Do you believe in magic?

Happy belated Halloween!

I’ve just returned home from a family holiday in Barcelona staying within sight of the magnificent Sagrada Familia. Over the previous 25 years I’ve seen this remarkable building grow, having visited it several times (once with Rodney Orpheus during a particularly dramatic electrical storm) . It’s quite something to encounter such a multi-generational project, a fitting setting to reflect on ideas of ancestors and families.

 

Upon my return to Britain I’d been asked to speak and MC an evening of talks at Real Magic, part of the Do you believe in magic? exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This was a delightful way to spend my birthday, with over 720 people attending. The evening featuring wonderful presentations from speakers Esther Eidinow, Kurt Lampe, Vikki Carr and Ronald Hutton. Do you believe in magic? is a very engaging exploration of the occult and it’s relationship with science and religion, do go along to see it if you have an opportunity.

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Mind manifesting in the Enlightenment Gallery at Bristol Museum

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Ronald Hutton and me chatting before his magnificent presentation on The Wheel of the Year.

 

Here’s the text of my talk that evening on Psychedelics, Shamanism and Magic – enjoy!

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We live in interesting times, one sign of which is perhaps the renewed engagement by academia and museums with the subject of magic. We have interdisciplinary conferences, most recently Trans-States at the University of Northampton, bringing together magical practitioners, artists and academics. The Victoria & Albert, Ashmolean and now Bristol Museums are working to widen the cultural conversation about what have often been excluded or even forbidden aspects of the human experience.

Tonight I’ll be speaking about an aspect of the human experience which has, until quite recently, remained occult, hidden, and even forbidden, namely the use of psychedelic drugs.

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witches and alchemists

The role of mysterious substances is deeply embedded in the iconography of western magic. Where would the witch be without her bubbling cauldron, or the alchemist without the arcane paraphernalia of their laboratory? In European herbalism correspondences between plants and astrological forces informed diagnosis and treatment. Malevolent witches were imagined by some to make use of poisonous plants; henbane, datura and deadly nightshade. Scattered references in the grimoires of ceremonial magic suggest the use of mind-altering incenses. 

While ongoing research gathers together these fragments of our indigenous tradition, it is primarily through the encounter between European culture and the peoples of the New World that the modern story of psychedelic substances emerges.

The term psychedelic ‘literally mind manifesting’, was coined in 1956 by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmand in conversation with writer Aldous Huxley to refer to a particular class of drugs. Their principal effect is to radically transform awareness, inducing a state of consciousness with some very curious, some might even say magical properties. The word Osmand coined was first applied to the effects of a  cactus.

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Classic psychedelic people and plants

The peyote cactus has been used for over 5000 years by communities in the Americas. The principle psychedelic alkaloid in peyote is mescaline, isolated and identified by western chemists in 1897, and first synthesized in 1918. Two other cacti also containing mescaline are used in the Americas for a variety of purposes which could be described as medical, religious and magical. Mescaline can include visionary phenomena, synesthesia-like effects where music might be perceived as visual patterns as well as evoking a range of very profound feelings including personal insight, euphoria and peak mystical experience. The effects of mescaline, like all psychedelics, are highly responsive to what has become known as ‘set and setting’ that is the mindset of the person taking the substance and the setting or environment in which the drug is consumed. Ritual specialists use ceremony to curate the set and settings for specific purposes, such as divination or healing. While these practitioners use various words to describe their work and social role their practice is often labelled as  ‘shamanism’. Shamanism is a complex and contested term which some feel should be limited to the Siberian and central Asian areas from which it derives. For others, the word has a broader pan-cultural use and indicates a certain style of what we could call ‘magical’ practice that often includes interactions with spirits and the use of altered or ‘ecstatic’ states.

