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