Salvia and “The Wheel”

Hello! If you’ve come here from my Breaking Convention talk looking for references and sources, you can find them in the following list. If not, the article based on my talk is below that. I will put a video of my talk here when available.

Sources (in order of appearance):

Wheel art: u/HorrorFrank and SalviaDroid

Casselman (2016). Genetics and phytochemistry of Salvia divinorum. PhD Thesis, Southern Cross University.

Casselman et al (2014). From local to global – Fifty years of research on Salvia divinorum. J Ethnopharm 151, p.768-783.

Maqueda (2018). The use of Salvia divinorum from a Mazatec perspective. Chapter in “Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives” by Labate & Cavnar. This is a wonderful overview of Salvia, lots of information and highly recommended. Contact me for a copy.

VICE: Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia (Salvia episode)

Gardening on Salvia (YouTube video)

Salvia experience reports:

Singh et al (2006). A combined ligand-based and target-based drug design approach for G-protein coupled receptors: Application to salvinorin A, a selective kappa opioid receptor agonist. J Comp-Aid Mol Des 20(7-8), p.471-493.

Peckys & Landwehrmeyer (1999). Expression of mu, kappa, and delta opioid receptor messenger RNA in the human CNS: a 33P in situ hybridization study. Neuroscience 88(4), p.1093-1135.

Crick & Koch (2005). What is the function of the claustrum? Phil Trans R Soc B 360 , p.1271-1279.

Koubeissi et al (2014). Electrical stimulation of a small brain area reversibly disrupts consciousness. Epilepsy & Behavior 37, p.32-35

Watts (1957). The Way of Zen, p.138.

Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden (1967). The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects.

Huxley (1962). Island.

Ezekiel 1:15-21 (Hebrew Bible)

Flammarion (1888). L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire. (The Flammarion Engraving is found in this book).

Near-Death Experiences Involving The Wheel:

Ram Dass (1995). Miracle of Love. The stories of Neem Karoli Baba come from this book.

Recommended Books:

 

Salvia and “The Wheel”

Salvia divinorum is a unique psychedelic plant that has mainly escaped the gaze of the Global North. Whereas other natural psychedelics with similarly rich cultural histories like Ayahuasca, Magic Mushrooms and Iboga have been hastily gobbled up by Western clinicians, self-help gurus and spiritualists, Salvia has not followed the same pattern.

People do not flock to other countries to take part in “traditional” Salvia ceremonies, or set up their own neo-shamanic Salvia healing practices in California, as we’re seeing with Ayahuasca. Salvia is not at the forefront of medical research into novel treatments of depression, like Magic Mushrooms. There is not a boom of Salvia treatment centres, offering to cure addiction, in the same way as Iboga. 

Instead, Salvia merely has a cult following in the Western psychedelic movement, with a few curious or maybe foolhardy psychonauts smoking large recreational doses, and promptly deciding never to touch the stuff again.

The roots of Salvia

Salvia divinorum is a plant in the mint family (Lamiacaea) that seems to exclusively grow in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. There, it is cultivated by the Mazatec people, who have used it for divination for hundreds of years – hence the English name, meaning Diviner’s Sage. The Mazatec name is ska pastora, herb of the shepherdess. Spanish names often involve Christian themes: herba de Maria being one. We don’t know for sure to what extent the Christian colonists had an influence on the practices of Salvia divinorum, but it’s likely that Salvia was used by indigenous people before the Spanish arrived, and has incorporated Christian elements in order to survive the often violent persecution of traditional practices (Macqueda, 2018).

The first Westerners to find Salvia being used in Mexico were anthropologists in the 1930s, who found the Mazatec drinking the juice of the leaves for divination. However the groves in which the plant was cultivated were kept highly secret, and it wasn’t until 1962 that Robert Gordon Wasson and Albert Hofmann found a botanical sample to bring back to the US to identify (Wasson, 1962).