In some shamanic traditions these ecstatic states are induced by practices such as long periods in darkness or solitary mediation, or through the use of drumming or chanting. All these methods are effective but psychedelic substances provide one of the most reliable ways of inducing ecstatic states and perhaps for that reason are central to many of the shamanic traditions of the Americas. This doesn’t only mean states that are pleasurable, though they may be. The etymology of the word ‘ecstasy’ points to a feeling of being ‘outside of ourselves’, to be ‘out of one’s mind’. In the psychedelic state we are propelled outside of our usual way of thinking into a form of cognition that is rich and strange.

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Mind the drugs

We can see this change in these two brain scans made during research in 2014 at Imperial College London, using the psychedelic psilocybin found in magic mushrooms and also used in New World Shamanism. On the left we see the brain in it’s ‘default mode network’ state. This arrangement is, in some respects, our sense of self, our egoic identity, the pattern that consciousness habitually adopts when we are alone, ruminating on the past and thinking about the future. The right hand image shows the same brain on psilocybin. We see that the self-identity pattern is turned down and novel connections between previously discrete systems in the brain emerge. We remain conscious and aware but our perception of reality is dramatically transformed.  To use the language of shamanism – we might take flight and soar over an innerworld landscape, looking down from this new vantage point to gain new insights about the world. We might encounter spirits such as ancestors or mythological figures. We have a sense of going on a journey, a trip.

On our return to everyday awareness we can bring these insights with us, leading to transformations in our social relationships and effects such as the healing of sickness. In the psychedelic state we experience the deep truth that all things are interconnected or, as the Hermetic magicians would say; ‘As Above, So Below’. 

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Beastly rites

In the early 20th century the use of psychedelic substances, began to filter into European culture. Aleister Crowley dosed the audience at his Rites of Eleusis, a series of publicly performed rituals,  with mescaline. His rituals, which included music, clouds of incense and epic poetry, were performed in London in 1910 making them one of the first attempts to formulate a ceremonial setting in which to ingest a psychedelic sacrament outside of the Americas. Crowley’s rituals can also claim to be the first psychedelic art-happening. In this sense Crowley’s rites were the forerunner of the Be-In’s of the beat generation and the LSD enhanced concerts of the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind.

The trickle of interest from artists, medics and researchers exploring mescaline became a flood in the mid 20th century with the discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943 of LSD  Hoffman’s new psychedelic substance initiated seismic changes in culture. These included the development of the rock music festival which aimed to provide a cultural container for the psychedelic state which had suddenly become available to thousands of people.

Within European occulture of the late 20th century, while psychedelics informed the cultural context, they were not central to the emerging esoteric styles of Wicca and neo-paganism. However they were enthusiastically integrated into the practice of some occultists, notably those influenced by the work of Crowley. 

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Peyote circle and Castlemorton festival

A third wave of psychedelic exploration occurred in the late 20th century as a novel chemical, closely related to mescaline, began to hit the headlines; MDMA or ecstasy. The development of the rave, like the emergence of the music festival decades earlier, provided a setting in which the psychedelic state could be held. The emerging rhythms of acid house music (a term arguably coined by the occultist Genesis P.Orridge) matched those used by other ‘shamanic’ psychedelic communities such as Native American Church.

The Native American Church developed in the late 19th century in North America. The central sacrament of the Church is peyote consumed during an all night vigil which features singing, drumming, prayer and other ritual activities. The Native American Church flourished because one of the effects of psychedelics is healing. In the context of the plains dwelling First Nations people this healing was a response to the genocidal damage caused by European colonialism. In particular many Native Americans sought to self-medicate their pain with whisky and this lead to much suffering. The peyote ceremony had the power to help people see things from a different perspective and this often led to them stopping drinking. The medicine of the ritual; that is the intention of the participant, the structure of the ceremony, and the psychedelic cactus – or more succinctly the ‘set, setting and substance’ came together to effect radical personal and social transformation.

Humphry Osmand and his colleague Abram Hoffer attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony in 1958 and this inspired them to wonder if LSD could be used to help people escape their additions. Their informed speculation was correct and, until the advent of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, many hundreds of people underwent successful psychedelic therapy using LSD.

