Psychedelic Ecology

Gods dwell amongst us, and have done so since before the dawn of time.

Shh! Can you hear…? The distant sound of footsteps, careful steps, of a creature trying to move stealthily, making the footfalls irregular. But we can spot the subtle pattern of left, right, left right. And the breathing, you hear that too? On the edge of your perception…

Goddesses and gods, walk the world.

Sometimes, we hear them singing. Not with words like those a pop star would use, not Taylor Swift. More, soaring melodies with powerful emotional key changes, free of standard musical motifs like birdsong is free, to move at will between tones, as the breath goes.

Psychedelic Ecology is the field of psychedelic entity study, when entities are regarded as having an existence of their own, treating them as creatures which live in the perceptual experiences of all Life.

Any persona could be viewed as an emergent property of the material base it inhabits. From stone to human, the difference is only one of complexity. Everything can be said to perceive, or rather is aware of the world outside it, according to its abilities. A stone is aware of gravity, of other things resting upon it, of temperature, and reacts accordingly. A human is aware of far more in the immediate world, and has memory and imagination to allow it to time-travel.

Entities which we notice whilst in psychedelic states grow from the abilities they have at such times. We notice what we are able to at such times. Somewhere in this double approach, we might be able to describe their phenomenological reality.

Beginning before the beginning of humankind, entities existed. Eyes need to be noticed, odd movements must be picked out from the background, movement through the outside world has to have an internal construct. We have always carried these hardwired Important Things. Entities, representations of these deep patterns, were already old when that ancient fish dashed away from the glint of awareness in the rippling body of the eel. That tentacular movement, that enormous eye, lived beyond the animal that carried it, and away from the animal that saw it too. All of us, for billions of years, have to know what to look for; and when we look for something whilst tripping, we tend to see it.

With thousands of eyes, tentacles for legs, numerous arms, strange movements… all these parts deeply embedded in our biology, a collection of physicality with deep associations. Many arms do many things, thousands of eyes demonstrate wide awareness, moving unlike a human, demanding our attention. When we cause ourselves to pay attention really, really pay attention, we summon entities. We see eyes in trees, rocks breathe, the mountains and rivers have characters.

Psychedelic states reveal things to us. They lift the veil of interpretation we add to the raw sensations around us. This brings to mind Aldous Huxley’s metaphor of our senses acting to restrict input. What Huxley did not know of, is the Default Mode Network.

Briefly, the DMN acts as a running commentary on what is happening in our worlds. It overrides the actual world around us, changes the evidence of the present to suit the past narrative, and generally smooths out any kinks or unexpected glitches we encounter from our easily confused sensory inputs.

Our DMN could be said to contribute to our persona. The patterns that establish themselves, the waves of neurological activity which pass through hemispheres, triggering intellectualisations and emergent noises form our organisms, this is what, who, we are. Take away the DMN and we all resemble each other, reduced to immediate awarenesses, raw sights and sounds overwhelming the past stories we arrived with.

Emotional set becomes our personality whilst we trip (at high enough doses). In good settings, we play, dance, smile, feel good. Past and future, those identical not-nows, cease to have meaning. Sometimes they vanish so convincingly that we forget events, confuse names, release belief from all we knew for sure in ordinary life. If we can relax into this, safe in a space held by those we trust to care for us, the confusion lifts us to flights of imagination and make-believe.

In these psychedelic states, we are open to habitation from the spirits, the entities. They come to us in guises and disguises, speaking to us with still small voices, with thunderous roaring, with telepathic messages that arrive without needing soundwaves. They appear in costumes built from echoes of our expectations, clothed with whatever is to hand; I once asked to meet the spirits of Ayahuasca, who appeared as two cartoon characters, borrowing mice from Speedy Gonzales (a childhood hero of mine). They talked with me for a long time, about the collapse of barren concrete cities, and I talked with them too, trying to describe how to inform Westerners in order to achieve their mission of plants regaining greater importance than human-built creation. (Persuade them, I advised, show them the better alternative, please don’t add more fear to the future we are told to see!) They showed me skyscrapers covered with vines.