Uniquely, Salvia plants are extremely difficult to grow from a seed, and cuttings are more often used. Mazatecs have suggested that Salvia can grow from seeds, but it most likely propagates from plants falling under their own weight and replanting themselves.

Traditional use of Salvia typically involves the fresh leaves being chewed or the drinking of fresh juices. Salvia is prescribed for a number of physical ailments, such as digestion, candida, menstrual cramps, and eczema. Like much animist shamanism in Mesoamerica, the healer or shaman will often have a one-on-one healing ceremony with the patient, using the divinatory powers of the Salvia to both diagnose and treat the ailment (Macqueda, 2018).

Mazatec shamans are often trained with Salvia as a first foray into the spiritual realms, considered one of the easiest sacraments to learn from, with morning glory seeds and psilocybin mushrooms found at the later stages of shamanic initiation. 

It is important to know about the traditional uses of Salvia to understand the complete departure from these practices seen in the Global North.

In contemporary culture, Salvia extracts (concentrated plant material) are smoked in pipes or water bongs, usually with high-heat torch-lighters due to the high vaporisation point of Salvinorin A, the main psychoactive component of the plant. Quite different from the traditional ceremonies of chewing fresh leaves (where the effects may last several hours), smoking Salvia extracts produces and intense, very short-lasting psychedelic experience that has been popularised by YouTube videos showing people in completely dissociated, often terrified states.

The Mazatecs nowadays know about the new reach of Salvia, but some say that it is wrong to smoke the plant – suggesting that it destroys the spirit of the shepherdess.

It was the ‘80s when Salvinorin A was first identified as the main psychoactive component of the Salvia plant (Ortega et al, 1982). It is the world’s most potent naturally-occurring hallucinogen, with only 200ug required to have an effect. Uniquely, it is highly active at only one receptor – the kappa-opioid receptor – and mildly active at dopamine receptors. It is not an alkaloid, like most other natural psychedelics; and it does not activate any serotonin receptors, like the classic psychedelics LSD and DMT. 

The unique pharmacology of Salvinorin A is mirrored in some ways by its unique effects on the mind…

The Western Salvia experience

Whereas in Mazatec culture, the Salvia ceremony is a gentle and guided introduction to the spirit of the Virgin Mary, and an attempt to realign unbalanced energies and restore the agreements between living humans and other beings or the unseen spirit world; the Salvia experience in the Global North is somewhat different.

Perhaps mainly due to the different route of ingestion, or vast cultural and perceptual differences, Westerners describe a whole different flavour of contact with the plant.

If you look through trip reports from headstrong “Salvianauts,” you’ll find stories of terror, dysphoria, confusion, amnesia and despair. Although there are certainly positive Salvia trips, the vast majority will at least contain an element of discomfort, unpleasantness, or aversion.

A typical trip might describe a sudden awareness of the true nature of reality being “plastic,” “fake,” or “deceptive.” Almost at the same time as this new awareness arises, so is the prior understanding of having smoked a drug stripped away, and the poor soul is now lost in a new realm of being that is totally alien, and often described as stark and relentless. Trippers may describe themselves becoming part of some vast, cruel machinery, or morphing into objects and patterns. The sense of self is almost totally torn apart, and many describe a strong feeling of déjà vu, or repetition. 

There is a theme of the Salvia trip being about returning to a place that has always been there, that is “more real than real,” that shows you how thin and flimsy your previous concept of reality was, and then eventually tosses you back into the room with the gently smoking bong lying on the carpet in front of you, as you try and piece your psyche back together, like a starving rodent scrabbling for crumbs.

Interestingly, one particularly pertinent theme of the western Salvia trip is that of a “wheel,” or some kind of object imposing circular or repetitive motion, such as an “accordion,” or “turning pages in a book,” or even a “zipper.” Remarkably, you will see very similar descriptions of this circular apparatus across many different trip reports – something unusual for psychedelic experiences, which are usually highly varied in their visual content, or at least don’t have conserved structured imagery like “wheels” turning up again and again.