In Britain, one might suggest that the emerging popularity of  MDMA served to address the cultural wounds caused by post-industrial dislocation. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment, the ever present threat of nuclear war and the miners strike. The emerging traveller communities and rave culture came under censure in much the same way that the Native American Church had done in the USA. The difference was that without an identifiable ‘shamanism’ or indigenous psychedelic tradition there was little possibility of legally defending the right to party, the sacred music defined in the UK Criminal Justice bill of 1994 as  “…sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was driven underground. 

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Healing the harm

But the times are changing. Whether we consider the remarkable transformations that a suitable set, setting and psychedelic substance can generate as magic, shamanism or science matters very little. For these mind-manifesting materials are being re-discovered as allies in healing a range of illnesses that are present at epidemic levels in our culture.

Today MDMA is being used in Bristol within licensed settings to help people overcome chronic alcohol addiction. In the USA it is being licensed to treat Post-traumatic stress disorder. Other psychedelics such as cannabis, ayahuasca and psilocybin are also being recognized as having potent healing effects on conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to autoimmune illnesses. The current wave of research, often described as the Psychedelic Renaissance, a term coined by Dr Ben Sessa who works in Bristol doing MDMA therapy, includes studies on the potential of psychedelics to aid creative problem solving, to helping us face death with equanimity, and to develop ways to resolve interpersonal and social conflicts.

To the Mexican Curandera or the Siberian Shaman the discovery that ecstatic trance carries with it magical transformative potential isn’t news, but for European culture this is a radical change. For European, and by extension much of Euro-American culture was disconnected from the use of  substances that could safely induce ecstatic states when the great Temple of Eleusis closed in the 4th century AD. 

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Mystery trend

Eleusis was the principle Mystery initiation of the Ancient World sacred to the goddess Demeter. In her temple 3000 initiates at a time would experience was many regard as the core elements of the shamanic process. They would undertake ritual purification, they would make a pilgrimage, they would fast and, crucially, they would ingest a sacred potion before descending into a vast darkened temple full of drumming and chanting. There they would face their fears and emerge into the light for a party to celebrate their rebirth. This annual ritual went on for thousands of years with its participants being drawn from all ranks of society. This shared psychedelic experience of crisis and rebirth shaped the pre-Christian pagan world. After Eleusis and the loss of the shamanic psychedelic experience European culture, one might suggest, started to behave just like an addict, rampaging across the globe in search of tranquilizers like opium and stimulants like tobacco and cocaine. Later that culture would give rise to two World Wars, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and the poisoning of the biosphere.

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Connected future

While we celebrate the return of the magical to academia, to museums and to a wider cultural setting we may also like to consider that the return of the psychedelic state to mainstream cultural as part of the same movement. A movement to value again the importance of the subjective, the magical and the ecstatic if we are to successfully cultivate our individual wellbeing and find better ways to live together. To find a medicine in these difficult times that heals us and, as they say in the Native American Church, all our relations.

Julian Vayne

 

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Do you believe in magic? is open until 19th April 2020 at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Manifesting Metaphorical Minds – Exploring How Psychedelic Healing Works

I was very pleased to contribute to the recent Trans-States Conference in Northhampton. Here’s the paper I presented which explores the importance of metaphor in context of psychedelic healing. Enjoy!

From at least the mid 20th century western science had clearly established the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances. The proliferation of licensed psychedelic studies in the new millennium continues to confirms those earlier findings. Currently these substances are being used to treat illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance addictions and depression. Outside licensed research environments claims of health benefits associated with psychedelic substances are legion, as are the methods of their use in healing – from underground therapeutic sessions through to ceremonial consumption in religious or shamanic settings.

This current period of history is sometimes described as the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, a term coined by clinician Ben Sessa in his 2012 book The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. While research remains hampered in many jurisdictions by laws dating from American president Nixon’s War On Drugs, today psychedelic substances are the subject of numerous studies and conferences. 