Image result for vines skyscrapers

I know that ayahuasca is not two cartoon mice. But the vision was there to allow for my hero worship, coupled with a childlike delight in the overthrow of boring, authoritarian society. The voices matched, high pitched, enthusiastic, fast, full of clever wordplay.

Entities take shape from what we can give them.

They sound like, something else; they sound outside of us.

The challenge we face as a rational bunch of people, who nevertheless clearly encounter otherworldly beings whilst tripping, is how to allow ourselves to believe fully in their existence beyond the limitations of our own perceptions and knowledge base. They tell us things we did not know, and possess qualities and abilities we lack.

Since time began we have tried to make sense of their presence within our minds, their manifestation out of and into nothing, puffs of smoke, mirror creatures that dwell in impossible places, out of time. A popular metaphor of current usage is that of ‘another realm’, a kind of sideways step dimensional shift to a world separated from our own by some kind of perceptual cloaking screen, through which we (or they) can pass in certain conditions of altered consciousness.

I find this solution unsatisfactory. It reduces these majestic beings, these goddesses and keepers of eternal knowledge to mere equivalencies of ourselves, elves over there instead of here. I want my spirits up close and personal, ever present, not in a side room to physical reality.

They are at once more easily explained, and more powerfully endowed, by open our minds to the possibilities of wider concepts. I’ll try to paint a picture…

Hear me now! I am the voice of Pan, echoing across these lands for all of time! I am the movement of the smallest creature that crawls, I am the stirring of a leaf, and the raging storm that fills the sky. I dwell wherever life watches and listens. I am awareness, the prickle of your skin when something approaches. The rise of joy within y0our heart as friends draw near, the flow of smooth skin on skin, the strength felt by muscles as they flex and stretch. I bring to you the eternal now, a moment as old as the world. which lasts for ever. This is the moment in which we can do.

Whether we refer to Pan as a god, an archetype, a personification of an abstract concept, we can allow for his existence in the moment, as a useful way of communicating outside our usual frames of reference. Escaping the reality tunnels of our individuality reveals existence without standard labelling; a semiotic chaos, of undifferentiated ground from which emerge all apparent forms anew, ready for reappraisal.

And we need this reappraisal of Normality so desperately.

Less activity in the DMN correlated to the sense of ego-loss felt by people after being injected with psilocin. Psychedelics also cause an increase in the global traffic between regions, whilst a decrease in local activity, within brain areas dealing with discrete tasks, occurs.

The judging part of us disappears. We process inputs and internal processing at a global level. The functionally discrete parts loosen their boundaries, and we find poetic truths dwelling beneath the surface of what looks like home.

We need, as biological organisms, to differentiate between ‘me’, ‘you’, and ‘this cup’. How can I pass the cup to you, if those three objects are merely aspects of one substance? That would be stupid.

As soon as deliberate movement became possible, our ancestors needed to know which way was up. Clues as to what lay ahead of them proved incredibly advantageous. Remote sensing became all the rage, back in prehistory, with eyes and vibration sensing apparatus catching on. Upon our heads we bear the latest version of this technology, vibrating air passes through holes originally intended as gill slits, and tiny bones (which evolved from jaw bones, bones for eating) move, minutely, leveraging further membranes attached to the brain’s nerve endings.

From these oh so subtle twitches, the neurons of auditory centres cause cascades of chemicals, and some how, these patterned forms make us think we hear.

Reaching forward in time and space, to what lies ahead of us. We must have a plan, a map. We see, we create, a future world which is not yet our present. We can move towards this future over that world, or maybe that future over that other world; we hold multiple worlds, in order to compare the more desirable. These worlds are real, we make them as we make the world of now, from our sensory inputs and our internal processing. We feel them, we feel how they feel, do we want to move towards this world, or away? No time to rationally assess them, we move according to our will and whim.

Our emotional responses to sensory inputs, and our internal processing, have to be prioritised by hardwiring them together.

Be attracted to this!

Move away from that!

The complexity of this and that should not be underestimated; after a few billion years of practice, we are getting quite good at complexity these days.