Some Salvia Experiences Involving The Wheel:

Quantitative research shows that concepts relating to “wheels” are several times more likely to appear in Salvia trips compared to LSD trips (Smith, unpublished), and that Salvia trips were more likely to be dysphoric and involve anxiety and fear compared to LSD (Stiefel et al, 2014).

There is a pharmacological correlation here, and it involves the kappa-opioid receptor. There are four classes of opioid receptors; kappa, delta, mu, and nociception receptors. It’s the delta and mu receptors that are involved in the typical euphoric effects of opioids, and nociception receptors are related to physical pain; whereas kappa is the odd one out, causing profound dysphoria when activated, and thought the be a key player in the intensity of withdrawal symptoms after heavy opioid use. 

The kappa-opioid receptor is found in several parts of the human brain, but is most concentrated in the claustrum. 

The claustrum is a small strip of neurons near the middle of the brain, that is potentially the glue that tenuously holds our conscious experience together. The late Francis Crick, one of the scientists who popularised Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the helical structure of DNA, suggested that the claustrum is a “conductor of consciousness,” receiving inputs from many different brain areas, and tying them all together into our coherent and apparently uninterrupted experience of ourselves and the world (Crick & Koch, 2005).

One case study, where the claustrum was accidentally stimulated by surgeons performing deep-brain stimulation on a patient with epilepsy, shows the dramatic effects that the removal of the claustrum from the brain equation can have (Koubeissi et al, 2014). The patient had no ability to read or respond to instructions during the stimulation, and had no memory of the event. They would occasionally speak a couple of incomprehensible words, and had a confused look on their face. However, if instructed to tap their fingers before the stimulation, or repeat a word, the patient would continue tapping, or repeating the word, for a few moments… suggesting that this wasn’t a simple loss of motor control, but some kind of disruption of normal conscious activity.

This was the first time that scientists had ever seen the stimulation of one small area of the brain correlating with such a profound loss of consciousness.

It’s likely that Salvia, when ingested, activates the kappa-opioid receptors sitting in the claustrum, which are mainly attached to inhibitory neurons (Stiefel et al, 2014), and this throws the claustrum into disarray. Normal brain function is scattered to the wind, as the organisational networks collating sensory inputs are blasted out of their standard arrangement.

So we have a correlation between neuropsychopharmacology and the unique dysphoric experience that Salvia produces. But we still don’t have an explanation for the persistent phenomenon of The Wheel. And this is where it’s time to delve into the world of human experience.

Deep experiences of The Wheel

Whether you believe that myths and religious concepts give us clues about fundamental truths about the universe; or that these are just flawed human stories; there is nevertheless something for us to learn from mythology.

And the concept of “The Wheel” is a regular feature in religious mythology. 

The Wheel is most pertinent, perhaps, in Buddhism. Samsara – meaning wandering or world – is a concept most often presented in the form of a wheel. It represents the eternal cycle of life, suffering, and death, that we get caught up in whenever we grasp at things in one of the many unhelpful ways that Buddhism attempts to dissuade us from. Although the wheel of samsara may be interpreted to mean an endless repetition of rebirth into new lives, Zen Buddhism especially views this cycle as something happening moment-to-moment, everywhere in existence (Watts, 1957). 

Nirvana is in some interpretations considered a “liberation” from the suffering of samsara; but that description is lacking in nuance and not entirely true. Mayahana Buddhism doesn’t draw a distinction between samsara and nirvana, suggesting that awareness of one carries with it the other. Similarly, Zen Buddhism interprets nirvana as a realisation of the all-encompassing nature of samsara, and that ending the struggle to escape the wheel by giving in to its machinations is as close as you’re going to get (very much inspired by Taoist thinking, the root of Zen Buddhism).