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One of the most illustrative findings from this psychedelic renaissance, for the purposes of this discussion, is a study published in 2014 by The Beckley Institute and Imperial College in London. The study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal the effect of psilocybin, a substance first brought to the attention of western science following a gift from Mexican healer Maria Sabina of psychedelic mushrooms in the mid 20th century. Diagram (a) shows the default mode network, the ‘resting’ state of the brain and (b) the same brain after taking psilocybin.

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In this simplified visualization each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks. In the psilocybin state. The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society, says:

“…there is an increased integration between cortical regions in the psilocybin state and this integration is supported by a persistent scaffold of a set of edges that support cross modular connectivity probably as a result of the stimulation of the 5HT2A receptors in the cortex…We can speculate on the implications of such an organization. One possible by-product of this greater communication across the whole brain is the phenomenon of synaesthesia which is often reported in conjunction with the psychedelic state. Synaesthesia is described as an inducer-concurrent pairing, where the inducer could be a grapheme or a visual stimulus that generates a secondary sensory output—like a colour for example. Drug-induced synaesthesia often leads to chain of associations, pointing to dynamic causes rather than fixed structural ones as may be the case for acquired synaesthesia.”

The synaesthesia described in the paper emerges as interconnectivity between previously discrete brain systems, such as vision and hearing, increases. Under the influence of psychedelics we may see things in our imagination, such as whirling fractal forms, that appear to be induced by, or intimately connected with music we may be listening to. While we may imagine what is going on as a kind of chaotic cross-wiring in the brain many aspects of the psychedelic state are remarkably coherent and even possessed of a special ‘intelligence’ as well shall explore later. In short: the brain of people that are tripping is not a malfunctioning brain.

This research is one of many modern experiments designed to elucidate how psychedelic drugs work and to provide evidence upon which theories of their action may be based. 

The first wave of 20th century western scientific research into these compounds included the development of numerous models intended to explain or frame the psychedelic experience. Some of these models have been attempts at re-imagining traditional or exotic cosmologies as being commensurate with, or perhaps coded descriptions of, the psychedelic experience, other invoked ideas of the brain as a computer. 

Aldous Huxley suggested that psychedelics work by opening the Doors of Perception to an awareness of the world not mediated by the perceptual filters of language or symbolic systems. Huxley calls the wider unmediated perception revealed by psychedelic substances Mind at Large:

 ““To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”

Later in the western engagement with psychedelics other writers would propose more detailed maps of the psychedelic state. These descriptions were often influenced by notions of modernist progression and Abraham Maslow style heirachism. 

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead coauthored by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, drew on the progression of the soul described in Tibetan Buddhism to understand the variety of mental states occasioned by psychedelics. Each of the stages of an LSD trip was imagined as being a Bardo, in Buddhism a series of intermediate states of awareness that exist between life and death.

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Leary went on to developed The Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness (an excellent new edition of this has just been published) a hypothesis later expanded by Robert Anton Wilson and Antero Alli, that “suggested eight periods [circuits] and twenty-four stages of neurological evolution”. The eight circuits, or eight “brains” as referred by other authors, operate within the human nervous system, each corresponding to its own imprint and direct experience of reality.

During the development of western psychedelic therapy in the mid 20th century psychoanalytic models of the state were also developed.  Stanislav Groff, one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, used LSD and later breathwork in his practice. He imagined these altered states allowed subject to access and resolve issues caused by birth trauma or intrauterine experiences. 

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Around the same time writer and stage actress Thelma Moss was receiving LSD therapy in the USA to address problems that she identified as neurotic insomnia, depression and sexual frigidity. Writing under the name Constance A. Newland her book Myself and I, published in 1962, is a landmark text containing the first published case history of psychedelic therapy. 

Rob Dickins writes:

“…the text reads like an idealised Freudian analysis. A case history that displays all the key signifiers of a Freudian model like the Oedipus complex, castration and penis envy, to name but a few but that recognises the value of LSD as reaching beyond the psychotherapeutic framework.”