Default_Mode_Network_Connectivity

Default Mode Network connectivity

Wedded for millions of lifetimes, emotions and actions. Unexpected intrusions, which appear as if from nowhere to stand before us plainly upon our world maps, demand a lot of attention. Contrariwise, when we have a lot of attention, we find ourselves confronted with unexpected intrusions, standing in front of us…

These are no phantasms however, nor yet visitors from another physical dimension next door. They exist, they live, as creatures which have inhabited our senses for longer than we have. The voice of the siren luring us onwards. The terrifying noise of silence broken by a footstep where none was before. Shrill shrieks, calling for our notice. The regular breathing of a body sleeping beside us, snuggled together in the dark. Water falling, that most promising sound!

From these ancient strands are woven our entities, combined with the visual clues we might have to hand.

Waterfalls sing to us, notes at first, then words. We hear them clear as day.

Auditory hallucinations, clearly heard sounds, with no external source. I hear them all the time, tinnitus attends my every hour, a faint high-pitched tone as if a tv is left on. Buzzing noises often precede spirit encounters for me, I hear them fly past my ear, just before the magic happens. Have you heard the far away voices, that speak from beneath the ground, from behind the hills, from the sky above? They talk and sing so quietly, yet you perceive every word.

mantis

Praying formation

Perceiving other entities as other entities, rather than conceptualising them as ‘thought forms’ or ‘archetypes of the psyche’, has huge benefits in the moment of interaction. Our brains are set up to evaluate incredibly complex social evaluations, to assess the motives of others, to recall factors influencing fair division of resources and task allocation. Entities, whether we call them spirits, deities, aliens, elves, animal familiars, genii loci, ghosts, faery, and so on, whatever we categorise them as are best treated as separate actors on the world stage to ourselves. They have an identity wider and deeper than our individual encounters. We represent our species evolutionary past, embodied in this body at this moment, and we hold the programming of our cultural surroundings as the lens through which we can intuit, hear, and see.

Each one of us is far more than ‘one of us’. As such, the psychedelic encounter with an entity becomes a meeting in the mythical realm, where we become aware of ways of understanding and acting which we could not have considered beforehand.

Realising that these entities have purpose, history, future existence, and a right to their own world view, places the centre of the discussion outside our self. Outside our species’ collective identity. We escape the trap of anthropocentric motives. Given the results of categorical, human centred planning of the past centuries in the dominant world cultures, perhaps this is the most intriguing aspect of meeting otherworldly characters. Just as children come to the astonishing revelation that their parents have a need for happiness, as we mature out of the squabbles of territorial demarcation and fighting over toys, we are learning that we are not the only intelligences which inhabit this planet.

This is not to say there are invisible creatures occupying some kind of parallel dimension to our own, another literal world, which we could reach by stepping through some kind of portal as beloved by so many tv writers of the late 20th century. This particular mythological construct appeals to our childish imaginations, and is very easy to understand, but to my mind diminishes the vastly more rewarding poetic truth I have outlined here, of entities as truly ancient, astonishing collections of perceptual patterns embedded deep within our sensory apparatus, which live in each of us, and which we believe often create what we call paranormal or magical events, whether by information downloads that are impossible to account for by rational means, or even by causing material effects in the world around us (e.g. weather magic). (Most magical traditions explain the magic powers by referring it outwards to an other, a helper spirit, an ancestor. God told me to do it.)

It is worth comparing the view of these commonly held perceptual patterns as entities in their own right, with the way we view other people as entities in their own right. We are happy to attribute personhood to a collection of biological cells, constructed of chemistry, which arose from physics. We are often happy to extend this personhood to animals, or plants (oh, you look sad, would like some water?). Often we relate to places as persons; hello house, nice to be here again! Or events; the figure of father Christmas being the prime example from northern European culture.

Regular engagement with this kind of encounter leads to a more open-minded attitude to the non-psychedelic state. People tend towards a lack of preconception about people, places, and situations. It is likely that this attitude creates the luck with which many psychonauts seem blessed. Richard Wiseman’s research on luck strongly indicates that those who look around see more (unsurprisingly!). it is of course possible to cultivate this open mindedness without psychedelics, but they present unavoidable opportunities for us to practise this skill…

Look around you.

NW

Abridged from a presentation at Beyond Psychedelics conference, 21st June 2018, Prague.

Witch on DMT – For Science!

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

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

brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahoy!

JV

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