Yes you can be sick, but you can be sick on beer too, or from a dodgy kebab. Maybe if you are very concerned ask for a smaller dose (and be thoughtful of practitioners who do not listen to your concerns about these matters). If you are sick think of it as ‘getting well’, acknowledge that this is a simple human activity, without shame and easily dealt with. Use the facilities provided, just like you would on a boat or airplane. You will not die (yet), you’re just throwing up.

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Fear not, this too shall pass…

So the message folks is that these concerns about taking ayahuasca makes sense. Be sensible about what you take and with whom, but don’t fear the vomit. Let go of your worries about losing control (you never had it really anyhow), embrace the experience. By and large these psychedelic substances are safe, healing, fun, wonderful and good for us. (Though if possible I recommend going somewhere where prohibition does not impose on the set and setting of your explorations, like here)

Prepare your bucket (which you may not need anyhow). Relax and let it happen, this is good medicine.

JV

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Here’s a brief update on some of the events and projects that we are involved with in early 2018.

Julian is running a one day workshop at Treadwell’s Books in London on Working Magic in the Landscape: Psychogeography on 13th January 2018 11:00 am – 5:30pm.

Nikki and Julian are running a retreat in The Netherlands on Altered States & Magic. This promises to be a magical weekend which runs from 9–11th February 2018.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our 2018 programme of retreats (we’re really excited to have an amazing new venue at St Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall and some great guest facilitators joining us). Please drop us a line here and we can keep you informed by email of the latest events, publications and more.

The amazing Psychedelic Press UK has just released issue 22 of their journal, check it out and subscribe.

More details on events can be found here at the blog and on Facebook too.

Blessings

NW & JV