More recent western models of the psychedelic state include the detailed phenomenological reading of the ayahuasca experience presented by Benny Shannon in his The Antipodes of the Mind through to Andrew Gallimores highly speculative Alien Information Theory

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James Kent’s work Psychedelic Information Theory presents an approach that attempted to unify neurological findings with the subjective emergence of new insights. Kent writes:

“Like dreams, psychedelics are catalysts for generating information in the human imagination. There are many theories about the origin of this information; the subconscious; repressed emotions; the collective unconscious; genetic memory; spirit entities; alien transmission; junk data from neural excitation; and so on. Regardless of the origin it is widely accepted that psychedelics do generate information, and not merely junk data of questionable value. Psychedelics excel at producing salient information which can have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of the subject…hallucinogens generate information by destabilizing linear perception to promote nonlinear states of consciousness.”

The ‘linear perception’ that Kent alludes can be described in contemporary neurological jargon as the default mode network, that is the resting or idling state of the brain which is dominant when we are not engaged in a task. It is this default state which psychedelic medicine typically attempts to change. The therapist, be they a licensed medic, underground therapist or entheogenic shaman deploys the psychedelic to ‘shake up’ and reconfigure the default mode network, to curate an experience which, when the drug wears off, creates lasting change. The aspiration is that altered states lead to an altered traits. People suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lay aside their intrusive thoughts and allow joy, hope and love back into their lives. People with alcoholism can stop drinking.

But it is important to stress that this destabilization of the default mode network is not simply the pharmacological equivalent of electroconvulsive therapy, for while the neurological cross-wiring that we encounter in psychedelic experience can be wildly divergent from ‘normal’ cognition it is a neurologically coherent, phenomenologically persistent state of awareness rather than  a spasmodic seizure. The psychedelic state has similarities with the stable mental states we find in states of meditation, in flow states when we are absorbed in a task, during dreaming, and the brain states we have as infants.

So how does the psychedelic state function to change or edit the default network state? While the psychedelic state may, according to Huxley, push us beyond the linguistic realm, in order to understand how neurochemistry becomes embodied narrative and thus personal transformation, we need to appreciate how the insights from this state are expressed in language, and for that we need to engage with the concept of metaphor.

The word metaphor is itself a metaphor, literally meaning ‘carrying over’. While some writers have suggested that metaphors are merely  minor linguistic curiosities In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson they claim that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal work point out that metaphorical language is so widespread that we hardly notice it. So in my previous sentence the metaphor ‘ideas are objects’ is so embedded in our discourse that you probably hardly noticed that I was ‘pointing’ to ideas that are ‘scattered over a considerable area’.

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Metaphors unpack complex ideas in terms of an embodied cognition. Thus the word metaphor itself unpacks the notion that ideas can be brought into relationship just as object can be carried from one place to another. Lakoff and Johnson explore numerous metaphors in their work such as ‘love is a journey’ ‘argument is struggle’ and ‘ideas are buildings’. In addition they demonstrate how any given metaphor can serve to both emphasis and downplay aspects of the complex idea it addresses. For instance the complex idea of love can be unpacked through metaphors such as ‘love is a journey’ (‘look how far we have come’) but also ‘love is madness’ (‘I’m crazy for her’) and ‘love is a physical force’ (‘we’re attracted to each other’). Each metaphor both conceals and reveals particular aspects of what we mean by ‘love’. Lakoff and Johnson note that new metaphors can be created and give an example ‘love is a collaborative work of art’ 

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In unpacking the novel metaphor ‘love is a collaborative artwork’ they explain that the metaphor is composed of entailments, relationships to other ideas, some of which are literal and others metaphorical.

The creation of new metaphors is recognized by many therapeutic practitioners as being a crucial process in psychological healing. Mental health practitioner Judy Belmont, writes:

“Using metaphors in our therapy is quite powerful, and at times using the right metaphor seems almost magical. I have often been surprised that client resistance and confusion seems to diminish if I find the right metaphor that serves to bring on an “aha” moment in my therapy sessions.  On many occasions, using a powerful metaphor can turn a session around and bring therapist and client to a new level of teamwork, especially as metaphors often evoke laughter and positive emotion, while limiting defensiveness.”