An understanding of the circularity of life and death is also a core part of Hinduism. The samsara is also present; with death, suffering, and rebirth considered fundamental aspects of reality. This is seen in many areas of Hinduism, but perhaps most strikingly in the figure of Nataraja – the dancing figure of Shiva surrounded by the wheel of existence, holding the fire that both simultaneously creates and destroys life, beating the drumbeat of time, dancing in the eternal song of the universe, with the demon of evil and ignorance underfoot. In Hinduism, somewhat similarly to Buddhism, moksa (comparable to nirvana in some ways) is a degree of freedom from the cycle, and a oneness with all aspects of reality.

The wheel is not limited to the eastern religions. In Judaism, the ophanim is a “wheel within a wheel” that Ezekiel sees in his vision of God and His angels. From the passage: “As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced […] Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. […] Wherever the spirit would go, [the creatures] would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21).

The ophanim is also seen in the Flammarion engraving, found in a book written by astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1888, showing a person reaching through the veil of our normal understanding of the world to find the “cosmic machinery” at work behind the scenes. Flammarion was a biblical enthusiast, and meant for the engraving to illustrate the illusory nature of reality, and the existence of something divine behind the shroud of appearances.

Christianity is notably lacking in cyclical concepts. Perhaps this is because the afterlife is required to be a permanent thing, and being taken up into heaven irreversible, in order to convince people to strive for it and follow moral doctrines – although it’s interesting to note how central the concept of rebirth is to Christian mythology.

Despite the lack of wheel concepts in Christianity, near-death experiences from predominantly Christian nations frequently describe interactions with some kind of cosmic wheel, churning out existence in a relentless, god-like mission.

Interesting Near Death Experiences Involving The Wheel:

The Salvia experience is very reminiscent of many of these religious and spontaneous encounters with The Wheel: the feeling of its permanent and inescapable nature; the illusory notions of time and self; the dissolution of any kind of solidity or graspable meaning within our everyday lives.

What does The Wheel mean to us?

Salvia seems to be pointing us towards some kind of fundamental truth. And it looks like a truth that we sometimes struggle to accept.

When Ram Dass gave his mentor and guru Neem Karoli Baba a large dose of LSD, he just laughed. When pressed for an opinion, the Baba said: “To take [LSD] with no effect, your mind must be firmly fixed on God. Others would be afraid to take. Many saints would not take this.”

Likewise, would a Buddhist monk taking Salvia not experience anything particularly remarkable? Would someone with a firm grasp of the impermanent and eternal nature of reality encounter Salvia with grace and acceptance? 

Do Westerners experience Salvia the way we do because we are so afraid of The Wheel – and the truth it contains?

Salvia presents itself as a potential touchstone for our understanding of the world. It may be a test, of sorts, of our degree of dedication to artificiality, impermanence, and materialism. 

Failure of that test carries with it the terror of being confronted with the true nature of reality. We see The Wheel, forever churning up the calm waters of our sheltered, privileged, extractionist reality.

References:

Casselman et al (2014). From local to global – Fifty years of research on Salvia divinorum. J Ethnopharm 151, p.768-783.

Casselman (2016). Genetics and phytochemistry of Salvia divinorum. PhD Thesis, Southern Cross University.

Crick & Koch (2005). What is the function of the claustrum? Phil Trans R Soc B 360 , p.1271-1279.

Koubeissi et al (2014). Electrical stimulation of a small brain area reversibly disrupts consciousness. Epilepsy & Behavior 37, p.32-35

Maqueda (2018). The use of Salvia divinorum from a Mazatec perspective. Chapter in “Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives” by Labate & Cavnar.

Ortega et al (1982)Salvinorin, a new trans-neoclerodane diterpene from Salvia divinorum. J Chem Soc 1, p.2505-2508.