Belmont is interested in the development of new metaphors in the context of talk based therapy, where the therapist is likely to be the originator of the transformative metaphor. Contemporary western psychedelic therapy often includes the use of talk-based therapy in the preparation for psychedelic treatment and afterwards as part of an integration process. However during the psychedelic session itself the therapist or therapist team are usually non-directive. They are there to provide moral support and safety but only the most gentle of guidance to encourage the patient to engage with the experience in their own way.  Many contemporary western therapeutic models of psychedelic healing place the curative process firmly within the control of the patient. This approach is exemplified by the psychedelic treatment protocol outlined in A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder by Michael C. Mithoefer, M.D. on behalf of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS):

“It is essential to encourage the participant to trust their inner healing intelligence, which is a person’s innate capacity to heal the wounds of trauma. It is important to highlight the fact that the participant is the source of their own healing. The MDMA and the therapists are likely to facilitate access to a deep healing process, but they are not the source of this healing process.”

In a section replete with metaphors Mithoefer goes on to state that:

““Inner healing intelligence” is a concept used throughout this manual to help put the participant in touch with their innate ability to heal and grow. The following analogies may be helpful in explaining the concept: The body knows how to heal itself. If someone goes to the emergency room with a laceration, a doctor can remove obstacles to healing (e.g. remove foreign bodies, infection, etc.) and can help create favorable conditions for healing (e.g. sew the edges of the wound close together), but the doctor does not direct or cause the healing that ensues. The body initiates a remarkably complex and sophisticated healing process and always spontaneously attempts to move toward healing. The psyche too exhibits an innate healing intelligence and capacity. Seeds want to become a plant; it is the natural way. A tree always grows toward the sun; it is the tree’s natural inclination”

I suggest that this psychedelic ‘inner healing intelligence’ expresses itself through the development of new metaphorical narratives about the self and its relationships. The destabilization of the default mode network resolves into coherent linguistic cognition as new ways of thinking. Like the literal and functional reality of the novel neural connections in the psychedelic brain, there is a ‘carrying over’ of meaning between what may have been previously discrete cognitive networks.

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Evidence for the central role of metaphor in psychedelic healing and other forms of transformative insight can be found in numerous trip reports. Allow me to provide a few examples from contemporary therapeutic work with MDMA.

MDMA was initially used by an underground network of therapists active in Europe and America in the latter part of the 20th century before it became a prohibited substance. A cornerstone of the current psychedelic renaissance has been the return of this psychedelic empathogen to licensed clinical settings. A common protocol for MDMA therapy is for the patient to lie on a bed wearing eye-shades and headphones through which gentle music is played. 

Often described an ‘empathogen’ MDMA elicits compassion for both the self and others. From a clinical perspective MDMA appears to allow people to stand outside of their problems. This imaginal perspective is common to other psychedelics, notably psilocybin. The patient is able to recall traumatic memories and perceive these from a new (metaphorical/visionary) vantage point. 

One USA veteran who was successfully cured of his PTSD through MDMA therapy says: 

“I had a profound moment, I guess it felt like a bird’s-eye view of how everything went down [in Iraq] and why it happened.”

Another experience, also with MDMA therapy not only suggests the archetypal motifs of a soul flight but also the shamanic motif of dismemberment and re-aggregation:

“…she felt as if multiple pieces of her own person were swooshing back toward her, being pulled through space by a powerful magnet and reassembling coherently, solidly, back in her own body. She began singing a little song in which she welcomed back all her parts.”

MDMA is not usually considered a strongly visual psychedelic however in a therapeutic setting people often report visions as part of their healing process. These may be visions of new perspectives, events and can often includes direct encounters with spirit entities.

Ben Sessa has employed MDMA as part of a therapeutic process to help people with chronic alcohol addiction. He notes numerous examples of metaphorical ‘visionary’ experiences on the part of his patients. These include clients clearly seeing (with eyes closed) symbolic events which read more like accounts of ayahuasca journeys than of MDMA. One patient experienced a profound visionary narrative that included descending into the underworld, meeting and interacting with ancestors, and undergoing symbolic purification. Ben writes:

“Given that she [the patient] cannot – or will not – embrace my formulation that [their] experience is an internal, psychological (neurological) one, but rather is convinced she truly, “saw through to the other side” (which is what she told me this morning), to commune directly with her dead relatives, I guess we have to chalk this one down as a genuine full-blown psychedelic spiritual-mystical experience. This is relatively rare in MDMA users.”

While such experiences may be rare the descriptions that MDMA patients relate are all metaphorical though some may appear more literal. One subject who has PTSD said:

“It was amazing it was like I got to do brain surgery on myself, and go into my mind and see the thought patterns and the belief systems that had calcified in there and rewrite them”.

In another example a subject with PTSD recounts how while under the influence of MDMA he had a vision of descending into the basement of a building and meeting a red-eyed entity. Within the experience itself, he was able to recognize this being as being emblematic of his own rage. Once the patient embraced the visionary being he was able to attain a profound healing insight:

The nature of metaphors, as the deployment of embodied knowledge to illuminate abstract ideas, fits naturally with the action of psychedelic substances. In these examples the common metaphors – of descending in order to ‘get to the bottom of things’ and of ‘seeing is understanding’ – are present.

At the level of the individual neuron psychedelics increase plasticity and dendritic connections. At the level of functional brain systems they dramatically increase the interaction between previously discrete brain regions. Thus the subjective ‘carrying over’ of metaphor has a solid (physical) neurological basis observable through techniques such as fMRI scanning. 

The importance of this multi-levelled  ‘carrying over’ or more succinctly ’connection’ emerges strongly in contemporary psychedelic therapy. Lead clinical psychologist at Imperial College Rosalind Watts conducted a study with people suffering from treatment resistant depression who were treated with psilocybin therapy. Of the 17 out of 20 participants who responded positively to the experience all of them described a feeling of ‘disconnection’ as being part of a core component of their depression. This sense of ‘disconnection’ was only identified by these patients during of after the psychedelic session and not before. 

Ecologist Sam Gandy discussing psilocybin therapy explains how this sense of connection extends beyond the self and into the wider natural world: 

“In both clinical and non-clinical populations we can see this nature connection increase [with psilocybin use]. There are a few correlative studies that show that psychedelic users tend to be more nature connected, but it’s hard to know what causes what, but there are some studies now that show [psychedelics] do have a causative role to play…with the Imperial [College] depression subjects a follow up study on their nature relatedness at 7-12 months later they still rated very highly for nature relatedness.”

It would seem that the connectivity in the psychedelic mind allows us to discover re-connection within the self, within our social context, and our place within the whole of the natural world. (Or as we occultists would say ‘As Above, So Below’.)

Globally we are facing an epidemic of depression, identified by the World Health Organization as the  leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. We are also in a time of mass extinction on our planet as a result of human activity. In this context the deployment of psychedelic healing, through which the individual can come into a more sustainable, healthy relationship with the self and the world, could offer a powerful mediciine not only for individual wellbeing but could perhaps help change the apparently suicidal trajectory of our species as a whole.

To conclude:

The psychedelic state is one in which novel and coherent connections emerge at the neurochemical, neurofunctional and subjective narrative levels. When conducted in a supportive set and setting a coherent ‘inner healing intelligence’ is activated in a way that enables radical psychological changes to happen that can persist long after the drug effect wears off. The insights occasioned by psychedelics are often described in metaphorical terms because metaphors are a key process through which we understand abstract experiences, such as psychological states, by reference to embodied reality. The sense of connection that psychedelics induce goes beyond the individual, allowing us to come into new, healthier relationships not only with ourselves and our community but the biosphere as a whole.

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As psychedelic therapy develops it may become useful for clinicians to understand the favoured metaphorical language and cultural discourse of patients in order to support their inner healing intelligence. It the light of our current ecological and mental health crises it may also be beneficial to develop methods to encourage more people to seek healing through the psychedelic state for the benefit of themselves and all other beings.

Julian Vayne