Peckys & Landwehrmeyer (1999). Expression of mu, kappa, and delta opioid receptor messenger RNA in the human CNS: a 33P in situ hybridization study. Neuroscience 88(4), p.1093-1135.

Singh et al (2006). A combined ligand-based and target-based drug design approach for G-protein coupled receptors: Application to salvinorin A, a selective kappa opioid receptor agonist. J Comp-Aid Mol Des 20(7-8), p.471-493.

Stiefel et al (2014). Subjective effects of Salvia divinorum vs. LSD: Trip reports. Supplemental material to “The claustrum’s proposed role in consciousness is supported by the effect and target localization of Salvia divinorum” in Front Integr Neurosci 8(20).

Wasson (1962). A New Psychotropic Drug from the Mint Family. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 20.

Watts (1957). The Way of Zen. 

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6 thoughts on “Salvia and “The Wheel”

  1. I’m just not sure what to make of your post and suspect you may be a little puzzled also. Psychedelics normally seem to bring clarity (or so it is said) in particular in the days following inception. Saliva seems to do no such thing, if I have followed you correctly. If psilocybin can represent nirvana or euphoria, are we bound to discover its opposite? If we are looking for truth, will it be found in euphoria or dysphoria? Or is that the whole point? That opposite states exist? Heaven…. And hell….. All rather depressing, confusing abd reductionist. Take this drug and you assume the truth is euphorian and eternal happiness. Take that drug and you will be dragged down to hades, across the Styx. So perhaps there is no absolute. Perhaps all states exist abd it is up to us to navigate our way to what suits us best. In the forlorn assumption we actually have free will of course.

    Like

    • I subscribe to the Buddhist concept that nirvana is neither heaven nor hell. It is just an absolute awareness of the state of existence. A moment of clarity. An extinguishing of the striving and grasping that generates much of our suffering.

      In this way I think Salvia represents one of the clearest views of ultimate truth that substances can offer.

      Like

      • Thank you for your reply. Very clear. I am using psilocybin which seems rather kinder than salvia. But I suspect the Buddhists are right abd have done for many years. Acceptance is the key. That and awareness. IMHO if psilocybin or DMT give you a slightly kinder view if the cosmos then there is probably not too much harm done!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That is a really cool article. Thx. My psychedelic days are past, but it is interesting that you guys have continued the research into a broad band of what it is to be psychedelic.

    I always considered my use of psychedelic intoxicants and drugs in general as a form of research. So it’s cool that you are taking it apart, not resting so much on the profound experiences, but rather looking into those experiences and analyzing them along multiple vectors

    Personally, I do not think there is any “larger“ truth to be found. But I’m open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that’s why am glad that people such like yourself are continuing.

    I think the larger truth really comes down to a transformation involved in what we actually are as universal objects, as opposed to having a consciousness that is any larger as something that transcends the objectivity of the universe. I ponder whether such great income and details meanings, such as we gain through the psychedelic experience, are not defenses that the brain itself erects to prevent a person from realizing “the truth”. Such that, as ROM-DOS be here now gurus said: One Hass to be firmly fixed on God and that some Saints wouldn’t even be able to handle the intensity of some of the psychedelic experiences that can be had. And I think the closer to the truth, so to speak and for lack of a better word, we get, the more intense and “awe-full” The experience becomes, the meaning that we gain, the untenable and in affable meaning that seems to fall through our fingers, that we cannot fully grasp and then bend our time contemplating the “larger truth “that is behind that strange sensation.

    But I feel that if one can endure, one can remain fixed upon God, so to speak, then the really awful truth is that there is no grand meaning to it all.

    But like I said; I could be totally wrong.

    🌈🤘🏾

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. I know about the Wheel.

    For me it was more like the enormous machinery of the universe grinding away with myself caught in it. Relentlessly it brought me to the inevitable point that everyone or everything else already knew about which I had been ignorant – a point of realization that the universe was creating me and then destroying me.

    Not pleasant but totally true.

    Like

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